The corporate-owned media reviews of the movie “The Central Park Five,” just released on DVD, focus mainly on the pathos and injustice of wrongful incarceration.
They’re downplaying the more political message of the film, which exposes the oppressive and racist nature of the state — and the media — under capitalism in the United States.
That’s because this film is now out in the world — it was also aired on PBS and shown at dozens of film festivals — when public opinion is turning against “stop and frisk,” and the phrase “mass incarceration” has been popularized by Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.”
Alexander shows how locking away African-American and Latino/a youth hides the oppression that was so evident under racist Jim Crow segregation. Lately, however, this feature of capitalism has become too obvious to ignore.
On May 15, a judge threw out Ramarley Graham’s case, in which cops pursued an unarmed 18-year-old African-American youth into his house and gunned him down in February 2012. The police killing of Kimani Gray this March 9 sparked two weeks of protests in New York’s East Flatbush.
The big-business media want to avoid the political conclusions of the movie, as well as its potential lessons — especially when its case is compared to the famous Scottsboro Brothers trial: that the best hope for beating back repeated racist outrages and attacks may be in strengthening the workers’ movement overall.
“The Central Park Five” exposes the deliberate way the New York Police Department good-cop/bad-cop coerced the youth into giving false confessions. On TV detective shows, this kind of tactic is celebrated and treated as heroic.
But the film exposes it as devious, bullying and integral to the racist character of mass incarceration. This part of the film is so damning to the NYPD that the police agency’s number-one defender among the media, the New York Post, has engaged in outright denial. A recent Post editorial claimed there was no evidence of coerced confessions from the Five.
You can’t watch the film and conclude there were no coerced confessions. That would be like watching the movie “Titanic” and saying no ship sank.
Because the film exposes how African-American youths were framed for sexual assault, many have compared the case to that of the Scottsboro Brothers. This was the 1931 frame-up of nine African-American youth in Alabama for the rape of two white women.
One striking similarity to that case is the racist depiction of African Americans as preying on white women — a staple of the Jim Crow South transplanted to New York City in 1989.
International campaign helped free Scottsboro Brothers
The important difference was how the struggle to free the Scottsboro Brothers was made into an international campaign.
In both cases, a swift trial, a racist media campaign and a useless legal defense whisked the Black youth into jail. But the 1931 conviction of the Scottsboro Brothers was followed by appealed cases, retrials and more retrials, along with mass rallies in the U.S. and overseas. The largest demonstration for justice in the Scottsboro case actually happened in Germany in 1932.
That’s because socialists at the time decided to make the Scottsboro Brothers case a national and international campaign — one that would win justice for the Brothers but also put capitalism itself on trial.
This ultimately led to the Scottsboro Brothers being freed from jail.
What’s so striking about the Central Park Five, in comparison, is that when the actual rapist confessed in 2002, four of the Five had already served their entire sentences. They were already out of jail; their young lives already stolen.
The difference between the two eras is the broader political climate. During the 1930s, there were mass demonstrations for jobs, factory sit-ins, antiforeclosure actions — and the influence of socialism on workers in the U.S. was at its peak. The Russian Revolution had happened only 14 years earlier.
There was a thriving working class movement, which was able to wrest Social Security, unemployment insurance and the Works Projects Administration from the capitalist government.
Yet the same conditions that created the culture of fightback in the 1930s exist right now in 2013. With mass layoffs, joblessness, the sequester and attacks on unions, the situation cries out for a fighting workers’ movement as well as a more ideological socialist movement.
Fallout from Jena Six case
Without a stronger movement overall, the fight against racist outrages can achieve heroic heights but still be pushed back hard by the state. A perfect current example is the drug frameup of Catrina Wallace, one of the central organizers of the struggle to get the charges dropped on the Jena Six. Wallace is the sister of one of the Jena Six, Robert Bailey.
It was the tireless organizing of people like Wallace and Caseptla Bailey, Wallace’s mother, that made the case of the Jena Six a nationally known struggle. Jena is the small, majority-white Louisiana town where white students hung two nooses on a high school tree.
A series of schoolyard fights over this resulted in six African-American students being outrageously charged with attempted murder on Dec. 4, 2006.
Wallace and Bailey were the backbone of the drop-the-charges campaign that culminated in tens of thousands of people marching in Jena in September 2007.
This received widespread attention. What most people don’t know is that Wallace is now in jail serving a 15-year sentence.
Two weeks after the official reduction of charges that freed the Jena Six, helicopters, dogs and 150 cops descended on the African-American section of Jena in a drug raid that swept 12 people into jail, including Wallace, on July 9, 2009. The frameup charges against her were based on the video testimony of a lone police informant.
No drugs were found in Wallace’s home, of course. But she has been in jail since May 31, 2011, serving a 15-year sentence.
What, of course, is so unfortunate is that the powerful movement that freed the Jena Six was not organized for Wallace and the other targets of the raid on Jena’s Black community.
The Jena situation and Wallace’s case should not be a secret. There should be massive demonstrations for her release the way there were for the Jena Six or the Scottsboro Brothers. If these demonstrations include a demand for jobs instead of jails — a demand that resonates with every sector of society — it could help break the case out of isolation.