New York — On April 17, the December 12th Movement held a large, diverse rally at City Hall here to bring attention to the 25th anniversary of the unjust arrest and demonization of five teenaged Black and Latino youth that was fast approaching.
On April 19, 1989, a white female jogger was beaten and raped in New York’s Central Park. The five innocent teens were arrested and charged with the crime after confessions were forced out of them. Mainstream media tried and convicted the youths before the case even went to trial. The judicial system found them guilty despite the lack of DNA evidence linking any of them to the crime.
The Five are Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Karey Wise, Anton McCray and Kevin Richardson. They served between 6 and 13 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. They are now grown men.
In 2002, Matias Reyes, while serving a life sentence in prison for rape and murder, confessed to the 1989 assault that the Central Park Five had been convicted of and stated he acted alone. His DNA was a match. The Five were subsequently exonerated and released, with not even an apology for the “mistake.” They sued for damages in a 2003 lawsuit.
While campaigning for mayor in February 2013, Bill de Blasio said: “This is the kind of thing that in the first week in office, if I were mayor, I would order a settlement. I think if the mayor says that it has to be resolved, it’s solved. The Law Department doesn’t tell the mayor what to do; the mayor tells the Law Department what to do. I certainly would order a settlement immediately.” (Playboy, April 14, 2013) In December, Mayor-elect de Blasio pledged a quick settlement.
De Blasio’s election followed billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years in office, in which both he and former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly fought settlement of the lawsuit. They said that the Five had confessed and claimed no wrongdoing on the part of the police department or the prosecutor’s office. They even suggested that the Five may have acted along with Matias or were probably guilty of some other crime in the park that night.
On Jan. 1, de Blasio took office, and he has been singing a different tune since. The last public status conference took place on Jan. 21, at which time the city’s lawyers stated that they were still in the process of scheduling depositions on the case, possibly during May or July. It has now been more than 10 years since the filing of the lawsuit for false arrest, malicious prosecution, wrongful conviction, emotional distress and racial discrimination.
At the hearing the corporation counsel stated that their new head, Zachary Carter, was requesting a 30-day stay of litigation to familiarize himself with the case and advise the administration on how to proceed. On Feb. 7, Judge Ronald Ellis granted the request. In April, Carter sought an additional delay, saying more time was needed given the notoriety of the case and its implication for future cases.
Calls for quick action
At the April 17 rally, Central Park Five attorney Roger Wareham noted that the case is such an important and serious one for the city; yet there no action by the mayor. “Why is he backtracking? It seems there are unforeseen forces causing him to hesitate.”
City Councilmember Inez Barron stated, “We demand quick action from the mayor, and need to let him know that we take seriously his reiterated promise to end this 25-year-old tragedy and travesty of justice.” City Councilmember Jumaane Williams related, “In 1989, when the Five were labeled animals and a wolf pack, less than human and born criminals, other Black and Latino teens felt worthless. Donald Trump called for the death penalty for the teens. If they were white, the case would’ve been settled a long time ago. We’re not treated equally. We have a racist city government.” The overall sentiment of the rally was that there have been hundreds of years of denial of justice in the U.S.
State Senator Bill Perkins stated that in Albany Mayor de Blasio said, on the record, that he would settle the case by now. Perkins added that the Five suffered in and out of jail and that Black and Latino communities have also suffered. The men deserve the settlement and even more for the scars they carry, he asserted.
Sharonne Salaam, mother of Yusef, Salaam, stated she was glad to see so many people at the rally, adding, “The whole city should be here, since the whole city cried out for blood. It was a lynch mob then and now.” She said she knew her son was not capable of such acts.
She also related that the case has been a nightmare beyond compare that didn’t end the day of Matias’ confession. “The pain rests in our bodies; this stuff will kill you. We need to get rid of the pain. Its been a long, trying time. The same thing can happen to any one of our children.”
Richardson’s sister related that she visited her brother in prison every weekend. She said she became very afraid and needed protection because they were labeled “families of rapists.” The day of her brother’s conviction was the worse day of her life, she said; her mother had a heart attack that day.
In court, she said, the families had to listen to lies from prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer. They’re still defending their lies, she added. “Someone needs to be held accountable. But we won’t stop fighting. The time or years can’t be given back to them, but the settlement can help right a wrong.” She thanked everyone for their love and support.
Santana’s sister spoke about how the media turned against them and that there was no joy in their lives. Because of the injustice done, they’ve been a broken family — the pain of their parents crying for their son; their father drinking due to a broken heart. She said she wanted to believe in the justice system, even wanted to become a cop.
Also present were three of the Five: Richardson, Santana and Salaam, who each spoke. Richardson described the past 25 years as nonstop torture. He asked, “Will we have to fight for eternity? The delay must stop; we’re tired.” He added that it breaks his heart to watch his sister crying.
Santana wondered, “Will we be left behind? We need closure and healing.” He stated that things like this keep happening over and over again to our people. He mentioned Ramarley Graham as an example and the number of false convictions in this city.
Yusef Salaam commented that he’s now 40 years old and noticing gray hairs. “We must stand and be counted,” he said. He noted that de Blasio was elected primarily with Black and Brown votes and went from campaign promises to City Hall lies. “The criminal justice system is criminal. The city must be made aware of this injustice, and our struggle for liberation,” he added. “No amount of money can give us back our lives, but it can make our life better. We request compensation for the torture we’ve experienced.”
Salaam, a poetry lover, quoted Langston Hughes, substituting “What happens to a dream deferred?” with “What happens to justice delayed, to justice denied?”
All of the men expressed their gratitude for such a large turnout of support.
Central Park Five attorney Michael Tarif Warren stated that we must keep on pushing. “The way the law is working is setting a bad precedence for other cases, and if the system gets away with this, young Black men all over the country will be vulnerable. Investigators always knew that no DNA evidence linked the five youngsters to the crime, yet they tried and convicted them to satisfy the media’s bloodlust demands.”
Warren noted that careers were made from the torture of the Central Park Five. Linda Fairstein, head of sex crimes in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is still attempting to control the case in order to protect herself. She made millions on the case. And her reputation will be destroyed if the case is settled.
“It’s a case of conspiracy — not negligence — diabolical conspiracy,” Warren said. “There’s a detrimental alliance as de Blasio is representing himself as settling the case. We must continue to be engaged in protracted struggles, call out names of those accountable, keep demonstrating.”