When Franz Kafka wrote The Trial, he could have been talking about black men and the American criminal justice system. The sense that we enter a bizarre system where we are guilty until proven innocent pulses through Central Park 5, the heartbreaking new documentary by Ken Burns about the Central Park jogger case that riveted New York and most of America in 1989 and 1990.
In 1989, a 29-year-old white woman who worked on Wall Street was found raped and beaten savagely. It appeared unlikely that she’d survive. The city wanted blood.
A group of 30 black and brown boys had been moving through the park that same night, beating up a homeless man and a male jogger but they never saw the female jogger. Police picked up five of them, teenagers all, held some of them for 30 hours and demanded they tell them about a crime the boys did not witness.
The Burns film tells us the boys implicated each other because they were scared, stressed, and coerced by police. Years later, the DA’s office admitted the boys’ statements had “troubling discrepancies and contradicted each other and established facts.” There was also no forensic evidence against them. DNA couldn’t place them at the bloody scene. The boys were said by police and media to have been in a wolf pack and to have been wilding, reducing them to animals and violent beasts. They never had a chance.
They were convicted and served full sentences before another man confessed, producing accurate details and DNA that matched samples taken at the scene.
Mayor Koch called it the crime of the century but now that it’s not just about rape on hallowed New York City ground but also about five wrongful convictions and many lives shattered, the notion of the crime of the century takes on a very different meaning. This all recalls the unquestioned guilt of the nine Scottsboro boys wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in 1931 despite one of the supposed victims recanting.
The presumption of guilt is why George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin—he assumed he was a criminal on drugs. That presumption of guilt may be why Jordan Davis was shot and killed in Jacksonville just over a week ago. Michael Dunn fired eight or nine rounds from his car into the one Davis was riding in as a passenger because, after trading angry words, Dunn said he saw four black men and a shotgun.
Police cannot find said gun. Dunn now awaits trial for attempted murder charges. Some don’t understand how a Central Park jogger case can happen in a city that would elect David Dinkins or how Trayvon Martin could happen in Obama’s America but race doesn’t function in linear and simplistic ways.
Being black in America is, too often, Kafkaesque.