It has been almost a week since Netflix began live streaming — one of our favorite directors — Ava DuVernay‘s “When They See Us” and we are here to say that it’s totally okay to skip it if your mental health is unmanageable or easily triggered.
The four-part limited series is about the ongoing injustices surrounding the brutal 1989 rape of Patricia Meili and the wrongful convictions of five New York City teenagers.
Yup! There goes the anger starting to fester.
DuVernay took this opportunity — 30 years after Meili was left for dead off the jogging path she regularly took at night inside Central Park — to explain to viewers how the criminal justice system failed Meili, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Korey Wise.
At the time when Meili was fighting for her life inside a Harlem hospital, New York City was in the last years of the slowly dwindling crack epidemic that sparked violence at astronomical rates throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s.
The lead prosecutor Linda Fairstein (played by Hollywood’s newest typecast bad gal Felicity Hoffman) said in the first episode there were 3412 sexual assaults reported at the time. They wanted to make Meili’s case was an example, by any means necessary.
As Meili laid in the hospital, likely to die, law enforcers somehow conjured up that it was black men who committed this horrendous act because a group of teens were busted in another part of the park terrorizing and assaulting other park goers. The term “wilding” was born.
Although I was only 4 at the time, I only became well aware of the Central Park Jogger case and the Central Park 5 as I became engulfed in criminal justice journalism. This case set the tone for how youths were mishandled by law enforcement and unfortunately those tactics didn’t change as quickly as you would imagine.
Fairstein gave police the green light to go to the projects in Harlem to round up “thugs” for questioning. This act known as stop-and-or frisk was ruled in 2013 by a federal court judge in New York City as a violation of constitutional rights for people of color.
As the police began to round up the boys and conduct interrogations — some with their parent or guardian nearby — my blood began to boil. The police used coercive tactics to use McCray’s father against him; coach Santana on what to say after removing his non-English speaking grandmother from the room and illegally questioned Richardson knowing he was only 14.
Thank God for Salaam’s mother (played by the unsung Aunjanue Ellis) who put a stop to everything before it was too late for her son.
With promises for the boys to go home, they told the police and prosecutors whatever they wanted in writing and on video. Unbeknownst to the teens and their parents/guardians, they had a right to remain silence, request a phone call to anyone and to request a lawyer.
Fast forward to the two separate trial with no forensic evidence and only conflicting statements from the five boys, they were all convicted and sentenced. Since four of the teens were 15- and 14-years-old at the time, they were sent to juvenile facilities.
Wise was 16 and the oldest of the convicted boys. Not to undermine the others’ stories, but watching Wise’s from the beginning to the end was an involuntarily manslaughter to our society’s possible faith in the criminal justice system.
Wise was sent to Rikers Island post- and pre-conviction and was among adult inmates. Wise served more than 13 years in at least four upstate New York maximum security prisons where he was viciously beaten, violated and almost died. Until his release, Wise — who was wrongfully labeled a rapist — voluntarily stayed in solitary confinement to avoid the attacks until the actual rapist confessed.
It wasn’t until 2018 that New York’s Governor Cuomo ordered that 16- and 17-year-olds should not be housed with adult inmates for their safety.
The real life story of the Central Park 5 has been told before in 2012 by filmmaker Ken Burns in a PBS film called “The Central Park Five.” After the film’s release, students at Columbia Law School called for the removal of the Elizabeth Lederer, the lead prosecutor on the case.
In 2013, newly elected Mayor de Blasio settled the exonerated men’s federal civil lawsuit for $41 million — Wise received a larger payment than the others.
So far after DuVernay’s miniseries, social media is calling for a boycott from retailers to stop selling any of Fairstein’s books with a Change.org petition as well as the hashtag “CancelLindaFairstein.”
How long with this energy remain?!
It took over 25 years since the boys’ convictions for the above mentioned reforms.
Headlines involving the criminal justice system will continue to be related to claims of questionable police tactics, overzealous prosecutors and lack of forensic evidence litter wrongful conviction cases. Because “When They See Us” — “they” being the law and their enforcers and “us” being people of color — at any age the fight continues.