Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix series reminds us that Trump’s racism is nothing new

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Moya Crockett
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In 1989, five young men of colour were wrongfully convicted of rape – and Donald Trump whipped up animosity against them. Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix series tackles the story of the Central Park Five. 

Last summer, Ava DuVernay revealed she was working on a limited series for Netflix about the Central Park Five, five men of colour who were wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in New York City in 1989.

Now, the first cast members for the series have been announced. Deadline reports that Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Bates Motel) will star as Manhattan assistant DA Elizabeth Lederer, who led the prosecution in the cases against the Central Park Five.

Michael K Williams (12 Years a Slave, The Night Of) and John Leguizamo (Ice Age, Moulin Rouge) will play Bobby McCray and Raymond Santana Sr, the fathers of Antron McCray and Raymond Santana, two of the Harlem teenagers who spent years in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.

The story of the Central Park Five has long been held up as an example of how media hysteria and racial stereotyping can lead to miscarriages of justice. And in recent years, it has often been pointed to as evidence of Donald Trump’s racism.

Because Trump has a long history of racism that stretches back long before he perpetuated the lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, called Mexicans rapists, implemented a ban on people travelling to the US from Muslim-majority countries, said that Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS”, defended white nationalists or introduced a policy of separating families from their children at the Mexican-US border. Before he did any of those things, Trump played a key role in influencing the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five.

Here are the facts of the case. One evening in the spring of 1989, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white investment banker, was jogging across Central Park when she was brutally raped and almost beaten to death. 

She was discovered around four hours later in a shallow ravine in the park, naked, gagged, tied up and covered in mud and blood. Remarkably, she later recovered almost completely. But doctors initially assumed the severity of the attack meant she was unlikely to survive. 

Yusuf Salaam, one of the members of the Central Park Five, at trial in 1990

Unsurprisingly, the horrific assault on Meili caused widespread alarm in New York City. But the police believed they already had the culprits in custody: Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana, five teenagers who had been arrested for other alleged crimes in Central Park several hours before Meili was found in the ravine.

The boys – all of whom were aged between 14 and 16, and who became known as the Central Park Five – would later deny any involvement in any criminality that night. But after being aggressively interrogated by police, they said they were forced into confessing to the rape.

“I would hear them beating up Korey Wise in the next room,” Salaam told The Guardian in 2016. “They would come out and look at me and say: ‘You realise you’re next.’ The fear made me feel really like I was not going to be able to make it out.”

All of the boys were black, apart from Santana, who was of Hispanic descent. Initially, they all – except Salaam – confessed on videotape to being an accomplice to the rape, implicating the others in the process. Salaam only confessed to being present at the rape when a detective lied and told him that his fingerprints had been found on Meili’s clothing.

Although the boys retracted their statements within weeks, saying they had been intimidated, lied to and coerced into making false confessions, they were ultimately all convicted of various crimes related to the case, including rape, assault, robbery, sexual abuse and attempted murder.

They each spent between six and 13 years in jail until 2001, when another convicted serial rapist and murderer, Matias Reyes, admitted raping Meili. DNA evidence placed Reyes at the scene of the crime, and the Central Park Five had their convictions overturned. They later went on to sue New York City and settle for $40m. 

Donald Trump in 1989, the year he took out an ad calling for the death penalty to be reinstated after the Central Park Five case 

So what does all this have to do with Donald Trump? Just two weeks after Meili was attacked, before any of the boys had faced trial, Trump paid a reported $85,000 to take out full-page ads in four of New York City’s main newspapers, in which he called for the return of the death penalty.

“I want to hate these muggers and murderers,” he wrote. “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others can think long and hard before committing a crime or act of violence.”

Michael Warren, the civil rights lawyer who later represented the Central Park Five, has said he believes Trump’s ads influenced the conviction of the boys. They each pleaded not guilty, there was no DNA evidence linking them to the crime scene, and Meili could not remember any details of the attack when she testified in court.

“[Trump] poisoned the minds of many people who lived in New York and who, rightfully, had a natural affinity for the victim,” Warren told The Guardian. “Notwithstanding the jurors’ assertions that they could be fair and impartial, some of them or their families, who naturally have influence, had to be affected by the inflammatory rhetoric in the ads.”

While DuVernay’s series about the Central Park Five will not focus exclusively on the Trump aspect of the story, it’s is a timely reminder that the now-president has long sought to tap into racially charged anxieties and emphasise the alleged criminality of people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Incredibly, he has never apologised for leading the charge against them, even saying in 2016 that he still believed they were guilty – despite DNA evidence exonerating them.

“The story of the men known as Central Park Five has riveted me for more than two decades,” DuVernay said. “In their journey, we witness five innocent young men of colour who were met with injustice at every turn – from coerced confessions to unjust incarceration to public calls for their execution by the man who would go on to be the President of the United States.”

Images: Getty Images