During his campaign last year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said that it was a "moral obligation to right [the] injustice" meted out to the Central Park 5. These were the five black and Hispanic men who, while teens aged between 14 and 16, were coerced into confessing and were then imprisoned for the brutal rape of a female jogger in Central Park in 1989.
The assault had in fact been perpetrated by a single serial rapist, but this was not discovered until DNA and other evidence was reviewed in 2002. It was a racism-drenched frenzied miscarriage of justice. During their trial, the young men were described in animalistic terms by the media — "a wolf pack." They were synecdoche and scapegoat for narratives of high crime and danger in the New York City of yesteryear.
The five innocent men served their prison sentences (between seven and 13 years) before their case was vacated. It was only this week, though, that the 5 and New York City reportedly agreed on a settlement of $40 million (a deal reached in secret, but leaked to the New York Times.) The settlement works out to $1 million for each year each man was wrongly held behind bars.
To be sure, this is the least the Central Park 5 deserve for having their lives thrown under the racist bus of juridical miscarriage. But de Blasio's investment in performative symbolism here should draw some skepticism. Much of his mayoral campaign platform rested on righting the wrongs of New York's racist past, at a time when anti-police, anti–stop-and-frisk sentiment was reaching fever pitch from the streets to the courts. A landmark federal lawsuit last year found NYPD stop-and-frisk practices to be discriminatory and unconstitutional, and short-lived riots popped off in Brooklyn's East Flatbush after yet another black teen was killed by police.
All the money in the city treasury could not do the work of undoing history.
De Blasio promised to end the problematic aspects of stop-and-frisk. And, to be sure, the number of NYPD stops has dropped since he came to office in January. But, as I have pointed out in previous columns, the problematic aspects of stop-and-frisk remain. Reinstated police commissioner Bill "Broken Windows" Bratton has made a point of de facto targeting the poor with his zero tolerance attitude to minor crime. Arrests and tickets have spiked for peddlers, panhandlers, and low-level infraction perpetrators in New York's streets, subway thoroughfares, and project housing complexes. The statistics serve de Blasio — he kept his promise. But the reality is that New York policing remains a war on the poor, black, and brown.
Which brings us to de Blasio's "moral obligation" to right the injustice of the Central Park 5 case. With that vow, he wrote a check he can't cash. Firstly, all the money in the city treasury could not do the work of undoing history. Those five men can't turn back the clocks to 1989, undo the violent racist context, and grow up again as free men. And if the mayor is serious about his obligations to justice, he would rely less on base symbolism. He would not let Bratton's focus on policing minor violations stand in lieu of stop-and-frisk as the latest vector of racist, classist policing. But he's just a mayor, and what could be more symbolic than that? Symbolic settlements are the purview of politicians. Whether we think the problems undergirding the Central Park 5 case are settled or not is another question.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard