For 27 years, I’ve been in Donald Trump’s crosshairs.
I’m a member of the Central Park Five, a group of teenagers wrongfully imprisoned after the brutal sexual assault of a jogger in Central Park in 1989. The victim, a 28-year-old investment banker named Trisha Meili, was bludgeoned with a rock, tied up, raped and left for dead. She was discovered hours later.
When we were arrested, the police deprived us of food, drink or sleep for more than 24 hours. Under duress, we falsely confessed. Though we were innocent, we spent our formative years in prison, branded as rapists.
During our trial, it seemed like 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, urging the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York. I don’t know why the future Republican nominee bought those ads, but it seems part and parcel with his racist attitudes.
At the time, our families tried to shield us from what was going on in the media, but we still found out about Trump’s ads. My initial thought was, “Who is this guy?” I was terrified that I might be executed for a crime I didn’t commit.
Another man, Matias Reyes, eventually confessed to the rape and was definitively linked to the crime through DNA. Because of this, we were exonerated in 2002. New York City paid us $41 million in 2014 for our false imprisonment. (As is customary in such settlements, the city did not admit liability.)
Trump has never apologized for calling for our deaths. In fact, he’s somehow still convinced that we belong in prison. When the Republican nominee was recently asked about the Central Park Five, he said, “They admitted they were guilty.√” In a statement to CNN, 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.” (Meili, for her part, told CNN in 2003: “I guess there are lots of theories out there, but I just don’t know. . . . I’ve had to come to peace with it by saying: ‘You know what? I’m just not going to know.’ ”)
It’s further proof of Trump’s bias, racism and inability to admit that he’s wrong.
When I heard Trump’s latest proclamation, it was the worst feeling in the world. I couldn’t breathe. Starting when I was 15, my life was not my own. For years, I had no control over what happened to me. Being in the spotlight makes me wary and self-conscious again. I am overwhelmed with fear that an overzealous Trump supporter might take matters into his or her hands.
Doing something simple like picking up dinner for the family or going to the aquarium now fills me with dread. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder, keeping an eye out for people who stare too long. Like a soldier always on high alert, I can never enjoy myself fully, with all the adrenaline that comes with that. It’s a scary feeling.
In some ways, I feel like I’m on trial all over again. I know what it is to be a young black man without a voice — like Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, who were killed and then crucified in the press. Even though the Central Park Five were found innocent by a court of law, we are still guilty in the eyes of many. That brings a certain kind of stress.
I realize, too, that 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 (including the “stop and frisk” policy found to be unconstitutional) that would systematically target minorities, sending a collective chill down the spines of those of us who have been the victims of such “law and order.”
Black people across America know that 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 highest office in the land — a man who has proved that he lets neither facts nor humanity lead his steps.
This text has been updated from its original version.