Image courtesy of Google Images, Countz Lifestyle
I can’t remember the first time I heard or learned of the Central Park 5. All I can remember is that I believed it was an outrage, but not a hard outrage to believe. History has shown repeatedly that when factors such as race, class, and the “justice” system combine, the elements for a monstrous storm appears and has the ability to devastate everything in its path.
Interviews, articles, and documentaries have more than covered the facts of Trisha Meili’s rape and the false convictions of five youths on that fateful April 9, 1989 night, but When They See Us (beautifully directed by Ava DuVernay and now streaming on Netflix) does what others have not: told the individual stories of each youth and their families. The four- part docuseries delves into life before and after their convictions and reworks the original narrative of the five youths being more than the moniker dubbed them by the state of New York.
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusuf Salaam, Raymond Santana, Jr., and Korey Wise spent their adolescence and early adult years navigating juvenile detention centers and/or adult prisons- spending between 6-12 years incarcerated for a crime they did not commit. They lived through and survived their personal hells. Stigma, abuse, and discrimination lined the streets of their unwarranted walks of shame during the day, while the ugly truth lie in the dark alleys of Manhattan’s Upper Westside 24th precinct.
Coerced confessions and the hope of simply being able to go home set in motion a train that recanting could not stop. Why would someone confess to a crime they did not commit? Why not just stick to your story? It’s one of those things that is easier said than done. When forced to make a choice based on misguided information from adults it’s not as difficult to believe children would trust the route that releases them from a holding cell. Unfortunately, their confessions made for the longest ride home.
It was not until 2002 that their reprieve came in the form of a confession from serial rapist Matias Reyes. Almost 13 years after their convictions, McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise were exonerated and awarded over $40 million dollars by the state of New York. They had their freedom; however, the damage (physically, emotionally, and mentally) had already been done.
These men had already become a part of time- honored traditions embedded in America’s identity: the disproportionate incarceration of black and brown people and the mob mentality associated with protecting white female virtue. Public outcry and fear over men of color violating white women goes as far back as strange fruit hanging from bare trees. One could say Birth of a Nation was the blueprint, Jim Crow was the foundation, the Scottsboro Boys the building, and Emmett Till the finishing touch. I often hear “the system is broken.” Is it? Or is the system operating just as it was intended? I would say the latter was the more likely answer. The true irony lies in if the system worked.
At the time of Reyes’ confession Korey Wise was the only person still incarcerated. Charged and convicted as an adult, Wise spent the longest stint in prison and suffered some of its greatest traumas. Brutally abused at the hands of guards and inmates, and long periods in solitary confinement, Wise’s experiences rouse the same feelings as the Kalief Browder story and evokes the same thoughts of how a young person maintains his sanity and drive to continue under such volatile conditions.
I would be lying if I said watching the docuseries did not have an impact on me. I was angry, disappointed, and saddened by the events and experiences of each man, how the events tested the bonds of their families, and in some cases tore them apart; that many of them are still reeling from the effects of their incarcerations with no particular end in sight. They have certainly come a long way, but there is still growing and healing to be done.
While there is nothing easy about watching When They See Us, it is a much-needed mirror for this country to reflect on its mistreatment and mishandling of cases and those left devastated. To watch it is to see the men at the center of the case as human beings. Not alleged rapists. Not suspects. Not even as the Central Park 5. Just strong, willful, human beings.
About the author: Latanya Muhammad is an advisor, group facilitator and freelance writer. Her writing has appeared on Reality Moms, Her View From Home, Blunt Moms, Mamapedia, and marriage.com. When she is not writing, she is wrangling her two children and husband. To read more of her work, or to connect, visit www.shetanagain.com and Shetanagain Writes on Facebook and Instagram.