29 Years After Being Wrongfully Convicted In The Central Park Jogger Case, Raymond Santana Talks New Civil Rights Movement
Despite it all, Santana says he'll never leave New York
Today marks the 29-year anniversary of the Central Park jogger case.
For those unfamiliar with the case, it involves five black and Latino teens — known as The Central Park Five — who, through the use of coerced confessions, were wrongfully convicted of the 1989 brutal rape and assault of a white female jogger in Central Park. The teens were later exonerated when the actual perpetrator, convicted rapist and murderer, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime. Their 2002 exoneration, however, came several years too late, as the boys had already served the majority, if not all of their 5 to 10 year sentences.
Raymond Santana was one of the five teens accused in the case. He was convicted on rape and assault charges and was sentenced to 5–10 years in prison when he was just 14 years old.
Now, nearly two decades after his release, the Harlem native is still trying to re-adapt to civilian life amidst a sea of recent police brutality cases and the uprising of a new civil rights movement, being fueled in part, by social media.
A victim of one of New York City’s greatest miscarriages of justice, someone like Santana probably should have fled New York City a long time ago. But despite the often tense and violent climate in his city, Santana says he’ll always be a New Yorker.
“I’ve always said that because of what we went through with our case, I feel like I earned my right to be a New Yorker and it’s not gonna be that easy to get me out,” he said. “Even though tensions are high, gentrification is high, and rent is ridiculous; I love Harlem and I will never leave.”
Santana says he shares the outrage being expressed by hundreds of thousands of Americans speaking out against police brutality and institutionalized protectionism in police forces across the country. The 44-year-old expressed frustration with the New York justice system, and the NYPD, which he described as “arrogant and untouchable.”
“The police force has been catered to by the Giuliani administration and the Bloomberg administration. They’ve created a monster that feels invincible, that feels untouchable, that feels they don’t have to admit when they’re wrong,” he said. “That’s what people are protesting.”
Santana also drew comparisons between the way police and prosecutors have handled recent cases like the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the chokehold death of Eric Garner, in New York, and his own 1990 trial and conviction.
“Police commit a crime and then get prosecuted by the District Attorney they serve. That’s one of the most negative and backwards parts of this process because the two work hand-in-hand together. They worked hand-in-hand on our case then, and they’re working hand-in-hand on these cases now,” he said.
As a member of the New York City Justice League, Santana has found himself on the front lines of a new civil rights movement, the success of which he attributes to savvy young activists and the power of social media. Santana believes social media could have helped to prevent The Central Park Five from quickly being labeled as violent marauders; presumed guilty before ever having the opportunity to be proven innocent.
“It may have been different for us if we had social media back then,” he said.
“When I was growing up we had four major newspapers and all four of them wrote the most outrageous headlines to criminalize us and paint us as guilty. Now, with social media, people don’t even have to read the newspaper anymore, and they’re more likely to research and challenge the information that is being shown to them.”
Santana lauded young organizers who used social media to promote the “Millions March NYC”, where he joined as many as 60,000 people who gathered to march through the city.
Along with fellow exonerate Yusef Salaam, Santana says he continues to participate in speaking engagements with thousands of students each year with hopes that his resilience will give students and young activists the courage to fight the injustices that occur every day.
In 2014, The Central Park Five won a $41 million settlement in a civil suit against the City of New York. A second suit against the state is still pending. Santana called the settlement a small victory and said he will continue to protest and share his story with others to give them hope.
“You have to tell people about those small victories. It gives them hope that they can use as motivation to reach their finish line in whatever process they’re going through. When you get a victory, you come back and you help somebody else achieve victory in their lives too,” he said.
His advice to protesters in the ‘new civil rights movement’: “You cannot give up on this process. You have to fight it tooth and nail.”