Like most women living in urban areas I live with an unconscious (usually) anxiety about rape. In 1989 in NYC the crime rate was horrendous; notonly did the ‘city never sleep’ muggers and rapists seemed to work on perpetual overtime. Women looked over our shoulders just going down to get the mail.
When a young woman jogging in Central Park was raped and beaten almost to death the city went mad. Among the many horrible acts that occurred every day this struck many as the most heinous (as they say on Law & Order SVU). She was a successful, young upwardly mobile professional; but unlike a woman who was also raped then murdered at about the same time in Brooklyn, the Central Park victim was white.
Long story short: police snatched up five young (aged 14-16) men of color who were cruising the park looking for excitement, which often meant unsavory activity. The pressure was instantaneous so police intimidated the young men and their parents, obtaining four confessions which all conflicted with each other. The District Attorney (Linda Fairstein—white) took the case to court although there was NO blood or semen evidence on any of the young men; this despite the horrific amount of blood at the crime scene.
And just as evil was the response of ‘responsible’ people who assumed guilt: Mayor Koch called them animals, and the ubiquitous bigot Donald Trump took a full page newspaper ad to condemn them before they were tried!
Now, after their lives have been forever scarred the young men have been exonerated by a confession from a totally different individual (a serial rapist who killed another woman after the Central Park crime) and officials who bothered to look at the forensic evidence which supported the new confession. The amazing film, “The Central Park Five,” by Ken Burns is out now and worth seeing so we don’t get too comfortable with the so-called justice system.
Underlying the whole tragic event are two major things to not forget: 1) the culture still uses racism to demonize African Americans and Latinos, especially those in the underclass. The press headlines said everything short of “hang them boys from the nearest tree, pardner.” 2) Sexism is always a not so subtle subtext whenever race is involved. The two African American newspapers in NYC decided the victim of the crime (who had amnesia) didn’t deserve the anonymity most journalists agree on in such cases so they published her name while she was still unconscious! Although they were correct in believing the young men were not being treated fairly, they compounded injustice by further abusing the rape victim. For them race trumped respect for a female victim.
Central Park is now safer and boasts an active cultural life by day and night. Crime overall in NYC is down, apparently. But Mayor Koch and Trump have never apologized. The City of New York is still trying to squirm out of paying reparations to the men now reclaiming their lives. The former DA is also facing another lawsuit for overzealous prosecution and now writes very successful crime fiction. That she was identified as a feminist may have set our movement back years. And the young woman jogger is up and running again; she even wrote a book about her experience, but she’ll never be the same again.
And this is true for women who have been raped. And for those who live with the cultural knowledge that rape is an acceptable form of aggression in this society. Night and alone are never as easy as they should be. In the 1970s we marched to ‘take back the night,’ unfortunately rape statistics tell us that the night still does not belong to us.
And young men of color don’t get kangaroo trials now, they get shot.