Baker Academic

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Central Park Five and Generational Shifts - Le Donne

I'm a sucker for a good Ken Burns documentary and I've been waiting for his "Central Park Five" to be liberated by Amazon Prime from the constraints of monetary quid pro quo.  Thank you Amazon Prime! Where would I be without your quaint world domination?

The Central Park Five logo"Central Park Five" is a racial justice-motivated reflection on the tragic events related to this New York rape trial.  Burns leads with the confession of Matias Reyes, whose DNA has been definitively linked to the 1989 crime vindicating the five boys convicted and imprisoned.  The five boys are interviewed throughout the documentary, telling stories of coerced confession, loss of childhood, and eventual vindication in 2002.  This is a story (as Burns tells it) of a violent crime in a racially charged city leading to public outrage.  If Burns' compelling version of this narrative wins the day, it is an illustration of how one generation can see a case with such certainty that key elements of the narrative are obscured or suppressed.

In the early 1990's there was an almost undisputed truth in the air: these boys were guilty. They confessed. We have these confessions in their own handwriting and on videotape.  These testimonies trumped all. Evidence that suggested otherwise was insignificant.  Conservatives demanded a discussion of the death penalty and liberals lamented the social decay of Harlem.  But both groups agreed that the confessions offered by these 14 to 16-year-olds were proof of guilt.  Eleven out of twelve jurors were convinced.  The twelfth juror wore down and conceded. Over a decade later, Oprah interviewed the victim.  She assumed throughout this interview what an entire generation assumed: those boys were guilty.

And then Matias Reyes told his version of the truth. And the DNA evidence was revisited. And the courts vacated the sentences of the five boys. And a national assumption changed dramatically.  Now we have a new version of the narrative. When my children learn of the "Central Park Jogger Case", they will hear a different story than I did.

As a Gospels scholar, I cannot help but think how (on occasion) a collective memory can be turned on its head just a generation later.  Sometimes all it takes is an idiosyncratic revisionist history.


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