A Netflix docudrama about the 1989 Central Park “wilding” case has enflamed passions about the purported injustice done to the five teenagers who went to prison for it. Though they confessed that they had sexually assaulted Trisha Meili and beaten half-a-dozen other people in the park that night, their convictions were vacated 12 years later when a convicted murderer—whose DNA matched semen found on the victim—owned up to the rape. In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio settled a civil suit brought by the “Central Park Five,” and the city paid out more than $40 million in damages—even though Linda Fairstein, head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit in 1989, and others have long maintained that significant evidence exists that the young men participated in the attack on Meili and committed other acts of violence in the park that night.
When They See Us, the new film about the case, has sparked fury among activists and retaliation against both Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer, the prosecutor in the case. Fairstein, also a bestselling novelist, has been dumped by her publisher, Dutton, and Lederer has quit her professorship at Columbia University. Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate, has called for both women to be disbarred and wants all their previous cases opened for review by Manhattan DA Cy Vance.
Somehow, amid the current rage about the Central Park case, President Trump has become a part of the story—at least, the story that activists are telling. That’s because, on May 1, 1989, ten days after news of the assaults broke, Trump took out a full-page ad in four New York City dailies calling for a tough-on-crime approach to policing in a city then suffering an average of more than five murders a day. “Bring back the death penalty. Bring back our police!” the ad blared in bold type. Trump spoke of the “complete breakdown of life as we knew it,” and lamented that “New York families—White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian—have had to give up the pleasure of a leisurely stroll in the Park at dusk.” Trump affirmed his “hate” for “muggers and murderers,” who, he said, “should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”
In Netflix’s dramatized version of the story, Trump’s role in the prosecution of the teens is pivotal. “That devil wants to kill my son,” says the mother of one of the defendants. “You gonna take an ad out about killing my son?” The media have amplified this theme of Trump as a central figure in the purported hysteria surrounding the case. Receiving a “courage award” from the ACLU last week, Yusuf Salaam, one of the participants in the 1989 Central Park wilding, tearfully said, “when Donald Trump took out that full-page ad, and put them in all of New York City’s newspapers, calling for our execution, he placed a bounty on our head.”
Ken Burns, whose documentary about the Central Park case was highly regarded but lacked the cultural impact of When They See Us, now gives Trump more significance than he did in his 2012 film. “There was an orange-haired real estate developer in New York. . . . And he believed that these children should be executed.” Time reports that “President Trump played a key role in the Central Park Five case.” The BBC tells us that Trump’s ad fed into “the atmosphere of high crime rates and poor race relations in the city at the time.” The New Yorker says that “one of Trump’s first political acts” was to demand the teens’ execution. CNN White House correspondent April Ryan tweeted, “The injustice against the Central Park Five and @realDonaldTrump inability to apologize after wrongfully asking for the death penalty is horrific.”
Though the Central Park attacks were certainly the backdrop to Trump’s ad, his language did not presume the guilt of the defendants, whom he scarcely mentioned, and he did not call specifically for the execution of anyone. In fact, Trump demanded capital punishment only for murderers, and by the time his ad appeared, Trisha Meili was expected to survive. Moreover, Trump was hardly alone, in New York City, in expressing horror and anguish about the attack—neither the New York Times nor the Daily News objected to running the ad, after all. New York City in 1989 was under violent assault from predatory criminals. There were nine times as many murders then as now; robbery and muggings were more than ten times as frequent as they are today. Rape and felony assault were well over double today’s rates.
Pack-style violence like what happened that night in Central Park was all too common. Gangs “ran amok” at a 1983 Diana Ross concert in the Park, according to the Times, “beating and robbing scores of people.” In 1985, a March of Dimes walkathon was broken up around Central Park when “packs of youth attacked and harassed dozens of people,” stealing jewelry and pocketbooks. David Dinkins, running against Ed Koch in the 1989 Democratic primary for mayor, called for “anti-wilding” legislation in the wake of the Central Park Jogger attack. He won the general election against Rudy Giuliani in part for his promise to be tough on crime.
Trump’s ad, though cast as a brutal call for revenge, is actually a demand for public safety, and a return to the “feeling of security New York’s finest once gave to the citizens of this City.” Written in 1989, it is a prescient call for Broken Windows policing, which from 1994 on resulted in the sharpest and most enduring decrease in crime that any city has seen in American history. The policies that Trump called for saved the lives of tens of thousands of people—most of them black and Latino—who would otherwise have fallen victim to New York’s spiraling violence.
The latest outbreak of passions regarding this case, and the novel twist of making Trump a central player in it, raise other questions. Given that there have been no new developments, except for the city payouts, in the Central Park case since Burns’s 2012 documentary, why was a new movie called for, anyway? The Netflix series, arguably, exists only to make Trump a target for his behavior in a long-ago New York episode—just in time for the 2020 campaign. Ana DuVernay, director of the docudrama, is a close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama. Like DuVernay, the Obamas have multiyear, multimillion-dollar development deals with Netflix. Amplifying the theme that Trump is a longtime racist is likely to be part of the eventual Democratic candidate’s campaign strategy. When They See Us may be a valuable tool for that purpose; it certainly has little value for truthfulness.
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