My 4 take homes from watching ‘When they see us’ and ‘When they see us now’ on Netflix
I have finally finished watching ‘When they see us’ – a Netflix 4 series story directed by Ava DuVernay about the real life events of 5 Black and Latino American boys (Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana Jr and Korey Wise) who were falsely accused, coerced into confessions and sentenced to prison time for the brutal attack and rape of a white, female jogging in Central Park, New York on April 19th, 1989.
The boys, now men, were finally exonerated in 2002 when the real perpetrator confessed to the crimes, but not after most had already served their 6 to 13 year prison sentences including traumatic abuse by guards and fellow inmates, registration as sex offenders, growing up in prison, missing out on their education, struggling to get work, losing family members and/or coming back to broken families.
It took my husband and I almost a week to watch all the episodes, not just because of the disruption of our normal responsibilities, but primarily because we had to take time to process the trauma we were experiencing just watching the series.
I haven’t cried like this in a long while – not only is it an unjust and in many ways heart-breaking story, it is also terrifyingly still relatable and relevant today.
This is not something that happened during Slavery or the Jim Crow or the Civil Rights Era. This happened in 1989 – I was 1.5 years old and a week away from becoming a big sister, living with my parents in a still ‘walled’ Germany.
What is even scarier is the fact that the same man who then took out full page ads in magazines calling for the death penalty to be reintroduced for the falsely accused boys, now holds the nuclear codes for one of the most powerful nations on earth, having been democratically elected, despite clearly and unapologetically showing himself as racist and misogynist.
The raw pain I felt watching particularly Korey Wise’s story (episode 4) was intense – this was a kind-hearted boy, who only got involved because he didn’t want to leave his friend alone when he was taken in for questions, and eventually sentenced to adult prison because he was 16 at the time of the case. And despite him enduring the most harrowing abuse by prison officers and inmates alike, when asked by Oprah in the ‘When they see us now’ interview aired last week (also available to view on Netflix) if he blamed the prosecutors for his plight, he is generous enough to say they were just doing their jobs and got caught up.
However, it was very clear from the interview that no amount of settlement the 5 received can ever make up for the trauma caused and the life time they were robbed of, with some still being more acutely traumatised today than others.
Having watched both the miniseries and the interview, I knew I had to write about it. And I didn’t just want to write to encourage everyone to watch it, but also to challenge us all to not be complacent in the fight for justice. Because in a democracy the system is only ever a reflection of the people that give it power. So whether the justice system is broken or it was designed to be this way as Ava mentions in the interview – ultimately it can only change if the people that empower it change. And the people that empower it can only change if those responsible to elect them and hold them to account actually do so diligently – and those people are you and me.
Here are my 4 take homes from watching ‘When they see us’ and the interview ‘When they see us now’:
1. Be wary of pitching one ‘ism’ against another
What happened to Trisha Meili, the woman who was assaulted and raped on April 19th, 1989 was horrendous, unacceptable and required justice to be served.
What happened to the Exonerated 5 following that night was also horrendous, unacceptable and required justice to be served.
And ultimately, justice was not served for either until the real perpetrator confessed and the falsely accused were exonerated.
As a Black woman who also counsels clients with a history of rape and sexual abuse, it is easy for me to recognise and empathise with all the victims in that case. I don’t have less empathy for Trisha just because I’m devastated about what happened to the boys.
Trisha, her family and community deserved a thorough, honest and fair trial in which her real perpetrator was called to account.
The 5 boys, their families and communities deserved a thorough, honest and fair trial in which they were proven not-guilty innocent.
Neither of the above statements have to be contradictory – we can acknowledge a crime took place without criminalising innocent people. Which brings me to my 2nd take home.
2. Dehumanising people blinds us to the fact we could be wrong about them
Once you dehumanize someone, you release yourself from the responsibility to engage them with empathy. And once you have no empathy, you feel justified in whatever inhumane way you treat someone. And that is what became very evident watching the way the police treated the boys whilst in custody. They were no longer boys – they were animals. Animals that didn’t deserve fair representation, parental guidance, food or sleep.
So the worst kind of animals, because we treat most animals better than that…
No matter how much evidence was stacked up in their favour, because they were animals, it made more sense to the police and prosecutors that they had just not found the right evidence yet, rather than that they were actually just wrong about the whole case.
It is also no surprise then that the only prison guard who we saw who treated Korey with some ounce of empathy stated that he thought of how it would be if it was his son this had happened to. The guard was white and there had been many mixed or Black guards who had treated Korey inhumane. So it clearly wasn’t about the colour of their skin, but about the attitude they had towards him.
We can always identify with someone’s humanity if we want to, even if our skin tone, religious views, lifestyle choices etc. differ. The only limiting factor is our willingness to do so. We get to choose what role we play and what happens next ‘when they see us’.
3. Know your rights and teach your children about theirs swiftly
Despite the lack of any physical evidence connecting the boys to the crime, they were eventually sentenced based on written and video-taped confessions also implicating each other which they had been coerced to make while in custody – threatened by the authorities and in the absence of their parents.
The children did not realise they had a right to remain silent or that instead of the confession tapes allowing them to go home as promised by the authorities, they were the one thing that sent them to prison. They were children, so they trusted the adults in the room, innocently believing they genuinely wanted the best for them or afraid they would hurt them more. And in the one instance in which a parent was involved, Antron’s dad, he also feared and believed the authorities would ultimately let his son go.
Especially as ethnic minorities/ people of colour, we cannot afford to not know what our rights are in the places we are minorities in, because history and the present have shown enough times that we end up more disadvantaged than our Caucasian family, friends and peers.
The likelihood to be dehumanised is much higher the darker our skin, so we can’t just rely on the justice system to do its work justly, because it consciously and subconsciously has a limited definition of the people it represents. #RacismIsReal #TheWorldIsNotPostRacial
Knowing and being able to appoint the right people to defend our rights is therefore key.
4. Find and strengthen your anchors
The truth is no matter how well versed in our rights we are, no matter how empathic we are towards others or no matter how tolerant we are, the world can sometimes be a scary, racist and unjust place in which we find ourselves and/or the people we love becoming victims of injustice, hate and crime no matter our skin tone.
And if that happens, all we can really do is hold on to our anchors, the things that bring us some sense of hope, joy or sanity while the storms are raging around and inside of us.
Kevin’s sister conveyed this idea when visiting him asking him what it was that he could look forward to while he was in prison. In her case, it was her budding relationship, in Yusef’s case it was his Muslim faith, in Korey’s mum’s case her Christian faith.
What is it, if anything, in your life that can transcend the trauma, pain and injustice that you might face? What is it that can give you hope in seemingly hopeless situations?
If you don’t know it, find it.
If you do know it, strengthen it.
Because the existence and strength of your anchors will determine how likely it is that the unexpected storms of life completely and utterly destroy OR damage you, even if deeply.
The former is almost impossible to recover from, the latter might need help and time to heal, but healing comes eventually.
In sum, I know I am richer (in life experience), wiser and I believe more mature having watched, processed and reflected on ‘When they see us’. It has provided me with the opportunity to engage my emotions as well as my reason.
It has invited me to further acknowledge the injustices of the past and present; inspired me to advocate for and alter the present all in the hope of advancing and ameliorating the future. And this is why I would encourage everyone to endure the pain of it and watch it.
Some truths we expose ourselves to hurt like hell, but are needed so we grow and are compelled to make changes – this is one of those.
Cover image courtesy of Netflix