Anything you say can and will be used against you: The case of “wilding”
The Central Park Five have been back in the news recently, and this time it’s good news.
For those not familiar, the Central Park Five are a group of young men from Harlem who were charged with the rape and attempted murder of a female jogger that took place in Manhattan’s Central Park in 1989. In spite of conflicting stories and a lack of DNA evidence (the DNA found on the victim didn’t match any of the accused), the five juveniles were found guilty and each served sentences ranging from 5-15 years in correctional facilities. Recently, they won a settlement from the city of New York where they were each awarded roughly $1 million for every year of they were imprisoned, for a total of $40 million combined. Critical to their convictions were a series of taped confessions from four of the accused in which they admit to the crime. However, it has since been shown that the boys were coerced by police into giving these fabricated confessions, after being told by officers that they would be allowed to go home if they cooperated. Being young and afraid, they agreed and were subsequently charged, convicted and imprisoned. In 2002 Matias Reyes, a man serving time for unrelated crimes in the same facility as one of the young men, confessed to the crime and claimed to have acted alone. His DNA matched that which was found on the victim, and the Central Park Five finally had their sentences vacated, even though the majority of them had already served their time.
The crime occurred at a time racial tensions were at an all-time high in New York City, and it was no secret that while the central park jogger was a young white woman, the young men on trial were all men of color—four African American and one Latino. The media was not sympathetic in its portrayal of the accused, and they were repeatedly described using blatantly racist language and imagery. It was at this time that the term “wilding” first entered the public discourse. In a 1989 article the New York Times describes wilding as “the practice of marauding in bands to terrorize strangers and to swagger and bully.” Simply put, wilding meant carrying out violent assaults on strangers for no reason other than to have fun. Sarah Burns, author of The Central Park Five: Chronicle of a City Wilding argues that the term wilding was used by newspapers so many times that it became emblematic of the case itself. As for the origin of the word, several newspapers suggested it was the teenagers themselves who first used the term ‘wilding’ when questioned by police, as they boasted about the activities they had allegedly committed that night in Central Park. Chief of Detectives Robert Colangelo explained to reporters in 1989, “[Wilding is] not a term that we in the police had heard before… [The accused] just said, ‘We were going wilding.’ In my mind at this point, it implies that they were going to go raise hell.” New York City Mayor Ed Koch took it a step further, claiming that a police official told him that one of youths had said that wilding meant “let’s go and beat the hell out of somebody”.
Joel Best, author of Random Violence, points out that news media used the term wilding to transform the crime that occurred in Central Park from an isolated incident into an instance of a broader wilding epidemic. No doubt this generated readership for newspapers, as the general public struggled to make sense of a term that they likely hadn’t heard before, and a new crime they could potentially be a victim of. Several reporters took to the streets to find out what wilding meant in the communities from which it supposedly originated. In a 1989 essay for the Village Voice (also referenced by Language Log), Barry Michael Cooper writes:
The strange thing is, the kids I talked to uptown in El Barrio—kids who listen to the rap shows of DJ’s Red Alert and Marley Marl, the supreme arbiters of new-jack-speak—said there’s no such word as “wilding”. When I asked many of them about it, they laughed at me, looked at me like I was on the pipe. “Wilding?” one asked me with his eyebrow cocked. “I ain’t never heard of that. Sounds like a white-boy rock type of thing. Kareem from Tres Unidos said, “I’ve heard some people say, ‘Yo, I’m going to do the wild thing,” like the Tone-Loc song, which could mean a guy going to have sex with his girl, or just having a good time.”
A related theory on the origins of wilding suggests that while the young men were in their holding cells, they began laughing, joking and reciting the Tone Loc lyrics, which were then misheard by police as “wilding”. What should be obvious to anyone who listens to the song however, is that Tone Loc’s pronunciation of “thing” as an emphatic “thang” does not lend itself easily to this misinterpretation.
What is more likely is that the boys did use the term “wilding” in describing their activities that night, but it didn’t mean what police and the mainstream media took it to mean. As Sarah Burns points out, “there are indications that wilding or wilin’ was previously used in inner cities as street slang for acting crazy, though it didn’t necessarily have violent connotations.” Burns makes an important distinction here: the difference between the (mostly white) reporter’s pronunciation of wilding, with a hard d sound following the l and a fully pronounced ing at the end, versus wilin’, in which there is no d sound present (due to a regular linguistic process called consonant cluster reduction) and the word ends with in’ rather than ing. When those interviewed claimed not to know what wilding was, it may have even been partially due the mispronunciation of the term by reporters. Because while wilding may have been an invention of the NYPD and the media, wilin’ is a term that has been used in African American English for quite some time. If we look at contemporary uses of wilin’, we see that it typically does not have violent connotations. Urban Dictionary entries, for example, “wilin” and “wiling” refers to acting crazy, acting stupid, acting up or partying hard.* Related to this is the term “wil(d)in(g) out”, which is defined in Urban Dictionary as “to get mad / to act crazy / or to be furious” or “the process of acting wild, free, and loose at a party”. What seems more likely is that the boys, who were hanging out in central park the night of the attack, actually did use the term “wilin” when asked about their activities, but did not intend to describe committing violent acts.
The difference between the boys using the term wilin’ and the media using it, aside from the pronunciation, is the distinctive pejoration of the term when it appeared in newspapers and on television, in which its meaning went from something relatively harmless to a term that described a pathological desire to commit unrestrained physical and sexual mob violence for nothing more than pure pleasure. So why does this matter? Two reasons: one, because it’s not the first time the mainstream media has taken something from out of the African American community and used it against them, nor does it seem likely to be the last. It was not too long ago that a fist bump between President Obama and his wife Michelle, commonly used as a sign of mutual respect and solidarity in the African American community, was taken out of context and called a “terrorist fist jab” by a Fox News Anchor. And two, because as H. Samy Alim points out in What if we occupied language?, pejorative, discriminatory language can have real life consequences. Here, Alim references a possible connection between the rise in the use of the term “illegals” and the spike in hate crimes against Latinos. It is important to recognize how everyday language can be used to produce and reproduce acts of racism, which can have very real consequences for those who speak marginalized and often misunderstood dialects like African American English. In the case of the Central Park Five, there were many forces that led to the wrongful imprisonment of these young men. It’s clear though, that race, language and how the two become linked in the popular imagination, played important roles in the case.
*Note that Urban Dictionary also provides entries for wilding which reference definitions presented in the mainstream media, including the NYT definition.