In 1989 five teenagers were arrested and falsely convicted for the assault and rape of a white jogger. The five teenagers were sentenced to years in prison.
The five teens, who would come to be known as the ‘Central Park 5’ served 13-years for a crime they did not commit.
On December 19, 2002, Justice Charles J. Tejada of the Supreme Court of the State of New York granted a motion to vacate the thirteen-year-old convictions in the infamous case. He did so based on the shocking confession of the serial rapist, Matias Reyes, as well as a positive DNA match to back it up.
The five men are not fond of being known as the ‘Central Park 5,’ but the moniker was given to them by news media outlets. During the court proceedings, many news outlets printed their full names despite the fact that they were minors and the tabloids ran headlines without the use of the word ‘allegedly’ when describing the charges that they faced.
Some papers even ran a full-page ad attacking the teens with a large black font that read: “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY.” That full-page ad was paid for by Donald Trump.
Last week, during the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California’s 25th Annual Luncheon, the five men were honored. Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana were introduced by actor Michael B. Jordan.
“It was East Coast news, but a familiar story to anyone growing up black in America,” Jordan said. “We didn’t know their names, but we knew their ages: 15, 14, 16—the same ages we were. They could be us.”
“In 1989, police found the body of a young white woman in Central Park, covered in blood, and left for dead after a sexual assault. Weeks later, Trisha Meili awakened from a coma. She was unable to recall her attack,” Jordan said. “But the police had already been rounding up suspects, questioning black and brown teenagers who had been in Central Park that night. They focused their interrogation tactics on five boys in particular. Four of those teenagers did not know each other when they were arrested. I repeat, four of those boys did not know each other when they were arrested.”
The five men were given the inaugural Roger Baldwin Courage Award, and to accept another award on behalf of director Ava DuVernay, whose recent Netflix series “When They See Us” retold the men’s lengthy legal battle. DuVernay won the ACLU’s annual Social Responsibility in Media Award.
When Yusef Salaam took to the stage to accept the award for DuVernay he introduced himself as “one of the Exonerated Five.”
“After decades of being known as the Central Park Five, we thank Ava for acknowledging our humanity and telling our story with honesty and factual representation,” Salaam said. “We had to struggle to break the label that the media gave us. We stumbled forward, falling on our face at times.”
Salaam spoke about how the media treated them like they were “less than human.” He recalled being called the “wolf pack” by some journalists. He also spoke about Pat Buchanan, who insisted that if only “the eldest of that wolf pack were tried, convicted and hanged in Central Park, by June 1, and the 13- and 14-year-olds were stripped, horsewhipped, and sent to prison, the park might soon be safe again for women.”
Salaam them spoke from the heart about the full-page ad that had been taken out by the man currently sitting in the oval office inside the White House.
“Korey said it so well,” Salaam said. “He 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.”
“They had published our names, our phone numbers, and our addresses in New York City’s newspapers. Imagine the horror of that. Just step backwards once, to the 1950s—we would become modern-day Emmett Tills. It was almost as if they were trying to find someone from the darkest enclaves of society to come into our homes, drag us from our beds, and hang us from trees in Central Park.”
While he spoke, Salaam often had to stop to compose himself. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Salaam let his tears fall as he struggled with his emotions. “I’m not ashamed to cry in front of you,” he said. “These are tears of pain. These are tears of joy. We are the heroes of this story.”