The Central Park Rampage 

How you look at things.
June 22 2000 3:00 AM

The Central Park Rampage 

On June 11, roving bands of boys and young men allegedly doused, stripped, and molested more than 50 women in New York's Central Park. The assaults took place during and after the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. The London Sunday Times called the alleged assailants "60 rampaging black and Hispanic men and boys." Virtually no other publication or public figure pointed out the ethnicity of the alleged culprits. Previous high-profile New York crime stories, such as the 1989 Central Park jogger rape, the Amadou Diallo shooting, and the Abner Louima assault, have escalated into racial and ideological conflicts. This one hasn't. Why not?

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The answer is encouraging. In previous showdowns, public figures on the left who blamed the cops rather than the suspects claimed to be standing up for disadvantaged groups against oppression. Public figures on the right who blamed the suspects and defended the police claimed to be standing up for law and order. Each side accused the other of using its professed principle as a front for racism. The Central Park rampage has shaken up this alignment. This time, black and Latino suspects reportedly targeted another ostensibly disadvantaged group—women—and some cops, having failed to confront the chaos, reportedly invoked race as an excuse. In view of this, liberals had to decide whether to focus on race or on oppression, while conservatives had to decide whether to focus on race or on law and order. Each side passed the test.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

A few people have tried to convert the rampage into a racial conflict. The mother of one suspect described her son to the New York Daily News: "He's big and he's black. That's why they arrested him. He should sue everybody, starting with New York's Finest. … The cops were the ones that [were] wrong." But black and Latino community leaders aren't buying the racial solidarity line. They're calling the alleged perpetrators "hoodlums," "lowlifes," "thugs," a "wolf pack," and a stain on the community. And they're urging their constituents to help the cops identify and round up the culprits.

Feminists have drawn up a story line framed by gender rather than race or class. In press conferences, speeches, and letters to the New York Times, female politicians and NOW activists have called the attacks "gender-based hate crimes" that require renewal of the Violence Against Women Act and expansion of federal hate crimes legislation to include gender as well as race. "What would we be saying if the same attacks had occurred on blacks or members of another minority group?" asked one letter-writer. Latino and black politicians are embracing this analysis. Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer has called the Central Park episode "dehumanizing" and "a hate crime." Other Latino leaders have called it "flagrant sexual harassment." City Councilman Bill Perkins of Harlem says it reflects a sickness in male attitudes. Even the Rev. Al Sharpton, infamous for igniting racial conflicts in the past, has held rallies and press conferences not to defend the suspects but to denounce their "misogynist" behavior and the "young men" who condone it.

On the other side, some police officers and conservatives have invoked race and political correctness as an excuse for their colleagues' failure to intervene in the assaults. "During the St. Patrick's Day Parade, there's a real big crackdown on alcohol," one cop told the Daily News. "That doesn't go on during the Puerto Rican or West Indian parades unless it's extremely, extremely obvious." During a similar episode in Harlem the night before the parade, an officer allegedly shrugged off a sexual assault complaint from a Latino woman, saying, "My family … wouldn't come to this event." Pat Buchanan showed up in New York to blame the inaction of officers in Central Park on "liberal cop-bashing" during the Diallo trial. The Wall Street Journal editorial page suggested that the cops had reason to be "tentative," because "[t]he Puerto Rican parade is one of the city's most politically correct events."

New Yorkers who have defended the police in previous altercations, however, aren't buying any race-oriented excuses this time. Former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton wrote an op-ed in the Times criticizing the cops' inadequate crowd control. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had initially defended the police and directed all blame toward the assailants, soon backed down, met with many of the victims, and called their experiences "horrendous." Current Police Commissioner Howard Safir was obliged to make clear that his department's executives had established "no special parameters for the Puerto Rican Day Parade" and that he would fire any officer who had ignored a victim's complaint.

Each side may end up learning something from the other. New York's Republican governor, George Pataki, says he'll propose legislation to make gang sexual assault a felony with a maximum jail sentence seven times as long as the one-year maximum currently allowed for simple sexual assault. And Sharpton now mixes his message about the police: "They can shoot unarmed people 41 times. But they can't protect women in Central Park." Maybe Sharpton is a grudging hypocrite, and maybe Pataki is a Johnny-come-lately. Maybe liberals are embracing criminal justice and conservatives are embracing social justice because they've all got their fingers in the wind. If so, it's a welcome wind.