Donald Trump on Tuesday entered the same Manhattan courthouse where five Black and Latino teenage boys were wrongfully convicted of raping a white female jogger more than 30 years ago — a case he attached himself to by taking out a full-page ad in the city’s major newspapers to “bring back” the death penalty in New York — to plead not guilty to a 34-count felony indictment.
Last week, the irony wasn’t lost on Yusef Salaam, one of the five teens who were demonized by Trump, the mayor, the governor, and the media in the spring of 1989. His reaction was succinct but poignant. Salaam’s “Karma” statement forced New Yorkers to recall the infamous Central Park jogger case that was in some ways a continuation of the racial tensions that were brewing in 1980s New York City and spilled over into the 1990s.
After Trump’s arraignment Tuesday, Salaam posted his own full-page ad on social media: “BRING BACK JUSTICE & FAIRNESS. BUILT A BRIGHTER FUTURE FOR HARLEM!” Salaam wished Trump no harm but called him out for trying to “obliterate” people’s civil liberties.
Trump positioned himself as a champion of justice for the jogger who was a Wall Street banker, experts say. The real estate developer was developing a strategy that would decades later elevate him to the White House: identify an influential base, push a narrative that resonates with them — and ignore the consequences on any marginalized group.
And although Manhattan’s district attorney, Alvin Bragg, was tight-lipped about the specifics of the case against Trump, he has previously said he, too, was impacted by what happened in 1989.
“I grew up in the shadow of the Central Park Five case, which had an incredibly deep impact on me,” Bragg told the Amsterdam News last year. “I was actually pulled over with some friends by the police not long after, who started interrogating us about a crime that we didn’t commit. I was lucky — the reality of being a Black man meant I could have been one of the Exonerated Five.”
But for many who remember the ripple effects of the case vividly, the only way to tell if the justice system works is if the former president is convicted. And we may not know until near the next presidential election, where Trump threw his hat in the ring for a third time. This indictment only moves the needle a little, several people told Capital B.
“I think that Black people face the same problems we faced in ’89 in terms of having respect for human rights — having respect for our right to self-determination — and that a Black police commissioner, a Black mayor, a Black head of the assembly, a Black head of the Senate, and Black state attorney general hasn’t made a fundamental change in the conditions of average Black people,” said Roger Wareham, who represented three of the Central Park Five for their exoneration proceedings.
‘Never forget … because we never had a chance to’
During the spring of 1989, a 28-year-old white woman went on an evening jog in Central Park. Back then, it was not the Central Park that’s known today. It was a high-crime area that was full of garbage, graffiti, and crippling infrastructure.
Nevertheless, when police were called to the scene of a white woman who was viciously raped and nearly beaten to death, they urgently moved to make an arrest. During the night of the woman’s attack, several young Black and Latino teenagers were spotted by witnesses in the park. Dozens of Black boys and young men were stopped, questioned and frisked by police or taken into the precinct for questioning.
The combination of the number of people in the park, plus the assault, created the word “wilding,” like they were animals, said Gloria Browne-Marshall, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
In the 1980s, Trump was trying to make a name for himself among the Manhattan elite. Coming from the outer borough of Queens, receiving a $1 million loan from his father, and purchasing the Plaza Hotel disqualified him from being seen as an “established wealthy person,” Browne-Marshall said. “This is something that’s been a burden he has carried all of his entire life.”
Trump used this case of sexual violence against a woman to gain notoriety and establish himself as “somebody who believed he was part of the Manhattan aristocracy that owned the park,” Browne-Marshall said.
As the five young Black men were sitting in prison waiting out their wrongful sentences, Trump became a household name across the country and the cameras never went away.
“Never forget … because we never had a chance to,” Raymond Santana, one of the Exonerated Five, wrote after the indictment was announced.
“In the Black community … it is very clear what Trump represents and the danger he represents to our community, but also to the country,” Wareham said. “He generally has been able to escape and not have to face the consequences of what he has wrought on what he’s talked about regarding Black and brown people and immigrants.”
Trump’s ignorant, racist, and sexist comments continued to air on television for decades. Without consequences, he’s incited hate crimes and violence against Mexicans, Chinese and members of Congress, to name a few.
The calm before a possible storm
Monday night, there were more reporters outside the courthouse than protesters. Television news crews from around the world have traveled to Lower Manhattan to capture this historic moment. As some journalists spent the night in nearby hotels, others slept in news vans or on the sidewalk across the street from the courthouse to secure their spot in line inside to get a seat in the courtroom.
Several pro-Trump supporters have traveled from across the country after U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia organized a “peaceful protest” in the park across the street from the courthouse Tuesday morning. Greene was met with boos and profanity from anti-Trump demonstrators and quickly left the park.
Several NYPD officers patrolled the area throughout the night and remained throughout the day.
Eric Adams, the city’s second Black mayor since the late David Dinkins served one term from 1990 to 1993, warned protesters to be on their best behavior. The NYPD has beefed up security in and around the courthouse as well as Trump Towers.
Inside and around the courthouse the day after the indictment announcement last week, members of the U.S. Secret Service canvassed the area. The 15th floor, where Trump is expected to be arraigned, was closed off to the public, including the press. Reporters camped outside across the street from the front entrance with hopes of capturing Trump either entering or exiting the building.
The criminal courthouse that was built in the late 1930s currently has scaffolding surrounding it and may block cameras from getting their shot. Photographers filled typically noisy corners with chatter about previous cases where international media showed up at the courthouse. Meanwhile, a pedestrian placed a caricature sticker of Trump in a black-and-white striped shirt and hat screaming behind jailhouse bars onto a crosswalk pole.
Around the corner on Hogan Place, where the Manhattan district attorney’s office is located, were more members of the media and occasional onlookers.
Throughout the weekend, marked NYPD and state trooper vehicles were stationed at the foot of the bridges and tunnels across the city as if it was New Year’s Eve. And cable network news produced hours of shows that dissected Trump’s presidency.
“I do think there’s a little bit of fatigue with the nonstop coverage, but I also think that many people wanted to see justice done,” said George White Jr., a professor of history and interim dean for CUNY’s York College School of Arts & Sciences.
In reality, White says the Black community is or should be more interested in the Georgia investigation “in part because that directly affected the election, and it also directly affected these poll workers, particularly those Black women who were poll workers who had to go into hiding, because of the lies that he [Trump] and his surrogates were telling and their lives are being threatened.”
Fani Willis is the first Black district attorney for Fulton County, Georgia, and is handling the case there. Trump loyalists have been accused of attempting to appoint “fake electors” to declare his victory in Georgia, despite Biden winning the state’s 16 electoral votes by a narrow margin more than two years ago.
Trump himself was recorded during a phone call in which he attempted to persuade Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” the estimated 11,000 votes the Republican former president needed to declare himself the winner in 2020.
As that case is pending, Trump is being prosecuted for allegedly falsifying business records when he arranged to give $130,000 in hush money to an adult film actor to keep quiet about an alleged 2006 sexual encounter. He has publicly denied the sex-related claims.
The $130,000 hush-money payment was just the tip of the iceberg, prosecutors say.
Trump allegedly orchestrated a “catch and kill” scheme from August 2015 to December 2017 through “a series of payments that he then concealed through months of false business entries,” prosecutors said.
Trump allegedly used American Media Inc. to pay a Trump Tower doorman $30,000 who claimed to have a story about a child Trump fathered out of wedlock. The former president also allegedly used a shell company to pay $150,000 to another woman who he allegedly had a sexual relationship with.
“Manhattan is home to the country’s most significant business market. We cannot allow New York businesses to manipulate their records to cover up criminal conduct,” Bragg said in a press release issued after Trump’s arraignment Tuesday. “As the Statement of Facts describes, the trail of money and lies exposes a pattern that, the People allege, violates one of New York’s basic and fundamental business laws.”
What happens next?
This is an unprecedented situation that has caused most to speculate what might happen and what special treatment Trump may receive.
“The typical things that we see, won’t happen. But just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean that the wheels of justice aren’t turning. He has been indicted. He will be arraigned. And there’s going to be a trial,” White said.
As a former president, Trump is entitled to lifetime privileges such as having a team of U.S. Secret Service members who guard him at all times. This may eliminate the possibility of a perp walk. Trump will have a booking photo, better known as a mugshot, taken, but it will not be immediately available. In 2019, New York enacted a policy that limits the release of these photographs.
When it comes to Trump being handcuffed, Browne-Marshall said that this routine process may have been a part of his negotiation with Bragg’s office to surrender. If Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis cop convicted of murdering George Floyd, can show up to sentencing not handcuffed, in a suit and tie, and not in jailhouse apparel, then Trump can do the same, she said.
Bragg will not be prosecuting the case himself. The Manhattan district attorney’s office employs hundreds of assistant district attorneys to try cases. In a high-profile case such as Trump’s, more than likely a team of senior-level assistant district attorneys will be assigned.
Several news organizations petitioned acting New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan to unseal the indictment documents prior to Trump’s arraignment and allow cameras into the courtroom. As of Monday evening, the judge declined the media’s request to record the procedure.
Prosecutors agreed to release Trump on his own recognizance.
By the next court date, Trump’s attorneys will file a motion to dismiss the indictment — a routine motion defense attorneys file to challenge the legality of the charges.
Whether Trump will walk out the front door into a frenzy of flashing lights to have an impromptu press conference before whisking off to Mar-a-Lago, Florida, for his scheduled prime-time speech remains to be seen.
Wareham says Trump won’t get the same treatment from photographers as the five young boys did every time they went to court.
“It’s going to be a totally different scenario than what they faced,” Wareham said. “If [Trump] is to do a perp walk, he’s going to use that to push his brand. But the Central Park Five, they were humiliated.”
This story has been updated.