In 1989, a wealthy real estate developer proudly, loudly and publicly called for the death penalty for five boys, all black or Hispanic, accused of assaulting and raping a woman in Central Park. For the next 30 years, the real estate developer would continue his attack, despite a confession, DNA evidence and an exoneration.
“BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY,” Donald Trump wrote in capital letters in a full page ad that ran in four New York City newspapers, including the Daily News, in 1989, barely two weeks after 28-year-old jogger Trisha Meili was attacked in the park.
“BRING BACK OUR POLICE.”
“When They See Us,” Ava DuVernay’s haunting new Netflix series about the case and its aftermath, doesn’t give Trump a leading role, never bothers to cast an actor to scream his words for him. Instead, he appears in a grainy news clip, one of the few artifacts in the show.
“I think sometimes a black may think they don’t have an advantage or this and that,” he says in the NBC news clip. “I’ve said on one occasion, even about myself, if I were starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black, because I really believe they do have an actual advantage today.”
Sharonne Salaam, Yusef’s mother, played by Aunjanue Ellis, laughs at the absurdity.
“They need to keep that bigot off TV is what they need to do,” she says.
“Don’t worry about it,” her friend replies. “His 15 minutes almost up.”
For a minute, it plays as a laugh line; what a preposterous thought in 2019, given that we know that Trump’s 15 minutes took him all the way to the White House. He has more power today than anyone, maybe even himself, imagined when he was running newspaper ads in the late ‘80s. But he never took back his threats.
“He was actively calling for the murder of teenagers, children. This man took out full-page ads in all the papers in New York to call for the murder of children,” Joshua Jackson, who plays Mickey Joseph, Anton McCray’s defense attorney, in “When They See Us,” told The News.
“He will never take responsibility for any of it.”
In 2014, New York City and Mayor Bill de Blasio settled a lawsuit with the five and paid out a total of $41 million, which averaged about $1 million per year behind bars.
A few months earlier, Trump expressed indignity simply at the idea of a payout, calling it a “disgrace.”
“Settling doesn’t mean innocence, but it indicates incompetence on several levels,” he wrote for the Daily News. “These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”
Two years later, in the middle of a presidential campaign that kicked off by accusing Mexicans of being “rapists” and drug mules, Trump again defended his comment.
“They admitted they were guilty,” he told CNN in 2016. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”
Matias Reyes’ confession didn’t matter. The DNA didn’t matter. Only Trump’s snap judgment mattered.
Trump barely appears in the rest of “When They See Us,” neither on screen nor by name, but his effect on the case is unavoidable, both in history and in DuVernay’s narrative.
Donald Trump’s 15 minutes of fame didn’t end in 1989. Thirty years later, he’s risen to the top.
“The world in which we live, society is so quick to pass (judgment). This idea of nuance that’s so necessary, when we have this from the top of our politics … people have taken teams. They’ve taken sides,” Blair Underwood, who plays Bobby Burns, Yusef Salaam’s lawyer, told The News.
“If there’s anything good to come out of this, it’s that this individual is so extreme that it forces us to take sides. We’re going to have to course correct. When that happens, how that happens, I don’t know.
“I just hope that course correction doesn’t come at the expense of young black bodies.”
©2019 New York Daily News
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