The system is done with Raymond Santana. But Santana is not done with the system.
Santana, one of the Central Park Five, spent five years in prison for a crime he did not commit. But despite the quintet ultimately having their convictions overturned and winning a civil suit, he can’t relax, he said Saturday at the Afrikana Independent Film Festival at VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art.
“We’ve been fighting against the system for over 30 years now. It’s not that simple. And when you start to get your voice back and you start to understand you have a platform ... now you have to give back,” he said.
“We started to focus on teaching the young, giving this message to the young kids. And so that becomes our motivation, that has become our message. It’s not that easy to pull the gloves off.”
Santana fielded questions from moderator Zoe Spencer and audience members following the film festival screening of “The Central Park Five,” a documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon on the 1989 case in which five teens — four black and one Puerto Rican — were wrongfully convicted in the brutal assault and rape of white investment banker Trisha Meili as she jogged in New York’s Central Park.
The Harlem youths, ages 14 to 16 when they were arrested, spent from five to 13 years in prison before serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime.
This past May, Netflix released filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s miniseries “When They See Us,” a docudrama on the Central Park Five case that has been nominated for 16 Emmys.
The exonerated Central Park Five, some of whom didn’t even know each other when they were arrested, have forged a close bond as adults. Santana lives in Atlanta, 7 minutes from Antron McCray, whom he speaks with on the phone every day. Yusef Salaam also lives in Georgia.
Santana, after his appearance in Richmond, was rushing off to Washington for a reunion with Salaam and Korey Wise.
“We try to maintain a brotherhood,” he said, especially for Wise, who experienced a different level of trauma after being tried as an adult and sent to an adult prison, despite being 16 when he was arrested.
“It’s up to us to really help him through that process,” Santana said.
The love the Central Park Five are receiving now is a great space to be in, Santana said, “because in 1990 we were considered probably the most hated people to be on the planet Earth.”
“Back then, what we were waiting for was people to see the truth,” Santana said. He added that more than 400 articles were written about the Central Park Five in the first few weeks of the case, criminalizing them in print and cementing their guilt in the eyes of the public. People turned their backs on them and it became easy for the system to do what it wanted to them, he said.
The documentary sets the context for the hatred, panic and racism that produced such a miscarriage of justice. New York, just emerging from a series of crises in the 1970s, began a Wall Street-led resurgence before the crack epidemic hit in 1984, fueling a surge in crime.
Donald Trump famously took out full-page ads in New York newspapers demanding a return to the death penalty, despite the fact that the defendants were minors. Even after the they were exonerated, mea culpas were grudging or nonexistent from police, prosecutors, members of the media and Trump.
“We gave a modest nod to fairness, and we walked away from our crime,” said historian Craig Steven Wilder in the documentary.
Today, the Central Park Five’s mission is to light a fire of activism and awareness in young people.
“We’re not afraid to tell our stories, and go into depth with our stories, because there are lessons there,” he said.
One cautionary tale observable in the documentary was how unschooled the boys and their parents were about the criminal justice system that abused and coerced them after the arrests.
Everyone must become more engaged in knowing their rights, Santana said.
“I didn’t know what Miranda was. As a 14-year-old kid, we didn’t know that we had to know that stuff. But now in this day and age, we have to have those conversations with our kids,” said Santana, who has a 15-year-old daughter.
“So now, we as parents, we have to be more actively involved, because it can happen to anybody, and it doesn’t matter. First it starts off with black and brown children; next it’ll be white children. The system does not care. The system just needs a body to occupy that space, to get that budget.”
He sees social media as a powerful platform “to get to the truth.” In their case, he said, people were swayed by newspapers and TV stations and courtroom sketches that made them look guilty.
“People ask, are you still bitter, do you get upset?” Santana said. “I say yeah, we deal with all that. But for me, channeling the energy into a fight against a system that doesn’t want to give us anything was a great outlet for me.”