The Central Park Five and The Harlem Six

E’ryone is watching When They See Us, the outstanding Netflix-sponsored portrayal written and directed by Ava DuVernay of the colossal injustice committed against five African American children in Manhattan. My 20-year-old daughter Yolanda texted me: “Daddy, this is the best series I’ve ever seen in my life. You must watch this.”

Each individual is different; each of us has our own temperament. I’d like to believe that the reason I want to watch something like this is because my parents taught me never to turn my face away from oppression: “Not only is it part of your world, but it is interpenetrating with who you are everyday….” However, I brought my son, Angelo, up on the same premises. He cannot watch films like this. It upsets him too much. I have a number of close friends (in other words, we share a value system) who cannot watch this series. I hold no judgment of them for this temperament. Let’s face it: There is a large section of the population of the country we live in who don’t watch… because they don’t give a damn. That is a major problem.

The Harlem Six Revisited

The more I watched, the more I read, the more of the subjects I heard interviewed on NPR, and the more I spoke with my sister Suzanne who in reflex of the fact that as a young attorney in Manhattan at the time of this gross injustice, also today could not watch the series, the louder the voices of the boys who made up the Harlem Six came screaming in my head: the Harlem Six were six boys who had an identical experience with the criminal punishment system in New York when I was a child. In fact, with my father as one of their attorneys, I feel like I literally grew up with this case as backdrop or foreground to my development for half my childhood. Their case took well over a decade to “resolve.”

The number of parallels, and extreme similarity of the two cases would be amazing … in a healthy social order. But, the two cases, as horrible and grotesque as they may appear, are also meat and potatoes of the white supremacist/male supremacist system that has been the United States of America since its founding, on the backs of enslaved Africans, and on the bones of Native Americans whose lot was genocide. They are part of the norm. To the extent that this is not your experience, to that same degree are you either walking around with your eyes shut, or you have the privilege of blocking all of this normalcy-of-the-macabre out of your life. The large majority of us do not have such a choice.

Indeed, during the unfolding of the Harlem Six atrocity, the identifications were pouring in from around the world regarding the parallels to the Scottsboro Boys of a generation earlier. In this connection, each of these cases is a part of the stream that is the racist, patriarchal system at the root of this culture.

I’m writing with the assumption that those opening up this article with the title “The Central Park Five” are familiar with that case. I’m writing this article because I want people to remember that it is part of a continuum — the Harlem Six was the same case, different year — each are instances in the logic of the United States of America.

In suggesting to you, the reader, that you study this history, I am guided by a principle that is learned by all who engage social justice work early on, that of not comparing oppressions, not comparing one injustice to another as being worse or more important, or more egregious; but instead to find those points of identification which bring the logic of the history together into one stream of truth.

Having said this, the torture of the six boys from Harlem is even more difficult to watch than that visited upon “the Exonerated Five,” as the formerly Central Park Five are now being called. The book, the Torture of Mothers (Truman Nelson, Beacon Press, 1968) is almost unbearable to read, but it is filled, like the series on “the Exonerated Five,” with the testimony of the mothers — it is impossible to read or watch what these mothers went through without linking it directly to what you are now watching of the mothers of “the Exonerated Five.” The movie “The Torture of Mothers,” is the word-for-word cinematic reproduction of the narrative of the book by the same title:

If you’ve watched When They See Us, or any of the excellent interviews of this writer/director and the actors, such as this one hosted by Oprah,, you will reflexively do a double take at the countenance of the mothers of the boys of the Harlem Six — these mothers and those of the Five are birds of a feather, from the same clan, are sisters and cousins to each other.

Each of the children who made up the Harlem Six were mercilessly beaten daily, over years by the police and the prison guards. One of them, Wallace Baker, was beaten so severely that he lost his mind and became physically disabled and deranged for life. Each of them had false confessions beaten out of them. And for each of them, the only evidence against them was these false confessions.

For those of you who lived through “the Exonerated Five” and at the time did not know that they were forced to submit false confessions, you did not have the same pain as those of us who did know that the boys were totally innocent: it is a different pain to think, “How terrible it is for these boys to rape and stomp this woman,” than the pain of knowing these boys are beaten and tortured daily, for years, for something that they did not do; that we live in a country that does not do this type of thing by accident, but does it routinely as part of the “smooth” functioning of a system which they intend to continue to “work” in this way.

The System

In the excellent one-hour interview Oprah conducted of the actors and producers of When They See Us, Ava DuVerney was expansive regarding the logic of the crimes committed against …the Scottsboro Boys, the Harlem Six and the Central Park Five. In answer to a question regarding the despicable prosecutor, Linda Fairstein who orchestrated the forced confessions of children with her goal of locking them up for their entire lives, DuVernay offered:

It is not really all about her. She is part of a system. It is not broken. It was built to be this way. It was built to oppress and it was built for control. This system was built to shape our culture in a specific way, in a way that keeps some people here [above], and some other people here [below]. It was built for profit. It was built for political gain and power. This system depends on our ignorance. Now that you know, what are you going to do?

This focus is the only road forward for the human populations who aspire to come through the present crisis of Western civilization — this apocalypse, permanent war, the profit motive birth children of greed and debauchery. It is a system of oppression and an era coming to a close.

“The Exonerated Five” in People’s History

Indeed, concluding his story of the Harlem Six by exposing the systemic nature of the specific assault, Truman Nelson observed:

The fact is, white America, blind America, racist America is finally beginning to see the black community as it really is. But, it may be too late. In making it a community of victims, they have unwittingly forged a far more dangerous social entity… an oppressed people.

Previsioning DuVernay’s analysis of the system, Nelson observed:

Time has proven that the Bill of Rights has been a Bill of White Rights, that the Constitution beginning We the People has always meant We the White People.

This is not emotional moaning and groaning. It is social science fact. International Law has long identified White America as the dominant nation in the country called the United States of America, hovering imperiously over the African American people, the colonies of Puerto Rio and Hawaii, the internal colony/Chicano nation in the south west, and numerous other of-Color nations and peoples. It is in connection with understanding of this era of imperialism that Nelson adjures us:

…[W]henever government or court becomes destructive of …humanizing rights it is the duty of the people to alter or abolish it and reorganize its powers as shall seem most likely to secure their dignity and happiness.

This is our mandate.