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The Most Horrifying Part of “When They See Us”

2,460. That’s the current number of known exonerations according to The National Registry for Exonerations. The amount of lives shattered by injustice, hypocrisy, elitism, and the lie of freedom. 2,460. Collectively, that’s more than 21,645 years lost. And that’s all we know of to this day. Mark my words, there are more. That’s where works like “When They See Us” come in.

I am not alone in my gut-wrenching, emotional reaction to genius Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us.”

The Netflix mini-series itself is a masterpiece. It is one of the most powerful works of art my eyes have yet to see. What makes this show linger in the mind is this: every bone-chilling scene on our Smart TVs and MacBooks is a memory to the Central Park Five. Furthermore, this show is depicting commonplace reality for so many Americans of color.

For every day that social media has called for Linda Fairstein to pay for what she did to these boys, which ultimately led her to delete her social media accounts, there are thousands that Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise suffered behind bars they did not deserve.

 The night that changed these young Black lives forever happened about 7 years before I was born. I was in 1st grade on the day of their exoneration.

I knew absolutely nothing about this case until last month. Interestingly enough, it was not through “When They See Us.” It was a Friday night in late May, curled up on the couch with my mom and our dog, watching 20/20. The episode, “One Night in Central Park,” they came at the Central Park Five case from an investigative journalism perspective, interviewing former NYPD detectives that were involved and going step-by-step through the calls to 911 operators, voiceovers on police scanners from the night of April 19, 1989, the questionings, the “confessions,” and the court hearings.

Different scholars and experts on the case provided their input, one of whom is Dr. Natalie P. Byfield. She explained that “in a representative sample of 250 articles the media published about this case, only 12 said the word “alleged. Not 12%. 12.” From the first five minutes, I knew what was coming. It’s a story I’ve heard countless times before, and can only expect to continue until we actually deal with our problem of race in America. When I looked at video footage of Antron, Kevin, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey, I saw innocent kids. The world saw guilty men.

When I found out that there was a Netflix series about the case, I planned to watch it. I prepared myself mentally as best I could, because I knew the outcome from watching the videotapes of the original coerced “confessions,” trials, and interviews with NYPD.

What has still shaken me, and will until the day I die, is that this case was blatantly crooked from the beginning.

In the original tapes, Korey Wise’s confessions very obviously contradict one another. He wasn’t even in Central Park at the time Trisha Meili was attacked, and yet he’s pulled into a room and interrogated because he came to the station with Yusef as emotional support. The others were in vastly different areas of the park than where her body was later found as well.

At 16 years old, Korey was tried as an adult and ultimately served the longest prison sentence of the group in some of the most violent correctional facilities in the nation, including the infamous Rikers Island. Kevin, Yusef, Antron, and Raymond all served in juvenile prisons, for varying sentences. According to The Innocence Project, the Central Park Five served anywhere from 5 to 12 years. Years

It is past time for America to admit that its most respected institutions are not interested in justice.

Not when cases like this exist in the first place, and are furthermore so commonplace in marginalized communities that we teach our children how to talk to the police. As a biracial woman, I can tell you that I have yet to see any of my white family members do the same. 

The scariest part of this nightmare is Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor who essentially fabricated the story that the Central Park Five were responsible for the rape and assault of Trisha Meili.

While the boys were in prison, Fairstein built a successful, profitable career as a supposed champion for women’s rights. She has been on boards of nonprofit organizations, including Vassar, her alma mater.

One of these nonprofits had staff members that were unsettled about Fairstein being a board member. It was brought into question if she would be an advocate for survivors of color, many of whom are within the community this nonprofit serves. Even when they brought their concerns to the CEO, they were ignored. When Yusef applied to overturn his conviction, which was denied, Judge Tito Vitone commented on Fairstein in his dissenting opinion, stating “I was concerned about a criminal justice system that would tolerate the conduct of the prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, who deliberately engineered the 15-year-old’s confession. … Fairstein wanted to make a name. She didn’t care. She wasn’t a human,” (Source: The Grio).

Fairstein was even named Glamour Woman of the Year in 2003, the year following the exonerations. She also tried to get access to the script of “When They See Us” in order to approve it. And if that wasn’t enough to make you ill, she defends her work on this case and insists that the Central Park Five are guilty to this day. How many other cases were predetermined by Fairstein on the basis of racial bias? Chills roll down my spine.

But Linda Fairstein isn’t the reason I’m up at 1am writing this in a passionate frenzy. Her severe disrespect for justice is not what has these words flowing from my fingers. Sure, her portrayal in the show and the accounts of others about her character are frightening. But the worst part is that she is not alone.

Linda Fairsteins are a dime a dozen in the American political and, dare I say, justice systems.

We’ve seen prosecutors, media, and law enforcement do the same thing over and over again in cases throughout American history. Emmett Till. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Cyntoia Brown. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. The Scottsboro Boys. George Stinney. The list goes on into what feels like an infinity. Black America grows more weary. Tired. Disgusted.

Now that this case is public with renewed fervor, organizations that at one time supported Fairstein are now against her. Why so sudden? When it was clear that these men were indeed innocent, Fairstein was still writing crime novels that became bestsellers. She was still Glamour Woman of the Year. She still had a very high reputation.

Where was their outrage then? Why are all these prestigious organizations withdrawing now? Because of public pressure? Maybe. Probably. But it’s still too much little, much too late. And let’s not forget that Fairstein wasn’t a one-woman show on the prosecution. She had allies. They all retired from NYPD after “successful” careers. Elizabeth Lederer, lead prosecutor assigned to this case by Fairstein, is still a DA in Manhattan and has not commented at all on the case through this new media frenzy (as of right now).

Edit: Since I published this piece, Lederer has released a statement concerning the case and stepped down from her faculty position at Columbia School of Law.

While we can only hope to learn from our mistakes, it’s time to address where our priorities lie within this country.

It’s time to acknowledge our bias and do the legwork of deconstructing the toxicity of white privilege. For real justice, it’s not enough to exonerate and financially compensate the Central Park Five. There must be tangible, legal consequences for those that knowingly pulled off 5 wrongful convictions. That’s only the beginning, the bare minimum of what America should do so we can progress towards a society people of color deserve.

The attention surrounding the incredible “When They See Us” will eventually die down. It’s inevitable. And when that happens, we will never forget the truth. We will not excuse the system for continuing to do this to our sons and daughters. And we will not be quiet until justice is served. 

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