Early on April 20, 1989, a white woman was raped and badly beaten in Central Park. Five Latino and Black teenagers (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam) confessed to, and were later convicted of, committing the heinous crime. Each teen served prison sentences ranging from 7-13 years. In 2001, Matias Reyes, a serial rapist and murderer, also confessed to the crime and DNA evidence solidified his guilt. The previously convicted “Central Park Five” were exonerated from blame, but the notorious case understandably raised major questions. How could this happen? Why would five men confess to a crime they did not commit? Were they coerced and browbeaten into a confession by police? This documentary, directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, aims to answer these questions, suggesting that the conviction of these 5 young men was a racially motivated crime.
There are so many complicated layers to this particular film and the incident behind it, that it is difficult to choose just one angle to examine. Consider the cultural/racial climate in the late 80s in New York City. The city was plagued by violence, racial tension, a crack cocaine surge, and the AIDs virus epidemic. People were afraid, and eager to blame someone or something for all of these problems (not just this specific attack) and intense anger and outrage from the media and New York City citizens intensified the need to place blame somewhere. There was a need for an outlet for the racial tension, and the attack provided an easy target. There were five men, or boys really, in the park that night getting into trouble. The angry NYC masses needed to place blame, and the five teens were simply there as stand-ins, scapegoats, absorbing the anger, fear, and rage that people needed so badly to unleash.
This film details one specific case of this pattern of blame throughout human history, but it is a common thread that ties together many of the great injustices human beings have faced throughout time. Human beings have an incredible pattern of placing blame on specific groups of people for complex and sometimes irresolvable problems. During WWII Jews were blamed for a failing German economy, fueled by the injustice Germans felt after signing the Treaty of Versailles. Fearful of losing power, money and land, Germans were eager to believe the leader of the Nazi party, who promised to “better Germany” by eradicating its “inferior” race, the Jews. Similar blame patterns continue today.
The gay community is blamed for tarnishing the sanctity of marriage. Illegal immigrants are blamed for “stealing” American jobs. Are we too afraid to admit that some amazingly complex and devastating problems lie outside our realm of control? Why must we always have answers? These questions must be kept in mind as we face increasingly complex problems in a society always eager to blame.