In 1989, five Black and Hispanic teens were falsely accused of raping and nearly killing Trisha Meili, a white woman jogging in Central Park. Known collectively as the Central Park Five, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise were convicted in two trials despite a lack of eyewitness testimony or DNA evidence and spent between six and 13 years in prison.
Exonerated in 2002 after an investigation confirmed that a convicted murderer and rapist had committed the crime, the Central Park Five sued the city and state of New York, settling for millions. Salaam and Richardson spoke last week with Yahoo News about the current state of race relations in America, including a May 25 incident in which Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police on Christian Cooper, a Black bird watcher in Central Park.
“When that young lady was crying out in Central Park, one of the first things I thought was, man, when they cry, we die,” Salaam told Yahoo News. “It is a godsend that that young man had a video of the interaction that was going on.”
“When I look at current-day events, I can’t help but think about tragedies I was made aware of going through my own personal event,” Salaam, who now lives in Georgia with his wife and 10 children, added.
The married father of two daughters who lives with his wife in New Jersey, Richardson also sees parallels between race relations now and when he and his friends were wrongfully convicted.
“Not too many things have changed since 30 years ago,” Richardson said. “There’s still this concept that people of color are inferior and when you see them you’re scared.”
The memory of the night of his arrest is never far from his thoughts, Richardson said.
“April 19, 1989, I remember like it was yesterday,” Richardson said. “I was 14 years old at the time. I went into the park that day just basically curious, just wanted to hang out with the guys I had seen and I wound up coming home seven years later.”
A few weeks after the boys were were accused of the crime, Donald Trump, a real estate developer at the time, paid $85,000 for a full-page ad to be run in New York City’s newspapers headlined: “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!”
“It’s basically saying we should be executed without even knowing us as people, not knowing our families, our background,” Richardson said.
“We became almost the modern-day Emmett Till’s when you look at what Donald Trump placed in the papers two weeks after we were accused of this horrific crime,” Salaam said, adding, “You have to remember they had put our phone numbers, names and addresses in New York City newspapers, so what that means is that when he put that out there other people took it as a nod that it was OK that if we got a chance to get our hands on these people, we should do what they did to Emmett Till to us.”
Salaam, who like Richardson has become an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform, said that Trump continues to side with police over minority communities.
“We’re looking at a president who’s telling the different municipalities to militarize their police,” Salaam told Yahoo News. “We haven’t moved.”
One marker of how little things have changed, Salaam said, is that he has had to talk to his 12-year-old daughter about how to safely handle encounters with the police.
“It’s extremely hard, but it has to be done, we have to speak about this to our children,” Richardson said, “so I think we have a long way to go.”