In Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries, “When They See Us” the actors portray five teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of a brutal assault in 1989. But one key figure in the story is portrayed by himself, Donald Trump.
The Central Park Five, as they become known, are the focus of the four-part series. but Trump is an integral part of this story, which began after a 28-year-old, white woman was beaten and raped while out jogging in Central Park.
Hundreds of articles were written about the case. The first New York Daily News headline read, “Wolf Pack’s Prey: Female Jogger Near Death After Savage Attack from Roving Gang.”
Five black and Latino teens, ranging in age from 14-16, were accused of the attack and charged after making statements they later said they were coerced into, following hours of interrogation. From the very beginning the media had marked them out as guilty.
Although the teenagers falsely confessed after hours of police interrogation, (where no parents or lawyers were present) their DNA wasn’t found at the crime scene and their descriptions of the jogger and injuries didn’t match the evidence. Nevertheless, they were all convicted.
The five were exonerated in 2002 after spending years in prison and juvenile detention centres, when Matias Reyes, a serial rapist, confessed to the attack. Five years ago, the Central Park Five reached a landmark $41 million settlement with the city.
Throughout every stage of the development of the case, New York real estate mogul turned President of the free world, Donald Trump, inserted himself into the public narrative. The victim Trisha Meili was a young, Yale-educated, white banker, believed to have been attacked by a group of black and Latino youths. The case tapped into America’s centuries-old racist fear of sexual violence by non-white men against white women.
In 1989 Trump paid $85,000 to place a full-page advertisement in four local newspapers, including the New York Times. In large, underlined text, the prominent real estate developer called for New York to “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!”
The ad did not directly mention the Central Park jogger case, as it was widely known at the time, but many saw Trump’s message as a call for the execution of teenagers who had not yet been tried in a court of law.
In the short first person article printed in the ad, Trump rallied against crime he viewed as being out of control. “At what point did we cross the line from the fine and noble pursuit of genuine civil liberties to the 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?” Trump wrote. “I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyse or understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.” Yusef Salaam was 15 years old when Donald Trump demanded his execution for a crime he did not commit. In an interview with the Guardian Salaam commented on Donald Trump’s ad saying, “ When I first saw this ad that Donald Trump made, I knew that this famous person calling for us to die was very serious.”
In the wake of Trump’s ads, the lynch mob rhetoric escalated further. In an interview with The Guardian Salaam stated, ”He was the fire starter, common citizens were being manipulated and swayed into believing that they were guilty.” Pat Buchanan wrote that the eldest of the five 16-year-old Wise, should be “Hanged in Central Park, while the other boys should be stripped, horsewhipped and sent to prison.” This attitude poisoned society against the boys although their innocence is shown throughout the series.
Footage of an interview Trump did in 1989 makes its way directly into the miniseries, when the portrayed family of Yusef are watching television with Donald Trump shown on screen saying, “I think that sometimes a black may think that they don’t really have the advantage or this or that. But in actuality, today, currently it’s a great – I’ve said on occasion even about myself, if I were starting off today I would love to be a well-educated black because I really do believe they have an actual advantage today.”
An exasperated Sharone Salaam turns to her friend and asks, “What is a black?” before concluding “they need to keep that bigot off TV.” “Don’t worry about it,” his friend responds. “His 15 minutes of fame is almost up. “
Trump is then mentioned again in the final episode when Harlem activist Nomsa Brath laments that, “the real criminal was free to rape and even kill, while police, prosecutors and puppets like Donald Trump patted themselves on their fat backs.”
Many have reacted to the mini-series, commenting on how the show portrays a sad reality of how the media persuades society, while also making a comment on injustice in America. Show creator Ava DuVernay wanted to tell the story of the Central Park five in 2019 as a stark reminder of, “how far we’ve not come and for the key player in it to be the leader of the free world makes it all pretty relevant and pretty important to take stock 30 years later.” While the series shows how little society has changed in 30 years, the same could be said for the tweet-happy president, who has gone from saying what he thinks in $80,000 ad buys with little to no thought of the consequences to tweeting what he thinks to millions across the globe.