Friday, September 30, 2016

Donald Trump and the Central Park Five

In April 1989 a brutal crime was committed in Central Park in New York City. A woman was raped and beaten nearly to death. Five teenagers, four African American and one Latino, were arrested and charged with the crime. A few weeks later, Donald Trump paid to run a full page advertisement in four New York newspapers:

Trump Central Park Five

BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY.

BRING BACK OUR POLICE!

What has happened to our City over the past ten years? What has happened to law and order, to the neighborhood cop we all trusted to safeguard our homes and families, the cop who had the power under the law to help us in times of danger, keep us safe from those who would prey on innocent lives to fulfill some distorted inner need. What has happened to the respect for authority, the fear of retribution by the courts, society and the police for those who break the law, who wantonly trespass on the rights of others? What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we knew it.

Many New York families — White, Black, Hispanic and Asian — have had to give up the pleasure of a leisurely stroll in the Park at dusk, the Saturday visit to the playground with their families, the bike ride at dawn, or just sitting on their stoops — given them up as hostages to a world ruled by the law of the streets, as roving bands of wild criminals roam our neighborhoods, dispensing their own vicious brand of twisted hatred on whomever they encounter. 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? And why do they laugh? They laugh because they know that soon, very soon, they will be returned to the streets to rape and maim and kill once again — and yet face no great personal risk to themselves.

Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. 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. Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them. If the punishment is strong, the attacks on innocent people will stop. I recently watched a newscast trying to explain the “anger in these young men”. I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.

How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!

When I was young, I sat in a diner with my father and witnessed two young bullies cursing and threatening a very frightened waitress. Two cops rushed in, lifted up the thugs and threw them out the door, warning them never to cause trouble again. I miss the feeling of security New York’s finest once gave to citizens of this City.

Let our politicians give back our police department’s power to keep us safe. Unshackle them from the constant chant of “police brutality” which every petty criminal hurls immediately at an officer who has just risked his or her life to save another’s. We must cease our continuous pandering to the criminal population of this City. Give New York back to the citizens who have earned the right to be New Yorkers. Send a message loud and clear to those who would murder our citizens and terrorize New York — BRING BACK THE DEALTH PENALTY AND BRING BACK OUR POLICE!

Donald J. Trump

All five of the teenagers (who came to be known as the Central Park Five) eventually confessed, were tried, and convicted. The oldest (16 years old) was tried and sentenced as an adult. But because New York did not have the death penalty, the teens were spared execution.

Which is probably a good thing because all five were innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.

Another man eventually confessed to the crime and to other crimes that had been blamed on gangs of roving youth. His DNA matched that of the semen found in the victim and he knew details about the crime that the police had not publicized. Oh, the confessions of the teens? Right. Their confessions were obtained under duress, without counsel, without their parents (remember, they were minors), and were inconsistent. But the police, prosecutors, and jury all chose to ignore those inconsistencies and lack of DNA evidence tying the teens to the crime.

In 2014, well over a decade after the Central Park Five were finally exonerated, the New York City settled a lawsuit and agreed to pay the men $40 million dollars. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump was displeased by this and so he wrote an op-ed which was published in the New York Daily News:

My opinion on the settlement of the Central Park Jogger case is that it’s a disgrace. A detective close to the case, and who has followed it since 1989, calls it “the heist of the century.”

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.

What about the other people who were brutalized that night, in addition to the jogger?

One thing we know is that the amount of time, energy and money that has been spent on this case is unacceptable. The justice system has a lot to answer for, as does the City of New York regarding this very mishandled disaster. Information was being leaked to newspapers by someone on the case from the beginning, and the blunders were frequent and obvious.

As a long-time resident of New York City, I think it is ridiculous for this case to be settled — and I hope that has not yet taken place.

Forty million dollars is a lot of money for the taxpayers of New York to pay when we are already the highest taxed city and state in the country. The recipients must be laughing out loud at the stupidity of the city.

Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.

What about all the people who were so desperately hurt and affected? I hope it’s not too late to continue to fight and that this unfortunate event will not have a repeat episode any time soon — or ever.

As citizens and taxpayers, we deserve better than this.

So why do I bring up this incident and the aftermath? Because I think that a careful look at what Trump said (and didn’t say, I suppose) helps us understand what Trump really believes and how he might act as President.

Let’s start with is initial full page ad calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty. Not only that, though, but also calling for the death penalty against minors. First, it’s obviously a good thing that the teens weren’t executed (and that is precisely the reason that I do have serious concerns with capital punishment); after all, once a person is dead, it’s hard to say “oops, sorry” when the conviction is overturned and the person exonerated. I note, though, that in his 2014 op-ed, Trump never apologizes for demanding that the teens be executed or acknowledges what the ramifications might have been had New York met his demands.

It is also worth noting that Trump’s prediction that the teens “will be returned to the streets to rape and maim and kill once again” turned out to be wrong.

But then we get to the core of Trump’s position — and here is where Trump’s worldview really begins to get scary:

I want to hate these muggers and murderers. 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. Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will.

Now I don’t really disagree with him at wanting to have negative feelings toward muggers and murderers, though I think “hate” is probably too strong a word; I’ll reserve that for other things (though of course each situation is fact dependent). But he wants them to “suffer”. Is that why we incarcerate criminals? As far as I’m aware, in many states the expressed reason for incarceration is punishment and rehabilitation, not to make the convicted criminal “suffer” (and yes, I do see a difference between punishment and suffering). Our Constitution specifically prohibits cruel and unusual punishment; I would argue that making criminals “suffer” because of our collective “hate” is precisely what the Constitution sought to prohibit.

Note further, Trump’s claim that he will “always” hate these murderers. Hmm. Does that hate continue even after they’ve been exonerated? Look closely at Trump’s 2014 op-ed where Trump continues to attack the teens: “These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.” In Trump’s world, are we supposed to be convicting, punishing (via “suffering”), executing, and hating people who don’t have “the pasts of angels”? What happened to innocent until proven guilty? Are we to continue hating people who have served their time in jail or who have shown honest remorse for their actions?

And then Trump tells us that he doesn’t want to “understand their anger”:

I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them. If the punishment is strong, the attacks on innocent people will stop. I recently watched a newscast trying to explain the “anger in these young men”. I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.

Sadly, unless I’m mistaken, empirical studies demonstrate that punishment for certain types of crimes doesn’t act as much of a deterrent. More importantly, why did (does?) Trump not want to understand the anger being expressed via criminal act? To understand something isn’t to agree with or condone it. But to understand something may be the best way to try to counter it or prevent it. For example, if the anger is fueled by lack of opportunity or by terrible schools or by a sense of institutionalized racism, then aren’t those things that we, as a society, can and should address? If crime is an outlet when there isn’t any hope or when there aren’t any socially acceptable (and legal) activities for youth, then isn’t that something that we can try to alleviate? What if these teens had an opportunity to play in youth sports leagues, or receive good mentoring, or had schools from which they saw a path to graduation and eventual employment at a living wage? But if we’re not offering even those sorts of opportunity, should we be totally surprised at youthful anger?

Look, I don’t know what was going on in the minds of Central Park Five, whether they were guilty of other crimes, whether they were troublemakers or just kids in the wrong place at the wrong time, whether poverty and the like were the primary motivating factors in their behaviors, or whether they were evil. But it seems that just being angry, just wanting to punish, and not wanting to understand means that you don’t want to find ways to solve the problem at all. Punishment may be a balm for a raw nerve but it probably won’t stop the next criminal act motivated by the same underlying factors.

This point has application beyond just local crime, too. Re-read Trump’s words about not wanting to understand and wanting the criminals to be afraid. But this time, instead of thinking of a bunch of criminals in New York City, think of al-Qaeda or ISIS or even homegrown terrorists:

I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them. If the punishment is strong, the attacks on innocent people will stop. I recently watched a newscast trying to explain the “anger in these young men”. I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.

Again, I would argue that understanding their anger (understanding, not accepting) is likely the first step toward stopping it. We’ve been punishing terrorists with bombs and missiles and troops. And they may, in fact, be afraid. But they haven’t stopped, have they?

Trump then asks rhetorically, “How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits?” While he was characterizing violent teenagers as “crazed misfits” couldn’t his accusation be equally applicable today to mass shootings in our shopping malls and movie theaters? For that matter, couldn’t his accusation also be applicable to the shooting of unarmed, often innocent civilians, by the police? Or what about the bankers who allow the housing market to collapse (or to billionaires who cheered for its collapse) or companies who pollute our air and water? Somehow I doubt that Trump 2016 would recognize those comparisons with Trump 1989.

But then we come to the most damning sentence in Trump’s op-ed and the sentence that led me to write this post in the first place:

Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!

First, the Constitution doesn’t provide that rights end when someone becomes a criminal; just the opposite, in fact. The Constitution provides for a right to a trial by jury, a right to a speedy trial, a right against unreasonable searches and seizures, and perhaps most importantly, a right against cruel and unusual punishment. In the years since the Constitution was adopted, courts have recognized that suspects have to be told their rights (Miranda warnings), have a right to an attorney, and, if I’m not mistaken, if they are minors, have a right to the presence of their parents. The need for these rights should be self-obvious, but this is Donald Trump that we’re talking about so it’s quite possible that he just doesn’t get it or just doesn’t care.

So once again, take Trump’s claim that civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins and imagine how he might put that into play as President. He’s already told us that he would reinstate the use of torture against terrorists, but of course the question of whether someone is a terrorist would not have been adjudicated at the time that the torture was being used, would it? He’s told us (including during the first debate) that he would reinstate the unconstitutional “stop & frisk” tactic and has even said that he wanted police to take guns away from “bad people” (again without any sort of prior adjudication of who is “bad”; I have to wonder if it depends on the color of their skin or the language that they speak).

When you combine the ideas of making criminals “suffer” with a claim that they lose their “civil liberties” then doesn’t Trump’s America begin to look like one of those Third World hellholes he seems to already believe America to be? The Central Park Five did have civil liberties and they were still wrongly convicted. What would happen if we didn’t grant accused criminals their civil liberties in the first place? Does Trump’s call for the reinstatement of torture only apply to terrorists or would he support torturing accused violent criminals to obtain information or confessions? How would we explain years of suffering at the hands of the state if a criminal was eventually exonerated? But that is the America that Trump was demanding in 1989 and, seemingly, still wants today.

Trump also relates a quaint tale from his youth of police roughing up a couple of bullies. This anecdote prompted me to wonder about three things: First, why didn’t Trump’s father intervene? Why didn’t he teach young Donald how to stick up for others? Did the elder Trump sit idly by while the waitress was being harassed instead of asking the bullies to stop? And if not, what kind of lesson did that teach young Donald (and was he orange as a child…)? Second, why didn’t the police arrest the “thugs”? Why put them back on the street to terrorize the waitress (or others) again? And third, why is it that Trump’s “feeling of security” only came about from the police using force? Perhaps force, along with money, are the only things that Trump really understands. We know that he seems not to object by the use of force by police; after all, witness his criticism of complaints of police brutality in the very next paragraph where he seems to be demanding that police be “unshackled” from prohibitions on the use of unnecessary force. Would the event have been less had the police simply talked to the bullies to defuse the situation or was it the use of force, even if only minor force, that made an impact upon Trump? Maybe that’s why he has been so quick to advocate violence against protestors at his rallies.

And what exactly did Trump mean when he talked about “citizens who have earned the right to be New Yorkers”? Was he suggesting that some people, oh, I don’t know, maybe those who have darker skin, haven’t “earned the right” be New Yorkers? What does one do to “earn” that right?

Moving on to Trump’s 2014 op-ed, the first thing that strikes me is his claim is that “Settling doesn’t mean innocence”. That’s true. Of course, with regard to the Central Park Five, the confession of another man who had specific knowledge of the crime and who was tied to the crime by DNA evidence probably does mean innocence. Moreover, it’s worth noting that when Trump spoke during the first debate about the lawsuit against for racial discrimination in housing, he talked about settling without an admission of guilt as if that settlement did, indeed, prove his innocence. So which is it? Does a settlement prove innocence or not? You can’t have it both ways.

It’s also interesting to see how, in 2014, Trump attributes all sorts of incompetence, political meddling, leaks, and so forth to the handling of the original case, yet way back in 1989, he didn’t seem worried about anything getting in the way of his rush to judgment and demand for the death penalty, did he?

Trump was also highly critical of the settlement, both in terms of the case being settled at all and the amount. Of course, in reaching that settlement, the City likely had access to all sorts of information relating to the likelihood of success in the litigation and the possible damages that could be assessed; perhaps a $40 million settlement seemed reasonable given the possible outcomes. Apparently, Trump knows more about this case than did New York City officials, much like he claims to know more about ISIS than our generals.

Notice, too, what Trump does not say or acknowledge in his op-ed. He doesn’t apologize for demanding that five innocent teens be subject to the death penalty. He doesn’t acknowledge that the teens were wrongly convicted or that they spent between 6 and 13 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. He doesn’t acknowledge that the police acted illegally by coercing minors into giving false confessions. And of course he doesn’t acknowledge that his own actions and accusations may have poisoned the jury pool or inflamed public sentiment in a way that pushed police and prosecutors to act in a certain way and not consider other possible perpetrators or inconsistences. But if there’s one thing that we’ve learned watching Trump’s bid for the White House, it’s that Donald J. Trump is never, never, NEVER at fault if something goes wrong. Nope. Trump was the shining light of truth and goodness when he demanded that innocent teens be executed. Let’s Make America Great Again!

Furthermore, and this is a bit afield, but I want to look at the last part of the opening paragraph of Trump’s 1989 ad. However, instead of thinking about the police and how they should respond to violent criminals, think instead about New York billionaires who engage in racial discrimination in housing and employment, who establish fake “universities” to defraud people out of their retirement, who sue and get sued at almost unprecedented rates for, among other things, refusing to pay for services rendered and goods delivered, and, when things don’t go their way in the courts, either settle the cases or argue that the system or the judges are biased, who like to plaster their names on everything, seemingly in a need to satisfy and unquenchable ego, who bribe public officials with money taken from a charity and who appropriate charitable funds to enrich themselves, and who are “smart” because they don’t pay taxes or who circumvent the law to do business with Cuba despite an embargo they claim to support. With that in mind, read Trump’s words again (emphasis added):

who had the power under the law to help us in times of danger, keep us safe from those who would prey on innocent lives to fulfill some distorted inner need. What has happened to the respect for authority, the fear of retribution by the courts, society and the police for those who break the law, who wantonly trespass on the rights of others? What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we knew it.

Was Trump anticipating the need for the FBI and the New York Attorney General (and others) to keep Americans safe from Trump?

Finally, thinking back to Trump’s actions in the Central Park Five matter, ponder for a moment how a President Trump might respond in the event of another tragic event. Would he be calling for calm with pleas to allow the police to complete their investigation and for the justice system to work … or would he be atop the leading the howling masses with the proverbial pitchfork, stoking and inflaming the fires of revenge and retribution, facts and the rule of law be damned?

Please don’t allow Donald Trump — a racist, xenophobic, fascist — to become President. Please.

Update October 7, 2016: I just came across an article on CNN referring to a statement that Trump gave this week to a CNN reporter:

“They admitted they were guilty,” Trump said this week in a statement to CNN’s Miguel Marquez. “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.”

Now think about that for a moment. Trump still believes that the five teens were guilty even though another man confessed to the crime and his DNA matched the semen of the woman’s rapist. And Trump still looks to the confessions of the teens even though they were obtained under duress while the teens were deprived of certain constitutional rights. Hmm. So what does it say about Trump that he ignores exonerating evidence (maybe he doesn’t understand DNA?) and is willing to accept coerced confessions? Do we really want that sort of person to be President?

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