New Documentary: The NYPD vs. the Central Park Five—Then and Now

November 4, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper |


Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, together with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon, have made and are about to release The Central Park Five, their movie about the New York Police Department (NYPD) railroad of five Black youth in 1989-90, which was one of the most shocking instances of racist injustice in the long and ugly history of this country. The movie is based on research done by Sarah Burns for her book on the Central Park Five, and is described in an advance NY Times review as "a tightly woven two hours… which explores many questions surrounding the convictions."

In response, the NYPD has lashed out at Burns, claiming that he has crossed the line from "journalism" to "advocacy." And in a move to punish these filmmakers, the NYPD has subpoenaed him and his production company for all their notes and outtakes from the making of the film, claiming they need it to defend the NYPD against a lawsuit brought against the police by several of the youth they had railroaded.

We have not seen the movie yet. But here is the story of the Central Park Five that the NYPD is so desperate to cover up.

The Case of the Central Park Five

In April of 1989 headlines screamed about the case of "the Central Park Jogger"—a young white woman who had been jogging in New York City's Central Park, where she was brutally beaten and raped. Left to die for hours, she had lost 80 percent of her blood before she was found, and she teetered between life and death for many weeks. (Ultimately she made close to a full recovery.)

This attack concentrated in a horrific way the specter of violence that stalks the lives of women all over the planet, violence which is perpetuated and sanctioned by the imperialist system. The domination of women is a major pillar on which this system rests, and there was and is a great need to unleash the fury of women and men to rebel against this. (See "End Pornography and Patriarchy: The Enslavement and Degradation of Women" at to learn about how people are starting to do this.)

But the enforcers and representatives of this system, starting with the police—whose ranks include no small number of rapists and abusers of women, and who are notorious for not responding to women who are under attack—saw this crime through a whole other lens. They saw it as a chance to pit the white middle class and women in particular against the masses of Black youth, to reinforce that other powerful pillar of the system, white supremacy. And they went at it with a fury.

With lightning speed the NYPD passed over other possible suspects and swept up some Black youth who had been in the park that night. They quickly zeroed in on five of them, 14-16 years old. These kids were kept awake for almost two days and subjected to 24 hours of coercive interrogation without attorneys present. As this torture mounted, the police told one of the youths that if he signed a confession he could go home. Others were told that their fingerprints were found on the scene, or that their friends had implicated them and only by confessing could they get a break.

These were all lies on the part of the police, but a group of scared and sleep-deprived teenagers could not stand up to the torture and manipulation of the NYPD—by the end, four out of five of them gave signed and videotaped confessions. They were now "The Central Park Five."

The four who had confessed recanted almost immediately and proclaimed their innocence. And, according to an investigation by the DA's office done 13 years later (in 2002), these confessions "differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime," and "were not corroborated by, consistent with, or explanatory of objective, independent evidence." In other words, they were blatantly what the youth said they were—confessions coerced by the police out of youth who didn't know even the most basic details about the crime they confessed to.

Anyone trying to look honestly at the case could see that the police were manufacturing a case and didn't actually give a damn about whether the kids they were railroading were guilty or innocent. But the mainstream media and the other powers in the city were no more interested in the facts than the NYPD. The police lies became fodder for a full-out racist hysteria that was part of a larger campaign going on in the U.S. to brand a whole generation of Black youth as inhuman "super-predators," "wolf packs," roaming the streets looking for white victims. A week after their arrests, prior to even the sham of a trial, billionaire racist blowhard Donald Trump purchased full page ads in four New York papers calling for the death penalty for the youth, saying that "they should be forced to suffer." The names, addresses and pictures of all the youth were released to and published in the media, blatantly contrary to the law on treatment of juvenile suspects.

A year later, a full scale legal lynching swung into motion, the outcome of which was certain before it began. Police had literally nothing other than the coerced confessions—and the racist atmosphere that they had helped whip up—to bring to trial. None of the considerable DNA evidence (blood and semen) could be traced to the defendants and in fact all of it pointed to a single unknown perpetrator. The police claimed that one of the victim's hairs was found on a defendant, but the 2002 investigation showed that this was not true either. Nevertheless, the youth were convicted, sentenced, and ended up serving from six to 13 years in jail.

The Frame-up Falls Apart

In 2002, Matias Reyes, already in prison for other rapes and a murder, confessed to having attacked the Central Park Jogger on his own. The DNA evidence all matched up with him, and also with that found on another woman who had been raped in Central Park two days before the "Jogger" attack. And it later turned out that the police had been planning to arrest Reyes at one point in the investigation, but somehow never got around to it. Matias, apparently covered in blood, had even been questioned by police on the night of the attack but then let go. These revelations were a major bombshell which the government actually kept secret from the public for many months while they figured out what to do.

Finally the DA's office convened its investigation and came to the conclusions we described above. Faced with the almost indisputable evidence of innocence, the DA went to court and asked that all the original convictions be vacated, which meant that the Central Park Five were no longer considered as convicted rapists.

But by that time:

  • All of the youth had finished their unjust prison terms and been publicly branded as monsters.

But by that time:

  • Matias Reyes had raped at least two other women, killing one and blinding the other, while the Central Park Five rotted in jail.

And by that time:

  • The image of predatory gangs of Black youth who needed to be locked up forever if not killed had been seared into the public consciousness, playing a pivotal role in creating public opinion for the ever-expanding harsh police brutality and paving the way for the mass incarceration of 2.4 million, mainly Black and Latino, people in the U.S.

Perpetrators of Lynching Dig in Their Heels

If the "criminal justice system" actually had anything to do with real justice, if the NYPD were really striving to be "New York's Finest," if their real reason for existence was, as they say, "To Serve and Protect" the people, then you would expect that the uncovering of this travesty of justice would lead to soul-searching, internal investigations, firings and criminal charges against the people and institutions who carried this out, and that there would be all kinds of recommendations about how to prevent it from happening again—changes in the way interrogation is carried out, changes in the way media is used to poison the atmosphere against people who are supposedly "innocent until proven guilty." There would be public apologies to the youth whose lives were nearly destroyed, and an effort to undo the incredible amount of racist scare-mongering that was part and parcel of this whole case and which has done great harm to Black people as a whole.

But none of that has happened! Even though the DA's office went to court to vacate the convictions, they and the NYPD (and Donald Trump as well) have insisted that they did nothing wrong. With no evidence whatsoever they now claim that the Central Park Five were "most likely" involved in the attack along with Matias, and in any case, the lawyer for the NYPD says "we believe that, based on the information that the police and prosecutors had at the time, they had probable cause to proceed and the confessions were sound." For years these arguments have been the basis for the NYPD fighting the youths' lawsuit against them, dragging out even further the struggle for even a few drops of justice for the Central Park Five.

From Railroading Youth to Intimidating Journalists

Ken Burns is a well-known mainstream documentarian who has made numerous features on the Civil War, on Baseball, on Jazz, that have been shown on PBS. When he set out to make this new film he said that he felt it was essential to give the police and prosecutors an opportunity to explain their position, and he attempted repeatedly to speak to all the key detectives, prosecutors, etc. But the NYPD totally refused to be interviewed by him, effectively trying to sabotage his work. And now that the movie has been made, they have issued this subpoena to punish the filmmakers.

It's important to understand that no investigative journalist can function if the people they are interviewing think that what they say is going to end up in the hands of the police! Given the understandable fear of the police in this society, this would lead many people to stay silent. So protection of sources is an essential part of press freedom which has been fought out in many cases in recent decades. Many journalists have gone to jail for weeks or months rather than give up their sources.

This struggle has given rise to so-called "Shield Laws" in many states—including NY—that are supposed to protect the right to protect sources. But these laws also have many loopholes and it remains to be seen whether the courts will back up the NYPD subpoena—or how Burns will respond if they do.

By threatening these filmmakers with jail if they refuse to give up confidential materials the NYPD is both retaliating against them for exposing their past crimes, and seeking to intimidate journalists and artists from exposing what the system is doing today, and will do in the future. They are creating—or rather, intensifying, an atmosphere in which people will fear to take even completely legal action to expose or protest the crimes of the system for fear that powerful forces will come after them, their careers and their lives if they do so.

The authorities cannot acknowledge, much less welcome, the uncovering of their past crimes, because they are still about exactly the same thing and even worse—escalating police brutality and murder directed especially at Black and Latino youth, hundreds of thousands unjustly stopped and frisked, millions funneled into the prison system. The dogs are still in the street, and are still pretending that they are "the good guys."

Bob Avakian says in BAsics, "The role of the police is not to serve and protect the people. It is to serve and protect the system that rules over the people. To enforce the relations of exploitation and oppression, the conditions of poverty, misery and degradation into which the system has cast people and is determined to keep people in. The law and order the police are about, with all of their brutality and murder, is the law and order that enforces all this oppression and madness."

The railroading of the Central Park Five, and the attacks on those who try to tell the truth about this, are damning evidence of the reality of this statement.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.