What We Saw: A Collective Reaction to “When They See Us”

The Pedestal Project writing team was deeply moved by Ava Duvernay’s masterful interpretation of the infamous story of the Exonerated Five in Netflix series “When They See Us.” Based on the range of our reactions and the breadth of reactions that are still overwhelming our respective social media feeds, we decided to share a combined piece to reflect the feelings that seem to be plaguing our community. We recognize that it may be hard to verbalize how you might be feeling, and we hope that you resonate with one or more of the pieces below in your personal processing. May our words propel you forward in your pursuit of healing, truth, justice, and most importantly, change. – Tekita Bankhead, Creator/Editor-in-Chief of The Pedestal Project, LLC.


“Justice and Liberty for Some”- Madalyn McKnight

I speak the names of Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr, Korey Wise, and Antron McCray. These men I just named are victims of the unfair justice system in this country and also the cash bond/bail system that is designed to keep poor citizens from exploring the concept of “due process” and the right to a speedy trial. According to the re-telling, although most of the boys were able to make bail, money was an issue for the victim facing the most time, Korey Wise. The inability for him to be at home and active on his own case and lack of ability to visit him as much while he was away is a burden most poor Americans who are incarcerated or have incarcerated family members face.

In case you are unfamiliar with the legacy of Mr. Kalief Browder, he was a young man accused of snatching a backpack from an individual one night in NYC. At 16 years old, he was brought in for questioning and winding up being sent to Rikers, with a mother unable to get the resources to free her son to be with his family before a trial date that was never set. He sat in prison for 3 years, while the alleged victim moved out of the country and could not be located. The claim was never proven. He became a victim of solitary confinement and developed a mental illness that culminated upon his later release. After starting to put the pieces of his life back together, Kalief hung himself from the balcony of his mother’s home.

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Photo via Netflix

Although Kevin, Yusef, Raymond, Antron, and Korey are still with us, their stories are even more important in black culture and this political climate. Their stories and the events preceding Kalief’s death are similar in nature to happenings to black and brown people all over the country. The 5 known as the Central Park 5 have reentered the narrative of injustice by the beautifully tragic retelling called “When They See Us” on Netflix, directed by the incomparable preserver of our culture, Ava Duvernay.

When a person is arrested for a crime they can pay 10% for a bondsman to post a “bail bond” or pay the full amount in cash. What may be a few hundred dollars to some is rent for others, it’s food on the table, it’s medication, and it’s a livelihood. Venida Browder could not make the bail for her son, and he was subsequently subjected to the conditions of a convicted criminal in Riker’s Island, one of the deadliest prisons in the world. T.I. recently paid the bail for mothers in jail so that they could spend mother’s day with their families. That’s a problem that should not exist.

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MICAIAH CARTER/NETFLIX

Simply put, poor people can’t even afford to be ACCUSED of a crime. Kalief continued to be victimized when he sought justice for his cruel treatment and is still victimized by some today. The Central Park 5 story came before Kalief with that same chilling overtone. The United States Justice system was designed to bring justice for SOME. There is no “innocent until proven guilty”. There is liberty and just for all. There are no rights of a scared teenage boy in police custody.

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Educate yourselves and your families. Also, support organizations such as The Bail Project, which raises money in the hopes of bringing equal justice to people who deserve as much. Making bail brings back the presumption of innocence and money is returned after the at the end of the case. Donations to these types of organizations can be recycled and help more people. Remember that you could be doing everything right and something goes horribly wrong because those who are supposed to uphold the law, end up abusing it.

I see you, and they will see you too. Seek your own liberty and justice…with haste.


The Korey Wise in My Life – Nikita Haynie

It’s been approximately fifteen days since the premiere of Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us series on Netflix. This riveting limited series highlighted the 1989 Central Park Five Case, where 5 Black and Latino boys were wrongfully convicted of a crime. This series hit differently; it hit me on a personal level.

As I watched Jarrell Jherome, a rising 22 year old actor, portraying the story of Korey Wise, I couldn’t help but be reminiscent of a year or so earlier of the Korey Wise in my life. A dear friend of mine was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and during his time, I wrote him letters. Although it wasn’t the prosecutor who bluntly ensured my friend was convicted, a public defender’s lack of care and poor advisement led to his conviction. There is no justice system for black and brown men, let alone all black people (remember Sandra Bland who died in the care of the police). Yet we have a system built for the oppression and destruction of black and brown lives.

To watch the retelling of what Korey endured had me questioning God: “How could you let something like this happen to him? To my friend?”  I wrestled with this for the past few weeks until I reread my friend’s letters in a letter from September 20, 2017 my friend wrote: “Jeremiah 29:11, For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plan to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” That verse is what I turn to on days when I’m not sure I can make it through this. I read it and I believe in God’s promise and it makes me strong.” The sentiments of him and many others like Korey Wise, should not be to remain strong but instead, be treated equally.

My hope is because When They See Us was hard to digest, the U.S. will unequivocally have to swallow the hard pill of addressing the injustice system of justice that continues to incarcerate the lives of innocent black males. That we are not created equal and it’s time to be held accountable. My friend is currently no longer serving time, but similar to those of the Exonerated 5, he still carries the invisible scars of his experience. In the words of Civil Rights Activist Martin Luther King, “ “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”


“I Couldn’t Bring Myself to Watch “When They See Us,” and Here’s Why” – DaiJhah Owens

Anytime I’m driving and I see a young black man walking down the sidewalk alone, I whisper a little prayer to myself, “Lord please protect him, don’t let any hurt, harm, or danger come to him. Amen.” I say this prayer whether I know the young man or not. I say this prayer because I know the threat his skin color can be to his safety. I say this prayer because he is just one “at the wrong place at the wrong time” away from being the next Central Park 5. Who is the Central Park 5, you ask? The Central Park 5, now Exonerated 5 were a group of black and brown young boys who were convicted of the rape of a white woman in Central Park in 1989. Between the young men, they served 6-13 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Years later, DNA results and a confession from a serial rapist helped to exonerate the young men. Ava DuVernay, a black woman film director, recently partnered with Netflix to create a mini-serious titled, “When They See Us” that tells the story of the Central Park 5. The series was released on May 31 and is already critically acclaimed.

Thousands have watched the series, but I am not one of those thousands. Honestly, I probably will never be. It’s not that I don’t want to support another black woman, or that the experiences of the Central Park 5 doesn’t need to be told; it’s that I’m terrified! “When They See Us” is not your usual crime drama/documentary. This isn’t some story of some crazy wife killing her husband so she can take his insurance money and go be with her young lover– this is a horror movie. Only it’s not a movie. This really happened, and it is the reality of many more black people in America today.

I find myself wondering, who was the target audience for this series? Was it black people? White people? Was the purpose simply storytelling? Awareness? Entertainment? After all, America has always found stories of black pain mesmerizing. Was there a call to action after having viewed the series? Was the 2012 documentary by Ken Burns titled “Central Park 5” not enough? These are all the things I think about when series like these come out. If the target audience was indeed for black people, knowing our history has always been a benefit to our activism and a weapon we use to mobilize. If the target audience was non-black people, to educate them on the plight of black Americans, call me critical, but part of me believes they already know. The thing is, it is not enough to know about the suffering of black people!  Educating non-blacks on the perpetual oppression of black people in this country can only go so far. A quote I read once said, “An architect knows not everyone has the ability to climb steps, yet they still design buildings with no other access  but stairs.” You see someone can know and be aware of many things, but if they aren’t willing to take action on their knowledge, then is there a point?

From the reviews I have read and the reactions on social media, I have no doubt that “When They See Us” is a phenomenal series with great actors portraying a heartbreaking experience. I have no doubt that Ava did her thing, as she always has in her previous films. This is not a critique of the series but a critical look at the conversations surrounding the series.

I am not only terrified to watch this series, but I’m also terrified of the non-black people who will watch it, maybe cry for a second, say, “Gosh, that’s sad,” and go on about their day, having no urge to move past their knowledge of the Central Park 5 to a place of action. I am terrified for my fellow black Americans, who will watch on TV the horrors these men endured, and then turn off their TV’s only to realize the world around them  hasn’t changed  much since 1989.


 

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