Perspectives: Political Lynching and the Popular Mob: Donald J. Trump Against the Central Park Five

 Reading and Viewing:

 “New York: Sentimental Journeys” by Joan Didion, The New York Review of Books, January 17, 1991.

The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding by Sarah Burns (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011)

 “The Central Park Five”, A Film by Ken Burns, David MacMahon and Sarah Burns (A Production of Florentine Films and WETA Television, PBS 2013)

On April 29, 1989 a young white woman was beaten, raped and left for dead in Central Park. She’d gone out jogging in the dark after a day at work at Solomon Brothers on Wall Street. At one thirty in the morning she was found with her clothes torn off and taken, near death, to Metropolitan Hospital. What followed played out in New York’s tabloid media, on radio and television, as the “Nightmare in Central Park”, a themed trope that followed the contours of New York’s self image as a crumbling, crime-ridden city plagued buy hordes of marauders, wolf packs and “wilders” that prayed on the citizens. A large part of the narrative concerned the victim’s race, set against the “color” of the eventual “perps”, who were a mix of black and brown. It didn’t matter that there had been 3,254 other reported rapes in the city (most of them against black women) or that just that same day a black woman had been raped and thrown off a roof in Harlem. The story was front page news: The Jogger and the Wolf Pack. Ultimately, five young men were convicted based on what turned out to be coerced confessions against the backdrop of zero forensic evidence, media pressure, citizen outrage, and the lynch mob mentality of a city, led into a frenzy by, among others, Donald J. Trump.

Any person interested in the lynch mob mentality could do worse than read Joan Didion’s compelling intellectual and historical take on the case, followed by a sober overview given by Sarah Burns and the eventual documentary produced by the famous Ken Burns.

Didion’s account hinges on the “instant sentimentalization of experience”, a public tactic of mobs and media that reduces “events to narrative” that eventuates in the “distortion and flattening of character”. Her essay, published in the “New York Review of Books” takes on a phenomenological character, emphasizing the sentimentalization of class and race relations, a trope about terrible crimes inflicted on innocent victims, a resolution that “promised both resolution and retribution” but that, unfortunately for the defendants in the case (who were speedily arrested, deprived of lawyers, interviewed for sleepless hours—they ranged in age from 14 to 16) and made false promised to by the police) localized the pain in the events to whites only. New York was made to look like the crime capital of the United States, when in fact eight American cities had higher homicide rates and twelve had overall higher crime rates.

As a mob leader, Donald Trump was quick to act. On May 1, he took out full page advertisements in all four major New York newspapers implicating the five defendants, calling them guilty, and arguing in favor of the death penalty. On television Trump said, “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…” His ad stated in bold letters: CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS! In a follow-up interview with Larry King, Trump said, “The problem with our society is the victim has absolutely no rights and the criminal has unbelievable rights” and that “maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done.”

Sarah Burns’ admirable book details the lynching trope, its dovetail with the New York Crime Narrative, and all the lousy police work that resulted in an obvious suspect being overlooked and young boys of color taking the fall. The documentary, is a reminder of how this all continues to happen, young black men executed on the streets under flimsy pretexts, dragged down, shot in the back, taken to jail for failing to defer. It all stems from Reconstruction, its stories of sexual assault, “insatiable black rapists, tender white virgins, and manhunts led by ‘determined men’ that culminated in lynching.” Since 1882, when lynching statistics first began to be recorded, many thousands of black Americans have been murdered by mobs. The Tuskegee Institute, “which holds the most comprehensive survey of lynching records, recorded 3,437 lynchings of blacks from the 1880s into the 1950s.” There were certainly thousands more beforehand. Hanging, burning, castration, torture, shooting and hideous mutilation were modes and methods used by the Ku Klux Klan before 1880. Many lynchings became picture postcards.

Fourteen years after the crime, and after years of incarceration, the sentences of the Central Park Five were vacated based on DNA evidence and the detailed confession of a serial rapist, back then well known to New York police, named Matias Reyes. It was obvious to everybody that Reyes was the guilty party, and that the Central Park Five had been wrongly convicted. The City of New York ultimately settled their case against the city for $40million.

In June 2014, Trump wrote an opinion article for the “New York Daily News” in which he called the settlement a “disgrace”, insisting that the group’s guilt was still likely. “Settling doesn’t mean innocence…These young men do not exactly have the past of angels.” Never mind that they hardly had any past at all, being teenagers, or that four of them had no criminal arrest or conviction records. In October 2016, during the campaign, Trump alleged on CNN: “They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty.”

It’s Trump stock in trade—the distortion and flattening of character and the reduction of events to a sentimental narrative. In Trump’s case, whatever trope that fits his own private narrative of power, invective, and retribution. and enhances his ability to lead a mob through appeals to naked emotion. He continues to lead his mob, choosing his victims from among the Syrian refugees, the “media”, the “liberals”.  Only now he’s ably assisted by White Power stooges, Alt-Right apologists and Republican toadies and hangers-on. It’s a dangerous mix, especially if you get caught in their witch hunt.