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‘When They See Us’: On the Central Park Five And America’s Flawed Judicial System


A new Netflix miniseries has taken the media by storm in the last few weeks. Directed by the talented Ava DuVernay, perhaps best known for her works Selma and 13th, When They See Us details in four episodes the heartbreaking 30-year-old case of the Central Park 5, in which five teenagers — four of whom were African American, the other Hispanic American — were wrongfully convicted for the rape of a woman called Trisha Meili.

Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana all faced charges of between 5 to 12 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, spending years behind bars before the real perpetrator, Matias Reyes, came forward, confessed to the rape, and was forensically tied to the crime by DNA.

DuVernay didn’t hold back from depicting the range of injustices the five boys faced, such as the hours of police coercing confessions out of them and interrogating them without food, water or sleep, and the fact that in 1989, Donald Trump spent $85,000 on an ad that was published in The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post and New York Newsday that called for the death penalty being brought back for those boys.

This hard-to- (but must-) watch show was unfortunately the first time many, including myself, had gotten to learn extensively on this case. The influence When They See Us has had in the week that followed its release has been extensive. In an interview with The Daily Beast, DuVernay said she had reached out to Trisha Meili, who’d declined to talk, and to prosecutor Linda Fairstein amongst other key figures of the case.

“Linda Fairstein actually tried to negotiate. I don’t know if I’ve told anyone this, but she tried to negotiate conditions for her to speak with me, including approvals over the script and some other things,” DuVernay revealed. “So you know what my answer was to that, and we didn’t talk.” It is notable to add that Fairstein has maintained that the five boys had played a role in the rape of Trisha Meili even after their exoneration, and enjoyed a career as a crime novelist and served on boards in the last decade.

Fairstein has faced much backlash since the release of When They See Us. Online petitions have surfaced online, urging for her to be prosecuted and lose her position on Vassar College’s board, to which she has already resigned last Tuesday, along with her occupation at Safe Horizon, a nonprofit that aims to help victims of abuse in New York City. In a letter just last week, Glamour has clarified that their Woman of the Year Award, which went to Fairstein in 1993, would not be bestowed to her in 2019.

Online, many are on their way to “cancel” her with the hashtag #CancelLindaFairstein which has led to her shutting down her Twitter account. She has also been dropped by her publisher. She has since written an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal labelling the show as a “fabrication”. However, it is needless to say that the negative reactions she has gotten since the release of the show are incomparable to what the boys endured, which includes professional setbacks she didn’t have to face at any point before now.

Though the five wrongly accused men have received a landmark settlement of 41 million US dollars from New York City, to which Trump called a “disgrace”, as Yusef Salaam put it: “No amount of money could have given us our time back”.

When They See Us should serve as another reminder that there is still so much left to change in the American judicial system.  There is clear evidence that racial differences are often what determines one’s fate at the hands of the police in America; according to The Washington Post, “34 percent of the unarmed people killed [in 2016] were black males, although they are 6 percent of the population”. According to a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research called “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force” that was last revised in 2018, “on non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police”.

TLDR; this conversation needs to be kept alive, and When They See Us is doing just that.

Featured Image: Netflix

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Irène was born and raised in Paris, France to an Eurasian family. She spends most of her time making music and writing essays, and enjoys traveling, reading, and going to museums.

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