Watching The Central Park Five @Etowncollege

In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were arrested and charged with brutally attacking and raping a white female jogger in Central Park. News media swarmed the case, calling them a “wolfpack.”  The five would spend years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit before the truth about what really happened became clear. With THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, this story of injustice finally gets the attention it deserves. Based on Sarah Burns’ riveting book and co-directed by her husband David McMahon and father, the acclaimed doc filmmaker Ken Burns, this incendiary film tells the riveting tale of innocent young men scapegoated for a heinous crime, and serves as a mirror for our times.

Synopsis from IFC Entertainment

As part of our annual Diversity Film Series, a small group from the Elizabethtown College community revisited this layered tragedy. Students live-tweeted the documentary using the hashtag #etowncpf. Twitter proved a great way to capture our immediate responses to the events before us.

After the film, we discussed the challenges that the film posed for our respective worldviews and the institutions that we turn to for understanding. The conversation at times was philosophical–with many reflecting on the importance of truth. But there was also a visceral realization that truth is contextual and political. One student put it this way:
I was disgusted when the film described how the five young men were forced to confess false stories about their “crimes” on videotape. At first, I thought, “What are they doing? The police is not allowed to treat them you way! Why are you lying when you know you did nothing wrong?!”
As the film went on, I realized just how helpless these five teenagers were. The intimidation and harassment that they experienced during their interrogations were horrendous and they did nothing to deserve it. They just happened to be males and have colored skin and the three detectives on the case were white. The detectives wanted to place blame for the rape of a young, white female. It disgusted me even more because I knew that the color of their skin made them perfect targets for the detectives’ blame.
I am a young, white woman and I am currently dating a young, black man, so I have deeper emotional ties to this case. My boyfriend has expressed that he has been mistreated by law enforcement in the past because of the color of his skin. Luckily, this has not happened when I have been with him because I would be enraged and have to restrain myself from being violent! I am sure that the friends and family of these young men felt similarly, but they knew that the white people’s hate was powerful. It crippled their chance to stand up for justice. What a sad shame…
What is most upsetting to me is knowing that if the five men were young and white instead, this case would have never played out the way that it did. Discrimination, harassment, and hate would have never ruined their lives. I am angry and ashamed that this hate still thrives a little over 50 years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act. When will it end?!

–Jessie Hornburger, ’15

The Central Park Five is not an easy film to watch, nor does it prompt fun conversations. I will say that our viewing led to a thought-proking evening where students on every side of hot-button issues shared their piece peacefully. Clearly 1989 could have used a little more of that. 2015 could as well.

Richard-Newton Picture

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.

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