When the System Works — The Case of the Central Park Jogger

Here’s the final paper I wrote for Catharine A. MacKinnon’s Sex Equality course at Harvard in 2016. As mentioned, CAM is a critical legal scholar and radical feminist. From her, I learned to speak clearly and briefly — I learned to value silence and speak equitably. Her vision of Justice is so clear and succinct; it permanently influenced my style of writing.

This final piece comes in at 1,000 words, but is divided into three independent sections . It is grounded in the presidential race of 2016 and the election of Donald Trump. I think it effectively captures the tone of the moment.

You are welcome to digest it at your own pace. I think it’s pretty good and the awards on my CV would agree ;-)

“The details of what occurred in Central Park on April 1989 merit separate retellings, while the lives of the Central Park Five and the jogger, Trisha Meili, have already filled volumes. In preparing this reflection, I’ve watched the documentary[1] and a feature on Democracy Now![2], and read the Davis essay below. These, and lessons from the course, will inform my analysis.

“ ‘If, throughout our history in this country, the rape of black women by white men has constituted a political weapon of terror, then the flip side of the coin has been the frame-up rape charge directed at black men.’[3]

The System and The Fathers

“Some of the scenes in the documentary which most captured my attention were those which included the boys’ fathers; often sitting there, arms crossed both frustrated and confident. In a videotaped confession, Antron McCray is getting Mirandized and his father doesn’t ask for counsel. Santana’s father, the night of the arrest, leaves the police station to go to work believing he’ll see his son at home the next morning.

“To me, this reflects trauma, confusion, and a conditioned belief that the system prevails. When I see the fathers, I see the Five grown up. Although the fathers were not incarcerated for years, they likely faced similar police harassment and attacks on their identity.

“Their defense attorney tells us that the State’s strategy was to physically and mentally dismantle the boys for hours until they literally echoed the detectives, word for word. And then it occurs to me that perhaps their fathers endured that for their entire lives. And, rather than being unsupportive fathers, their perceived inaction and indifference is because they’ve internalized survival tactics such as “keep your head down,” “don’t make a fuss,” “believe in the system,” and worst of all, “cooperate with the police”. They’re imparting the lessons they’ve learned as men of color in their 40s unto their sons in the hope that their sons, too, will survive.

“But as the fathers regurgitate the strategies of accommodation and cooperation that the system conditioned into them, the system is on the other end working to perfection. It puts its words in the fathers’ mouths to undermine resistance to the boys’ charges until it’s too late.

“It’s like a Southern lynching, only more orderly.”

Masculinity, Donald Trump, and Locker Room Talk

“I can’t help but reel the president-elect into this. Yusef Salaam went on Democracy Now! to highlight Trump’s role in the case and discuss Trump’s more recent sexually abusive rhetoric.

“Trump dismissed his comments as “locker-room talk,” but a community of athletes argued otherwise, emphasizing over and over “that’s not locker room talk”.[4] I disagree, precisely because toxic masculinity spreads indiscriminately. Locker-rooms become a venue to disseminate hateful rhetoric and, if we recognize the presence of hierarchies, then the reader will understand how young men are inculcated with such beliefs. The irony, of course, lies in the fact that the accusations hurled at the Five encapsulate things Trump has said and done — assault, battery, rape — but he just obtained the presidency.

“So, there’s at least two levels operating here. (1), Trump’s comments reflect and perpetuate misogyny and sexist violence, but, (2), they do not harm his popularity. How curious it is to go from demanding the death penalty for 14-year-olds, to defending one’s own deviance.

“As to the first point, let’s apply the implications of those comments to the true assailant, Matias Reyes. Reyes survived abandonment, sexual abuse, and homelessness.[5] By all accounts, he was someone dispossessed of his value as a child — ignored and mistreated — informing my conception of the serial rapist he grew into. Then, understand Trump’s invocation to grope or sexually assault women as a physical assertion of masculinity and hierarchy, and we’re left with someone impelled towards serial rape as a means of obtaining power. That’s not a ground-breaking conclusion — it’s just a description of misogyny. But the second question asks why the Five, and then Reyes, are vilified whereas Trump grew in popularity.

. . . And Injustice For All

“Two months after the assault in Central Park Reyes, raped and murdered a pregnant Hispanic woman. In August, he was caught after raping a woman in Amy Goodman’s building. Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, explains “the police were so intent on getting the five of you that this man who was committing these crimes . . . was never in any way linked because of their blindness in this case.” The NYPD had opened an investigation on the Upper East Side Rapist, and had collected samples of his DNA, but did not connect him to Meili.

“Instead, Trump took out full-page ads proclaiming “Bring Back the Death Penalty” while women on picket lines implored the public to recognize Meili’s humanity and punish the boys. Similarly, the prosecutors — two white women — ignored unfavorable DNA evidence in their overzealous pursuit of a conviction. Yes, their fervor was rooted in a desire for justice. But their blindness left five boys in prison, one woman dead, and another woman recovering.

“The film ends by comparing the outrage during the boys’ trial with the silence upon their exoneration. Here, Davis’ quote explains the malevolence behind the silence — suggesting that their persecution was more about being black than being guilty. When justice isn’t intersectional white patriarchy prevails and Trump is elected president.”

[1] The Central Park Five (PBS 2012)

[2] Democracy Now!, Central Park Five’s Yusef Salaam: Donald Trump Needs to Be Fired from Running for President, Youtube (Oct. 14, 2016), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NtFzNi07No&t=903s

[3] Angela Y. Davis, Violence Against Women and the Ongoing Challenge to Racism (1985), reprinted in The Angela Y. Davis Reader 143 (Joy James ed., Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1998).

[4] Max Blau, Not ‘locker room’ talk: Athletes push back against Trump’s remark, CNN Politics (October 10, 2016, 8:38 AM), http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/10/politics/locker-room-talk-athletes-respond-trnd/

[5] Kevin Flynn, Suspect in Rape Absorbed Pain And Inflicted It, The New York Times (Dec. 7, 2002), http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/07/nyregion/suspect-in-rape-absorbed-pain-and-inflicted-it.html

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𝔏𝔞𝔰𝔠𝔦𝔞𝔱𝔢 𝔬𝔤𝔫𝔢 𝔰𝔭𝔢𝔯𝔞𝔫𝔷𝔞, 𝔳𝔬𝔦 𝔠𝔥𝔦'𝔦𝔫𝔱𝔯𝔞𝔱𝔢. ~*~*~*~*~*~*~* Culture Critic & Critical Race Theorist ~*~*~*~*~*~*

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Marco Bello

Marco Bello

𝔏𝔞𝔰𝔠𝔦𝔞𝔱𝔢 𝔬𝔤𝔫𝔢 𝔰𝔭𝔢𝔯𝔞𝔫𝔷𝔞, 𝔳𝔬𝔦 𝔠𝔥𝔦'𝔦𝔫𝔱𝔯𝔞𝔱𝔢. ~*~*~*~*~*~*~* Culture Critic & Critical Race Theorist ~*~*~*~*~*~*