UNDERSTANDING SACRIFICIAL SCAPEGOATING AND THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE July 11, 2019 by Brandi Hebert
Ava DuVernay is making headlines again this spring with her Netflix mini-series titled, When They See Us. The four-part mini-series tells the story of the families of the five young boys who have come to be known as the Central Park Five. On April 19, 1989, a twenty-eight-year-old woman was brutally attacked and raped in New York City during an evening run in Central Park. Her story became sensationalized nationally and known as that of the Central Park Jogger. Four teenage African American boys, Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam were convicted of the crime in the public consciousness and sentenced on varying counts related to the crime resulting in years in prison for the rape and assault. Since then, it has been revealed that the young teens were innocent of this crime. Years later, Matias Reyes confessed and accepted full responsibility alone for the rape and assault with matching DNA evidence at the scene connecting him to the crime. New York City has since paid restitution to Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam in the amount of $41 million, one of the largest settlements in NYC history. The first victim in this case, the Central Park Jogger, revealed her name, Patricia Meili, more than a decade after the attack, an attack of which she has no memory. She continues to this day to advocate for survivors of sexual assault through sharing her story in lectures and online via her website, thecentralparkjogger.com. Ms. DuVernay’s powerful documentary has come under attack by some media outlets including a recent Washington Post article written by journalist Deanna Paul. Paul’ article highlights criticism of DuVernay’s explication of specific factual details relating to the crime and her artistic license creating dialogue for certain characters in the mini-series of which there are no transcripts. Tellingly, in Paul’s article are two powerful statements made by Colin Wise, Korey Wise’s defense attorney during his trial. Mr. Moore states, “It’s a powerful series, there’s no doubt about it, but there were some inaccuracies…This is more than just a case. It’s the story of a black community that has been besieged by the system. I wept for half and hour after [Wise] was found not guilty on most accounts.” Despite all criticism of inaccuracies in DuVernay’s film, it is legally conclusive and most generally agreed that the case against the Central Park Five was an incontrovertible miscarriage of justice. Neither retributive nor restorative justice was administered. Why? All the members of the Central Park Five maintained their innocence throughout their incarceration and consistently claimed that their video taped statements to the contrary were forcefully coerced by the NYPD. Perhaps helpful in moving towards understanding is first acknowledging the pervasive fear that existed in NYC in 1989. Statistics show that in 1989, NYC experienced historic crime rates with 203,042 violent crimes, 2,246 murders and 91,571 assaults reported. Patricia Meili’s forcible rape was only one of the total 5,242 forcible rapes that would occur that year in NYC. When Meili’s story unraveled throughout NYC and national media outlets, the collective fear of a suffering city poured out with it. NYC wanted someone to pay for the criminal acts perpetrated against Patricia Meili. NYC desired revenge, not just for Meili, but for itself. NYC needed a sacrificial scapegoat. Rene Girard, social anthropologist and father of mimetic theory, articulates an understanding of the sacrificial scapegoating mechanism embedded in social dynamics such as the ones that played out in 1989 NYC. It is this mechanism that DuVernay reveals in her film superbly. The International Association of Mimetic Theory explains mimetic theory and its scapegoating mechanism as thus, Mimetic desire leads to escalation as our shared desire reinforces and enflames our belief in the value of the object. This escalation contains the potential for a war of all against all. According to Girard, the primary means for avoiding total escalation came through what he calls the scapegoat mechanism, in which conflict is resolved by uniting against an arbitrary other who is excluded and blamed for all the chaos. With the guilty party gone, the conflict ends and peace and social order return to the community. Achieving social order in this way is only possible, however, if the excluding parties unanimously believe that the person or group expelled is truly guilty or dangerous. Girard’s examination of different “myths of origin” revealed that scapegoats, regardless of their actual crime, have carried the weight of all of the community’s transgressions. If viewed through the lens of mimetic theory, the Central Park Five were nothing more than the sacrificial scapegoat for a violent city that was spinning wildly out of control. Far from the ‘wilding’ accusations made against the young men in Central Park the night of April 19, 1989, all of NYC including its media and the legal system empowered to obtain justice for the state went ‘wilding’ for a scapegoat for the crime. A scapegoat that could be sacrificed to stem the flow of violence in NYC and make the city feel safe again. However, as mimetic theory proposes, the mechanism doesn’t need the scapegoat to actually be responsible for the crime, only to be blamed for the crime and held accountable even in their innocence. This is why mimetic theory is helpful in revealing our communal desires in the midst of our chaotic lives and exposes the attendant systemic sin that corrupts our judicial system. Systemic sin such as racism and educational and economic disparities were on display throughout the Central Park Five court case. The powerful are rarely, if ever, capable of being scapegoated, but those who are already at a disadvantage in the system and therefore have little to no voice are prime targets. Mimetic theory also then reveals our own complicity in the injustice of the Central Park Five convictions. Empowered by mass systemic fear, the state zealously sought retributive justice for crime the state for the crime that was perpetrated on Patricia Meili. In doing so, the state simply created more victims, victimizing the wrongfully accused and sacrificing them to quell the collective fear of the people. DuVernay’s film reveals this and much more about us and our criminal justice system. When They See Us hauntingly shares the horrors of prison life, an aspect of our judicial system often hidden. The film underscores our complicity in continuing to oppress the formerly incarcerated long after they have served their time on behalf of the state. When They See Us also reveals intimately how life does goes on after tragedy, how broken relationships can be repaired and how victims and victimizers can find hope in hopelessness in the aftermath of injustice despite all odds. Reparations have been made to the Central Park Five for the injustices that were perpetrated on them. However, what of restorative justice for all the victims? Is restorative justice for Patricia Meili, Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam, Matias Reyes and NYC truly possible decades later? How might this case have ended differently in 1989 for all involved if the scapegoating mechanism enacted had been recognized, slowed down or even halted in the name of retributive justice for Patricia Meili? We will never know. However, as When They See Us illuminates beautifully life does go on after tragedy and God, the Source of all Creation, continues to work in restorative movements in fractured lives and broken systems bringing that which has been shattered slowly back into wholeness of life. Many of the Central Park Five family members portrayed in the series are shown to have leaned in on their faith in a God that is just, a God that they believed would restore their lives. Many scenes depict individuals developing in their faith, in particular Salaam who studied the Quran while in prison, and the mother of Korey Wise who became a born-again Christian. Scenes depict time and again throughout the series family members asking for forgiveness and receiving it in the complicated lives they are living caught up in a dysfunctional system. The series proclaims how these families who suffered extraordinary injustice at the hands of that system can create a holding space for their pain with one another and their community; bear witness to that pain; and be guided by the Spirit towards pains transformation. When They See Us attests to the horrors of this story indeed. They are the horrors that humanity inflicts on itself and its disempowered members. However, Ava DuVernay’s work also attests to a loving God whose justice is restorative, the restorative justice of a God that is love, grounded in possibility, always making all things new. It is this restorative journey to which we are all invited. In restorative justice’ movement we stand in solidarity laboring on its behalf and wait for God’s transformative power.