Central Park Five Syllabus: A Supplementary Reading List 

Zhandarka Kurti and Odilka Santiago 

As NYC-born and raised educators, organizers and activists who work on issues relating to race, class, criminalization and youth justice, we were deeply touched by the Netflix series When They See Us, directed by Ava DuVernay. Based on the case of the Central Park Five*, a group of black and Latinx teenagers who were coerced into confession, wrongly convicted and harshly sentenced to prison for the alleged rape of a white woman, this series captures the socio-political and economic atmosphere of New York City in the eighties and nineties. 

In 1989, New York City was in a whirlwind of changes. Its recovery from the fiscal crisis of the 1970s depended on two interrelated transformations: the rise of the financial sector and austerity as a tool wielded by city elites against the working-class poor, the majority of whom were people of color. These changes were set against many others: the deindustrialization of the city and its transformation to low-wage service sector work, the rising rates of homelessness and the crack epidemic that criminalized communities of color. The city was on edge. With the news of the rape and brutal beating of a white woman in Central Park, all hell broke loose. While that year the number of reported rapes climbed, including the heartbreaking case involving a black working-class woman, the media decided to focus on this particular case. After all, the 28-year-old white jogger was no ordinary victim: she was also an investment banker. To make matters worse, the media reported that black and brown teenagers were involved, and the racial fears of crime and victimization took on a life of their own. The case of the Central Park Five was used to legitimize the role of police and the state in criminalizing poverty, with devastating consequences for not only these five young men but for all working-class youth of color and their families. 

New York City and the nation watched as the news about the Central Park Five unfolded. The state’s response to the case set important precedents for how the NYPD would target youth of color in later decades. Terms like “wildin” sparked terror and fear in the minds of city residents. The media called Black and brown teenagers “wolf packs,” “savages” and “monsters,” while the white woman who was raped was called “prey,” reproducing the discourse of the dangerous poor urban ghetto and sexually deviant men of color. Donald Trump, on his quest to turn New York City into a mecca for the super-rich, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, demanding the return of the death penalty to NYC. With around-the-clock mainstream media coverage, the NYPD felt pressure to quickly “solve” the case and show the public that they played a legitimate role in a time of protest. These factors contributed to the prosecution of ethno-racially and economically marginalized young men of color. As a consequence, the 5 young men spent between 6 and 13 years behind bars. 

The Netflix series touches on themes relating to race, class, gender, criminalization of youth and media moral panics, which we want to help students further unpack. The readings in this syllabus are meant to supplement the documentary series and allow students to engage critically with the historical and contemporary criminalization of working-class youth of color. We hope that youth educators will add to this syllabus and continue these important conversations inside and outside of the classroom. It is through expanding our knowledge about the past and present that we can organize against the criminalization and incarceration of our youth. Please use #exonerated5syllabus or #WhenTheySeeUsSyllabus to share. 

*We want to acknowledge that while these five men were exonerated, being recognized as the Central Park Five has placed a huge stigma on them.  Yet, we are also aware that many people, including supporters of the exonerated five know the case as such and changing the title of our reading list would cause some confusion. We decided to keep the title “Central Park Five Syllabus” because we wanted to highlight the media’s role in shaping the narrative of the case and fueling the criminalization of working-class youth of color, which reaches far beyond the lives of these five men. For all these reasons, we decided to keep the title and include the hashtag #exoneratedfivesyllabus or #whentheyseeussyllabus in the hope that educators and youth advocates will use it when referencing this syllabus.

Sexualization of Black Men and the Myth of the Black Rapist

Wells, Ida B. 1893. “Lynch Law.” (Speech)

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1970. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Edited by Duster, Alfreda M. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reston, James. 1975. “Joan Little Case.” New York Times.

Bond, Julian. 1975. “Self-Defense Against Rape: The Joan Little Case,” The Black Scholar (6) 6, The Black Woman, pp. 29-31.

Edwards. Alison. 1979. “Rape, Racism and the White Women’s Movement.” Sojourner Truth Organization.  

Davis, Angela.1983.“Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Rapist” in Women, Race and Class. Vintage Books.

Davis. Angela. 1981. “Rape, Racism and the Capitalist Setting,” Black Scholar 12(6) The Best of the Black Scholar: The Black Woman (November/December 1981), pp. 39-45.

Curry, Tommy J. 2019. The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood. Temple University Press. 

Film: D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” 

Moral Panics: Media and Construction of Youth Crime

Cohen, Stanley. 1972. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The creation of the mods and rockers. London: MacGibbon & Kee Ltd. 

Hall, Stuart. 1978. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. Palgrave.  

Hall, Stuart. 1997. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Sage Publishing.

Cohen, Stanley and Jock Young. 1981. The Manufacture of News: Deviance, Social Problems and the Mass Media. Constable. 

Zatz, Marjorie S.1987. “Chicago Youth Gangs and Crime: The creation of moral panic.” Contemporary Crisis, 11, pp. 129-158.

Miller, Jerry. 1996. Search and Destroy: African American males in the criminal justice system. Cambridge University Press.

Welch, Michael, Erica A. Price and Nana Yankey. 2002. “Moral Panic Over Youth Crime: Wildin and the Manufacture of Menace in the Media” in Youth and Society 34(1) (September) pp. 3-30.                                                    

Surette, Ray. 1998. Media, Crime & Criminal Justice: Images and realities. Brooks/Cole. 

Welch, Michael, Eric Price and Nana Yankey. 2004. “Youth Violence and Race in the Media: The emergence of wilding as an invention of the press. Race, Gender, & Class, 11(2).

Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. 2009. Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. 2nd Edition. Wiley-Blackwell.

Film: Ken Burns documentary on The Central Park Five. 

Media Coverage of Wildin’ and the Central Park Five Case 

Wolff, Craig. 1989, October 6. “Youth in Central Park Rampage to Aid Prosecutors.” The New York Times, p. 3.

Editorial. 1989. “Understanding and Punishing Teenage Violence in Park Attack.” The New York Times.

Newfield, Jack. 1989, May 1. “The slow, bloody death of New York City.” Daily News, p. 12. 

1990, November 21. “N.Y.-style ‘wilding’ death in Boston.”  New York Post, p. 16. 

Pearl, Mike and E. Pessin. 1989a, October 6. “Wolfpacker to testify in park rape.” New York Post, p. 5.

Siefman, David 1989, April 25 “Koch Calls Them ‘Monsters.’ Mayor Brands Attack One of the Worst Ever.” New York Post pp. 24-25. 

Barth, Ilene. 1989, April 30. “‘Punch-out’: Brutal Fun for Brownsville teens.” New York Newsday, p. 8.

Derber, Charles. 1996. The Wilding of America: How Greed and Violence Are Eroding Our Nation’s Character. New York: St. Martin’s. 

Marzulli, John. 1989, April 22. “Going “Wilding” in the Streets” Daily News, p. 3. 

Furse, Jane  1996, May 24. “Central Park: Notorious Acts Haunt Peaceful City Haven” New York Daily News, p. 2. 

Lipson, Karin. 1992, January 8. “It’s Open Season—For Wolf Packs” New York Newsday, p. 40.

Lukas, Anthony J. 1989, May 28. “Wilding—As American as Tom Sawyer. The New York Times, pp. 4, 15. 

Bunder, Leonard. 1990, January 31. “A Panel Hears Tales of Fears and ‘Wilding.’” The New York Times, p. B3.

Historical Criminalization of Black and Brown Youth

Norris, Clarence and Sybil D. Washington. 1978. The Last of the Scottsboro Boys: An AutobiographyPutnam

Henry Giroux. 2010. Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability. Palgrave: Macmillan.

Khalil Muhammed. 2011. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Urban America. Harvard University Press.

Michelle Alexander. 2012. New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness. The New Press. 

Tyson, Timothy. 2017. The Blood of Emmett Till Simon and Schuster.

James Forman Jr. 2018. Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

NPR. “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many.”

Race, Class, Gender and The History of the Juvenile Justice System  

Platt, Tony. 2009. The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency. Rutgers University Press. 

Ward, Geoff. 2012. Black Child Savers: Racial Democracy and Juvenile Justice. University of Chicago Press. 

Humes, Edward. 2015. No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court. Simon and Schuster. 

Cox, Alexandra. 2015. “Fresh Air Funds and Functional Families: The Enduring Politics of Race, Family and Place in Juvenile Justice Reform.” Theoretical Criminology. 19 (4), 554-570

Drinan, Cara. 2017. The War on Kids: How American Juvenile Justice Lost Its Way. Oxford University Press. 

Neoliberalism, the Criminalization of Poverty and Construction of Dangerous Youth (in the US and Globally) 

Wacquant Loïc. 2002. “Deadly Symbiosis,” Boston Review

Wacquant Loïc. 2008. Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Wacquant, Loïc. 2009. Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity. Duke University Press. 

Rios. Victor. 2011. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.NYU Press. 

Gönen, Zeynep. 2013. “Giuliani in Izmir: Restructuring of the Izmir Public Order Police and the Criminalization of the Urban Poor,” Critical Criminology, 21:1 pp. 87-101. 

Fassin, Didier. 2013 Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing. Polity. 

Goffman, Alice.2015 On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City.Picador.

Gönen, Zeynep . 2016. The Politics of Crime in Turkey: Neoliberalism, Police and the Urban Poor, I.B. Tauris.

Kurti, Zhandarka. 2018. “Second Chances in the Era of the Jobless Future,” Brooklyn Rail.

Myth of Super-Predators: Criminalization and Tough-On-Crime        

Zimring, Franklin E. 1981. The Changing Legal World of Adolescence. New York: Free Press    

DiIulio, John. 1995, November 27. “The Coming of the Super-Predators.” Weekly Standard.

Estrich, Susan. 1996, August 8. “Violent Kids Can’t be Reformed.” USA Today, A14.      

Zimring, Franklin. 1996, August 19. “Crying Wolf over Teen Demons.” Los Angeles Times

Hilary Clinton. 1996. Superpredators Clip, Keene State University Speech, CSPAN. 

Zimring, Franklin. 1998. American Youth Violence.New York: Oxford University Press. 

Criminalization in Schools and/or the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Ferguson, Ann Arnett. 2001. Bad Boys: Public School in the Making of Black Masculinity.University of Michigan Press. 

Nolan, Kathleen. 2011. Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School.University of Minnesota Press. 

Schept, Judah, Tyler Wall and Avi Brisman. 2015. “Building, Staffing, and Insulating: An Architecture of Criminological Complicity in the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict, and World Order, 41(4): 96-115. 

Rios, Victor and James Diego Vigil. 2018. Human Targets: Schools, Police and the Criminalization of Latino Youth.University of Chicago Press. 

Morris, Monique. 2018. Pushed Out: Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. The New Press.

Policing Working-Class Youth of Color 

McArdle, Andrea and Tanya Erzen. 2001. Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Police Brutality in New York City.NYU Press. 

Vitale, Alex. 2008. City of Disorder: How Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York City Politics. NYU Press. 

Gonnerman, Jennifer. 2015. “Kalief Browder 1993-2015,” The New Yorker. 

Feld, Barry C. 2006. “Police Interrogation of Juveniles: An Empirical Study of Policy and Practice,” 97 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 219.

Leo, Richard. 2009. Police Interrogation and American Justice. Harvard University Press. 

Medina, Tony. 2017. I am Alfonso Jones. Tu Books. 

Wang, Jackie. 2018. Carceral Capitalism. Semiotext(e).

Correia, David and Tyler Wall. 2018. Police: A Field Guide. Verso Books. 

Vitale, Alex. 2018. End of Policing. Verso Books. 

Stop and Frisk / Broken Windows Policing

Kelling, George. 1981.  The Newark Foot Parole. Washington DC: Police Foundation

Skogan, Wesley G. 1990. Disorder and Decline: Crime and the Spiral of Decay in American Neighborhoods. Free Press. 

Wilson, James Q. and George W. Kelling. 1982. “Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety.” Atlantic Monthly Journal

New York City Police Department. 1994. “Police Strategy No. 5: Reclaiming the Public Spaces of NewYork,” NCJRS.

Roth, Jeffrey A. and Mark H. Moore. 1995. “Reducing Violent Crimes and Intentional Injuries.” Series: NIJ Research in Action.

Kelling, George and Catherine Coles. 1996. Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. The Free Press.

Giuliani, Rudolph W.  1998, February 24. “The Next Phase of Quality of Life: Creating a More Civil City.”

Taylor, Ralph B. 2001. Breaking away from broken windows: Baltimore neighborhoods and the nationwide fight against crime, grime, fear, and decline. Perseus: Crime and Society Series

Kelling, George and William Sousa. 2001. “Do Police Matter? An Analysis of the Impact of New York City’s Police Reforms,” Civic Report, Manhattan Institute.

Harcourt, Bernard. 2001. Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows. Harvard University Press. 

Garvey, Megan. 2002 “Graffiti as Key to Reducing Crime,” LA Times, Metro l. 

Corman, Hope and Naci Mocan. 2005 “Carrots, Sticks, And Broken Windows,” Journal of Law and Economics. The University of Chicago Bloch, Matthew, Ford Fessenden and Janet Roberts. 2010. “Stop, Question and Frisk in New York Neighborhoods.” NY Times.

Harcourt, Bernard and Jens Ludwig. 2006. “Broken Windows: New Evidence from New York City and a Five City Social Experiment.” The University of Chicago Law Review.

Steven, John Paul. 2011. “Our ‘Broken System’ of Criminal Justice.” The New York Review of Books.

Contemporary Policing Practices: Technology and Surveillance 

Popper, Ben.  2014. “How the NYPD is Using Social Media to put Harlem Teens behind Bars,” The Verge. Vox Media.       

Stroud, Matt. 2014, February 19. “The minority report: Chicago’s new police computer predicts crimes, but is it racist?Chicago Tribune.

Wall, Tyler and Travis Linnemann. 2014. “Staring Down the State:  Police Power, Visual Economies, and the ‘War on Cameras.’” Crime, Media, Culture, 10: 133-149.  

Brown, Simone. 2015. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Duke University Press. 

Rigakos, George. 2016. Security/Capital: A General Theory of Pacification. Edinburgh University Press. 

Wall, Tyler, Parastou Saberi and Will Jackson. 2017. Destroy, Build, Secure: Readings on Pacification. Red Quill Books. 

Lane, Jeffrey. 2018. The Digital Street. Oxford University Press. 

McQuade, Brendan. 2019. Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision. University of California Press. 

Criminal Courts

Mauer, Marc. 2006. Race to Incarcerate. The Sentencing Project. The New Press. 

Alexander, Michelle. 2012. “Chapter 3: The Color of Justice” in New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness. The New Press.

Van Cleve, Nicole Gonzales. 2017. Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court. Stanford Law Books.

Kohler-Hausmann, Issa. 2018. Misdemeanorland: Criminal Courts and Social Control in the Age of Broken Windows Policing. Princeton University Press. 

Natapoff, Alexandra. 2018. Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal. Basic Books

Youth Experiences with Incarceration

Liebelson, Dana. 2015. “This is what happens when we lock up children in solitary confinement.” Mother Jones 

Bernstein, Nell. 2016. Burning Down the House: The End of the Juvenile Prison. The New Press. 

Cox, Alexandra. 2018. Trapped in Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People. Rutgers University Press. 

Stanford, Aunray. 2018. “The Cycle,” Medium. NYU Prison Education Program.

Kurti, Zhandarka. 2018. “Building a Kinder Justice System: Interview with Alexandra Cox.” Abolition Blog 

Taylor, Elizabeth Eldridge. 2018. “Rikers Doesn’t Put Teens in Solitary: Other New York Jails Do.” Marshall Project. 

Chang, Natalie. “This is Solitary.” The Atlantic. 

Film: Time: The Kalief Browder Story (Documentary Series).

Contemporary Social Movements against Police Brutality, Racist Policing Practices

Williams, Kristian. 2004. Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America. Soft Skull Press

Endnotes Collective. 2015.  “Brown vs Ferguson.” 

McQuade, Brendan. 2015. “Non Profits and the Pacification of the Black Lives Matter Movement.” Counterpunch.

Camp, Jordan and Christiana Heatherton. 2016. Policing the Planet. New York: Verso.

Méndez, Xhercis. 2016. “Which Black Lives Matter? Gender, State-Sanctioned Violence, and ‘My Brother’s Keeper,’” in Radical History Review, Issue 129 (October).

Yamahtta-Taylor, Keeanga. 2016.  From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.Haymarket Books.

Johnson, Cedric. 2017. “The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now.” Catalyst 1(1).

Stampler, Laura. 2014, August 11. “Twitter Users Ask What Photo Media Would Use #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.” Time

Lee, Latoya. 2017. “Black Twitter: A Response to Bias in Mainstream Media.” Social Sciences 6(1) 

Correa, David and Tyler Wall. 2018. Police: A Field Guide. Verso Books. 

Vitale, Alex 2018. End of Policing. Verso Books. 

Restorative, Transformative Justice and Abolition 

Davis, Angela. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press

Critical Resistance. 2008. “Abolition Now: Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex.”  

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2009. “In the Shadow of the Shadow State” The Revolution Will Not Be Funded Incite: Women of Color Against Violence South End Press.

Berger, Dan, Mariame Kaba and David Stein. 2017. “What Abolitionists Do” Jacobin.

Brown, Michelle and Judah Schept. 2017. “New Abolition, Criminology and a Critical Carceral Studies,” Punishment & Society, 19(4): 440-462.

Ritchie, Andrea and Angela Davis. 2017. Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color Beacon Press.

Wadwha, Anita. 2017. Restorative Justice in Public Schools. Routledge. 

Duda, John. 2017 “Towards The Horizon of Abolition: A Conversation with Mariame Kaba” The Next Systems Project.

Shanahan, Jarrod and Jack Norton 2017 “A Jail to End All Jails” Urban Omnibus

Bowman, Scott. 2018. “The Kids Are Alright: Making a Case for the Abolition of the Juvenile Justice System” Critical Criminology 26:3 pp. 392-405.

Petitjean Clément. 2018. “Prisons and Class Warfare: An Interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore” Verso Books Blog.

Kurti, Zhandarka and William G. Martin. 2018. “Cuomo’s Carceral Humanism.” Jacobin. 

Survived and Punished 2019. “Criminalizing Survival Curricula.”

Kaba, Mariame 2019. “Transform Harm: Curriculum and Teaching Lessons”

Mingus, Mia. 2019. “Transformative Justice: A Brief Description.” 

Kaba, Mariame and Victoria Law. 2019. “Transformative Justice in the Era of Mass Incarceration.” Center for Constitutional Rights, Podcast Interview.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson and James Kilgore. 2019. “The Case for Abolition” Marshall Project.

Platt, Tony 2019. Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States. St. Martin’s Press.


Zhandarka Kurti was raised in the Bronx , NYC and is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Odilka S. Santiago is from Harlem, NYC and is currently a PhD candidate in Sociology at SUNY Binghamton University. 

1 thought on “Central Park Five Syllabus: A Supplementary Reading List 

  1. Thank you for including The Man-Not on the central park five syllabus. I would be remiss if I did not also point out that Joy James’s article “Searching for a Tradition: African-American Women Writers, Activists, and Interracial Rape Cases” is also important to how we think about the criminalization and disciplinary erasure of Black males accused of rape as well as Black feminist political stances on these issues.

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