This past week, two teenagers were charged in the murder case of 18-year-old Barnard student Tessa Majors, who was stabbed and eventually bled to death this past December in an NYC park.
14-year-old Rashaun Weaver and his unnamed 13-year-old classmate were arrested after the 13-year-old implicated himself and later named Weaver as an accomplice. According to the New York Times, DNA from Majors’ fingernail clippings matches the DNA of Weaver. They also believe they have video footage in which they recognized Weaver. It’s unclear what evidence they have against the 13-year-old other than his own admission.
It’s hard not to draw parallels between this murder case and the Central Park jogger case from the 90s.
The Central Park Five was a highly-publicized case where five black teens were accused of gang-raping a white jogger in 1989. In both cases, a young woman was brutally attacked in a public park and received the widespread coverage reserved for attractive white victims. In both cases, the suspects were extremely young black teens accused of committing shockingly violent crimes, apparently unprovoked.
The location of both attacks is also significant. They occurred in sections of the park that have been neglected by the city and have negative public perceptions with racial undertones. For decades, there has been a perception that Morningside Park is a dangerous space, both because of actual crimes committed there and because of the racist assumption that the parts near predominantly black areas are more dangerous. This parallels the fears around the northern side of Central Park where the jogger was found.
Much of the coverage right after Majors was killed talks about how Morningside Park is a dangerous enclave in an otherwise “safe” city. Nevermind that this “safety” comes from pushing minorities out of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and making black and brown youths targets for suspicion. Both Sarah Burn’s documentary and Ava Duverney’s When They See Us chronicle the way media coverage around the Central Park jogger sparked widespread panic over gangs of “wilding” minorities, which eventually helped fuel the stop and frisk policy that disproportionately targeted black and brown teens. New safety efforts around the park could lead to increased police surveillance on black residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the park, who are already being watched for the sake of the privileged students who deign to venture there.
The Central Park Five were exonerated 15 years later but it remains an open wound for minorities in New York who still face a criminal system rigged against them.
In this case, prosecutors are making a big show of being objective by publically laying out evidence and waiting two months to make any arrests. This is likely because the main issue with the Central Park Five was that the police railroaded the boys into false confessions.
At the time, there was more pressure to quickly punish a suspect than to do actual detective work. Similarly, the police quickly released a Weaver’s name and a photo of a potential suspect, a clear move to show they are on top of the situation. However, it seems they are trying to avoid the perception of robbing young suspects of their youth and explicitly explained why Weaver qualified to be charged as an adult.
Another case of a privileged white woman getting attacked by a group of baby-faced black teens will test whether or not we have learned our lessons about power, privilege, and generalizations. Tessa Majors’ tragic death deserves justice. But this time, justice cannot mean trampling over the rights of the accused and racist policing policies designed to only benefit privileged New Yorkers.