On the night of April 9, 1989, Trisha Meili was jogging in Central Park when she was brutally attacked and raped. Law enforcement immediately targeted a group of teenage boys of color from Harlem for the crime and the media went berserk, while politicians like then-mayor Ed Koch called it the “crime of the century.”
Noting that “there had been reports of twenty-eight other actual or attempted first-degree rapes in the city that week, but almost all those victims were black or Latina women,” Jelani Cobb wrote that, “the reaction to Meili’s assault came as the nadir of a two-decade-long spiral of racial animosity driven by a fear of crime.”
A study of media coverage by Lynnell Hancock completed in 2003 highlighted this description of the incident from Pete Hamill.
They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance. They were coming from a land with no fathers…. They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor. And driven by a collective fury, brimming with the rippling energies of youth, their minds teeming with the violent images of the streets and the movies, they had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.
Hindsight tells us how that story ended. Five boys—four black and one Hispanic—were convicted of the crime. But after serving between five and thirteen years in prison, they were exonerated by DNA evidence proving that a convicted murderer and serial rapist was the guilty party. The boys sued the city and in 2014 won a $40 million settlement.
In the midst of the hysteria about the crime, the man who currently occupies the White House saw an opportunity and stepped into the fray. Less that one month after the crime had been committed, Donald Trump took out full-page ads calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York. While he didn’t specifically name the victim or the boys who were being targeted, he made it clear who he was talking about by lamenting the fact that residents of the city would now be afraid to enjoy Central Park and referring to “a world ruled by the law of the streets as roving bands of wild criminals roam our neighborhoods, dispensing their own vicious brand of twisted hatred on whomever they encounter.”
In both the ad and television interviews, Trump stated his hatred for the boys he described as “wild criminals” and encouraged others to hate them as well. He wrote that, “criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS.”
What has sometimes been lost about Trump’s ad is that he didn’t just call for the death penalty. He wrote that the police should be unshackled from the “constant chant of ‘police brutality’ which every petty criminal hurls immediately at an officer who has just risked his or her life to save another’s.”
After the boys were exonerated, Trump wrote that the settlement was a “disgrace” and referred to a detective who called it the “heist of the century.” When asked about the case during the 2016 campaign, he made this statement.
They admitted they were guilty…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.
Hardly a week has gone by in the last three years when I haven’t thought about how Trump reacted to that incident. It tells us almost everything we needed to know about him. First and foremost is the obvious racism on display, which he exploited back then in the same way that he demonized immigrants and Muslims more recently. While the mood in the country wasn’t as dominated by the kind of hysteria that grabbed headlines in 1989, Trump attempted to gin it up with his claims about Mexican immigrants being rapists and drug dealers and his suggestion that all Muslims should be feared as terrorists. He repeatedly lied about a historic crime wave, culminating in the description of “American carnage” in his inaugural speech. When those weren’t direct references meant to instill xenophobic fear, they were dog whistles that sent the message.
There have also been repeated statements and actions by Trump—and lately from his attorney general—demonstrating the same twisted view of our justice system in which they pronounce someone’s guilt or innocence by their own decree rather than through a process of investigation and trial. Most recently William Barr suggested that a president can determine when an investigation of his actions is unfair and take steps to shut it down. Trump pronounced that the FBI was guilty of treason, requiring long prison sentences, while his attorney general is in the midst of an investigation. All of that is reminiscent of how he declared the so-called “Central Park Five” to be guilty before they ever set foot into a courtroom, asserting that civil liberties don’t apply to those he has already determined to be guilty.
Trump’s admonition for law enforcement officers to “get rough” with criminals is reminiscent of his suggestion that police be “unshackled” from claims of police brutality. It also stems from the same mindset that led him to attack athletes who took a knee during the national anthem in protest of the killing of unarmed black men and boys.
Finally, there is a demonstration of Trump’s rejection of facts and science in his refusal to accept the DNA evidence that exonerated the Central Park Five. As we’ve seen over and over with this president, when the facts challenge his own personal interests, they are rejected and replaced with lies. We’ve also witnessed that Trump can never admit that he was wrong. Even in the midst of finally conceding another racist lie about Barack Obama’s citizenship, he blamed the entire thing on Hillary Clinton, which was a lie.
Starting back in 1989, Donald Trump demonstrated exactly what kind of president he would be: a racist with a twisted view of justice who rejects facts and science while clinging to lies rather than admitting that he was wrong. Regardless of what crimes this president is proven to have committed, we know exactly how he will respond because we’ve seen it all before. He was never fit to serve as president—and never will be.