The Artist of Politics

By William Bunch ’81 / March / April 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Very early on most mornings you can find Bill Perkins ’72 running on the footpaths of Central Park. Perkins, a member of New York’s City Council, usually runs about six miles. He is serious enough to take on the occasional marathon—his best time is two hours, twenty-seven minutes, and eighteen seconds—but he runs mostly to clear his head for the coming day. “There’s a certain spirituality,” he says, “a certain mood in the park in the early dawn. You start out when it’s sort of dark, and you get back just as it’s lightening up and the day begins. It’s a nice experience.”

The Central Park that Perkins knows is a far cry from the one described in newspaper accounts after the events of April 19, 1989, when about fifty young people, many of them from the Schomburg Plaza housing development in East Harlem, gathered in the park. At least some of them—it’s unclear just how many—roamed the park that night robbing passersby and beating cyclists and pedestrians. Several people were arrested for what came to be known as a night of “wilding,” perhaps because some of the youths later sang the popular Tone Loc rap song “Wild Thing” in their cells. The night took on an indelible mark of horror at about 1:30 a.m., when two men discovered the apparently lifeless body of a young white woman in a remote section of the park. Naked except for the top of a jogging suit, the woman, who was later identified as a twenty-eight-year-old Salomon Smith Barney merchant banker and a graduate of Wellesley and Yale, had been beaten so badly that her skull was fractured and an eye socket crushed. She had been gagged, raped, and, it seems, left for dead. By the time she was found, she’d lost 75 percent of her blood.

With videotaped confessions, the police charged five Schomburg Plaza teenagers: Yusef Salaam, who was fifteen years old; Kevin Richardson, fourteen; Antron McCray, fifteen; Raymond Santana, fourteen; and Kharey Wise, sixteen. The confessions were larded with graphic detail, and some of them were made while the boys’ parents were in the interrogation room with them. The city was so outraged that a New York Daily News columnist wrote, “The phone lines to this newspaper are busy with people screaming, ‘Call the case for what it is: black savages rape white girl.’ ”

Bill Perkins knew the Schomburg Plaza families well. As a tenant advocate at the high-rise development, he was regularly in contact with many of its residents, and what he was reading about the five youths in the newspapers didn’t square with what he had heard about them and seen for himself. “What I knew of these young men did not comport with the way they were being portrayed,” Perkins now says. “And they didn’t even know each other in that way. They didn’t hang out together. Their families didn’t know each other.”

Perkins worried mainly about the overheated rhetoric in New York’s tabloids and from City Hall, where Mayor Ed Koch was fighting for his political life in an election campaign against Perkins’s friend and mentor, David Dinkins. As the days turned to weeks, Perkins began to wonder whether the teens had really done everything they were accused of—even in spite of their confessions. At first he worked with a group of Harlem ministers to organize an interfaith prayer vigil outside the jogger’s Manhattan hospital. But as she began a long, miraculous recovery from the attack, Perkins and some other neighborhood activists were increasingly upset over the assumptions and generalizations that were becoming accepted as facts. Even Dinkins was calling the young men “urban terrorists.” “All of the young people in the community were being stigmatized by the rape,” recalls Perkins. He remembers worrying about the widespread effects the city’s fury might have—including, for example, the exclusion of law-abiding Schomburg teens from summer jobs.

Meanwhile, some parents of the accused young men approached Perkins to insist that their sons were innocent of the rape. Indeed, despite the videotaped confessions, parts of the young men’s stories didn’t seem to add up—a fact that received virtually no attention at the time. Although the semen sample police retrieved from the jogger’s sock didn’t match any of the suspects, prosecutors countered by saying blond hairs on one of the young men clearly were the jogger’s. “These kids are innocent until proven guilty,” Perkins recalls thinking at the time. “What people started telling me was that the stories we were hearing were not accurate.”

It was those nagging doubts, fueled by a lifetime of questioning authority, that prompted Perkins to agree to testify in court as a character witness for the young men. It was a nerve-wracking experience. For Perkins, who’d long held ambitions of winning a seat on the City Council, the case could have been political poison. He recalls being flustered on the stand. At one point, Colin Moore, a defense attorney for one of the youths, tried to establish Perkins’s intelligence and judgment.

“Didn’t you go to Brown University?” he asked.


SITTING IN THE COURTROOM was hardly the future Bill Perkins imagined for himself as a young man at Brown. Yet it is because of the strength of his imagination, his sense of justice, and his sheer determination that he ended up at Brown in the first place. Perkins grew up in poverty, mostly on Third Avenue in East Harlem, where his mother raised two other brothers and a cousin while drawing welfare. Perkins says his father is “unknown,” and his memories of growing up fatherless on public assistance during the 1950s and early 1960s focus more on its psychological impact than the economic hardship.

“You know how cruel kids are,” he says. “You’re on welfare, and they’re one step away from welfare, and yet they feel superior. It’s like you almost have a positive role to play in helping these people—who are just as poor—feel better about themselves.”

Perkins never got trapped in the cycle of the underclass. By the beginning of the 1960s, New York City was under some pressure to integrate its classrooms, and the city responded by adopting an open-enrollment policy that allowed children to attend schools outside their neighborhoods. His mother fought to get Perkins into P.S. 167, a highly rated junior high in the more affluent and predominantly white Yorkville neighborhood. After school let out for the day, he learned to play tournament-level chess and passed the time shooting pool and playing basketball and Ping-Pong.

Perkins credits part of his success to timing. He was born too late for school segregation to hold him back, he says, and early enough to miss the worst of New York City’s drug-abuse epidemics. He was recruited to attend Collegiate, the exclusive Manhattan private school, and spent a summer at Dartmouth. He was sought out even more aggressively by such colleges as Harvard, Wesleyan, and West Point. But he chose Brown, in part because of the fellowship of some African American students who’d shown him around on his college visit. He also received a full scholarship.

Today, Perkins has few illusions about why he escaped poverty while so many equally talented friends did not. He says that a cousin he grew up with won a scholarship to the prestigious Millbrook School but then died from a drug overdose. “The best of us were not chosen,” he muses. “Unfortunately, the best, in many instances, didn’t get the opportunity. We don’t like to face the role that luck plays in these opportunities.”

By the end of high school, the civil rights movement had begun to consume Perkins. After his senior year at Collegiate, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to present contributions his fellow students had raised for the March on Washington that Martin Luther King Jr. had planned but that his lieutenants were left to implement after his assassination. “I remember seeing Jesse Jackson in our camp right before he went to meet with the president,” Perkins recalls. “It was very muddy, and he had to tiptoe to avoid getting his boots muddy.” In those days Perkins was on fire with the rhetoric of Stokely Carmichael. In December of 1968—three months after arriving at Brown—Perkins was one of sixty-five black students to march down College Hill for a three-day sit-in at the Congdon Street Baptist Church, a protest that led to an administration promise to hire more black professors and add more classes in Afro-American studies. In addition, Brown promised to spend $1.2 million over three years to raise its black-student enrollment to 11 percent.

Perkins joined other demonstrations at Brown during that turbulent period: for black power, for getting U.S. troops out of Vietnam, and for the radical curriculum changes sought by student activists Elliot Maxwell ’68 and Ira Magaziner ’69. It was an exciting time to be a young, angry man, but for Perkins at least, it was not the best time to be a college student. “I was not a good student at Brown,” he says today. “I was a good student activist.”

Perkins withdrew from the University for a while. “I started asking myself, ‘Am I really committed, am I doing this right?’ ” He struggled to find his path. The days of mass protest were winding down, and Perkins began looking for a different way to reform society. He recognized the need for a change when he went to Washington to rally against President Richard Nixon’s second inauguration and was met by mounted police. “I realized that this is the president, this is the government,” he recalls. “These guys [the police] are mean.” Perkins returned to Manhattan, where he toyed with the idea of becoming a documentary filmmaker. He took film classes at New York University and joined the projectionists’ union. But the draw of politics was still strong, and in the mid-1970s he returned to Brown to finish his degree with a concentration in political science.


TODAY, while sitting in his City Council office on 125th Street in Harlem, Perkins credits Brown with encouraging him to think independently and critically and with fueling his demanding intellectual curiosity. An avid reader of any and all kinds of books, he sits near a table stacked high with them—an unusual sight in a politician’s office. Yet Perkins is enough of a politician to know that advocating for civil rights is about acquiring power and using it in ways large and small to improve the lives of those who elected him. He learned from New York City’s masters. During his early days as a grassroots tenant activist at Schomburg Plaza, he met some of the giants of Harlem’s black political movement, people like David Dinkins and the rumpled, behind-the-scenes consultant Bill Lynch. With their encouragement, Perkins started working on campaigns and became a delegate to the 1980 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden, where he backed the insurgent presidential run of Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy.

Perkins then went through a decade of political patronage jobs in housing and at the city Board of Elections. He ran in a series of losing campaigns before finally winning a City Council seat in 1998. He represents Harlem, as well as parts of East Harlem, the Upper West Side, and the Columbia University campus. Today, Perkins is New York City’s number-three Democrat—the council’s deputy majority leader. He is loved in his district for his focus on bread-and-butter issues: property taxes, schools, and firehouses. It’s these issues, in fact, that prompt him to take the subway to his downtown office near City Hall on the steely gray Saturday before Thanksgiving so he can join his colleagues in a marathon effort to agree on politically unpopular tax hikes and service cuts made necessary by 9/11 and a generally sluggish economy.

As the session goes on for hour after hour, old pizza boxes stack up in the dusty marble corridors outside the City Council offices, beside benches where weary reporters flip through the day’s New York Post yet another time. Occasionally, council members wearing blue jeans scurry past. Finally, as darkness descends outside, a deal is made, and Perkins races out to the battery of waiting television cameras. Unlike his casual colleagues, though, he is dressed sharply in a gray suit and a silk tie. His voice is deep and stentorian.

“There were some folks,” he says, facing the bright lights, “who thought they’d have a hard time taking this back to their districts.” He then sketches out the final deal, which will indeed raise taxes and close firehouses, but which is also not as draconian as the plan first proposed.

Then the lights are switched off, the reporters run to meet their deadlines, and Perkins melts into a crowd. A member of the firefighters’ union who lobbied against the firehouse closings thanks Perkins and hands him a black FDNY cap. Perkins accepts it and says he wishes he’d worn it on camera. “There you go! There you go!” the union official says. “Get back in there!” Dutifully, Perkins looks around for any straggling camera crews. Only later will the City Council speaker, Gifford Miller, clad in jeans and a sports jacket, hold a formal news conference.

Perkins’s knowledge of budget-speak, his elegant attire, and his knack for finding cameras are signs that he, at fifty-three years old, is mastering the art of modern politics. His ambition is not far behind. When Perkins was reelected in 2001, he immediately cast his eye on the then-vacant speaker’s job. He rounded up support from other Manhattanites on the fifty-one-member council, but it was clear he didn’t have enough votes to defeat Miller. Perkins quit the race early, endorsed his rival, and walked away with the number-three slot and plum committee assignments for his supporters.

Not bad for a man who is a classic progressive. He has introduced legislation to require the city and its contractors to pay a so-called living wage, which, at $8.10 an hour, is well above the federal minimum wage of $5.15. That bill has been opposed by businesses and by the city’s two Republican mayors, first Rudolph Giuliani and now Michael Bloomberg. Yet not all of Perkins’s positions have been as popular up in his district. On his office wall is a newspaper article hailing his vote to extend gay and transgender rights. Perkins says he is prouder of that vote than any other, because support of gay rights has been historically unpopular in the black community.


THE FIVE YOUNG MEN from Schomburg Plaza were convicted in the Central Park jogger case. The city moved on. Perkins joined the City Council, but he had forged a bond with some of the families, helping, for example, to make arrangements for them to visit the prisoners, who were incarcerated upstate. The teenagers served their terms and were released. Then, last summer, thirteen years after the jogger was raped and beaten, the New York Times reported that a convicted murderer named Matias Reyes, a man with no known link to the teens, had confessed to the rape. DNA testing confirmed that the semen police had retrieved from the woman’s sock—and which prosecutors theorized had come from an unknown sixth rapist—belonged to Reyes, who had been convicted of raping a woman in Central Park two days before the “wilding” assault, and who then went on to rape four more women, killing one of them.

By the end of 2002, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau had successfully persuaded the New York State Supreme Court that the five men’s convictions should be nullified. Although the police have continued to argue that the teens had begun the attack on the jogger and that Reyes had wandered along to finish the rape and beating, Perkins and others saw the court’s decision as the men’s unequivocal exoneration. Perkins, who’d been a principal spokesman for the families throughout the ordeal, could be seen pumping his fist in victory outside the courtroom and hugging the sister of defendant Kevin Richardson. He proclaimed that the decision “sends out a message that the Central Park five were subject to a horrendous injustice that destroyed their youth and subjected their families to unimaginable trials and tribulations.”

New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer broke the story last fall that Reyes had raped a woman in the park just two days before the jogger’s rape. Dwyer had covered the original trial for New York Newsday in 1989. This year he admitted to the Columbia Journalism Review that he had attended that trial assuming the teenagers were guilty. The press, Dwyer now believes, bears some responsibility for the hysteria the rape and bludgeoning unleashed. “Everyone,” he told the magazine, “was pinned into a position—the press, the police, the prosecution—and no one could press the stop button.” His reporting last year led to a Times editorial on October 16 that concluded, “The hysteria that surrounded the case may have contributed to a grave injustice.” But not everyone is convinced. Ann Coulter, the best-selling author and columnist, criticized the media’s handling of the story for a different reason. “Whatever evidence convinced two juries to convict the five animals,” she wrote, “it was not DNA evidence. As usual, the media simply waited a decade, and then rushed to print with old arguments for the defense claiming it is ‘new evidence.’ ”

Not surprisingly, Perkins has lately been thinking of ways to use his position on the City Council to correct the injustices the case represents to him. He is, for example, drafting a bill, modeled on laws in several states, that would require police to videotape all of a suspect’s interrogation, not just a confession. Whether by intention or by coincidence, the case has also given Perkins a higher profile citywide, leading to speculation that he might run for Manhattan borough president, or even mayor. “I’ve always dreamed of what it would be like to be mayor,” he admits.

One thing is certain. Although Perkins is happy with the decision clearing the five men in the Central Park jogger case, the entire saga has stirred up some of his old anger over the lost lives of so many poor urban youths. The five men, he says, “lost a priceless period of their lives,” spending their late adolescence and early manhood in prison for a crime he is convinced they did not commit. For Perkins those years were “the period of my life when I was at Brown and at Collegiate, and all those influences were upgrading my life.”

He pauses, remembering. “They didn’t have that. That’s significant.”

William Bunch is a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News.
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