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THROUGH THE FIRE: Retribution, Justice and the Central Park Five


Retributive social justice rarely arrives in a lifetime, but it appears that we’re bearing witness that. Director Ava DuVernay’s Netflix mini-series, “When They See Us,” renewed — and intensified — a popular interest in the Central Park jogger case in New York City in 1989.

The limited series is a dramatization of an incident in which a white jogger, Trisha Meili, was brutally attacked, raped, and left in a coma by an unidentified attacker. The New York City police allegedly coerced four African American boys and one Latin American — dubbed the Central Park Five — into giving false confessions to the crime. The boys were as young as 14 years old.

“We were just baby boys,” the Central Park Five recently told **The New York Times.** None of that seemed to stop investigators or the prosecutors of the trial. The mini-series especially portrays Linda Fairstein, the chief supervisor of the prosecution in the 1990 trial, in a damning light. She comes off as an overzealous and self-righteous crusader who’s willing to justify badly disguised racism under the veneer of feminism.

The Central Park Five’s sentences were eventually vacated after a serial rapist, Mattias Reyes, confessed to the crime in 2001, but this came after the defendants lost years of their lives behind bars. Sure, the Central Park Five may have eventually reached a delayed $41 million settlement with New York City in 2014, but I’m willing to bet that they would’ve preferred having their childhoods back.

A social media campaign against Fairstein caused her to step down from numerous non-profit board positions including one from her alma mater, Vassar College. **Glamour** magazine admitted that it made a mistake by bestowing her the 1993 Woman of the Year award shortly after the mini-series’ release.

As I write this, Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Books, confirmed to National Public Radio that Fairstein and her publisher have “decided to terminate their relationship” without offering further comment. My girlfriend accurately predicted that Fairstein would pretend to be the victim amidst all this.

“The truth about my participation can be proved in the pages of public records and case documents,” she wrote in a letter to the chairman of Vassar’s board. “But that has not been apparent to those embracing the mob mentality that now dominates social media, any more than it was considered by the rashly irresponsible filmmaker.”

A scene from “When They See Us.” (Netflix)

I have the world’s smallest violin for her. She remains incorrigibly unrepentant in light of the mounting evidence that she performed wrongdoing during the trial. Now it seems like Lady Karma is coming to collect her debt.

Fairstein deserves to be stripped of every bit of status and prestige that she owns. My only reservation is that it took a popular dramatized portrayal of real events do so. The numerous documentaries and news reports — the latter of which is supposed to be steeped in “factuality” — should’ve been sufficient to humiliate and shame Fairstein for the remainder of her life. It really shouldn’t have taken a dramatization of reality to give Fairstein her comeuppance.

Carroll Bogart of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit for journalism about criminal justice, observed that the media’s frenzied represtation of the Central Park Jogger case may have contributed to the Five’s wrongful conviction. Journalism failed to live up to its promise of factual justice with its reportage during and after the trial. It’s embarrassing that Ava DuVernay accomplished what reporters should have done.

My other reservation is that the world’s worst human being made a great point by invoking mob behavior. Ava DuVernay is a skilled storyteller and talented director, but I’m wary of when art provoke emotional responses. Emotions are irrational. They’re fleeting and ephemeral once the catharsis of art is complete. The rage against Fairstein could just as well ebb overnight.

I have nothing but respect for DuVernay and admire her prowess as a director. I just wish that “When They See Us” could’ve presented something more cerebral akin to playwright Bertolt Brecht’s theories on Epic Theater and the Distancing Effect. In short, Brecht sought a means of distancing its audience from the characters in his plays to promote critical thinking.

Empathy is tribal and was the enemy in Brecht’s eyes. In other words, his art was more thoughts and less feels. Critics have observed that Brecht didn’t necessarily purge empathy from his audience so much as he refined it. If so, then that’s what we need: a refined empathy that sublimates mob mentality.

Epic Theater may be the art that we need during these divided troubled times; DuVernay is the one we deserve when everything else has failed.


Brett Fujioka writes from Japan and can be reached at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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