When it comes to racial equality in America, the only thing that has changed is the calendar. The Netflix series When They See Us, directed by Ava DuVernay, records the events from the 1989 Central Park jogger case. For those who have not yet had the opportunity to see this powerful mini-series, I would urge everyone to watch it, so the true events from 1989 can be brought to light, and the corruption and racism from within the prison system can be revealed.
Five male suspects, all of African-American or Hispanic descent, were falsely accused of the rape and assault of Trisha Meili, a white woman, in Central Park, New York City, and then prosecuted for this crime. Korey Wise, one of the African American suspects, went on to endure fourteen years of incarceration for a crime which he did not commit. In 2002, Wise was exonerated along with the other four suspects, when convicted serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes finally admitted that his responsibility for the rape and assault in question. Without Reyes’s confession, Wise may well have still been in prison today, and the men may never have been exonerated.
The most interesting thing about the case is that Wise only went along to the police station to accompany his friend Yusef Salaam, and he was not initially a suspect in any of the crimes. However, Wise suffered the longest prison sentence out of any of the suspects, as he was 16 at the time so served his time in the adult prison system. This reveals the absolute atrocity of the nature of the 1989 Central Park incident, because no amount of money could repay Wise or any of the other victims the time which they lost growing up. In the first episode, DuVernay displays to us the normal lives which the young five boys were living; eating cheeseburgers on a Saturday afternoon with their parents, going on dates with girls to the local pizza parlour, caring for their elderly grandparents, and teasing their siblings. By doing this, the young boys are humanised, and the viewers are reminded that these boys had their lives destroyed on the night of April 19, 1989.
All the initial signs in the case pointed to a single attacker having dragged Meili through the ground. But when the head of the DA’s sex crimes unit, Linda Fairstein, hears that a group of boys have been arrested elsewhere in the park, a new racist narrative begins to form. The boys’ night out was totally re-characterised, with the five boys depicted as “animals” hellbent on destruction, despite no evidence tying them to the crime scene. Fairstein’s prejudice is blatantly obvious from the outset; there is a tacit agreement among all the white adults that the boys are the obvious suspects, that they “must” have done it. The then obvious conclusion is that they only “must” have done it because the boys were mostly black youths.
The penultimate episode concentrates on the obstacles to restarting life as a known felon and registered sex offender. Yusef Salaam wants to be a teacher but is forbidden by his record. Raymond Santana cannot get a job and eventually resorts to drug dealing. Kevin Richardson and Antron McCray are also seen struggling immensely. As Salaam’s barber stated: “Once they got you, they keep you.”
This incredible series examines the effects of systemic racism but also the effects of disenfranchisement. 43% of boys and 34% of girls in juvenile facilities are black. Moreover, in total, black people make up 13% of America’s population, however, comprise 40% of the American incarcerated population. The economic divide is also incredibly clear, because the lack of money that leads to inadequate lawyers and mothers unable to visit their sons incarcerated in distant places shows that African Americans have been locked in a system of control. The fear and vulnerability that caused Antron McCray’s father to encourage his son to sign the confession so they can leave the station conveys a scenario which a white family would simply never have to endure. The powerlessness these young boys had in the face of an authority that did not look like them or care about them is staggering.
The actors who portray the exonerated five: Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Marquis Rodriguez and Jharrel Jerome, all deliver exceptional performances. As they are around the same age as the original Central Park Five were in 1989, they are able to capture the innocence of the children which they were never allowed to be. Jerome even went on to win an Emmy Award for his remarkable performance.
When George Floyd was senselessly murdered on 25 May, 2020, and protests around the world were started as a response to the shameful act of murder, Wise was one of the people protesting in Harlem, New York. He is such an influential activist, never stopping to advocate for criminal justice reform.
Please, everyone watch When They See Us. It is a series which everyone needs to see, and has never been more relevant than it is today.