When they see us
New York, 19.04.1989: On this day, a woman named Trisha Meili was subject to physical assault, including rape and a horrible beating during her run at Central Park, New York.
Following this, the New York police (NYPD) started a series of random arrests of people with specific features: people of colour and teenagers who were simply having fun in the park. As a result of this, five children were arrested: four African Americans and a Spanish immigrant. All were between the ages of 13-16. In American media, this incident became later known as the Central Park 5.
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Text: Somar Bakir | Drawing: Gaspard “Doudou” Njock
When They See Us
The series available on Netflix UK begins with a group of black teenagers planning to go to the national park after school. Unfortunately, for these teenagers, their presence at Central Park coincides with a case of a brutal assault against a woman which causes her skull fractures, entering her into a coma for 12 days. As she is a beautiful young woman from a middle-class family with a respectable job on Wall Street, the incident quickly becomes a public scandal and is a big subject to the press.
Although the police fail to deal with many incidents affecting people of colour and other minority groups, this case made the security apparatus mobilise with full capacity. In light of a large number of sexual assault crimes that have become out of control in New York, the head of the Sexual Crimes Unit, Linda Verstein, sees this case as an irreplaceable opportunity to restore the reputation of the security services with an iron fist. Through an impressive narrative, the series reveals a painful night where the children are subject to torture, intimidation and assault at the hands of the police, whilst in the absence of an adult companion as required by law in the case of minors.
The kids are forced to sign confessions, even Korey, who volunteered to accompany his friend Yusef to the police station to support him. Sadly, Korey spends the longest time in prison.
The five boys are under intense pressure from the police to testify against each other for something none of them saw or were involved with. The false confessions that are extracted under psychological pressure are used against them and they are brought to trial on numerous charges. The main charge is the participation in the rape of the woman who lies between life and death. The social and class divides between the families of the accused boys prevents co-operation between them. Unfortunately, the judge acknowledges the court’s decision.
They are convicted in 1990 by a jury in two separate trials and sentenced to prison ranging between 5-15 years. Fortunately, execution is not included as a punishment for robbery, riots, rape, sexual assault, the attempt to kill Trisha Meili and other attacks in the park that were planted on the five boys. However, Donald Trump, a businessman and big billionaire at the time, spent tens of thousands of dollars on advertising, demanding to restore execution as a punishment specifically for these innocent teenagers.
The series does not focus much on the life that the teenagers spend in prison. Usually, directors find an atmosphere that attracts the audience in prison scenes, but director Ava DuVernay who co-wrote the script preferred to divide the series into two parts. Firstly, the trial and secondly, the life of the teenagers after prison and their attempts to restore their identities as human beings.
The last two episodes showcase the changes that have taken place in society while they have been in prison, how difficult it is to face the harsh reality and society’s lack of acceptance of them because of their criminal records as sex offenders. This prevents them from finding housing or work, as Raymond says, who couldn’t find any door open except selling weed to get some money to live: “When they force you into prison, they want you to stay inside, even if they release you.”
The five teenagers are released in 2002. They file a lawsuit against New York City Police in 2003 on charges of racial discrimination and fabricated evidence, but the court rejects the case continuously for a ten year period, during the leadership of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. However, when Bill de Palacio becomes mayor, the lawsuit is reviewed and the former convicts are compensated for approximately $41 million in 2014.
A Piece of Art against Racism
The series only consists of four episodes, each providing an intensely dramatic experience through the style of documentary drama.
While the show has no clear hero, the director somehow manages to make the story the true hero. In all stages of the work, the production is able to convey a magical style that makes us feel pain, anguish and anger at the injustice. This leaves us with no choice but to wonder about the true meaning of justice in America and the entire world.
The series is highly influential, with a persuasive and honest story. The script is well-written, with an accurate scenario based on the background of the characters and their psychological and social composition. The production does not resort to excitement and exaggeration but rather adheres to an approach consistent with the style of Ava de Fernie,as in her documentary 13TH (2017).
They Hate Us
The issues explored in the series are thorny and very difficult to be explained in a dramatic work, but it is a powerful and valuable attempt at showing instances where the law fails in a country whose symbol is the Mother of Freedom. The series does not only focus on the direct results of racism, but also the financial deprivation that the five boys and their families struggle with: they can not afford to hire lawyers to appeal the case, the boys’ mothers are unable to visit because they can not afford transportation to the prison, and much more.
Moreover, a life of fear and mistreatment by the police forces Tron’s father to encourage his son to sign a confession because he believes that the police do not seek the truth. They will always hear what they want you to say, he argues.
Although these situations may be inevitable and of a negative nature, another parallel message presented by the series is a more optimistic one. It can be summed up by a sentence that Yusef’s mother says when her son complains about feeling lonely, undesirable and unwanted. She reminds him: “These people hate us, the police hate us, and society hates us, but even if the world as a whole hates us we must not hate ourselves.”
I had never heard of the Central Park 5 incident before, but I read about it and felt it was a shocking story. But when I saw the trailer and the series it was a different experience. I lived in its details and felt what they were feeling due to the accurate portrayal of the story and the dazzling performance by the actors. The camera and shooting angles were wonderful, as well as the soundtrack that I felt was guiding us through the events. These and other details made me add this series to my list of favorites. As we continue to face similar challenges today and are surrounded by this narrative ever more so, I believe it is a must-see for all.