Samantha Della Fera: Internalize the message of ‘When They See Us’

Wednesday, June 26, 2019 - 6:34pm

Media has the power to teach. Sometimes what it teaches us is dangerous — our bodies are disgusting, our love is invalid — but sometimes what we learn from media has a positive impact. I wrote about this power in my last column, and the sentiment rings true in today’s piece. Today, media is teaching us to stop forgetting history, and instead allowing it to guide our future decisions.

The story of the Central Park Five reached infamy far before my generation existed. I personally only knew small details about the case, and had only been exposed to it because of Donald Trump’s involvement and its discussion during his 2016 presidential candidacy. For those alive in the year 1989, the case of the Central Park Five is comparable to OJ Simpson: You don’t forget where you were when you heard it. 

Now, the Netflix mini-series “When They See Us” has catapulted the story of the Central Park Five back into the public eye. For those who haven’t watched the series or are unfamiliar with the story: After a night of crime and violence in Central Park, a female jogger is found brutally raped and assaulted the next morning. Five young men of color — four Black and one Latino — are arrested. All of the boys are under the age of 16, and they only confess to the crime after hours of abusive interrogation. Some went over a day without proper sleep or food, and none had a parent or counsel present. The boys were all convicted, and spend a range of five to 12 years behind bars for a crime that DNA eventually proved they did not commit.

“When They See Us” is a heartbreaking journey through the trials and convictions, demonstrating how horrifically these men were treated. Near the time of the trial, President Donald Trump spent $85,000 on a full-page ad in four newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty just to execute the teenage boys, an act for which he refuses to apologize. As five men of color accused of raping and beating a white woman, these five boys were vilified and presumed guilty by the media, a prejudice that hung a dark cloud over the court and led to the harmful, unfair result of their trials.

The mini-series has reignited the rightful outrage against people on the wrong side of justice. The lead prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, resigned from her position at Columbia Law following backlash sparked by the mini-series. The head of the sex crimes division of the NYPD, Linda Fairstein, also resigned from several boards thanks to criticism associated with “When They See Us.”  

The backlash mirrors what followed 2015’s “Making a Murderer,” which profiled yet another wrongful conviction. Again, the prosecutor in this case received widespread disapproval — people just couldn’t grasp how this man could be put away for something he didn’t do.

The problem is, this happens every single day. Wrongful convictions like the Central Park Five happen all the time — which is far too often to make a Netflix series for each. The roar of outrage when these shows premiere is justified — the American criminal justice system is significantly broken. But eventually, the next hot thing comes along, the outrage dies down, and thousands of disadvantaged people are left to deal with trials built to lock them away. 

A great pairing to “When They See Us” would be “13th,” a documentary on the epidemic of mass incarceration that plagues this country. If you are left heartbroken and angry from the story of the Central Park Five, “13th” will piss you off even more. But at the very least, you’ll recognize the institutional racism and classism that landed five young boys of color in prison 30 years ago. The United States is the world leader in incarceration, with over 2.2 million people in jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase in the past 40 years. Out of those 2.2 million people, 67 percent are Black, despite Black people only making up less than 13 percent of the American population. A Black man has a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated, a Latino man 1 in 6, compared to the 1 in 17 probability among white men. These are the basic statistics of the disparities in the criminal justice system, and they only get more disgusting as you go deeper. Private prisons, drug laws, bail money, felon voting laws — all of these and more benefit from keeping poor people and people of color on a one way road to prison.

So what are we going to do? Are we going to forget this outrage until Netflix formulates another true crime drama to rake in subscribers? Don’t let this outrage go away, because the reality of the Central Park Five sure won’t. There are still young men of color being wrongfully imprisoned, and sticking them in a harmful cycle society has made nearly impossible to end. There are young children being tried as adults because they were not given the resources or treatment necessary to prevent this. Public outrage is good, but there is always more.

Get involved with The Innocence Project, an organization that many of the Central Park Five men now work with to stop wrongful convictions. Or help out the Equal Justice Initiative, devoted to tackling some of the biggest problems in the prison system. Vote out corrupt politicians who are wrapped around the finger of the prison industrial complex. But most of all don’t stop caring, because even if the outrage fades, the march of the poor and minorities into prisons does not. Five young boys lost their lives to prejudice and injustice, and the least we can do is remember them. 

Samantha Della Fera can be reached at samdf@umich.edu.