New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is a pro when it comes to the game of ethnic politics. Photo via Flickr user Diana Robinson
In the spring of 1989, when New York City was still replete with porno theaters and squeegee men and Spike Lee was taking advantage of Rosie Perez in Do The Right Thing, a 28-year-old investment banker at Solomon Brothers was brutally beaten and raped while jogging one night in Central Park. Back then, local tabloids working themselves into a frenzy over some spectacularly grisly crime was a fairly common occurrence, with race never far beneath the surface. Two years earlier, a group of angry white youth had chased a black man to death after his car broke down in what became known as the Howard Beach incident (they forced him into traffic on a busy highway, where he was hit by another car). But this latest outrage really struck a chord, with seemingly every media outlet in the city, from the Village Voice to the New York Times, largely buying the police narrative about the Central Park Five—the black and Hispanic teenagers whom the NYPD had coerced into a confession.
The affair resurfaced in the media in 2002, when District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau reopened the case and overturned all five convictions after Matias Reyes, an actual monster and serial rapist, admitted to the whole thing. The kids may have committed other felonies that night and even beaten a man—and they seemingly confessed to the rapes on tape—but they did not assault the woman in question, who was beaten within an inch of her life and spent 12 days in a coma.
Of course, by the time the powers that be recognized their mistake, the boys had already served between seven and 13 years in prison. Naturally, the Central Park Five pursued legal action, only to be rebuffed by Michael Bloomberg, Gotham's recently departed billionaire mayor, who staunchly resisted a deal for more than a decade. Now, 25 years after the fact, they are poised for some sweet justice: The city has tentatively agreed to a settlement worth $40 million, it was reported late Thursday, or about $1 million for each year served—well above the national average for exonerations.
In addition to heralding a major upgrade in lifestyle for the not-so-young-anymore men whose lives were upended, the settlement represents a victory for NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had signaled he would reverse the city's stance on a settlement and strike a deal as soon as possible. For a man whose biracial family is a key part of his political identity (and who made reducing racial tension a rather explicit part of his pitch to voters), dishing out some cash and implicitly acknowledging that the NYPD fucked this one up is priceless. After all, this isn't just some obscure historical event but a real miscarriage of justice kept alive in part by a 2012 documentary that Ken Burns made about the case, in collaboration with his daughter Sarah. The settlement will resonate with everyone from the gilded liberals toiling away at investment banks in Manhattan to the projects in the outer boroughs, seemingly confirming de Blasio's commitment to the principle of justice—even if his NYPD commissioner, Bill Bratton, is still doing reactionary stuff like arresting way too many black and Hispanic kids for smoking pot.
It will take more than settling this case and others like it to assuage the concerns of the mayor's supporters about the sprawling reach of New York City's law enforcement regime. But as far as symbolic gestures that also have a tangible impact go—the settlement must first be approved by the city comptroller and a judge—this one stands out. Perhaps the mayor will find a way to milk the moment for all its worth with some kind of public spectacle, given his background as a political strategist who knows how to use acts of theater to connect with liberal-minded urbanites on a visceral level. It's not an economic change like providing universal pre-K to the city's children, but somehow I suspect de Blasio hasn't been riding quite this high since Bill and Hillary Clinton coronated him in January.
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