Over the weekend, I finally watched the documentary, The Central Park Five (it is now available on Netflix). Of course I was already familiar with the story. But watching those young men recount their experience is deeply troubling. It is one of those films that will be disturbing my soul for a while.
But it is also worth noting the role that Donald Trump played in the story and how it is reminiscent of the kind of hatefulness he is still spreading. Back in 1989 before the five boys were tried, he took out an ad in the Daily News with the headline: BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE! It contained rhetoric like this, ““How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!” Sound familiar?
As recently as 2014, when the 5 young men got a $40 million settlement for the way they were treated by police and prosecutors, Trump wrote that it was a “disgrace,” and that “The recipients must be laughing out loud at the stupidity of the city.”
As the documentary makes clear, the abuse these young boys experienced at the hands of our criminal justice system came on the heels of the crack cocaine epidemic and rising racial tensions in our urban areas. Much as Trump is currently fanning the flames of racial tension over immigrants and white backlash to BlackLivesMatter, he was doing the same thing 25 years ago. Eventually those tensions led to the embrace of the “super predator” myth about a coming wave of violent young people – predominantly kids of color.
In 2014, the APA released a study that confirmed what most mothers/fathers of black boys have known for a long time.
Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime, according to new research. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” said the lead author.
And so, the panic about the impending rise of the super predator resulted in a shift to treat juvenile offenders as adults. States began to enact laws to charge young people as adults, lock them up in adult prisons and even sentence them to life without parole for crimes that were committed when they were as young as 13 and 14 years of age.
One of the people who has been fighting against all that is Bryan Stephenson and the organization he founded: Equal Justice Initiative. Specifically, they have been bringing cases against what they call “death in prison sentences for children.” When they started this fight, the numbers were staggering. Nearly 3000 prisoners had been sentenced to life without parole for crimes they had committed when they were 17 years of age or younger. Seventy percent of those sentenced at 14 years of age or younger were children of color.
Over the years, EJI has had some success on changing this.
On May 17, 2010, the Court issued a groundbreaking ruling in Graham v. Florida declaring that life-without-parole sentences could no longer be imposed on juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses…
On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court issued an historic ruling in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger convicted of homicide are unconstitutional.
As a result of these rulings, most states applied them retroactively and instituted new parole hearings for those previously sentenced. But some states – including Louisiana, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and several others – refused to do so.
That is why a SCOTUS ruling today is significant.
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that people serving life terms for murders they committed as teenagers must have a chance to seek their freedom…
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, said that “prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”
My heart is still heavy after watching The Central Park Five and knowing that in cases like 12 year old Tamir Rice, we still have trouble seeing black boys as children. But thanks to the tireless efforts of people like Bryan Stephenson, we are slowly but surely beginning to unwind some of the horrific practices we embraced as a result of mythologizing our fear.
And no, I have no interest in Trump’s attempt to take our country back(wards) on this one!