Tom Weiner: ‘The Central Park Five’ a needed wake-up call on racism

Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — I was fortunate to be in the audience at Hampshire College Jan. 31 for the return of filmmaker and Hampshire alum Ken Burns, who brought his latest film, “The Central Park Five.” I am pleased the Gazette chose to feature an article about the film and its importance on the front page. The subject matter of the film and its messages need our serious attention.

Along with a 2010 book by Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow,” Burns’ film depicts the failure of our society to adequately and systemically recognize and address the pervasive racism that is, as Burns called it, our “original sin.”

The film is difficult to watch, let alone enjoy. From its opening scenes, it focuses the viewer on tragedies that happened in New York City in 1989. The horrific rape of a woman jogging in Central Park is the most publicized tragedy, but what unfolds, as the film’s central narrative, is the racially driven mistreatment of five black teenagers, ranging in age from 14 to 16, who are accused of the crime despite the absence of incriminating evidence.

Events ensnared these five young men in a kind of “perfect storm.” What was it that caused the police and district attorney to suspect them, and later psychologically manipulate and coerce them into participating in recorded confessions? It was economic and social inequality, starting with their lives in Harlem, and our nation’s history of suspecting black men of wrongdoing.

This history includes the public lynchings that occurred and were captured photographically in postcards at the time (Congress never passed an anti-lynching law and apologized publicly in 2005 for its failure to do so), the notorious false accusations of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930’s (considered the model for the alleged rape in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which I am reading to my sixth-graders) and now features the countless black men imprisoned and denied justice as portrayed so vividly and disturbingly in Alexander’s work.

Cornell West wrote in the introduction to her book, “‘The New Jim Crow’ is a grand wake-up call in the midst of a long slumber of indifference to the poor and vulnerable.”

We must wake up to this problem. The men portrayed in Burns’ film are still waiting for some form of compensation for the wrongful accusations, convictions and imprisonments they suffered. During the course of the talkback that followed the screening of the film, the wrongs done to these now 30-something men were called “mistakes.”

When racism is at least in part the motivator, what follows, since it has intent, is not a mistake. Rather, it is a hateful act that requires some form of restitution and, more significantly, an owning up to the miscarriages of justice based on race, accompanied by actions to change the system that continues to allow such injustice.

That requires all of us examining our hearts, being honest about our internalized racism and finding ways to participate in changing our communities and our country.

Burns recommends writing letters to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, since the Central Park Five are still awaiting their compensation. Petitioning Congress to work to change sentencing laws is another way to get involved. Protesting foreclosures, attending gatherings that are multi-racial, teaching about the history of all of our peoples — the list of ways to effect change is long. It is time each of us figures out what our role needs to be. Waiting for change isn’t working out, as this film and “The New Jim Crow” so well illustrate.

The bottom line is that when we comprehensively address these matters, all of us will benefit, because we will live in a truly just society.

Tom Weiner is a sixth-grade teacher at the Smith College Campus School and author of “Called to Serve: Stories of Men and Women Confronted by the Vietnam War Draft.”


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