Donald Trump proved once again that he isn’t interested in big tent-politics. If his statements Friday about five innocent teenagers are any indication, he’d prefer to burn the whole encampment to the ground and dance in its ashes.
Rather than invest himself in meaningful outreach to black or Hispanic communities, Trump seems to relish in every opportunity to ball up his diminutive dukes and pick a fight. Hand him an olive branch and, instead of extending to African American and Latino voters, he’s liable to whip himself over the head with it.
The self-proclaimed billionaire was positively plucky in a statement to CNN regarding a decades-old, headline grabbing case that rocked New York City. In 1989, as five boys—four black and one Latino—stood accused of gang-raping and brutally beating a white female jogger in Central Park, Trump could not help but snatch some the spotlight for himself at a time when tabloids screamed about “wolfpacks.” In the weeks after the attack and before the trial could commence, Trump paid for a full-page ad in the New York Daily News and publicly called for their execution.
“Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back The Police!” the headline blared.
“I want to hate these muggers and murderers,” Trump 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 will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”
Amid mass hysteria about so-called wilding, the boys were convicted based mostly on coerced confessions. All five languished in jail for well over a decade before they were cleared by DNA evidence after a serial rapist serving a life sentence, Matias Reyes, confessed in 2002 and the convictions were vacated. Reyes was never tried for the rape of jogger Trisha Meili because the statute of limitation had run out by the time he came forward.
None of that matters to Trump. “They admitted they were guilty,” Trump told CNN Friday. “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.”
It doesn’t matter to him that boys, slightly older than his own sons, nearly lost their lives to the criminal justice system. It doesn’t matter to him that their fathers, mothers, and grandparents endured sleepless nights during their years of incarceration or that one of the boys wasn’t even allowed to attend his mother’s funeral. It doesn’t matter to Trump that justice failed them in 1989 and kept failing them until they were released and the city approved a multi-million-dollar settlement.
For a man who chides his political opponent for referring to young criminal suspects as “superpredators,” Trump was all too willing to send five young boys to be executed for a crime they did not commit. First popularized by John Dilulio, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and William Bennett and John P. Walters, in the 1996 book Body Count: Moral Poverty—and how to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs, superpredator as a term is partially rooted in the Central Park jogger case. There was, according the Dilulio, “a new generation of street criminals is upon us—the youngest, biggest and baddest generation any society has ever known.”
The theory has since been disproven and renounced by Dilulio, who went on to become the director of new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the G.W. Bush Administration.
Trump has always called for more harsh punishments, never for systemic or really any reforms. Never for health and healing in distressed communities. Never to protect the civil liberties or to provide a safety net that would ensure more educational and economic opportunity for black and brown boys like Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise.
He wanted them dead. And he stands by that, even now that they’ve been released and paid a collective $41 million as a form of recompense for their years of unfair imprisonment.
“The facts here are clear,” the Clinton campaign said in a released statement. “These young men were exonerated. Another man has admitted to committing the crime, as proven by DNA evidence. Trump rushed to judgement on the case, has refused to admit he was wrong and continues to peddle yet another racist lie, a pattern for him and a clear reason why he is unfit to be president.”
Trump’s self-imposed prominence in the case has been a constant point of tension for many African-Americans, who see a Trump presidency as a threat to their human rights. Just as he took credit for demanding to see the president’s long-form birth certificate, rather than apologize for his mistake, the one-time reality television show personality continues to insist that the boys were, in fact, guilty as charged and blames the justice system for letting them go. Despite the DNA evidence and the confession of a serial rapist, he called the $41 million civil settlement—approved by a federal judge and supported by Mayor de Blasio in 2014—the lowest and worst form of politics.
“My opinion on the settlement of the Central Park Jogger case is that it’s a disgrace,” Trump wrote. “A detective close to the case, and who has followed it since 1989, calls it ‘the heist of the century,’” Trump wrote at the time.
“Settling doesn’t mean innocence, but it indicates incompetence on several levels. This case has not been dormant, and many people have asked why it took so long to settle? It is politics at its lowest and worst form.”
His statements should come as no surprise. This is who Trump always has been—from the time he was sued by the Justice Department for denying housing to black rental applicants to the time he referred to Mexican immigrants as murders and rapists to the time he verbally assailed a U.S.-born federal judge for his Latino heritage. So then, there should be little wonder why the Republican nominee has garnered so little black or Hispanic support.
“What in the hell do you have to lose?” he rhetorically asked of black voters at a string of rallies.
The answer is—at least for the Central Park Five is—everything.