Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Revising And Extending - Making It All Up

A couple days ago, I wrote a little post in which I misspelled the word "ideological" in the title. Among my complaints was the simple fact that, far too often, when some momentous event occurs - the OJ Simpson case, say, or some other high-profile event that gets us all chattering - we very often seek to figure out "what it all means". This is a natural human reaction, really, and there is nothing wrong with it. Yet, sometimes, our desire to "figure it out" runs ahead of all available facts, disregards context, and sometimes - sometimes - simply flies out in to Cloud Cuckoo Land in a wondrous display of intellectual gymnastics that bears absolutely no resemblance to reality.

Does anyone remember this?
In April 1989, in New York City, violent crime rates - murders, rapes, and robberies - were out of control, and people were afraid to walk city streets. The Central Park jogger case set a record (and served as a symbol) for brutality--it was a violent rape in which the victim was also badly beaten, leading to a lengthy hospitalization.

Five teenagers, ranging in age from 14 to 16 years, who had been implicated in a separate series of muggings, were questioned about the rape. The boys were black; the victim was white. Some say that things began to go wrong right there--that the race factor trumped a search for the truth. The idea of a roving gang of black boys brutally beating and raping a white woman fit the schema of the public's fear of African-Americans and of teenage gangs.

All of the boys made statements to the police, though not one of them admitted to actually having intercourse with the victim. The search for the perpetrator stopped.

These teenagers should have been given the same kind of celebrity support that the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama received, especially in light of one little-remarked upon fun-fact:
On December 5 of [2002], the Manhattan district attorney's office made a rare move: It asked a judge to dismiss all charges against five men it had earlier prosecuted.

As teenagers, the men had been convicted and incarcerated for raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989, and they had since served years of jail time for the crimes. Now, however, the actual perpetrator, an older man named Matias Reyes, has been linked to the victim with DNA evidence - after confessing to the rape and assault earlier this year.

Not only did this incident receive national attention because of the heinous nature of the crime - the woman's head was crushed with a stone after the rape, but fortunately for her, she did not die - but a cottage industry of conservative social commentary emerged, with this "incident" being the linchpin example, of the kind of social breakdown people were bemoaning (all discussed in re communities of color in urban areas, of course). Around the time Reyes confessed and the case against the five previously convicted teens-now-men began to unravel, the following article appeared in New York Magazine appeared, with the following statement:
The case also changed the city itself. Bigger trends -- the crack plague, the economic bust and then boom -- played dominant roles in the story of the nineties. But the symbolism of the Central Park case altered everything from two mayoral elections to the reaction when a knot of teenage boys appeared on a dimly-lit sidewalk.

The "symbolism" of the case. Rather than treat it as a unique event, and pursue the case using actual evidence, the cops and prosecutors, succumbing to a combination of general social fear, racism, and a zeitgeist of anxiety concerning the perceived crumbling of "their" city, saw this case as a "symbol". Five young men became victims of a criminal justice system distorted by fear and racism no less than a young woman became the victim of a serial rapist and murderer who managed to escape justice because the cops and the prosecutors wanted to treat this as a "symbol". The case also introduced a phony right-of-passage to our parlance:
Police officials told reporters that the boys had coined a new term, wilding, to describe beating up random victims, and that while in a holding cell the suspects had laughed and sung the rap hit "Wild Thing."

Now, none of the events the police alleged occurred that night. There was no "wilding". These five teenagers did not brutally rape and attempt to murder a young woman. Yet, the cops, the prosecutors, and commentators took that term - "wilding" - and invented a whole new way of talking about the social breakdown of the underclass. If you type "wilding central park jogger case" in Google, you get "about 21,000" hits.

Except for later articles describing how the real perpetrator of the crime confessed and was convicted with the aide of DNA evidence (blood evidence was never introduced at the first trials of the five young men, because their coerced confessions were considered enough to prosecute them; defense attorney were never given access to the simple fact that only one person's semen was found in the woman, and it didn't match any of the young men who "confessed"), there is not one single article that says the cops, the prosecutors, journalists, commentators, and ordinary citizens invented the entire "wilding" business. Five young men paid with ruined lives as much as one young woman did, because of racism, and the desire to see a crime as a "symbol".

Fear in the face of rising crime rates, exploding drug use, and a general sense of social unease is perfectly natural. Yet, precisely because police and law enforcement in general is thought to be "professional" should require them to be held to a higher standard, not so much of "truth seeking", but at the very least of treating each crime as a unique event, rather than "a symbol". The press, too, should not seek to figure out "what it all means", especially in light of the facts in this particular case.

We all paid a terrible price because one young woman was the victim of a serial rapist in 1989. Certainly not as high as she has, or the five young men who were wrongly convicted of the crime. But the pursuit of ideological coherence absent facts takes a toll. Just consider, to repeat, that "wilding" exists as a term, describing something that, in reality, doesn't exist.

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