Do They See Us Now
Editor’s Note: The following featured article is written by 19-year-old Leora Greene from Colorado, USA.
I've been learning about US history since early elementary school. I could tell you lots of facts about the Revolutionary War, the McCarthy era, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. But, only once did I ever learn about the "Central Park 5" (now referred to as the "Exonerated 5"). We lightly glossed over the case, so much so that I forgot about it completely until the release of "When They See Us" on Netflix.
For those of you who might not be aware yet, on April 19, 1989 Trisha Meilli was brutally attacked, raped, and left for dead in Central Park. Police were searching for a large group of black and Latinx teenagers, 5 of whom were ultimately charged with several crimes after hours of being interrogated with no sleep, food, water, parental supervision, or legal counsel (keeping in mind they were all minors, so this was illegal). There was no physical evidence that these five teenagers committed the crimes that they were accused of, but despite the defense's best efforts to make the atrocities of this case known to the courts, they were all found guilty and served 6-14 years in prison (four of whom started in juvenile detention and transitioned into adult prison, the final one serving 13 full years in adult prison).
Upon watching the first episode, I almost had to turn it off. The blatant cruelty that the detectives were showing to these teenagers as they were being interrogated and coerced into confessing for crimes they didn't commit was too much for my heart to bear. But, the people of color in my life were posting everywhere to push through and keep watching despite the discomfort, so I did. I couldn't shut my eyes to the reality of what had happened 30 years ago because it made me uncomfortable.
After watching the court cases, one quote from the prosecutor in the series blew my mind in the worst type of way. When confronted by one of the defense attorneys about why she said the DNA evidence they collected was "inconclusive," when in fact it didn't definitely match any of the teenagers, she said, "It's no longer about justice, Counselor. It's about politics. And politics is about survival. There's nothing fair about survival." How disgusting is that? Putting the lives of five boys at stake and making an entire country turn on them purely so you don't have to admit defeat seems so unfathomable to me, yet here we are. Linda Fairstein, the head of the sex crimes unit and the driving force behind putting these boys behind bars, lied to the media and continues to deny any wrongdoing, even after the story of these 5 men is going viral, and she is managing to profit from the fame the case brought her via her books and other opportunities. If this doesn't bring to light how messed up the criminal justice and prison systems are, then I truly can't think of what does.
Even further, watching the experiences that these men had to endure behind bars was heartbreaking. Korey Wise, the one who was in the adult prison from start to finish of his sentence, was beaten nearly to death and was advised to request solitary confinement rather than go to the infirmary for medical treatment several other times. Guards used inmates as a means to get items in return for protection, completely turning blind eyes to the wrongs other inmates would do unto them. The distance from Harlem, where their families are, and the prisons also made it difficult to get loved ones in to visit, and when there's this feeling of the entire country (even the world) hating you, that has to take a toll. In the Oprah interview, When They See Us NOW (also on Netflix), some of the men admitted to feeling wronged by the system and struggling with their mental health due to the things they saw and lived through at such a young age.
Returning home was difficult for them, as well. When a felony conviction is on your record, it's really difficult to find a good job, let alone without a high school education. For some, the series highlighted their hardships in reconciling with family and catching up on all that they missed (especially Raymond Santana, whose family life was hard and who resorted to selling drugs to make money for rent). Antron McCray dealt with a lot of this, as well, after his father was distant during the case leaving his mom to fend for herself. The two never reconciled.
Hearing their stories and watching the injustices they were forced to undergo was so painful, but it's important that we acknowledge the wrongs our justice system has committed in the past, as well as be vigilant to ensure that history doesn't repeat itself to embed racist, wrongful convictions into our country's future. Learn about our criminal justice system and its rocky relationship with race, mass incarceration of POC, police brutality, etc. As an ally, hold your leaders accountable and stand on the right side of history. Use your privilege to raise awareness, and make sure your POC communities are seen and heard.