When They See Us is primarily focused on the racist logic of the policing, court, and prison systems that cost the five defendants their childhood. The series also profoundly illuminates some inherent problems in American criminal justice from a range of perspectives. Viewers get an intimate glimpse of mothers, fathers, and siblings fighting for the freedom of their loved ones; law-enforcement authorities classifying these same boys as “animals”; and protesters on both sides holding signs, declaring “it’s not open season on women” or the real rapist in court today is the New York police and the D.A.
Ultimately, the hysteria surrounding the Central Park Jogger case gave rise to new language about black-youth crime, and to new laws that caused more children to stand trial as adults than at any other time in American history.
When They See Us gets the audience closer to understanding why juvenile and adult prison populations exploded through the 1990s, and how the United States became home to the largest incarceration system in the world.
“Gender, through the lens of white supremacy, prescribes how we should be, instead of accepting us how we are. It tells boys they’re not supposed to cry (or even feel emotion), and it tells girls they’re supposed to be good at cooking and play with Barbies. Those are small examples of a much larger issue, and these gendered lessons exist at every turn, are all-consuming and ripple across our lives.There are people in bodies deemed masculine who have been told they are a boy time and time again, even though that’s not how they feel inside. They are told their feelings are unnatural and irrelevant. Boys are told over and over again that they must follow certain rules, their lives must be a certain way, their dreams must be a certain thing.Gender also tells us that we are not whole and are only one part of a whole; the whole being a man and a woman. This is incredibly anti-queer and an unhealthy way to view yourself and a relationship.
Viewing yourself as less than a whole being who possesses the capacity to be masculine and feminine, and perform a variety of roles or possess skills that are deemed feminine, is illogical.It is terrifying to think that so many of us internalize these messages on a deep, subconscious level, a message that exposes men to constant emotional isolation and violence if they exist outside of these preset parameters. It is alarming that many men move through life seeing themselves as incomplete because they will never be with a woman or because they have yet to marry their “soulmate.” It’s alarming that people will not teach their boys how to cook, robbing them of that that necessary survival skill. It is alarming how many people feel uncomfortable seeing men cry.”
In two trials, in 1990, Santana, Wise, Richardson, McCray, and Salaam were convicted of the attack, even though there was no physical evidence tying them to it, only their supposed confessions, which contradicted one another. They were sentenced to terms of between five and fifteen years. The accused came to be known as the Central Park Five, but that, too, was a linguistic dodge. Better to identify them by their number and the scene of their alleged crime than by the brutality visited upon them by an arbitrary justice system and the public opinion that abetted it. In 2002, Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist, confessed to the crime, and, based on DNA evidence, the charges against the five were vacated. In 2014, the city paid them forty-one million dollars, to settle a federal civil-rights lawsuit.
It is important that we applaud Kaepernick and the NFL for addressing racial injustice. But NFL players taking a knee is only the beginning. Eventually, they must also fearlessly stand for something—and they should look to the leadership of today’s important and successful movements, like Black Lives Matter, to decide just what that something should be.
Credits: Twine, Sugarcube, Fontawesome, L.A. Superior Court records