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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Spoiler Alert: “When They See Us” is more than just a history lesson

The official poster for “When They See Us,” a Netflix miniseries. The miniseries premiered May 31, 2019. PUBLIC DOMAIN

On May 31, I watched the Netflix miniseries, “When They See Us.” The show, created, written and directed by Ava DuVernay, was inspired by the true Central Park Five case and exposes the breakdown of the amoral U.S. criminal justice system during this time. It evoked so many emotions at once — anger, disgust, despair and anxiety. 

The case involves five young boys between the ages of 14 and 16 years old — Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise. They were wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white woman who was jogging in Central Park on April 19, 1989. While all five had initially confessed to participating in the Central Park attack, the boys were coerced by white investigators into giving false statements during their interrogations.

Imagine being 16 and going to a police station with your friend to keep him company, just to end up being wrongfully accused of rape and being tried and sentenced to prison as an adult. This was, unfortunately, Wise’s reality. The finale showcases his experience in adult prison and going through physical, mental and emotional pain.

It wasn’t until over a decade later, in 2002, when the court vacated their convictions after Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist who was serving life in prison, confessed to officials that he had raped the jogger. 

Before binge-watching the four episodes until four in the morning, I had never heard of the Central Park Five case, but after watching, it was all I could wrap my mind around. To say I was speechless is an understatement. 

What I took from the miniseries was much more than just a history lesson — it was a deep and tragic reminder that the criminal justice system has long dehumanized people of color. Although the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the idea that people of color mean less and are not equal to whites never went away, leading to the prejudices minorities face today. 

Racial profiling stems from the stereotype of blacks being guilty of convictions and a danger to society, and the racial dynamics of criminal justice practices. The miniseries shows the ongoing problem of mass incarceration of people of color. 

Today, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Although the rate of minorities in prisons is going down, they’re still the most incarcerated group. Blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population in 2017, but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Hispanics represented 16% of the adult population yet 23% of the sentenced prison population. Meanwhile, whites represented 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. 

Yes, some of the incarcerated are truly guilty for their crimes, but “African Americans are criminalized at more than five times the rate of whites,” according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Police stops continue to constantly accumulate and be highly racialized. Throughout the United States, black drivers are more likely to be pulled over at a traffic stop than white drivers, according to a Justice Department study released in 2013. Regarding juvenile arrests, in comparison with white youth, black youth were more than five times as likely to be detained or committed, according to data from the Department of Justice collected in October 2015.

As a Hispanic and black girl, I was taught that things may not always be fair for me because of my race. I was taught that I should always comply with law enforcement because “you never know who is racist.” 

One of the hardest scenes I watched in “When They See Us” was when Donald Trump, our current president, took out an advertisement that called for the execution of the boys. Watching the moment when Salaam’s mother reacted to the advertisement broke my heart. I started crying when she couldn’t bear the thought that someone wanted her son dead for something he didn’t even do. 

The miniseries highlighted how the protection and justice of a white woman were unequivocally prioritized over the rights of wrongfully accused black men. I realized that the only reason the boys were set free, was because Reyes, a convicted criminal, had more empathy for the innocent kids than our corrupt justice system. 

The title of the miniseries, in my perspective, symbolizes that when racist people see people of color, they don’t see human beings, but savages. It shows people that you can’t always believe what you hear or see. It stressed that the truth may take time to come out, or in other words, it may take time for justice to be served. 

The only way we’re going to have a better society is if you continue to fight this injustice and discrimination. “When They See Us” is a must watch because the miniseries sparked a fire in me, and I know I am not the same person anymore after experiencing this incredible piece of work. 

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