What's race got to do with it?

Some men behaved badly in Central Park, but others tried to help the women under attack -- and they were black and Latino, too.

By Kathy Dobie

Published June 27, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Who knows what I would've done?" young men say, their faces clouding over.

By now, everyone knows the story: Right after the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York, dozens of men attacked dozens of women, corralling them one at a time and throwing water on them, pulling their shirts and sometimes their bras and pants off and pushing some onto the ground. Some of the men filmed the attacks, providing all the evidence needed for their own arrests.

The men had come from Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and New Jersey. They were Latino and African-American. They had come with their video cameras to film some girl flesh. They had come to have a good time.

"I'm glad I wasn't there," says a Palestinian-American in my neighborhood, a twentysomething guy who works hard but likes to party, who could've been there if he hadn't had to work.

He seemed anxious about how he would have behaved and even more afraid that he would've done nothing wrong but gotten swept up in the arrests anyway, melding fear of the police and fear of his own nature.

Some observers saw the Central Park attack as abuse directed against women. But for others it was also about being a young, nonwhite male in this city, always judged guilty in some profound way. Thus the question "Who knows what I would've done if I was there?" contains a deep anxiety: Am I a good man? Can I be?

In an editorial in the New York Daily News, Anne Roiphe wrote that the young men who attacked the women were not on "their own familiar turf but in the heart of a cold stranger, America the successful."

She went on: "They roved across midtown Manhattan past exclusive clubs and fancy restaurants and co-op apartments that are not within their budget, and somewhere anger joined the mix of emotions that fueled the terrible hour."

Roiphe is not alone in arguing that the men were moved by deprivation, men on the bottom trying to feel like they were on top of somebody. But that argument assumes we are one, very white world and these young, mostly Puerto Rican and black men from the boroughs are enraged by their inability to enter that world.

Well, it's not one world, and the white monied class might bore many of these young men to death.

You can only be envious of what you desire. And 20-year-olds look up to glamour -- hip-hop artists and basketball stars, record execs, actors, comedians and all those who have made big money and won adulation by seemingly having fun or doing something it seems we could all do if we only tried hard enough, like making music or throwing a ball. Above all else, the young want recognition and a chance for self-expression: Money without those things, quiet money, has no shine.

On the videos, it's obvious these men felt perfectly at home. Being on "familiar turf" in this case wasn't any more about your neighborhood than it is for middle-class white folks -- it was about looking around and seeing people who look like you. These guys with their video cameras, football jerseys, young strong bodies, tats and piercings, brown faces, high spirits and roused appetites recognized each other, an insta-tribe, made up not from turf but from taste and consumption: Who do you love? What do you buy?

Sometimes when a man rips a shirt off a woman, he's angry at women, not at class injustice. Sometimes when a man rips a shirt off a woman, grinning as she sobs, he's having a good time.

Why should we decide that young men who aren't white might think or feel differently than the rest of us or be any less involved in the daily battle between good and evil -- sometimes evil wins out, sometimes good.

Sometimes the explanation for cruelty is hard to live with but is as simple and clear as rain:

Why do you kick the fat boy?

Because you can.

But if the Central Park assailants were mainly black and Latino, so were the men who attempted to help the terrified women. There was a moment of compassion caught on camera that's as powerful as all the awful moments. When one woman stumbles from the crowd, weeping and trying to hide her bare breasts, three men come up to her, surrounding her but protectively. They make a wall of their backs. They bend low, concern on their faces, trying to talk to her. She's crying so hard, I don't think she hears them. One man tries to put something over her shoulders -- a towel, a shirt? Another of the men pulls his mesh jersey over his head and hands it to her to wear.

In that way, with their bodies and their clothes, they cover her nakedness. And with their concern, they pull her back into the human family.

Those three men looked like every other young man there, like the attackers: young, male and nonwhite. They had also come for some excitement. They were also in a crowd on a hot summer day.

It's just not true that, given the right conditions, every person will behave the same way. You can't say the men in the park behaved the way they did because they're left out of the American dream or overly influenced by MTV or the way girls behave on spring break or how President Clinton behaves year round or any number of reasons that have been bandied about.

Instead, imagine yourself there in the park that day and then ask what you would've done.

The girls were obviously afraid. They all were yelling or crying. There are men who look at a girl stripped and afraid and are exhilarated. And there are men who look at that same girl and more than anything else want to be able to rescue her.

There are people who have a strong sense of injustice and are inflamed by anything so obviously unfair, so simply cruel. And some of those people are men, young men, young black and Puerto Rican men who came to the parade that hot sunny Sunday to party.

) 2000 Pacific News Service

Kathy Dobie

Pacific News Service associate editor Kathy Dobie is a New York journalist whose work has appeared in Vogue, Village Voice, Vibe and Salon.

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