Long before Donald Trump drummed-up his outrageous publicity stunt in which he offered to donate five million dollars to charity if President Barack Obama released his college transcripts and passport records for review, and long before Obama even took residence in the White House and “You’re fired!” became a popular catchphrase, the real estate developer and reality show host was criticized for vilifying five Black boys in the New York City press. For many that know the story of “The Central Park Five” and Trump’s involvement in their case 23 years ago, his multi-million dollar attempt to question the President isn’t surprising, but it’s small bananas in comparison.
In April 1989, the attack and rape of Trisha Meili, an investment banker known then only as “The Central Park Jogger,” shook The Big Apple to its racially-tense core. Five Black and Latino boys—Kharey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana—all between the ages of 14 and 16—were all charged with raping and beating the jogger almost to her death. After being coerced into making confessions without their lawyers, and in some instances, without their parents present, these Harlem teens, who became known as “The Central Park Five,” were further stripped of their rights and innocence by Trump who led a media campaign condemned by many at the time in the Black community and Black press for being steeped in racist vitriol. Paying $85,000 for each full-page ad that appeared in four of NYC’s major newspapers (including The New York Daily News & The New York Post), “The Donald” demanded the re-instatement of the death penalty in response to the case of The Central Park Five, who were at the time, still awaiting trial. The man who now alleges that he has a great relationship with “The Blacks” declared in print ads: “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.” Convicted in the press long before a jury ever heard their case, these five teens were found guilty. Thing is, as most now know, someone else admitted to the crime and with his very detailed confession, The Central Park Five were subsequently exonerated of all charges.
In 2002 serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed that he alone raped Meili and DNA evidence confirmed his story. The District Attorney, Robert Morgenthau, helped to exonerate Kharey, Antron, Kevin, Raymond and Yusef who had all served anywhere from 7 to 13 years in juvenile detention and prison. That same year, Barack Obama was 41 and teaching constitutional law in Chicago. Donald Trump was 56, in major debt and battling the Securities and Exchange Commission that had brought a financial-reporting case against his Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts. Yusef Salaam was 28, a registered sex offender struggling to get his life back together.
Except for his low-cut Caesar, Salaam, now 39, looks just as he did more than two decades ago when he entered the Manhattan courthouse for the trial of his life, hand-in-hand with his mother and flanked on every side by NYPD. Salaam, unlike the other four, has the unique disposition of being the only one to have never made a written or videotape confession in regard to the Central Park Jogger case. But even with that exceptionality, Yusef was still found guilty of assault and rape. In this exclusive interview Salaam talks to Life+Times about Donald Trump and the power of money and media; his award-winning documentary The Central Park Five, which premiered nationwide last night on PBS; President Obama; and getting justice.
Life+Times: What role do you feel the press and Donald Trump played in your conviction?
Yusef Salaam: For the media to take money from a common citizen demanding to reinstate the death penalty… it was shocking. The media was very much skilled at convincing people of the lie being told about us. Regarding the media back then, we were persecuted to the highest extent. Donald Trump didn’t get out there on a bullhorn. He went directly to newspapers and used his own money to promote his own racist and polarizing telling.
L+T: How did it all affect you and your case?
YS: So many minds were changed by a lie and 25 cents [the cost of the Daily News at that time]. Do you know how many people bought that paper back then? People were so angry that this happened to one of their so-called “princesses” and the press made us look like animals. As a result, a lot of people, not just white people, but also some Black folks wholeheartedly believed that we were bad seeds that needed to be dealt with the way in which the City wanted to deal with us.
L+T: Do you think Donald Trump is racist?
YS: I think Donald Trump did that because he knew the power of the media. He knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that if he could effectuate the mentality of the common citizen, he would get us convicted. People plan to do what they do because that’s who they are. With that being said, I wouldn’t necessarily say Trump is a racist. I will say that the institution of racism is alive and well.
L+T: It’s been reported that members of The Central Five want an apology from Trump. Is this true?
YS: I think it’s necessary for Trump to give us apology. Had we had the power and the money back in 1989 then he would’ve been a part of our lawsuit. He definitely would’ve been sued for defamation of character. Because of the statute of limitations, we cannot ever sue him.
L+T: What would an apology from him mean to you now?
YS: An apology from him would be tremendous because it would show he had a sympathetic side and that he’s human. He should say he’s wrong because we all make mistakes. Donald Trump, why don’t you take out some full page ads in NYC newspapers the same way you did 20 years ago and this time take out ads asking the City to settle our case. Say you’re sorry!
L+T: Speaking of the settlement, what’s the status of your civil suit? (In 2003 the Central Park Five filed a $250 million lawsuit against the city of New York, which remains unsettled today.)
YS: Most people don’t even know we’ve been exonerated. Having the City settle our case would be justice. It would be the City finally saying they were wrong. Dragging it out is their way of keeping the lie alive. But now because of the movie people are talking about us again. Anyone who sees “The Central Park Five,” it’s very difficult for them to walk away and believe we were guilty of anything. So now the pressure is back on the city to deal with us and settle.
L+T: Back to Trump, were you surprised or outraged by his birther charges against President Obama?
YS: I’m not surprised by Trump’s birther accusations against Obama. It’s the same thought process from 1990 and indicative of how things are going now. If he would demand that we be put to death, then I’m not surprised this same common citizen would demand to see the birth certificate of the President of the United States. It’s all racist, which is bigger than the person. He is part of an establishment of racism.
L+T: So I’m guessing you don’t watch The Apprentice?
YR: No. I don’t support his business. That reminds me. One day I go into this suit store and I tell them what I’m looking for and what I like. The guy says I have the perfect suit for you. He puts the jacket on me. I look in the mirror and say, “This looks alright. Who made this?” He said, “This is a Trump suit.” I threw that jacket off like I had fire on me. He had no idea who I was because anyone who knew who Yusef Salaam was would have never put a Trump jacket on him.
L+T: The Central Park Five has won many awards and opened to rave reviews around the country. What has this documentary’s success and popularity meant to you?
YS:Most people when they hear about our case think of that “wilding” case. The truth of our story has been forgotten and the residue is still there. We have to clean up the residue and that’s a huge challenge. This film is a game changer. It’s given us our voices back. It’s helped clean up that residue. I don’t know if you are aware, but when you’re convicted of rape there’s prison justice. I know some people were hoping, praying and betting that we would lose our lives behind bars. We have scars, but they didn’t get away with it. We didn’t die. This doc has given us some justice, made us human, made us young men again.
The Central Park Five, a film by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns is airing on PBS. Click here for show times.
A march for justice led by the Central Park Five will be held this Saturday, April 20th in NYC beginning at 110th Street & Central Park North and culminating in a rally at The State Office Building in Harlem. For more details and information please check their Facebook page here.