The five men who were arrested as teenagers, falsely convicted, sentenced to years in prison, and eventually exonerated for the rape and assault of a white jogger in Central Park in 1989, have never been keen on the name “Central Park Five.” They avoid the phrase when possible.
It was not a moniker they chose, but one given to them by the press: by outlets that regularly printed their legal names, though all five were underage; by tabloids that often failed to write “Allegedly” when describing their charges; by papers that ran full-page ads from a playboy real estate developer with latent political ambitions, attacking them in huge black font: “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY.” Friday afternoon, at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California’s 25th Annual Luncheon, where the five men were being honored, much care was taken to orient the celebration away from that phrase, and toward the five people it had obscured: Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana.
As actor Michael B. Jordan introduced the five honorees, he retold the famous story for the crowd.
DuVernay had won the ACLU’s annual Social Responsibility in Media Award-an irony lost on no one, least of all Yusef Salaam.
When Salaam took the stage to accept her award, he introduced himself with a new name: “I am one of the Exonerated Five.” “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,” Salaam said, during his speech accepting her award.
“We had to struggle to break the label that the media gave us. We stumbled forward, falling on our face at times.” During his speech, Salaam recalled when the media had been less humane: when columnists called them a “Wolf pack,” and when Pat Buchanan insisted that if only “The eldest of that wolf pack were tried, convicted and hanged in Central Park, by June 1, and the 13- and 14-year-olds were stripped, horsewhipped, and sent to prison, the park might soon be safe again for women.” Salaam lingered on the full-page ad taken out by the man currently occupying the White House.
“Korey [Wise] said it so well,” Salaam said.