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Central Park Five: Harrowing, humanizing

Columnists

Julianne Malveaux | 6/14/2019, 6 a.m.
Many know them as the Central Park Five, but filmmaker Ava DuVernay forces us to see the five wrongfully convicted ...

Julianne Malveaux

Julianne Malveaux

Many know them as the Central Park Five, but filmmaker Ava DuVernay forces us to see the five wrongfully convicted men as individuals.

Their names are names we must remember, as individual, courageous, principled black and brown men. They are Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray and Kevin Richardson.

Ms. DuVernay’s new Netflix mini-series, “When They See Us,” asks what “they” see when they see young men of color. They see criminals. They see violence. They don’t see their precious youths. These are youths who were snatched away by a racist criminal injustice system that railroaded them.

The 1989 rape of Trisha Meili horrified New York City. But there was no evidence that the five accused young men were the perpetrators. Indeed, much later, another man confessed to her rape.

Meanwhile, Raymond, Yusef, Antron, and Kevin were sentenced to five to seven years in prison, with each serving at least five. Korey was 16, and was tried and convicted as an adult. He served 12 years and was brutalized and beaten throughout his incarceration. The racial dynamics of prison life were such that Korey was a target for abuse.

“When They See Us” is harrowing and humanizing. It digs into the marrow of the bones of the accused men and their families. It reminds us that the cost of unjust incarcerations is felt not only by the incarcerated but also by their families.

We see the ways families dealt with the unlawful imprisonment of their loved ones. Some hover and hug, some distance themselves, and all of the lives are complicated by the economic challenges that lower-income families face. Who can pay for a decent lawyer? For visits that may be hundreds of hours, and too many dollars, away from a home base? Who writes? Who can’t write? How do incarcerated people maintain dignity and equilibrium?

“When They See Us” is important, not because it tells the story of five young men who were scapegoated, but because it reminds us that this case is but the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to the Innocence Project and other dedicated people, these men were exonerated, their convictions vacated and a financial settlement awarded to them, providing them with about $1 million for every year incarcerated.

How many young men of color are unjustly arrested, tried and convicted. How many have been so railroaded that after of hours of interrogation (as with Raymond, Yusef, Antron, Kevin, and Korey), they choose to confess to crimes they did not commit because they are frightened?

Their vacated sentences and their financial settlement is some form of vindication, but as they all have said, nothing can bring those years back. Some are angry, some are depressed and some have offered themselves as speakers to talk about the flaws in the criminal just-us system. Korey Wise, who got the most substantial financial settlement because of the longest time he spent in jail, generously donated $190,000 to the Colorado Innocence Project.

The ugly underbelly of this story is the white women who insisted that these young men must have been guilty of something. Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor in the case, is depicted as benign of the rules and withholding evidence. Why? Because she could. She is the epitome of Becky, of Miss Ann, of a white woman who was prepared to ruin young lives, even though there was no evidence to tie them to the rape of Trisha Meili.