The Central Park Exonerated Five: Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr., Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise were honoured at Central Park entryway of the Park between Fifth Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard. This is the first time Raymond Santana returned to Central Park to view The Gate of The Exonerated together.
Twenty years ago, on December 19, 2002, five men who were wrongfully convicted of a violent assault in Central Park in 1989 were exonerated of charges brought against them as children. The “Central Park Five” as they were known, were Black and Latino teenagers from the Harlem community. This event marks the 20th anniversary of that court decision.
The punishment continues long after being convicted. A loss of family time, freedom, and pinochle moments in life where you cannot turn back the clock. You have a criminal record despite you being innocent and the punishment lingers on until proven, if proven. Being wrongfully convicted dates back to 1673, Thomas Cannell was accused and hung for the murder of his mother. Many are unaware of names like John Bunn, who was convicted at 14 for a crime he did not commit and was finally exonerated in 2018. In August 1991, John was accused of murdering a correction officer in New York. The evidence was tainted and not surprisingly provided by a former New York City police detective Louis Scarcella. Bunn served 17 years behind bars. They had the wrong man the entire time. He is now 45.
The re-birth of mass incarceration can be traced back to the 1970s in an effort to resuscitate the New Jim Crow. Which happens to be one of the most extraordinary atrocities that lends to a high oppressive act. You see, those who are confined are out of sight and out of mind.
After the case of the Central Park in 1989, the 1994 Crime Bill created a legacy by funding incentives to drive Mass Incarceration. There was a major push for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, now commonly referred to as the 1994 Crime Bill. Media malpractice made sure that there was a climate of fear in order to create a bill like this. Individuals were saying gangs and drugs took over our streets and under minded our schools. They fueled prisons and not schools. The number of federal and state correctional facilities rose to about 45% from 1990 to 2005. A new prison opened every 15 days on average. Mass Incarceration is a well-planned system for the Black Boy. They are still reaping what was sowed.
Incarceration sterilizes our communities. The systems is engineered to keep the youth at odds, in constant war, confusion and chaos. Families often give up and inmates are without support. This was not the case for the Exonerated Five.
Families stood tall and refused to crack. I met one of the Warriors who enlightened us about the wrongfully incarnation of many. Each rally I would secretly sort her out and stand within ear and eye shot to follow this Mother. A power of sharp words dripping from her heart. She was Civil but Disobedient. She was Beautiful but Grotesque. She was Curt but Lofty. Sharrone Salaam, mother of Yusef Salaam stood proud in Central Park to view the Gate of The Exonerated. She shared with the People Before Politics Radio Show and Black Westchester Magazine many years ago that she was constantly in fear of her son’s wellbeing. She disguised him as a female many days because of the consistent death threats. Hundreds of letters of threats along with predator’s standing at her building. Because of the unjust arrest and conviction of her son it evolved her into advocacy for those who have been wrongfully incarcerated. She continues to do the work on behalf of kids when they are in prisons, the juvenile facilities, and in the adult facilities.
The criminal justice system tragically failed many black boys like 16-year-old Kalief Browder, who spent three years of his young life in Rikers Island jail, while awaiting trial. With at least two of those years served in the SHU, the hole, the box, Prison inside the prison, under the harshest inhumane conditions of solitary confinement. Browder was only arrested with a charge for allegedly stealing a backpack. The case was never prosecuted, the charges were ultimately dropped.
Like many young Black Boys, they are held for hours against their own will and impelled to admit to a crime that they did not commit. Dr. Yusef Salaam stated, “Prison is a part of the system. It’s the whole system that needs to be dismantled; the whole system that needs to be re-evaluated. The best people to fix it are the people that are affected by it – the inmates and prisoners who have no voice.”
Many families continue to carry the cross of a loved one being incarcerated. Professor Dr. Cornel West once said, “Words are too cheap when action is necessary. They are brutally trying to de-niggeriize our Black Boys! We need to stop laughing when it ain’t funny. Stop scratching when it don’t itch.”
Everyone deserves to live in America according to The Declaration of Independence, which specifically mentions these rights–which human beings possess by birth or by natural-life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No one should be denied these universal rights. Since they are “unalienable,” nor may they rightfully surrender them. With support and action, of all justice minded people we agreed that future convictions occur on the basis of justice, not politics! The morality of this is constipated.
People of all colours everywhere are realizing that a systematic war has always been waged on our youth. Mothers like Salaam and Fathers like Santana will not turn their back as they fight to collapse the system of mass incarceration.
During the predatory incursion the Exonerated Five that started on April 19, 1989, all five boys were taken into custody, hounded during the police interrogation and ultimately gave false confessions. Salaam, Santana, and McCray were convicted of rape, assault, and riot. Richardson was convicted of attempted murder, rape, sodomy, robbery, assault, and riot. Wise was found guilty of sexual abuse, assault, and riot. In 2002, a convicted rapist confessed to being the sole attacker and his DNA matched to the crime scene.
Raymond Santana shared, “This gate becomes bigger than the five. It represents a brotherhood that no one wants to be a part of. But now they are all accepted because this is their reality.”
The gate — the first to receive a new name since 1862 — marks the same entrance where the teens had entered the park on the night of the attack. As long as there is a Central Park, the story will continually be told.