“The system doesn’t care about us. It’s about numbers and filling prisons.”
I was blessed to have the opportunity to hear Raymond Santana speak at the Lily Gallery. Santana was a member of the group of five New York teenagers who became notoriously labeled as the “central park five.” On April 19, 1989, the lives of Santana and four other boys who he had not previously known were changed forever. The boys were falsely accused with the brutal rape and beating of Trisha Meili, a woman who was jogging through Central Park. Early in the talk, Santana recollected the profound fear he experienced when he was arrested. He did not know what to expect and was overcome by a mix of emotions that I could never imagine. The boys were coerced by the police into confessing to a crime for which they were innocent due to the shady and unlawful intimidation tactics that were utilized to invoke fear into the young men. The story of the “central park five” exposed the blatant corruption of our justice system in addition to the alarming power of media in manipulating the general populace.
“We are the example of what happens when the system doesn’t care about you.”
The story of the “central park five” illuminates the vast rift between humanity and our justice system. Santana recalled the tactics that the police used in their deliberate effort to break him. Intimidation and lack of access to food or water for 36 hours are two notable examples of the police’s abuse of power in Santana’s case. Santana exemplifies how the police did everything in their power to break the young men and coerce them into committing to a crime for which they were innocent. Santana and the other boys gave fingerprints, blood samples, and hair samples in order to determine whether their DNA matched the crime scene. After it was discovered that none of the DNA samples matched the crime scene, the prosecution was supposed to reexamine the investigation. However, this never happened, and Santana was sentenced to 10-15 years in prison for the rape of Trisha Meili. Santana told the Davidson student body that “his story was the example of what happens when the system doesn’t care about you.” His false charge forced him to fight against injustice in the criminal system in an effort to narrow the divide between humanity and the justice system. The system that was created to protect him turned its back on him.
“The media controlled the narrative of our story.”
Santana highlights the role of the media in invoking fear and anger into the general public through accusatorial journalism. Over 400 articles were written about the “central park five.” These articles categorized them as “super predators,” “wildin teenagers,” and many other derogatory phrases that were used to dehumanize the convicted teenagers. “The media controlled the narrative of our story,” Santana states. The media swayed the public into believing that these innocent teenagers were “monsters.” Using language that dehumanizes individuals can have catastrophic outcomes. In this case it transformed the human into a convict, relegating his identity to a statistic in a justice system that perpetuated injustice. The conjunction of a corrupt justice system and the media’s attack on the boys made the group of kids “the most hated on Earth,” as well known journalist Ken Burns stated.
From the “Central Park Five” to the “Exonerated Five”
In December 2002, after 13 years in prison, the men were finally exonerated after Matias Reyes confessed to the crime. However, the hatred directed towards the “central park five” was still deeply ingrained in the general public. The damage caused by the corrupt justice system and the media was irreversible by the time the men were exonerated. Many people still firmly believed that they were guilty. However, Santana expresses that Sarah Burns, the daughter of Ken Burns, “became an angel” for the five men. She worked diligently to uncover the truth and never judged the men. She was a gleam of hope for the “central park five” and illuminated that good journalism was not dead. In 2012, Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon released a documentary that Santana described as the turning point in their case. The documentary finally uncovered the truth that the justice system and media had turned on its side. A few years following the release of the documentary, the men were invited to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show. Oprah told them, “you are no longer the central park five, now you are the exonerated five.” Ever since the truth surrounding his case has been revealed, Santana has been traveling the nation to make his story heard in the hopes of espousing change for the better. At the end of his speech, he called on us, the Davidson student body, to fight criminal justice because “we need all hands on deck” if we’re going to defeat a system that “has been winning for years.” When asked by a student what it would take for him to rest easy feeling like his job is complete, he . stated, “even though we never get to sit under the shade of the tree, we still plant seeds.” This quote reminded me of the evolution of conceptual schemes over time. When a system turns its back on part of humanity, we must plant new seeds and change paradigms for the progression of the human family.
“Even though we never get to sit under the shade of the tree, we still plant seeds.”