Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Millennium: The Central Park 5 and the Gilded City

Last November, I went with my friends JOC and CB to see The Central Park 5. It was playing up at the Dempsey Auditorium in Harlem, near the Maysles Cinema, which organized the screening and also hosted the film for a short run. The setting was fitting. The Oberia D. Dempsey Multi-Service Center is a neatly kept, old-fashioned school building, institutional yet not forbidding—a perfect venue to timewarp back to the film’s late-‘80s milieu.
Outside, a diverse crowd shuffled in beforehand, while neighborhood people went by on their Sunday business. Goodwill emanated among the audience within, their anticipation palpable. We were about to go back in time and explore the story of two crimes: the brutal rape and beating of Trisha Meili, a white investment banker, for years to be known only anonymously as “the Central Park Jogger”; and the subsequent coerced confessions, convictions, and incarceration of her alleged attackers, later exonerated after serving their sentences, their names cleared by the confessions of the actual culprit, Matias Reyes.
The events depicted in the film unfolded while late during my freshman year at Stuy. Led Zeppelin and Poison tapes unspooled on the daily in my book bag, but I was slowly getting back into hip hop. The daily L train commute was a bugout, a place for homework and blasting those shitty, tinny headphones, while simultaneously running a random gauntlet of crime. That underground tin can that could turn into a punching gallery at a moment’s notice, filled your body with a low, creeping tension for 50 minutes each way, every weekday.
Like everybody, my parents and me were horrified by the CP attack. My own experiences with random violence were sporadic: a Times Square transient on Forty-deuce extracted a dollar in change from me under duress at age 13; some kids decked me a few blocks from my house when I crossed the border from Starrett City into East New York to go to the stationery store. That was in 7th or 8th grade. Later shit was minimal, really. When we lived in Elmhurst in the early 80’s, my father had lost a fellow cabbie friend, victim of a backseat stickup.
Everyone lived and breathed the fear back then. It was so easy to digest the media narrative when they dragged those five boys—four black kids and a black/Puerto Rican—in front of the cameras. Crucifixion wasn’t no fiction, as Chuck D would declare on wax a year later. These teenagers—children, really, by any standard, including that of the so-called law—were the sacrificial lambs that had to be bled out. People were tired of keeping their eyes lowered, their wallets and pocketbooks secure, their senses fine-tuned for the slightest sign of trouble. Most everybody was calling for their heads, save for a determined group comprised of the defendants’ families, and vocal activists. They’d seen this dog and pony show before, and indeed had known its kind in the Deep South, in Watts, Skokie, Boston, and through the long 1970’s.
It was a fucked up time, but I didn’t know any better, really. I was white, the son of Polish immigrant intellectuals with working-class salaries, going to, arguably, the city’s best public high school. Stuyvesant had some black and Latino kids (more than these days, I’ve read), but was nearly 50 percent Asian, and the rest mainly white. Still, there was diversity of a sort. Even a lot of the white kids were far from slumming scions of privilege. But you could’ve asked nearly anyone if the CP5 deserved the full sledgehammer of justice, and they probably would’ve said yes. The crime was horrific. Most could sympathize with at least part of the narrative taking shape. I couldn’t really see this from my uninformed perspective then, but challenging this consensus then meant you were probably a Commie pinko or a “pablum-puking liberal,” the term so colorfully coined by TV shock legend Morton Downey, Jr, bless his chain-smoking soul.
Fear—real, legitimate fear—possesses almost narcotic powers. Like drugs or alcohol, it can make people do things, or accept certain arrangements, that they’d easily retreat from if challenged in any meaningful way. But the maelstrom of racial tension then, mixed with actual violence seemingly lurking around every corner, behind every subway door, blinded so many. Jail wasn’t enough for these scum, these animals, these ghetto predators. They should be strung up from statues in Central Park, chained together at the center of Yankee Stadium and pelted with bottles, maimed with Louisville Sluggers. White NYC especially, and its official organs of media and state power, were practically frothing at the mouth, led by Ed Koch and dozens of other people who should’ve known better.
Full disclosure: I was shocked at how differently I viewed some of the suspects at the time. My biggest turnaround was with Kharey Wise. Back then, I think he resembled some tough bully kid I knew from elementary school, just a coincidence, and I recall that his unusual manner of speaking (caused by a lifelong hearing impairment) somehow made him that much more frightening to me. I had fallen hook, line, and sinker: these boys were the meanest, cruelest scum from the P.J.’s, surely. Wise could’ve been any kid running folks’ pockets on the L platform.
When I saw them onscreen, or in other video from the last few years, my heart broke. In the footage from 1989, they look so young and innocent, because they are. Just boys. Shit, I was their age then, give or take. Their families were more like mine than not, or my friends’ families. Rather than the interchangeable boogeymen from some “pathological underclass,” shadowy figures that would push you into an empty NYCHA elevator shaft without hesitation, they were regular kids.
Wise stood out for me in particular. I was even more nonplussed that he was the oldest one. For part of the film, I was convinced he was 13 if he was a day. I began to tear up in the theater, as the film slowly panned over a still of him, that fear in his eyes, a deep and wounded helplessness as the justice system meat grinder somehow morphed him into a rapist and attempted murderer for all the word to see, the panic surely coursing through his veins, some version of the words “I did not do this” echoing in his heart. It had to have felt like a nightmare.
For Kharey Wise, Yusuf Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson, there was no sudden awakening, like the main characters in every movie cliché, safe in their teenage beds at home, looking forward to a Saturday afternoon horsing around with friends, or chasing girls, spending time with their parents, siblings, or grandparents. They would never go home anymore, not really.

"Ain't Never Gonna Be What it Was."
-- Little Big Roy

The CP5’s ordeal began a little over twenty-four years ago, a shocking number to look at onscreen. It’s a different city now. A golden age for Brooklyn, even! Greasy-spoon diners give way to farm-to-table restaurants, shiny happy people brunch-linin’ it on the weekend. Local pharmacies dropped like dominos, gobbled up by chains. The happy chaos of stoop life continues in some sectors, but every few months if feels like you see one or two fewer old Puerto Rican men in sidewalk lawn chairs playing dominoes. The corner bodegas and other candy stores, affectionately called “A-rabs,” for those of you not in the know, give way to purveyors of a more artisanal and organic stripe. “So Brooklyn,” coo the fashionable rags. A thirst for authenticity that so many NY transplants craved years back gave way to a new kind of “fauxtenthicity.” Many new places have that vibe, conveyed by dandy-font awnings. Drink prices trend steadily upward, and even mayonnaise is getting all high-falutin’ ‘n’ shit.
There’s plenty of new beer gardens opening up, and I’m told many of these are baby-friendly. A nice low-key place gets written up in some lifestyle rag (ie, The New York Times), and suddenly you want to ask that purple-faced, blustery hedge fund manager trying to impress the hipster girls at the next table, “Sprechen sie douche?”
I might consider a pickleback an unnecessary flourish to accompany some serious Jameson-on-the-rocks action, but I’m not the target audience for that shit. I want to get drunk and hear bawdy stories from Bill the Bartender, not find out where my drink was born and how it got its Masters degree from Caleb the Mixologist, charming as he may be churning up that cocktail shaker, with his foppish, silent-movie-villain curlicued ‘stache. Call me a vulgarian, but pickle brine is for drinking at the fridge door at three in the morning behind your significant other’s back.
In NYC, pretending is easy, a bubble we form against the world going down in flames out in flyover country. It’s no coincidence that ever-more expensive eateries, grocers, and wine bars were the vanguard of cultural cleansing. Psychologists have long linked overeating, obesity, and gluttony in general with anxiety. I believe the new small-plates restaurants, fusion Korean taco joints, cupcake shops, and hundreds of other aspirational eateries and twee purveyors that have swept through the city this past decade mask an underlying dread of the end times. Nero and Caligula on a bromantic date getting high-end sliders, followed by a $20 craft cocktail. “I’ll have the Avon Barksdale, good sir!”
Ultimately, deep down I have nothing against artists and people just trying to get by who happen to wear funny or funky clothes, eat cooler, more expensive food, or listen to alternative music. You do what you do, na mean? Many of my friends dabble in some aspects of the lifestyle here and there, as do I. It’s nigh impossible not to if you’re a sentient Gothamite. Plus, so much hipster and yuppie (or “yunnie”) hatred is misguided. Sure, I hate a lot of those people, but you can only spit into the wind for so long.
Still, it is the height of Onion-esque comedy when trés cool relative newcomers to Williamsburg, long ago transformed into a showpiece of upper-middle-class Bohemia, bemoan the recent douchebag infiltration. They are two sides of the same coin. I’d be amazed if Mast Bros Chocolate closes up shop on mere principle once the scent of Axe body spray begins to overpower their cacao, borne artisanally by three-masted ships to Ye Olde Williamsburg.
The sad irony is that much of what twee hipsterdom encompasses, or at least aspires to, is technically admirable. Who can read endless tales of the horror of factory farming, the antidemocratic, crushing power of agribusiness, the antibiotics in everything that are just priming us for mass infection, without feeling a deep and righteous revulsion? Farm-to-table, free-range, and handcrafted whatever are all wonderful things. But I fear they are fleeting fancies, soon to be pushed out and co-opted, slowly, like everything else money pollutes. These things won’t save us if and when the next economic collapse arrives all too soon, and the super-rich leave us to fight over the ruins, Mad Max-style.
The Luxury City is in full bloom, glassy and metallic, vainglorious. All the righteous, curmudgeonly affection for what it’s replacing seems little match for the billions of dollars fueling the other side. Manhattan is a lost cause, with the Kings’ borough not far behind. Brooklyn-ization is even reverse-pollinating parts of Manhattan. Whatever flavor of gentrification one desires, it’s readily available, as easily accessed as frozen yogurt from an arsenal of gleaming new dispensers. Empty calories and thin gruel, yet gratifying and color-saturated! Ran out of cash? You’re in luck—some intersections have a bank branch at every corner. Why they exist remains a mystery, when the guy in front of you pays for a pack of gum with Visa.
Development (ie, cultural cleansing) doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Dubya prescribed a return to the status quo (“shop ‘til you drop!”) after the Towers fell more than eleven years ago, and people could hardly wait to grab their credit cards and release the next flood of consumer endorphins. So much more preferable than turning an eye inward at what we had become by the end of the Clinton years: a greedy, narcissistic, fearful, and ever more stupid people. Instead of pumping the brakes, we declared Full Speed Ahead.
People were afraid. But they were afraid of many things. Besides its addictive properties, fear is like water or sand: it gets in everywhere, and can ruin everywhere it seeps in. Existential dread is the curse of our age. We suspect everything, with good reason, as we feel progressively more unmoored from our government, institutions, and the corporations that, like the great Wizard behind the curtain, pretty much pull the strings of the former. No job is too small or innocuous to downsize and ship elsewhere. Real choices in politics are replaced with cosmetic ones. In Communist Poland, you only had one party to vote for. Nowadays, we’re lucky to choose among Visa, Mastercard, or Amex. Government at every level tortures, imprisons, assassinates, invades, displaces, harasses, controls, and manipulates the average citizen stateside, and nameless masses of hapless victims in the Third World, mostly for profit and empire.

"'Discipline' may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a 'physics' or an 'anatomy' of power, a technology."
-- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

After seeing The Central Park 5, my friends and me stopped in the nearby Lenox Lounge, a Harlem institution soon headed, unbeknownst to us, for the dustbin of history. JOC and CB had gone to LaGuardia around the same time I attended Stuy, and it quickly turned into a “What about [that guy/girl]” convo, in addition to collating what the fuck we’d just seen onscreen. Inside the front bar, the Lounge probably looked much like it had years ago, when the film’s events had transpired a mile or two away.
Outside was a different world. Like a darker-complexioned, East Coast version of the Black Flag song about the L.A. police (“They hate us/we hate them/We can't win, no way”), things play out as they always have for brown people, with young black and Latino males bearing the brunt of it. In the new Gilded City, the name of the game is containment, under the aegis of the Stop-and-Frisk policy. It is the same impulse that guides the Orwellian scrutiny of the Arab-American and Muslim communities at large. How will property values and rents climb into the stratosphere, thus buoying El Bloombergo’s plutocrat pals, if good, decent people with six- and seven-figure salaries can’t feel absolutely safe and sound at all times? They want that urban sensibility, without the wrong kind of urban mucking it up for them.
Meanwhile, the ever more smothering need for structure, security, and certainty plays out among the middle classes, too, here and out in territories. Unpredictability is an enemy; you’d think it was a fate worse than death, the way many people act. Uproot all that dangerous playground equipment because towheaded young Linus may bruise a finger and it’s time for everyone to lawyer up. Evacuate the picnic ASAP; somebody found a peanut in the grass! Can’t have all these kids running and horsing around, what with their restless leg syndromes—pump them all full of powerful, system-approved narcotics. We might lose a few to suicide or decades of soulless, deadened existence, but it’ll surely help them on all these standardized tests en route to those cubicle jobs (soon to be outsourced).
The school-to-prison pipeline remains fully operational. Handcuff the young black kid shooting spitballs. Expel the other kid for making a gun sign with her hand (black, white, who gives a shit? Down the line, everybody’s fair game). Call the cops on those neglectful parents who dare let their kids play out front unsupervised. Thank god that old “ghetto” corner store closed; all those unsavory characters hanging out outside. They didn’t even have a gluten-free section, OMG.
Online, where many of us live a good chunk of our lives, all the most ubiquitous trends emphasize control, surveillance, and the supreme predictability and convenience people crave. The most desirable apps are the ones that effectively eliminate serendipity and surprise from our lives. Yelp that restaurant, or risk eating an average meal. Wander out of the subway and get on the smartphone right quick or you’ll get lost. Dating someone becomes a database search/shopping list of mandatory, desired attributes that we need to be totally compatible with. Because the ideal mate is, naturally, someone with the exact same musical tastes, political opinions, and sociocultural background.
Back in the Gilded City, the preferred, must-have domicile is the doorman building, a combination of adult dormitory, douchebag megaclub, luxury spa, and modern office tower. Gleaming white and silver interiors, perfect if your idea of bliss is reclining in Conference Room C, complete with 1,200 thread count sheets. You’ll get a trophy just for showing up, and on-site mental health counselors will help you pick up the pieces if you have a breakdown from the withering looks of the pedestrians you almost collided with while you were glued to your screen. Oh, Millennials: I kid, I kid!
Many units in these modernist monstrosities remain empty, and will be filled once the societies of the foreign, absentee One Percenters that own them collapse (before ours does, they hope), and they come scurrying from overseas to Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, soon to be walled off like the anti-version of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. Checkpoints will exist for the service-sector peons that aren’t live-in staff, so don’t worry. Neighborhood watch volunteers equipped with Google Glass retinal scanners will make sure none of the help lingers too long after clocking out; special apps will dispatch the rent-a-cops, if need be.
If wages skew low enough, they might even open an Apple plant in Brownsville. The Berlin-style DMZ Wall abutting the factory outlet will have its own Starbucks and Shake Shack for everyone lining up for the 17th generation iPad. It’ll be a fun afternoon out once MOMA charges $100 to get in. You’ll get there easily on a Citi Bike, I’d imagine.
We’d like to think we’ve come so far, our technological triumphs melded to some a new era of enlightenment. But it’s all a ruse, the wax soon to melt off our Icarus wings. The miracles promised by the Internet have made us neither safer, happier, more prosperous, or more intelligent. A sizeable chunk of Americans believes the Sun revolves around the Earth, and that our first black President is indeed a foreign-born, Marxist jihadist. Never mind that the same president, who in 2008 won Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year, has broken most of his promises and governs to the right of Nixon, and is a driving force in ripping the guts out of many of the freedoms we used to enjoy. If he were a white, northeastern Yalie frontin' on Texan, he'd be the new saint of the CPAC convention. If Nixon, famously, was the only one who could go to China, Barry is the only one his supporters will trust with steering the ship of state through the Forever Wars on Terror and Drugs. It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? We all wanted to believe so badly.
That we live in a colorblind society is another cruel joke. Another black man who reached the pinnacle of his craft and profession, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, was stopped and frisked by deli employees in Morningside Heights earlier this year. I see young men stopped at least once a week, most often by white cops. Few, I’d imagine, are red carpet nominees. Flip a coin: New Yorker profile, or racially profiled. Meanwhile, the Central Park 5 await an official apology and financial restitution from a justice system that falsely imprisoned them for years.
It’s easy to believe that it doesn’t affect you if you’re not black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, or otherwise brown and suspect. But recently, everyone’s been getting a taste of overreaching state authority. It swings down with the force of a police truncheon if you’re a privileged white kid with a conscience who goes down to an Occupy protest. It manifests as financial ruin if you’re a family farmer fighting a David vs. Goliath court case against Monsanto. It takes the form of faceless bureaucrats, lobbyists, and their corporate cronies, whose cynical and distant horse-trading affects you if you’re an undocumented worker from Mexico ripped apart from your family; a comfortably middle-class suburban college kid caught with drugs and forced into being an informant, resulting in your own death; a whistleblower; a teacher who challenges the status quo; an LGBT citizen whose spouse dies and leaves them penniless because of the so-called "law"; a homeowner foreclosed on by robo-signers, the drones of the financial world; or one of the other millions of the uninsured, spat on, and forgotten. Before it’s all played out, we might all find ourselves the unwilling participants of a particularly insidious game of dominoes as described by Martin Niemöller in his famous poem, “First They Came…”
I can’t tell you that going out and voting in November will change anything. Quinn and any other real contender for the mayoralty will probably bring more of the same. But something’s got to give. If not, the future can seem mighty bleak. If you want a picture of the future through the prism of NYC’s own transformation writ large, imagine a Citibank Robocop/drone-bot, dressed in a Notorious B.I.G. baby onesie made in China, walking/texting and carrying a Venti latte and a yoga mat, its Ugg-clad feet stomping on the face of old New York—forever.
Peace, y’all, and be safe.

For Further Reading

“Mik Moore: Certitude and the Central Park 5.”

PBS Interview with Michelle Alexander, Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State University, author of “The New Jim Crow."

The Wire creator David Simon Eviscerates the Dystopia-creating War on Drugs.”

Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, AKA The Book of Lamentations: A Bitterly Nostalgic Look at a City in the Process of Going Extinct:

Michael Radford's film version of George Orwell’s 1984—O’Brien on Power: