Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Class, Race, and Privilege in the 'Central Park Jogger' Story

This essay is written with nothing but the deepest respect of Trisha Meili's story and her compassion to share herself with the world and aid those in despair. In the tangled web of examining privilege that comes with race and class, and scrutinizing the judicial system, difficult questions arise about the background of the survivor and the wrongly convicted. Looking at how privilege impacts the crime and conviction is not a strike against Meili. It's an attempt to take a cold, hard look at the judicial system.

In 2004, I read I Am the Central Park Jogger, a best-selling memoir about the healing road to recovery of Trisha Meili, a Wall Street Investment Banker who in 1989, was brutally raped and beaten in Central Park. The story lit up the nation in outrage.

Her book, released fourteen years after her attack, focuses on the neurological and spiritual healing of the violent crime that nearly took her life. Now a motivational speaker, Trisha Meili has been recognized as a leader and advocate for brain trauma, sexual assault, and survivor rights.

I remember reading it in graduate school. Counseling sexual assault survivors, doing group work, and individual therapy peaked my interest in her memoir. I remember telling a friend, "There's no criticism after reading a memoir of survival. What am I going to focus on -- how the writing wasn't that sophisticated or the strength of coming out to share her story or rape and recovery after she nearly died? Some stories are not about the writing, it's about the lives underneath it."

As is with sexual assault, there's always more to the story.

One thing I know about sexual assault is that the judicial system often deepens the wrongs and violence of the crime. Usually, it's implicating the survivor. The system is often a jungle, an impassable jungle of victim-blaming, terrorizing, disbelief, and sexism from the moment a womyn admits she has been sexually violated.

The story of Trisha Meili is different.

The truth is that a convicted rapist and murder, Matias Reyes, would eventually confess that he alone had raped, tortured and beaten Trisha Meili. That truth would not surface, though, for thirteen years after the attack and not until five other Black and Latino young men, known as the Central Park 5, would be wrongfully interrogated and convicted for the crime.

Now, Raymond Santana, Khary Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson and Yusuf Salaam, are still seeking damages for wrongful convictions and time served, ranging from 6 years to 14 years by different members of the Central Park 5.

While this story bears no surprise to anyone familiar with the judicial system, the lives of all of those involved have a horrendous twist of irony.

Trisha Meili, the strong survivor of this terrible and unthinkable crime, has no memory of that night. The brain trauma suffered rendered her memory blank. She does not even remember going out for the run that night. Her story and pain left me speechless, but I also know that the story of Trisha Meili is not the usual case of rape.

The majority of rapes are perpetrated by known acquaintances, friends, and partners. The majority of rapes are not reported, go to trial or have a named, guilty rapist sentenced. The majority of sexual assault survivors do not have the privilege of attending ivy league schools or working at prestigious Wall Street banks. Yet most speakers who circulate public speeches about rape are White women. After working at *University and being in the field for a while, I've observed that most paid speakers who openly share their lives, are White women and are accepted as the face of strength, resilience, and courage. They are some of the faces of strength, but most women, particularly women of color and women of low-income do not have the freedom, ability, or support to seek services, publicly speak, or even share their story of sexual violation.

I am speechless once again, this time for the five young men, teenagers back then, who were guilty of many crimes, but not the rape and beating of Trisha Meili. The unthinkable waste of 20 years, a lifetime, for them and their families...are there any words?

How do race and class factor into this horrible crime? This White, Yale grad has been able to miraculously recover and inspire others after a barbaric shredding of her body and humanity. These men of color, tortured in a completely different way, and forced to admit a crime they never committed, endured an injustice that stole their lives and families for two decades. And now, the city is "dragging its feet" when responding to the request to compensate $50 million each to the wrongly convicted and their families.

In the background, New York City, the city of dreams, and of horror. The place of reality which illustrates that racial division and class differences still don't mix well in the law.

The Central Park 5. Some stories are not about the writing, but about the lives underneath it. I wonder if these young men will have best-selling memoirs.

1 comment:

  1. this is an all too common story on many levels. check out the Innocence Project--story after story of decades of sentences served for wrongful convictions. some even killed. its a nightmare i could never fully imagine. i also witness white women being selected as speakers in my community. i am a woman of color who runs in the same circles yet no one thinks to ask me to speak about my own challenges or successes. when i actually got an award from my alma mater--all i heard was--they probably gave it to you because you are a woman of color. in a sea of white folks who were being recognized--i stood out. i deserved that award. and even if i stood out because im brown and it swayed their desire to be more diverse...its about damn time. paz.


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