What Trump and the Central Park Jogger Affair Tell Us About Justice in America
About an hour after news broke Thursday that former President Donald Trump had been indicted by a Manhattan grand jury, Yusef Salaam posted a one-word statement on Twitter:
If all goes as we now expect, Donald Trump could be in a New York courthouse by Tuesday, to be processed as a defendant, to face charges. Salaam knows what it is.
Salaam was one of five boys wrongfully accused of gang-raping a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. It was then that his life crossed paths with Donald Trump.
Trump – at the time he was a flashy developer, not a reality TV host and certainly not a president – took a personal interest in the case, enough to get out of it. full-page advertisements in four New York newspapers calling for the death penalty after the offensive. It was an early form of rhetoric from Trump, and it helped fuel the public outcry that was craving a conviction in the case.
This condemnation has come. The men were commonly referred to as the Central Park Five.
But they will eventually become known as the Exonerated Five.
Salaam thinks about it this week, as we learn that the now ex-president faces a criminal charge. But he doesn’t think of it as a feel-good moment.
And he doesn’t think about how Trump might now be experiencing some of the same things — a reservation, a court hearing, waiting for a verdict — that he once experienced.
He reflects on the differences.
“In this case, with Donald Trump’s indictment, he has the opportunity for the justice system to work for him — to be deemed innocent until proven guilty,” Salaam told me Friday. “To really be able to mount the proper defense that so many of us have eluded.”
The Central Park Five and an Overturned Conviction
Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray and Korey Wise were all boys in 1989, when they were convicted of raping a woman who was found brutally beaten after taking a late-night jog in Central Park.
The fact that the victim was white and the five boys were black and Latino made the case even bigger in a city that was already tight on the issue of crime, an issue that would only get worse in the future. era of stop-and-frisk policing. years that followed.
But in 1989, Trump was making his name synonymous with New York, so when he spent $85,000 on ads that shouted, “REMEMBER THE DEATH PENALTY AND REMEMBER OUR POLICE!” people noticed.
Trump claimed the city was “ruled by the law of the streets, as roving bands of savage criminals roam our neighborhoods, dispensing their own vicious brand of twisted hate upon whomever they encounter.”
“They must be forced to suffer, and when they kill, they must be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples for their crimes,” he wrote. “They should serve as examples for others to think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”
New York hadn’t carried out an execution in decades, but the five boys were indeed convicted and they served. Salaam spent much of his teenage years behind bars; nearly seven years in prison.
Over time, they also served as examples, but examples of something else: the wave of people wrongfully convicted and sent to prison in America, only to be exonerated years or decades later by DNA evidence.
That the five boys where Black and Latino made the affair look, well, all the more so like so many others.
Life after exemption
The men’s names were only cleared in 2002, after convicted murderer Matias Reyes confessed to the assault. The boys were forced to confess. Reyes’ admission was confirmed by DNA evidence. The city awarded the men $41 million in 2014, a decade after some of them prosecuted for violation of civil rights.
During his presidency, Trump refused to apologize for his actions in 1989.
Salaam said it was hard to watch Trump rise to America’s highest office. He was, after all, the man who once apparently called for his execution.
of trump platform as a leader of the free world, his perceived power and success, served as a constant reminder of the injustices Salaam met at age 15.
He told me that he often wondered, “How are you supposed to move around in this space? How are you living? Hiding from everything and nothing?”
“You literally have to get up and do what’s needed in the moment,” he said.
Salaam is now 49 years old. He now works as a criminal justice reform advocate and is running for New York City Council.
He speaks in the complex sentences of a man whose entire existence has been a living experience in the most complex trials of justice. He can never separate from his time in prison, but he feels empowered to help others avoid a similar experience.
“We live in a system where the justice system seems like there’s no justice when it comes to black and brown bodies,” Salaam told me. “It seems there is no justice, but there is some of it there, the possibility that there is a justice system that works for everyone, with the same fairness that we demand . We want a system that works.”
“Seeing the indictment fall, reading it and breathing in its newness and all the possibilities of what it could be, what it could represent, told me it was a new day,” said he declared. “This could be a new age – the age of justice.”
The 1989 Trump ads look familiar in their all-caps outrage. These days, he often laments being “the most persecuted person in the history of our country.”
I think Salaam and those four other men might like to talk to him about it. They are used to the idea of being persecuted – and prosecuted – for a crime they did not commit.
At least one word.
Suzette Hackney is a national columnist. Join her on Twitter: @suzyscribe.