For 27 years, I’ve been in Donald Trump’s crosshairs.
I’m a member of the Central Park Five, a group of teenagers imprisoned for a brutal sexual assault in Central Park in 1989. When we were arrested, the police deprived us of food, drink or sleep for more than 24 hours. Under duress, four of us falsely confessed. Though we were innocent, we spent our formative years in prison, branded as rapists.
During our trial, it seemed as if every New Yorker had an opinion. But no one took it further than Trump. He called for blood in the most public way possible. Trump used his money to take out full-page ads in all of the city’s major newspapers, calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York.
During that time, our families tried to shield us from what was going on in the media, but we still found out about Trump’s ad. My initial thought was, “Who is this guy?” I was terrified that I might be executed for a crime I didn’t commit.
Thirteen years later, in 2002, we were exonerated. Matias Reyes eventually confessed to the rape and was definitively linked to the victim by his DNA. New York paid us $41 million in 2014 for our false imprisonment.
Trump has never apologized for calling for our murder. In fact, despite all evidence to the contrary, he’s still convinced we were guilty. When the Republican nominee was recently asked about the Central Park Five, he said, “They admitted they were guilty.” In a statement to CNN’s Miguel Marquez, Trump wrote, “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.” It’s further proof of his bias, racism and inability to admit he’s wrong.
When I heard Trump’s latest proclamation, it was the worst feeling in the world. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. Since I was 15, my life has never been my own. I had no control over what happened to me. Being in the spotlight makes me wary and self-conscious again. I am overwhelmed with a nagging fear that an overzealous Trump supporter might take matters into his or her hands.
Something as simple as picking up dinner for the family takes on a whole new wrinkle. I’m always looking over my shoulder, keeping an eye out for people who stare too long. Like a soldier always on high alert, I feel as if I can never enjoy myself fully, with all of the adrenaline that comes with that. It’s a scary feeling.
In some ways, I feel as if I’m on trial all over again. Like Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, young men who were killed and then crucified in the media, I know what it is to be a young black man without a voice. Even though we were found innocent by a court of law, we are still guilty in the court of public opinion. That brings a certain kind of stress.
I realize, too, I’m not the only victim. Trump has smeared dozens of people, with no regard for the truth. And he has backed a “law and order” system that would systematically target minorities. Trump says he would like to re-institute practices like New York’s “stop and frisk,” a policy proven to be unconstitutional and unjust. When we hear he is going to be a “law and order president,” a collective chill goes down the spine of those of us who have been the victims of this “law and order.”
Black people across America know because of the color of our skin, we are guilty before proven innocent. As a result, sometimes we lose the best years of our lives. Sometimes we lose our actual lives. We must not let this man ascend to the land’s highest office when he has always proven that he lets neither facts nor humanity lead his steps.
Yusef Salaam is a motivational speaker based in New York City.