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Unanswered Cries

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“Ashanna and I entered Central Park,” says Josina Lawrence, 21, of Somerset, N.J. “There were police everywhere. We walked around for a while. We were getting ready to leave when someone approached us. I turned around and someone was shooting me with a water gun. That was the last time I would see Ashanna for a few minutes. A large crowd of people started coming towards me, grabbing my shorts, trying to undo the tie on my shirt. I was completely exposed. They were grabbing my breasts. They were shoving their hands inside my underwear. They called me ‘bitch.’ I started shoving my way out. I just looked around for police. I couldn’t leave my best friend. So I went back into the crowd. I was calling, ‘Shay! Shay!’ She’s not answering. Then this guy starts pushing the crowd back, saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ Ashanna has her face in her hands. She’s like crying and crying. Her [bra] strap was ripped. There are people still talking to us: ‘Shake it off, shake it off. It’s not that bad.”

But the situation was bad—and quickly getting worse. For more than a half hour on the evening of June 11, as New York City’s annual Puerto Rican Day parade was winding down, scores of women between the ages of 14 and 40 became the targets of an out-of-control crowd of young men in an open and usually safe area of Central Park. Seized by a pack mentality in some instances exacerbated by alcohol or marijuana, this “malicious mob,” as Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Leemie Kahng calls the perpetrators, groped, robbed, humiliated and altogether terrified scores of women, most of them local residents, some of them U.S. or foreign tourists.

“I could feel hands all over my body,” says Lawrence’s friend Ashanna Cover, 21. “They ripped the crotch to my panties. I could feel their fingers trying to penetrate me. I felt really dirty. I was kicking and screaming and crying. They called me names like ‘whore’ and ‘slut.’ Even when I got off the ground, some guy smacked my bottom.”

The assaults were incendiary enough in a city that still remembers vividly its first infamous Central Park “wilding,” the 1989 gang-rape attack on a jogger. But the temperature went off the charts after several victims charged that when they turned for help to some of the 4,000 police officers deployed along the parade route—950 of them inside the park—they hit a blue wall of indifference. The cops, they claimed, ignored their pleas for help.

“We saw the first police officer outside the park,” says Lawrence. “I explained to him everything that happened to us. I was hysterical. He cut me off and asked me to calm down. He kept repeating that he was directing traffic and could not leave. We approached a second officer, but he didn’t have a radio. He said he couldn’t leave his post because he would get in trouble.”

In fact, the women might have been unable to press their grievances were it not for parade spectators who turned their video cameras on the mayhem, producing at least 10 tapes. When footage was released to the media, the violent images “horrified not only the city but the whole world,” says Kahng.

Certainly they angered and embarrassed New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Just as the city seemed to be regaining its equilibrium following a series of racially charged police incidents, here was yet another crisis. At first, Giuliani, who has faced accusations of giving cops too free a hand in pacifying a city that once had an exaggerated reputation for violence, cited comforting statistics about New York, where violent crime has indeed fallen significantly. Then he turned to urging the public to blame the park assaults on the perpetrators, not the police. “I am outraged by the activities of the males who were involved in it,” he said. “I think the police response was not the issue.”

Lawrence and Cover, who share an apartment in Somerset and had never before been to Central Park, think otherwise. A few days after the parade, their attorney Sanford Rubenstein announced that each woman would file a $5 million lawsuit against the city. Both, says Rubenstein, are under the care of a psychologist and a physician.

Meanwhile, amateur videotapes have helped police identify 38 suspects. By June 20, 20 men had been arrested. Some had turned themselves in after seeing their photos on TV or in local newspapers, though many protested their innocence. Most were charged with sexual abuse and rioting. On June 15, police arrested the man they regard as the ringleader of the assaults, Manuel Vargas, 18, who, according to a spokesman for the D.A.’s office, “is seen all over the tapes touching and grabbing at various women.” At Vargas’s arraignment, Kahng said that prior to his arrest the Bronx high school dropout had been planning to flee to the Dominican Republic.

Police are offering $12,000 for information leading to convictions, and Police Commissioner Howard Safir says he has launched an internal investigation of accusations against his officers. “If we find incidents of nonresponse, officers will be disciplined,” he pledges. But he dismisses suggestions that to avert further racial and ethnic conflict, police—under fire for bias since the 1997 torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima and the 1999 fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo of Guinea—were encouraged to turn a blind eye during the parade to alcohol and drug consumption and other illegal behavior.

Counters attorney Joseph Tacopina, representing three of the officers under investigation: “These cops were told in no uncertain terms, ‘Hands off.’ The last thing the city and the politicians can afford is a picture in the papers of white cops manhandling minorities.”

The choice of victims in the assaults seems at least to have been bias-free. Says Peter Duhamel, 53, a former assistant U.S. attorney who jogged through the park during the parade: “The attacks themselves were not racially related; all races were involved.” In fact, the ordeal described by Web-site executive Anne Peyton Bryant, 29, who is white, sounds much like those of Lawrence and Cover, who are black.

“I was trying to [Rollerblade] away, and they were yanking at my shorts….They could see my bare butt. I told an officer I was thrown on my back and dragged, and he did nothing. I got to the precinct, and they blew me off there too.”

Like Lawrence and Cover, she plans to file suit. “It’s not about money,” says Bryant, who intends to apply any damages she might receive toward education programs aimed at making police officers more responsive to women. She doubts the planned investigation of police behavior will have much if any effect. “They only want to fix the symptoms,” she says. “Don’t fire one man. Fix the system.”

Jill Smolowe

Jennifer Longley, Alexander Drexler and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City