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When I was a teenager, my mother hated the idea of me going out in groups with my friends. She would often tell me that we would be targets. I hated it. I was just a kid who wanted to enjoy a good time. My mother’s perspective was undoubtedly colored by the events surrounding the case of the Central Park 5, the story at the center of the new Netflix series: “When They See Us.”

The Central Park 5 is the name given to a group of boys who in April of 1989 were wrongly arrested and ultimately convicted in the rape of jogger, Patricia Meili in Central Park. The miniseries was created, co-written, and directed by Ava DuVernay. It recounts the events of the night, the trials, and the stories of the boys who comprised the group.

“When the Police Want What They Want…”

Each episode is gut-wrenching in its own way. To see the gross abuses of power, maligning of justice, and the callous that led to these boys being placed in prison, is heartbreaking.  

The lead prosecutor Linda Fairstein, played by Felicity Huffman, built a narrative out of nothing. When the facts didn’t line up, she shifted them to create the story she wanted. Her case was built on the back of an innocent white woman being brutalized by Black savages who needed to pay for their crimes.  

The detectives charged with procuring confessions beat, harassed, lied, and threatened the boys until they finally relented and admitted to a crime they did not commit. One of the most damning lines comes from Antron’s father, Bobby, played by Michael K. Williams: “When the police want what they want, they will do anything. They will lie on us, lock us up, they will kill us.”

Sentiments like this explain the general mistrust Black people in America feel toward law enforcement. Nearly every Black person I know has a story of either themselves or someone they know being treated unfairly by the police and fearing for their lives. The interrogation and case building scenes are examples of the corruption that takes place in our judicial system. Although the detectives and the prosecutors knew their entire case was flawed, they kept reworking the details until they found a suitable story.

Far-reaching Wrecks

Near the end of the first episode, four of the young men are placed in a cell together: Antron, Kevin, Yusef, and Ray. This was their first time meeting. After talking for a bit, they pieced together what happened to them, prompting Kevin to ask the question: “Why they do us like this?” Ray responds with an answer that still fits 30 years later: “What other way they ever do us?”

That is precisely what makes this series so hard to watch. Although you are watching historical account from decades ago, it still very much feels like today. It feels as though we are still done this way: treated like savages, guilty until proven innocent, and often not even having the chance to prove that innocence.  

When you watch the episode detailing the trial, it is a wonder how these boys were ever found guilty. The detectives gave contradicting stories, the DNA didn’t match, nothing added up and yet Antron, Kevin, Yusef, Korey, and Ray were sent to cages. The joy we feel when they announce that none of the DNA matched is tempered by the pain you feel because we know how this ends. Many of us lived through this event. Although too young to remember, it was spoken of throughout our childhoods. Five innocent black boys were sent to prison.

Not only did the boys go to prison, but their families were also torn apart. From Yusef’s mother, Sharonne, losing her job to Antron’s father, Bobby, leaving the family, the collateral damage was far-reaching. Rarely do you ever just send one person to prison. Oftentimes their families are sent to their own sort of prison. They have to figure out life without their loved one and when that person is innocent, the families are completely wrecked.  

Boys To Men

We eventually witness the boys, now men, released from prison. Antron, Kevin, Ray, and Yusef lost precious years of their childhood and then had to figure out how to be men in a world that had placed a false label on them. The day after he is released, Yusef visits a barber who gives him the ominous warning: “Once you been inside, they got you, and they keep you.”

This is the reality many ex-felons face. It is the reason the recidivism rates are so high. It is nearly impossible to shake that tag once it has been placed on you. We see this reality acutely through the eyes of Ray. He fought so hard to walk the straight path, to find a job, to do things right but it just couldn’t work. This led him to turn to a life of drug-dealing that eventually landed him back in prison. Ray asked the question many recently released people ask: “How can I find a job with all of this hanging over me?”

The most heartbreaking of all was Korey’s story. Being the oldest of the boys at 16, he was sent straight to adult prison. No child should ever be in an adult prison. He is transferred to various prisons where his time is a bitter combination of assault and solitary confinement. As fate would have it, Korey crosses paths with Patricia Meili’s actual rapist, Matias Reyes. He later confess to his crimes and lead to the boys’ exoneration.

When confronted with the evidence, Linda Fairstein refused to acknowledge her wrong. She refused to admit the lies she told and the evil she had done. She could not accept that someone other than the people she convicted did the crime. It’s disgusting but it is almost expected. What other way would they do us?

Community Protection

In the end, you feel pain, frustration, anger, and sadness, knowing what these boys had to endure; knowing the last vestiges of boyhood youth was robbed from them. The cruelty and unfairness of it all is so tragic.

They were eventually awarded a $41 million settlement but there is no amount of money that can erase the pain. There is no amount of money that can bring back time and no amount of money that can return innocence to children. There is no dollar amount that would offer proper restitution to these men.

How many more Antrons, Koreys, Yusefs, Kevins, and Raymonds are out there now?  When they see us, they still see animals. When they see us, they don’t see lives worth protecting.

We have to protect each other. Let’s look out for our children because although we are 30 years removed, there is nothing in me that believes the Central Park 5’s story couldn’t happen again. In fact, we know it does because of organizations like the Innocence Project and the Equal Justice Initiative. For them, I am grateful.

Let’s advocate for each other. It is our responsibility as a community to make sure we are taken care of. When we see injustice run rampant, we must stand in the gap. Wrongful arrests, children being harassed by police, underfunded schools…these are all areas in which we have to be actively fighting for each other.

Let’s come together as a community, combining our gifts, skills, and talents for the greater good. Lawyers can provide legal services, doctors can provide medical attention, teachers can tutor, chefs can help feed people. We all have a part to play. Linda Fairstein gave those boys what she thought they deserved and people just like her continue to do the same thing today. But we deserve more and we have to give it to each other.

 

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