When They See Us Brings the Central Park 5 to a New Generation

I knew the story of the Central Park 5; how 5 young minority boys were coerced into admitting to a crime they didn’t commit.  A story that highlights how our justice system was not built for black and brown people.  A story about how the justice system protects the wealthy and turns their back on the poor. A story that shows the devastating effects that the media has on our perception of right and wrong; guilty and innocent.

In 1989, a white woman was brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. There were actually a series of rapes in the city that spring and summer by the East Side Rapist. That same night a group of around 30 boys were in the park acting a fool; “wilding” as the media called it.   In order to send a statement, young boys from Harlem were rounded up and taken in for questioning. Without parental supervision Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise were questioned for almost 48 hours without food and sleep. In this state they confessed to a crime that they did not commit. The media pounced on the story, calling the boys a “wolf pack” that were preying on innocent New Yorkers.  The case was circumstantial at best, since the confessions were coerced and most of the boys were under 16 and interviewed without parental supervision. There was no physical evidence linking them to the attack, the DNA found at the scene did not match any of the boys, and none of their stories lined up with the timeline of the attack. In spite of all of this, they were all found guilty and served between 6-13 years in prison. Over a decade later, the actual rapist who was in prison for committing multiple rapes and murder confessed to the crime.  He knew information that only the perpetrator could know, and his DNA was a match. Due to this information, all the men were exonerated and after a civil suit that dragged on for years, they were awarded $41 million dollars by the city of New York.  The largest settlement NYC has paid to date. The city never acknowledged that any wrongdoing was done.

The narrative of black men being overly sexual is as old as slavery. Black people have been dying in this country for years because they looked or accidentally touched a white woman, the most popular example being Emmett Till. In 1921, at least 300 African-Americans were killed in the Tulsa Race Riots after a rumor that a young black boy accidentally stepped on the foot a young white girl. So, in 1989, when crime in New York City was rampant and a white woman was brutally attacked in a popular tourist attraction, the city had to find someone to pin it on.  Go back to the story that you know. Black men are unable to control their sexual urges and white women are especially in danger of their advances. While the NYPD focused their attention on 5 young boys who were innocent, the real rapist emboldened by not being caught went on to viciously rape 5 more women. His spree culminating in the death of Lourdes Gonzalez while her young children listened in the next room.

What I loved most about When They See Us, is how it deals with the aftermath of serving a prison sentence.  For black and brown people, once you’re a criminal you’re always a criminal. Getting a job is difficult. Because of the crime, these men had to register as sex offenders. They couldn’t be around children thus limiting what jobs they could have; what opportunities were opened to them.  They lost years of their lives, and would always be branded and labeled rapists. The prison system was not only invented as a way to allow for legalized slavery in the US, but it also serves as a way to strip away any shred of humanity. You are not just a prisoner when you’re inside but when you get out as well. Our prison system is not meant to rehabilitate it’s meant to start a cycle of incarceration. It was most painful for me to see that the lead prosecutor, Linda Fairstein still believes that the men were involved in the attack.  She serves on the Board of Safe Horizons, a nonprofit here in the city that deals with victims of sexual assault. They are now calling for her to be forced to step down.  There have been no repercussions for the officers and detectives who conducted illegal interviews, and due to their shoddy work lead to more women being attacked.

This series hit home for me because I have a cousin the same age as some of the boys were when they were charged with this crime. This could be him. Sometimes being black feels as though you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders and not expected to complain. Thirty years later, the ramifications of this injustice are still being felt by all of the victims.  Trisha Meili might have been the only person attacked on that night, but she is not the only victim in this story.

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