ACLU Honors Central Park Five at 25th Annual Luncheon

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From left: honorees Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise

The Civil Liberties Group on Friday paid tribute to Ava DuVernay and the men behind the Netflix miniseries 'When They See Us,' with Michael B. Jordan presenting the honor to Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Jr., Antron McCray and Korey Wise.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California was in a New York state of mind for its 25th annual luncheon Friday, paying tribute to Ava DuVernay and her recent Netflix miniseries When They See Us as well as its real-life subjects, the Central Park Five — increasingly known today as the Exonerated Five.

All five of the men — Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Jr., Antron McCray and Korey Wise — who were wrongfully convicted as teenagers for the infamous and brutal 1989 rape and assault case that took place in Manhattan’s Central Park were in attendance as the regional ACLU membership assembled at the J.W. Marriott hotel at L.A. Live in Downtown Los Angeles, where they accepted both their own honors as well as DuVernay’s from actor Michael B. Jordan.

The Netflix miniseries has reignited a cultural conversation about the unjust prosecution, imprisonment and media handling regarding the case, which was overturned when the actual assailant behind the sexual assault of a 28-year-old jogger confessed to the crime in 2002, supported by forensic evidence. The five men — who were all minors when they were convicted and served between six and 13 years — were exonerated of all charges.

"This was such an egregious miscarriage of justice, but as survivors and as heroes of this story, it is tremendous to be honored in such a way today," said Salaam, who gathered with his fellow honorees before the luncheon. "I think all of us are humbled by it. It's such a tremendous honor to be here, to be standing, to have our faculties, to be able to talk to you, and to be received in this magnificent way."

Added Santana, "We lost our voices in '89 and we regained them in 2012 when the documentary [The Central Park Five] came out, and so we vowed that the youth was our main focus, to give back to them and to talk to them. And hopefully there won't be another Central Park Five."

"As a black man, that could’ve been me," Jordan told the assembled guests from the stage during his introductory remarks. "It was East Coast news, but a familiar story to anyone growing up black in America: mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins. They would sit us down for the 'Be careful' talk. It's dangerous in America when you're living in a black body."

In addition to the ongoing outcry against criminal justice issues facing people of color, the experiences of the Central Park Five have added resonance in the current cultural climate. Despite the five immediately recanting the confessions they made to the police, which they said then and now were coerced, their story nevertheless mushroomed in the hands of both a rabid press — and one publicity-seeking public figure in particular.

“Newspapers kept the city on edge, labeling these boys a wolf pack and super-predators, and an ambitious real estate developer named Donald Trump, our president, spent $85,000 on a full-page ads in four city newspapers calling for the execution of these brown boys — only the death penalty will do," Jordan reminded the audience. "That’s our president."

"[Trump] was a grown man that called for the execution of children," Joshua Jackson, who plays McCray’s defense lawyer Mickey Joseph in When They See Us, told THR. "I think we really need to be very clear about that. It wasn't that he was a law-and-order Republican who mistakenly called for these kids to be tried as adults. He actively called for the murder of children ... 14-, 15- and 16-year-old children. So, I think that there is nothing else I need to add to the moral stain upon that person or any person that would consider it ever a reasonable thing to do, to murder a child."

“It is really powerful to think that our current president was then taking out full page ads in all of the New York newspapers calling for the re-institution of the death penalty because of these men, on the basis of wild stereotypes that prevailed at that time, and that ultimately led to the image of super-predators in the '90s that led us so far astray in our criminal justice system," said ACLU SoCal executive director Hector Villagra. "He was there at the inception of this, and he was adding fuel to the fire. … It shows you that we are so enmeshed right now in the bias that pervades our society. We would hope that our leaders could rise above and be better than the rest of us. It shows us that we have the president who, in many ways, is an example of the worst of us."

"Korey said once that they put a bounty on our head by taking out these full page ads, calling for our deaths, and in many ways this is life after death,” Salaam said before the luncheon, responding to the news that the Exonerated Five would be sitting down for a conversation with Oprah Winfrey to be aired Wednesday on Netflix and OWN. "It's beyond words to describe the honor that we are feeling right now, to be these heroes of this story. It's like almost like lore, and for Oprah to be here to be whispering our names — I mean, of course, she's shouting it — but to be whispering it is just magnificent."

Meanwhile, Jackson explained that the Netflix miniseries forces the audience to be "confronted with the real human toll of this. The fact that through their entire journey they had to continually fight for themselves, that they were their only advocates, has forced the broader cultural conversation into really taking a look inward because in theory, the justice system is being done in the rest of its citizens' names. So are we comfortable having this done in our name?"

Jordan — whose breakthrough role as Oscar Grant, a young man killed in 2009 while being detained by Oakland police, in Fruitvale Station resonated with civil liberties activists — and Salaam shared a long, meaningful embrace as the latter accepted the Social Responsibility in the Media Award on DuVernay’s behalf, and again as the Five accepted the inaugural, specially created Roger Baldwin Courage Award.

"I'm happy to have my brothers with me today — I'm one of the Exonerated Five," Salaam told the guests. "After decades of being known as the Central Park Five, we thank Ava for acknowledging our humanity and telling our story with honesty and factual representation. We were boys when we were sent to prison. Just boys. And we were men when we came out. We had to struggle to break the label that the media gave us. Many of us stumbled forward, falling on our face at times. We thank Ava for her tireless efforts." 

At one point during his remarks, Salaam required a long pause to regain his composure. "I’m not ashamed to cry in front of you. These are tears of pain. These are tears of joy," he said. "We are miracles. We are miracles."