Racism and oppression are huge issues no matter where you are in the world. It can be as subtle as calling someone a derogatory name in hushed voices, or as blatant as abusing power to put minorities at the bottom. The latter has happened so much in the last decade or so, to the point that police are falsely arresting someone—even shooting them—solely based on their skin color.
This controversy was tackled by director Ava DuVernay in her Netflix limited series When They See Us. It tells the true story of the Central Park Five, a group of teenage boys—four were Black, one was Hispanic—who were rounded up and framed for the rape and beating of a jogger named Trisha Meili in 1989. The series showed how the boys were beaten and berated in interrogation rooms so they could be manipulated into saying they were the culprits. The most f*cked up part was that none of them knew each other, save for Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise who were high school buddies.
The detectives weren’t the only ones at fault here—there’s also Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman), a former prosecutor heading the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. In the series, she helped in investigating the crime scene and asked the police to interview 20 to 30 boys of color who were caught “wilding” in Central Park. She then weeded out the four boys—Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, and Raymond Santana Jr.—based on how close they were to the crime scene between the hours of 9 and 10 p.m. on April 19, 1989. Korey was taken in only because he willingly accompanied Yusef to the precinct.
In the first episode, all five boys were coerced into admitting to a crime they didn’t commit. These interrogations were ordered by Linda herself just so she could justify her theory—even when the facts didn’t align, she still insisted there was still a connection. She would also constantly say that female rape victims never get justice. While it’s true that women are constantly victimized by society’s rape culture, the evidence they had against the boys just didn’t connect with her claims.
Yusef’s mother, Sharonne, also faced off with Linda in one scene for allowing policemen to berate her 15-year-old son without parental supervision or a lawyer present. That was also the case for some of the boys, while the others’ family members were given empty promises that the boys will be set free if they just sign their confessions.
Then we have prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga), who represented the rape victim and ran with Linda’s theories. There were scenes wherein she would question the validity of the boys’ stories, noticing there are inconsistencies and that they’ll be caught of fabrication. Still, she pushed to put all boys in prison, even in the pivotal moment where a forensic investigator said their DNA wasn’t at the scene.
The first two episodes will have you wishing these boys would be saved from serving prison time. However, by the end of the second episode, all you could hear was “Guilty.” There was even a point in the series where it shows Donald Trump calling for the death penalty for all five boys.
In 1990, Kevin, Yusef, Antron, and Raymond served five to seven years in juvenile detention and adult prison. Korey was tried as an adult and served 13.5 years in three different prisons. As shown in the series, he experienced physical violence, even asking for solitary confinement to protect himself.
Over a decade after their conviction, the real culprit, Matias Reyes, came forward and confessed to the rape of Trisha Meili. She was just one of the five victims he raped in the ’80s, but he wasn’t caught for the Central Park jogger case. Coincidentally, he also met Korey in Auburn Correctional Facility a year before.
Long story short: His DNA matched the one found in the crime scene. The Central Park Five were then exonerated of all their crimes in 2002, and also received a $41-million settlement from the city of New York for damages in 2014. But, as Kevin said in Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now, money can’t take back all the years they lost as teens.
Linda Fairstein, Elizabeth Lederer, and an oppressive system
In the last episode of When They See Us, you’ll see defense attorney Nancy Ryan (Famke Janssen) confronting Linda Fairstein in 2002 about wrongfully accusing the five boys. The dramatized version showed the latter still justifying her actions, insisting that Matias Reyes is merely the sixth man and not the lone attacker.
That scene was already infuriating even when we don’t know if this is exactly what happened IRL. But after the series’ premiere, Linda stepped down from Vassar College’s board of trustees and her other organizational positions. Her publisher, Dutton, also dropped her. A few days later, she came out with a Wall Street Journal op-ed accusing Ava DuVernay of defaming her and “wrongly portrays [the boys] as totally innocent.” But people still called her out and told her to be accountable of her actions.
How ironic, that Linda Fairtein is crying abt the Netflix series ‘when they see us’portraying her inaccurately, that it’s full of distortion & falsehood. Oh the audacity, that she only cares for accuracy, clarity & truth when it’s abt her. What a disgrace! #cancellindafairstein
— Zara Gem (@Undersiege111) July 2, 2019
Elizabeth Lederer, on the other hand, also resigned from her position as a Columbia Law School professor. This came after the Black Law Students Association called for the school to fire her for “harmful, racist tactics.”
You could say these women got what they deserved for what they did 30 years ago. But really, we feel sorry they lost their jobs and other opportunities. We’re also sorry they were eaten up by a corrupt system—so much that they felt the need to wrongfully convict five young boys of color just because they looked suspicious. Because of their actions, four of the men had a hard time looking for jobs during their first years out, Korey was assaulted in jail, and Antron admitted he needs therapy because of the trauma.
Do you see how f*cked up all this is? It reeks of prejudice and discrimination. Take note that neither women apologized for what they did.
But, as Ava said, this isn’t about Linda or Elizabeth. It’s about holding people like them accountable for the injustices that minorities experience. “I think that it would be a tragedy if this story and the telling of it came down to one woman being punished for what she did because it’s not about her. It’s really not all about her,” she told Oprah in When They See Us Now. “She is a part of a system that’s not broken. It was built to be this way. It was built to oppress. It was built to control.”
If When They See Us would teach us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t have more Fairsteins or Lederers in any justice system, and there shouldn’t be more Central Park Fives. The law should give POCs and minorities a fair chance, not just accuse them because of their outer appearance and their status. Give people the same attention and investment you had for the limited series because this is still the world we live in now and we need to change it.
Photos courtesy of Netflix
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