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The Central Park Five Ad Told Us Who Donald Trump Really Is

How his 1989 condemnation of five innocent teens resonates today

On May 1, 1989, Donald Trump published an ad in the New York Daily News calling for the state to kill five schoolchildren. None of the “Central Park Five” were older than 16. All of them were black or Latino. Under police coercion, they’d confessed to the brutal rape and assault of Trisha Meili, an investment banker who had been jogging in Central Park. Though they were convicted, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise were not guilty of the crime. Twelve years later, a serial rapist named Matias Reyes fessed up to being the sole attacker, and his DNA was a match to what was found at the scene.

But the possibility of the Central Park Five’s innocence, it seems, did not occur to Trump when he paid to condemn them in print. He concluded with a clarion call to anger and fear: “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!"

As an eighth-grader growing up in Ohio, I wasn’t keeping track of Trump’s more salacious media mentions (including his deliberate efforts to build an image through the tabloids as a playboy tycoon who seemed proud of his marital infidelity). But thanks to the nightly news and library microfiche — 1989’s internet — I knew about his characterization of five brown and black boys (and, by proxy, others who looked like them) as catalysts of urban downfall and the erosion of law and order.

In 1989, I learned who Donald Trump is. Twenty-seven years later, he hasn’t changed a bit.

Last week, Trump surrogate and Alabama senator Jeff Sessions appeared on a Birmingham radio show to discuss Trump’s recent speech that ostensibly pitched African-American voters while also calling for an end to “the war on our police.” It was a big hit with Sessions, as you might expect. “That speech was great, and Trump has always been this way,” he said, defending his nominee. “He bought an ad — people say he wasn’t a conservative — but he bought an ad 20 years ago in the New York Times [sic] calling for the death penalty. How many people in New York, that liberal bastion, were willing to do something like that?”

This is probably not something the Trump campaign wants to discuss, even with its overt appeals to white nationalism. “There’s a kind of anxiety that existed around the [Central Park Five] case when it was happening,” Harvard public policy professor Leah Wright Rigueur, an expert on black participation in the Republican Party, told MTV News. “It’s interesting to see now, especially when we think about the treatment of the young men, relate to the national conversation we’ve been having around reform for mass incarceration, equal treatment under the law, and the police reform movement. If I were Donald Trump, I would not want anyone bringing up the Central Park Five.”

Sessions’s candor should push voters to revisit the ad’s full text, if they can stomach it. The 1989 rant isn’t unlike some of Trump’s ramblings that we’ve experienced for the past year, from rally podiums and in televised interviews. Like his “law and order” speech last week, the write-up focuses on the supposed disempowerment of the police.

“What has happened to the respect for authority,” Trump wrote in the Daily News, “the fear of retribution by the courts, society and the police for those who break the law, who wantonly trespass on the rights of others? What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we knew it.” He declared, in capital letters, that “CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”

There was reason, at the time, for some New Yorkers to be freaked out. The Central Park jogger rape case happened as the crack epidemic was peaking. That epidemic carried with it a wave of black death; from 1984 to 1989, the homicides for black males between the ages of 14 and 17 — right around the ages of the Central Park Five — doubled. This was not an issue that really endangered a guy like Trump.

But frightening the privileged gets votes; it’s a proven conservative formula. Engineering white terror of black and brown people may be the most obvious proof that a political philanderer like Trump qualifies as a Republican.

Trump painted the media image of roving “wild” gangs in Central Park after dark as the result of a “reckless and dangerously permissive atmosphere which allows criminals of every age to beat and rape a helpless woman and then laugh at her family’s anguish.” He argued that these Criminals of Every Age “laugh” because they know they’ll escape punishment. He scoffed at police brutality, putting it in quotes. Yet the police, then as now, regularly dodged jail time for killing black suspects. The deaths of Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist killed after scrawling on a train car, and Eleanor Bumpurs, a mentally ill woman killed by two shotgun blasts, years before the Central Park case came on the scene, remain open wounds in the city’s racial fabric even today.

Rather than call for civic healing, Trump’s ad called for blood. Indulging in a classic myth about law enforcement and ignoring the more systemic causes of crime, Trump wrote that “if the punishment is strong, the attacks on innocent people will stop.” Calling for enhanced police powers, he then scoffed at the idea that compassion should be shown toward youth in urban areas who commit offenses. “I no longer want to understand their anger,” his ad reads. “I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.” Articulated for today’s white-nationalist fervor, that could substitute as Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan. And it’s also the kind of talk that, in the heads of the wrong cop or wrong Good Guy With a Gun, could turn a young black person into a hashtag.

This is why that 1989 ad is key to understanding the kinds of things we’re hearing from the Trump campaign today. His alarmist rhetoric isn’t just racist and hyperbolic; spoken from a platform that’s elevated enough, it can be dangerous. We know Trump does this now, but we first saw him do it 27 years ago. “I think that one of the things that was really shocking about the Central Park Five was how the idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ was not a conversation that we were having,” said Rigueur. “The public outrage around the issue was fever-pitched. The phrase ‘wilding’ comes out of that because it’s this idea of ‘super-predator’ blacks and Latinos roaming through New York City and raping women.”

We heard echoes of that in Trump’s first campaign address last year, when he deemed undocumented Mexicans to be “rapists.” But we also heard it anew in that speech Sessions loved so much. Trump delivered those remarks before a nearly all-white crowd in a nearly all-white town about 40 miles north of Milwaukee — which had been gripped a few days earlier by demonstrations and riots after police killed 23-year-old black suspect Sylville Smith. Declaring that he wanted “the vote for every African-American citizen struggling in our society today who wants a different and much better future,” Trump also depicted black life in America as a demilitarized urban hellscape.

“You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs,” Trump said about black folks two days later in Michigan, before yet another pallid crowd. “What the hell do you have to lose?” My response is: What does the African-American electorate have to gain by voting for Trump?

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He has learned nothing from misjudging the Central Park Five. After New York City reached a $41 million settlement in 2014 with the five wrongly convicted men — they were now men, after all — Trump published an op-ed full of disgust, again in the Daily News. He wrote that it was “ridiculous” that the city offered a settlement, and that “settling doesn’t mean innocence.” Even after their exoneration, either Trump still believed they were guilty or he couldn’t take being so wrong. Actually, it might be the one position on which he’s been consistent since then.

The ad, and his unrepentant stance toward those innocent men, shows that Trump’s supposed commitment to law and order is based in engendering panic, not improving safety. That’s the position an oligarch takes, not a public servant. Sessions was correct in one important respect: The same asshole who wrote that Central Park Five ad is who Republicans nominated for president.