The Central Park/Exonerated 5 case is a horrifying example of the injustices committed against marginalized youths in the criminal justice system–and it has a deep connection to the rise of Donald Trump.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Hi. I’m Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network. In 2014, when the city of New York finalized the $40 million settlement for the false arrest, malicious prosecution, and racially-motivated conspiracy to deprive Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Antron McCray— then between 14 and 16-years-old— of their civil rights, Donald Trump wrote an op-ed in The New York Times condemning the settlement saying, “settlement doesn’t mean innocence. My opinion on the settlement of the Central Park jogger case is that it’s a disgrace. A detective close to the case and who has followed it since 1989, calls it the ‘heist of the century,’” Donald Trump went on to say in his op-ed. Trump’s unsolicited commentary on the settlement received nationwide attention. And his original 1989 ads in five New York City newspapers called for the death penalty for the accused, and that’s highlighted in a recent docudrama about the case called When They See Us, directed by Ava DuVernay. But what people don’t have a clear understanding of are the connections between this case, the inner workings of white supremacy as a system, and how that system contributed to the rise of Donald Trump today.
Here to talk about these connections and other issues is Glen Ford. Glen is the Executive Director of the highly-regarded publication Black Agenda Report. Thank you so much for joining me today, Glen.
GLEN FORD Thanks for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN A lot of people, especially black people, have said that this is a difficult miniseries to watch and I completely understand that because it was difficult for me to watch. But why was it important for this docudrama miniseries to be produced and to be released today? And, why should people watch it?
GLEN FORD Well, I have to say, this was a superb production both as a film, but particularly as a political event. We’re very fortunate that the director was a young, black woman, Ava DuVernay, because I believe that it really took a young black woman to tackle this subject of young black men accused of rape, and two of their principal antagonists were young white women. I don’t believe that anybody but a woke, young black woman could have handled this subject— this politically, very sensitive today, very sensitive subject, better than Ava DuVernay has. You know, she said that she didn’t want to be typecast or type-director-cast as a maker of controversial black issue films, but she’s done a superb job handling this black issue. I think of her in terms of a 21st century Ida B. Wells-type figure. Ida B. Wells was the crusading journalist and activist whose lifelong mission was to expose lynching of black people as in fact a political crime. Lynching was packaged as retribution or a necessary evil in order to control black men who had an insatiable lust for raping white women, but Ida B. Wells exposed the fact that of the thousands of black lynching victims around the turn of the 20th century, only very few were even charged with rape. They were actually lynched, politically murdered, in order to terrorize the rest of the black community.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN But the political underpinnings or overtones of this very case—Can you expound on that a little more, especially in the context of DuVernay’s ability to depict who the villains were in her production, as opposed to how people may have remembered who the villains were in the case, or who the villains were portrayed in the original case?
GLEN FORD Well, we come away from this film with a profound sense of who the victims were. The victims, besides the jogger herself who was not victimized by the Central Park Five, but the victims here are the five young black men and the entire black community. And that this is not an isolated crime. And that the victimization, the framing in fact of these five young black men for rape, was also part of the larger picture in which the entire black community, but especially young black men, are pre-convicted for a kind of perpetual and ineradicable wilding. That is, and this term “wilding,” which became part of the father of the corporate media during this period, really is a code word for uncontrolled black youth— predators who need to be brought to heel. Well, this vocabulary, this racist political vocabulary that was later picked up by the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton and a host of other politicians on both sides of the political aisle, this comes into great prominence with the Central Park Five and the players here, and I’m going back to the two top prosecutors— Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer. These were young, youngish, white women, firmly part of the Democratic political establishment in New York City. You see, Trump, the Republican— and I think he was not really a Republican at that time— but Trump is not the only political villain.
The crime that was perpetrated was one of the mostly Democratic administration in this city, and we have these white females who are taking the lead. Fairstein, in particular, made her bones, she became prominent as a defender of victims, but her ideology of victimology portrays white people as the victims, and the perpetual perpetrators as black people. Yet, she traveled, she had great upward mobility after her star performance in the Central Park Five trial as a paragon of liberal white woman virtue. She’s said to have been the inspiration for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, the hit television program. She went on to write 21 mystery novels. She was a member of the boards of prestigious civic organizations and to her alma mater, Vassar College. She climbed her political ladder on the backs of the prosecution of the Central Park Five, so it’s not just Donald Trump coming from what’s seen as the far-right that’s part of this societal victimization of the black community. All kinds of players are involved here. And that’s why this is such an important film. It’s not the usual suspects. We all know that the cops beat confessions out of people, but the role that’s played by respectable political folks like Lederer and Fairstein, that was exposed in this film.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN And what was also a reality that was not exposed in this film, but I think speaks to, maybe I hope you can talk to the role of the media. You did mention Donald Trump and his role in stoking anti-black sentiment with his $85,000 ads in five New York papers calling for the death penalty of the accused, who were just children at the time. There was no physical or any evidence connecting them to the crime. The case was ongoing. There was a questionable press conference that the NYPD had that precipitated these ads by Donald Trump, but everyone remembers the ads by Donald Trump because he took these ads out in newspapers.
But what people do not remember so much of— and this is the other political player and I think this speaks to your comment about the Democratic institutions that are involved in this kind of injustice— was that Mayor, at the time, Michael Bloomberg actually was responsible for denying the settlement of the case in 2003 when it was first filed and agreed upon, so this is why the settlement didn’t actually happen until later. Bloomberg was quoted as saying that no one’s civil rights were violated, the city of New York did nothing wrong, violated no one’s civil rights, and that he further went on to say that the NYPD and the detectives in the case acted in good faith. What is your response to that kind of comment, when the evidence by 2003 was very clear that these young men were framed not only by the NYPD, but as you said, by the prosecutor’s office, by players in the prosecutor’s office?
GLEN FORD None of the white institutions of New York City acted in good faith during this episode. They had no good faith regarding the Central Park Five, but they didn’t show good faith even in terms of their own institutions— a good faith in terms of due process of law for those on the legal side, and good faith in terms of just exercising journalistic integrity on the corporate media side. What marked this case was that very few stories on the Central Park Five— and there was a torrent; It was the biggest story of its era— very few stories even used the word “alleged” [laughs] crime. They were convicted before they ever faced trial by the media, by the newspapers, and by the electronic media. These were not alleged perpetrators. They were made to be guilty in the eyes of the public through the corporate media. And that’s one of the reasons that Donald Trump had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to get his “give them death” demand out there. He had to spend that kind of money to rise above the lynch mob, the den of the lynch mob that was coming from the corporate media itself, and he had to up the stakes by calling for the death penalty while the corporate media was just condemning them as guilty before trial.
This case really set the stage for the 90s. The incident occurred in 1989, but it paved the way for the rise of another prosecutor, Rudolph Giuliani, who went on in the next election cycle to become Mayor of New York and introduced what all of us on the street called “Giuliani Time,” which meant that the cops could do whatever they wanted. Giuliani hired William Bratton as the top cop in New York and he introduced the “broken windows” philosophy of policing, which basically said that the cops needed to establish law and order in all the minutia and details of life in those crime-prone communities— the code word for the black community— or else, people, volatile elements, meaning young black men, would just get out of control. And so, the police became as they said, another code word, “proactive,” and we saw the beginnings of stop and frisk on a gargantuan scale in New York City. But you can’t understand the coming of stop and frisk on that kind of scale without the context of the Central Park Five, and the media lynch mob that created the political environment in which Giuliani would win.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Now, there are so many connections, political connections, that you have repeatedly mentioned that connect this case to the 2016 elections with the resurgence of Hillary Clinton’s lobbying for the 94′ Crime Bill that her husband was a champion of, that Joe Biden actually helped co-author, that we are now relitigating again. And the connection there is this report by a college professor, John Dilulio Jr., called The Coming of the Superpredators. This report was what precipitated this term “superpredators” being used in relation to these so-called gang of unrepentant, uncontrollable thugs. Superpredators is a term that Dilulio coined, but the connection is clear between the roving gang of wilding youths or thugs, as the Prosecutor Fairstein called them when she was investigating the Central Park Five case.
The connection is clear between the way black youth and Latino youth, mostly poor, were characterized in the Central Park case and how they were characterized by John Dilulio in his Coming of the Superpredator study, and how that continued throughout White House policy. We see that thread even today as we are watching now video camera footage of police officers not just handcuffing children, but also tasing children— children who are toddlers, children as young as five and six, black children, Latino children, and even shooting and killing them. Is it a surprise that given these connections between the Central Park Five case, the super predator mythology that rose through the Clinton administration, the connection with Rudy Giuliani and the broken windows policing, stop and frisk, and now the hyper-militaristic, hyper-weaponized, very racialized re-election campaign of Donald Trump? Is it a surprise that we are facing the fascist police state that we have now?
GLEN FORD No. We are part of the mass black incarceration state, which the Central Park Five is just one chapter in this long saga. It’s a saga that begins at the end of our mass black movement of the 60s and the defeat of legal apartheid, and the US rulers in society were faced with a quandary with the defeat of US apartheid by the Civil Rights movement. Black people were no longer confined by law as a class and had no intention of being on the bottom and a second-class citizenship anymore. So the ruling class’s problem was, how do we contain them by other means? The answer was, well we’ll do it with the police and the rest of the criminal justice system— which had to then be hugely expanded and heavily militarized. But you have to have another story in order to create this mass black incarceration state and that is the story, to put it in a word, of black folks “wilding.” That this new regime of militarized policing is necessary because it’s all that will keep these volatile and otherwise uncontrollable elements in check and keep white society safe.
The press, by the way, played much the same role in the Central Park Five case as they historically have done since back in the days of Jim Crow when newspapers would routinely write headlines like “Black Buck Runs Amok,” which was a prelude almost to call for the lynch mobs to come out. Some newspapers in the south would even run headlines announcing when the lynching was scheduled for. Well they don’t operate that blatantly today, but they do so quite effectively, and their reach is just as pervasive as it was in the old days of lynching. But lynching, of course, was a method of social control and it was based on the presumed savagery, if uncontrolled, of the black population. So it’s really no different in today’s mass black incarceration state in terms of how it is justified, than the lynching state down south was.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Well, there is so much more we could talk about with this docudrama, with the release of this docudrama, with this continuing examination of this extremely important case and moment in time and history, but we have to leave it here because we are simply out of time. But we will continue to examine how policing in black communities is not only a reflection of our history, but it’s an accurate indicator of our future to come. So thank you, Glen Ford, for joining me today.
GLEN FORD Thank you.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN And thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman, and this is The Real News Network.