“WOLF PACK” — those were the very first two words that in 1989 introduced the world to five New York City just-barely teens who’d been badgered and hounded into confessing to the horrific rape and almost-murder of a female jogger in Central Park. And that lupine phrase — blaring in 72-point mega-type from a New York Daily News front page that called the rape “a savage attack by a roving gang” — was far from worst name attached to the group soon known collectively as The Central Park Five.
As depicted in filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s gut-wrenching new Netflix four-part series about the case, renowned sex-crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein (portrayed by, in a beyond ironic twist, Felicity Huffman) calls the five teens “animals” and “little thugs” as she pressures cops to mold their ridiculously coerced confessions to fit the troubling inconsistencies in her case against them. New York’s mayor, Ed Koch, referred to them as “monsters.” And New York’s tabloid media was more than happy to run with the cops’ theory that random violence was a new trend of less-than-human insanity among black teens now called “wilding” — a term that was every bit as made up as Fairstein’s case.
On the small screen, it’s excruciating to watch the mendacity of the cops and the prosecutors forcing confessions out of the teens even when you know the eventual outcome — that more than a decade later DNA evidence would show that a man named Matias Reyes, who had no relation to the eventually convicted teens, was the real rapist. In recent years, the Central Park case has become the avatar of those finding a frothy foam of wrongful convictions atop the tsunami of mass incarceration that has defined criminal justice in America for the last 40 or so years.
In 2012, the numbing injustice of the case got the Ken Burns documentary treatment in a film called, simply, The Central Park Five. But that only gives a number, not a name, to these five souls: Antron McCray, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson. And so DuVernay’s ambitious target in this new four-hour production is to show that an even graver offense than New York’s prosecutorial misconduct was the willful erasure of five distinctive human beings.
Thus, she called her version of the story, When They See Us.
DuVernay’s timing was impeccable, and not just because Manhattan’s tabloid hero of the late 1980s — a brash developer named Donald Trump — ran ads and went on CNN to call for the execution of the five (innocent, remember) teens before riding an even bigger wave of American injustice all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Literally a few hours after the much-anticipated series dropped on Netflix, a group calling itself the Plain View Project set off its own fireworks with the release of a two-year investigation into Facebook postings by active-duty police officers that could be taken as racist, supportive of violence, or otherwise highly questionable. Many of the posts are — here comes that word again — “dehumanizing" toward swaths of the civilian population these officers swore to protect and serve.
The project, aided by journalists from Injustice Watch, was launched by attorney Emily Baker-White, who came to Philadelphia fresh out of law school and was researching police brutality for a local case when she was shocked by the openness of social-media postings by some cops. The project ultimately looked at seven other localities as well as Philadelphia — but some of the most egregious cases occurred here. The project flagged posts by 330 still-active officers, and this week it’s been revealed that seven of the most active and more controversial posters have been under investigation by the Internal Affairs Unit since the project contacted Philly police brass in February.
One of the Philadelphia 7, according to the reports, is Sgt. Mark Palma, who in 2012 wrote, “Don’t feel like playing with the animals tonight," not long after he’d written that “[n]ow only if we can get rid of the ghetto” in a long, derisive post chock full of exaggerated slang. Many of the flagged posts in Philadelphia seemed to glorify violence against civilians, such as Officer Reuben Ondarza updating his profile page in 2017 to show a bloodied and beaten-up black man with the comment, “They always crying.” Or Lt. Sean Dandridge’s lengthy 2012 post about “savages.”
Yes, the same term — “savages” — that was applied so often to five Manhattan teenagers exactly 30 years ago. In reading the coverage about “When They See Us,” DuVernay’s work is often compared with an art exhibit this year at the Whitney Biennial called “No Humans Involved.” That project built off a 1994 essay by Sylvia Wynter about “NHI” — a phrase by Los Angeles cops patrolling that city’s roughest neighborhoods that stood for “No Humans Involved." That term of cultural genocide explains how a class of people can be stopped, frisked, brutalized and sometimes imprisoned not for what they did but for what they look like — by people who really don’t see them at all.
And now we learn that way too many Philly cops have been splaying their own “No Humans Involved” exhibit across Mark Zuckerberg’s clean white canvas. And what the Plain View Project has also done is confirm our worst fears that intolerance at the keyboard appears to be linked to injustice out in the streets. The investigation published on Saturday found that 139 of the Philadelphia officers who posted troubling content also appeared to have been defendants in one or more federal civil rights lawsuits.
The triumph of DuVernay’s “When They See Us” is her ability to do what Manhattan’s grinding gears of injustice could not — to let Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray and Korey Wise be the sometimes goofy and sometimes flawed teenagers that we never allowed them to be. I was a journalist living and working in New York in 1989-90, and so I knew their names — but knowing their names isn’t enough. It’s the small things depicted in the series — the tortured bond between the ridiculously boyish McCray and his dad, for example — that add up to such a big outrage.
Let’s be clear: The face-blindness of Fairstein, her detectives and her colleagues wasn’t just horrible to five innocent youths but also to the rape victim, Trisha Meili, a woman named Lourdes Gonzalez who was raped and murdered by Reyes while authorities focused solely on the black teens. and the people of New York who were deceived. A true system of justice shows fairness toward the innocent but also does the hard work to find the guilty — the human beings like Reyes who do commit inhumane acts and who should be taken off the streets.
And what would be true justice for Philadelphia cops who wrote such terrible things? It’s not an easy call. I’ve always been a free speech zealot, and I’ve always supported the right of people to voice their own opinions when they’re off the job. But these weren’t sewer workers spouting off at 1 a.m. about Bernie Sanders or President Trump. What these police officers wrote, in many of the cases, directly impacted their ability to treat people fairly in the neighborhoods we pay them to protect. Mayor Kenney, Police Commissioner Richard Ross, and Philadelphia’s other leaders can’t justify giving the power to deprive humans of their freedom to officers who saw them as less than human. Full stop.