Close your eyes. Now, imagine for a moment being accused of something you didn’t do. Perhaps someone even lying on you. And being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Now that you’ve been accused of something you didn’t do and pleaded and begged to be heard, while trying to maintain your innocence, imagine being brutally arrested, interrogated (without a lawyer present) and set to go to trial for something you didn’t do, while facing years locked up for a crime you didn’t commit, knowing you were innocent.
There would be nothing you or your parents or any other loved one who cares about you would be able to do to get you out of this situation.
What would you do? How would you feel? Who would you turn to?
This was the reality for the young men portrayed in the chilling, poignant, and emotionally gripping Netflix mini-series When They See Us. The series dives into the heartbreaking stories of The Central Park Five (Raymond Santana Jr., Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam) who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in New York’s Central Park.
It was heartbreaking to watch.
And while the series is only four episodes, each episode details some of the horrifying truths and consequences of a flawed justice system and race in America. It’s no secret that young African-American men and other minorities are often overpoliced and racially profiled, but the way When They See Us captures these moments is devastating and hauntingly familiar. It’s something that still happens to this day but is also something some people refuse to acknowledge or want to know, hear, or discuss.
But it’s important the conversations take place and that prayerfully, resolutions are executed to resolve these issues.
After the young men (who all happen to be teenagers at the time) are arrested and taken to the police station for questioning, they are coerced into lying about their alleged involvements in the beating and sexual assault of the victim who was jogging through Central Park during the time of the attack. Watching each young man being pressed, bullied, assaulted, and manipulated into saying things that weren’t true and taking ownership of a crime they didn’t commit was overwhelmingly sad and painful to view. Their arrests and accusations not only impact each other but their families and futures as well.
The series goes on to show how police brutality, racial profiling, the courts, and the prison system, and even the power of advertising and the media, collectively contributed to the takedown and demise of the reputations, futures, and lives of these young men who enter the system as boys and are not released and proven innocent until many, many years later, when they’ve become grown men. And in the series, you can view how life after serving time proves to be difficult for each man as they try to adapt and move through a world they have not seen in a very long time that proves challenging to survive and thrive in as far as seeking employment and adjusting to a new reality.
And while these men were eventually exonerated and rewarded a settlement worth millions, I can’t imagine any amount of money or apologies can make up for the time lost and missed away from coming-of-age, being with their families, and having different experiences young people should be experiencing, like school, sports, fun, and just being young. A flawed justice system was a major part of the reason these young men were not able to have freedom, their rights, or a life.
For years, their lives were taken from them, unfairly and unjustly.
What Ava DuVernay has done, as well as everyone else who was involved in When They See Us has done regarding sharing this story in the format and platform it was shared, was not only expose the ugliness and truth and pain behind the consequences of a flawed justice system, but also reveal the relentless strength and influence of powerful storytelling and bravely sharing and taking ownership of the narrative of these extraordinary and courageous five men. Their story and the others similar to it are important and need to be shared and heard.
Too many young men, especially young black men, are racially profiled, wrongly convicted, and falsely accused of things they didn’t do, and some, are likely serving time for things they were not and are not guilty of.
And that needs to change.
So, I ask you again, what would you do, how would you feel, and who would you turn to if you were in their shoes?