After taking heat this week for statements he made about the Exonerated Five case, the aftermath of which roiled New York City during his three mayoral terms, 2020 presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg, 77, is now showing his support for the five men incarcerated for a crime they did not commit.
“I believe, and the DNA shows, that these men were in jail and endured long sentences for a crime they did not commit,” Bloomberg said in an exclusive statement to ESSENCE Thursday evening. “I understand that this case and so many like it are about the lives that were affected and the lasting scars left on individuals, families, and communities.
“When the police made tragic mistakes when I was Mayor of New York, I met with families, spoke at funerals, and the city settled cases. Today, I, like many others, benefit from a better understanding of how we should respond to and rectify injustice when it occurs,” the multi-billionaire media mogul continued. “This case and others like it show how people, most often people of color, in our country have been unjustly incarcerated and that’s why, as President, I will lead a major effort to overhaul the criminal justice system where it is broken and biased.”
The looming issue, of course, is that the criminal justice system is not broken; it is working exactly as it was intended to work, protecting exactly who it was intended to protect, and killing exactly who it was intended to kill.
And Bloomberg was singing a much different tune earlier this week about a case that has pierced the hearts of anyone who claims to care about justice.
Five Children, Locked In Cages
In 1989, five Black and Latino teens—Korey Wise, then 16; Yusef Salaam, then 15; Kevin Richardson, then 14; Antron McCray, then 15; and Raymond Santana Jr., then 14—were wrongfully arrested, charged, and convicted of the vicious rape and assault of then-28-year-old white investment banker Trisha Meili as she was jogging in Central Park.
The teens were vilified by prosecutors, including Linda Fairstein, who lead the Manhattan district attorney’s office sex crimes unit from 1976 until 2002, and excoriated by local and national press. President Donald Trump, then a glorified slumlord pushing The Art of the Deal and failing forward with his father’s money, took out ads in four New York City newspapers calling for the teens to be executed by the State.
“He put a bounty over my head,” Wise has said multiple times, as he speaks out about the horrific, relentless abuse he endured while he was institutionalized.
There was never any physical evidence linking the teens to the attack. And, as portrayed in Ava DuVernay’s brilliant and brutally beautiful film When They See Us, in 2002, convicted serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to assaulting and raping Meili.
The Bloomberg Years
Reyes’ confession lead to the full exoneration of all five men, and Wise’s release from prison after serving 12 years. In 2003, the now Exonerated Five sued the city and settled in 2014 for $41 million. They also sued New York State, which settled in 2016 for $3.9 million.
Bloomberg was mayor of New York City when Wise, Salaam, Richardson, McCray, and Santana were exonerated. From the beginning, he vehemently argued that the City and NYPD had acted with probable cause in charging, prosecuting, and incarcerating the five teens. Further, his administration spent nearly $6 million over a decade to fight the Exonerated Five’s lawsuit against the city. As late as 2012, (Bloomberg left office in 2013), his administration continued to defend the City’s and NYPD’s actions.
“There was no wrongdoing or malice on the part of the prosecutors or the detectives who conducted the investigation,” Celeste Koeleveld, a city lawyer, told Reuters. The case was finally settled when Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had promised to “put the divisive issue to rest” if elected, took office in 2014.
He Didn’t Remember
This case – the trauma inflicted on these boys and the continued trauma that the now-grown men must work through; the amplification of racist stereotypes about Black male criminality and sexual deviance; the weight of a powerful white man calling for the lynching of children, and segments of the Black community believing the worst of what this nation tells us about our children; and a city on edge—was a huge deal. A socio-political, culture-shifting, big deal that forced society to wrestle with an entrenched ethos shaped, for better or for worse, by race, gender, and class.
But on Monday, when CBS News reporter Tim Perry asked Bloomberg if his position had changed since his administration dedicated so many resources to actively fighting against the Exonerated Five receiving some semblance of justice—if he still believed that the City and NYPD had acted in good faith—he responded that he had “no idea.”
“I really have no idea,” Bloomberg said dismissively. “I’ve read in the paper, I’ve been away from government for a long time. So apparently, the courts have ruled that they did not commit it, commit a crime, and that’s the final word and we just have to accept that. It isn’t a question of what anybody believes.”
“There was an awful lot of evidence presented at that time that they were involved,” Bloomberg continued as Perry pushed back. “There’s been questions since then about the quality of that evidence. And, so, I’ve been away from it for so long, I just really can’t respond, because I just don’t remember. But there’s been plenty written about it, and I’d suggest that you go read some of that. Next question.”
Again, Wise, Salaam, Richardson, McCray, and Santana were exonerated in 2002. Bloomberg spent his time in office, over a decade, fighting against their lawsuit, which was settled in 2014, less than one year after he left office.
He was not “away from it” when the men were exonerated. There was no physical evidence linking the Exonerated Five to the scene, and it is astounding that he “just [couldn’t] remember” enough about the highly publicized and contentious case to answer a simple question with any substance.
Does Bloomberg Really Stand A Chance?
Bloomberg’s assertion that he got it right in some cases is not unsubstantiated. In the dark post-Giuliani days, some Black community leaders, including former NYC Mayor David N. Dinkins, former State Senator Malcolm A. Smith, who has since been arrested on corruption charges, and Rev. Calvin O. Butts III welcomed Bloomberg with open arms.
“Michael Bloomberg was and is a breath of fresh air since Giuliani,” Butts told the New York Times in Nov. 2006. Though Butts would offer some critiques throughout Bloomberg’s time in office, after the-then mayor donated $1 million dollars to Abyssinian Baptist Church, reportedly with the promise of more to come, Butts endorsed him again for a third term.
“What could I say to a man who was mayor, and was supportive of a lot of programs that are important to me?” Butts said at the time.
When NYPD officers gunned down Sean Bell on a public street in a hail of bullets during the pre-dawn hours of his wedding day, Bloomberg called the extrajudicial slaying “inexplicable” and “unacceptable.” The City would go on to settle with Bell’s family for $7.15 million, ESSENCE previously reported.
“Justice was not served in the end because nothing will ever bring back Sean’s life and the officers were acquitted,” Nicole Paultre Bell, Bell’s fiancée at the time of his death, tells ESSENCE.
“However, Mike Bloomberg stood with us….he backed up his words with actions,” she continued. “And the settlement we reached with the city of New York under Mayor Bloomberg was a small measure of justice.”
Paultre Bell, who tells ESSENCE that she disagrees strongly with the former mayor’s staunch support and expansion of Stop-and-Frisk, is now an activist who continues to speak out about the need for police accountability—and continues to hold Bloomberg accountable, as well.
“You can disagree strongly with how a person handled one situation in the past, as I do with Mayor Bloomberg around Stop-and-Frisk policing, while still agreeing with some aspects of how he did the right thing at another time.”
But is paying families a substitute for substantive policy changes to replace stop-and-frisk, and its variants: broken-windows, zero-tolerance, and quality-of-life policing that could have potentially saved their loved ones from antagonistic, abusive, and fatal encounters with law enforcement officers? Clearly, no.
Will Bloomberg’s about-face in rhetoric be enough to bolster the chances of a multi-billionaire who actively helped harm Black and Latinx communities through a violent policy that was enforced by violent police officers—a policy that was ruled unconstitutional in 2013? He apologized.
Will it be enough to clear a path for a die-hard capitalist that, just last month, admitted to exploiting the labor of incarcerated workers to make phone calls for his campaign? He claims he didn’t know.
According to the latest Real Clear Politics average of the latest polls, Bloomberg is polling at about 5 %, in fifth place behind former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, respectively.
While Bloomberg will surely go the distance in the Democratic primary, time will tell if the Black and Latinx communities’ memories are longer than his campaign funds.Share :