Local activist and Father relates “When They See Us” to his own experiences growing up Black in a white supremacist society.
In the spring of 1986, I was about to take my preschool class picture when my friend Stephen came up with the harmless idea to make goofy faces together, which most people would see as harmless.
My mom knew firsthand how harsh the world was on black boys and wanting to prevent me ever going further, told me directly at age five, “You can’t do everything they do.”
By “they,” she meant white people like Stephen. As a longtime teacher, no matter how big or small, she knew the phrase “Boys will be boys” would never be meant for her black boy.
Ava DuVernay’s genius, painful, accurate, and still relevant piece “When They See Us” underscores my mom’s understanding that, in a time of trouble, unlike Stephen, her baby would not be seen as a baby. The movie is based on the experiences of the Central Park 5 in New York City. The five young teens broke no laws, but were railroaded by police, media, and the criminal justice system and unjustly incarcerated following the rape of a white woman. Though it took place in 1989 the same events could easily take place in 2019.
As the father of a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, I’m preparing them for a society that often doesn’t see them as the children they are. Though it may be difficult, I challenge you to watch this film so maybe you can.
The movie is shown through the words and eyes of the boys, aged 14-16.
Antron, an aspiring baseball player, has a loving relationship with his father that is complicated during the interrogation process where his father’s past is exploited by detectives for leverage.
Kevin is a baby-faced musician with a mom with health problems and a teenage sister who ends up having to fill in at the end of his torturous interrogation and is manipulated into securing his signed confession.
Yusef is intellectually precocious and just trying to fit in. He is the only child with a parent who is able to push the right buttons to interrupt his rights being violated during interrogation.
Benny Jr. is just getting interested in girls, and has a dad with a very inflexible job who gets to the precinct when he can, but is treated as if he didn’t care about his son while investigators exploit Benny Jr’s grandmother’s language barrier.
Finally Korey, who had mental and developmental challenges, is the lone 16-year-old and an adult under NY law. He only went to the precinct to support Yusef before being abused and coerced into a false confession after multiple days at the precinct and his mom not being notified of his clear location.
None of these injustices mattered when these black and brown boys were tried in the courts of public opinion or criminal justice. Something as simple as breaking curfew and “wilding” in the park took on a completely different meaning when covered by a media that was culturally incompetent at best and steeped in white supremacy at worst. Reporters described them as a “pack” of black teens on a “rampage” seeking out people, especially white and affluent to terrorize, rob, beat, and/or rape. And yet, any group of teens from that place and time could tell you that wilding means hanging out, having crazy/silly fun and tripping out.
Google “movies of teen rebellion” and from “Rebel Without A Cause,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Dazed and Confused” to “American Pie” and “Superbad,” you will find multiple generations of white youth celebrated for breaking rules/laws, displaying promiscuity, and using drugs and alcohol. They’re gloriously carrying out rites of passage and indulging in youthful indiscretions. For white youth, rules are meant to be broken; but for black youth, breaking the rules can cost the ultimate price. Perceived innocence and basic humanity are luxuries that we cannot count on being extended to us.
These young boys showed more innocent behavior than the characters in the movies above, but it didn’t matter because innocence in America has always been more about perception than action. This case tapped into the myth perpetuated by the 1915 movie “The Birth of A Nation,” that black men are savages bent on pursuing and raping white women unless the KKK–or these days, the police–stop them. The great irony of that movie was that white men were the main propagators of rape, with white women, black women, and women of color as victims. In the same fashion, the Central Park 5 case tapped into the nation’s original fear, this same hypocritical myth.
As people watch, be clear: This story is not just about this case or “back then.” This is about how the system works to this very day. One in 3 black men go to prison vs. 1 in 17 white men, and as much as you want to believe that rate is based solely on behavior or the ability to afford a good lawyer, it’s deeper than that.
With minimal life experience, these boys were babies, but in the eyes of law enforcement, the justice system, and the media, they were grown men at best, animals at worst. Phillip Goff’s 2014 doctoral dissertation “Essence of Innocence” (https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-a0035663.pdf) found that when police unconsciously dehumanize black children, they are more likely to see them as less innocent than white peers and use force against them.
The same study found that white female undergraduates looking at mixed groups of children ages 10 and up perceived black children as being 4.5 years older than their white peers and presumed the guilt of black children significantly more often than white or Latino children in cases of crime.
When you look at the officers leading the case and the prosecution in “When They See Us,” those findings are affirmed. When you think of the physical murders and subsequent character assassinations of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown with no one held accountable, the research stands the test.
The way these boys were coerced into confessions, had their rights violated, their parents’ vulnerabilities exploited and rules broken for convictions is consistent with a nation whose foundation has been built on unpaid black labor. The 13th amendment, which kept slavery legal for those convicted of a crime, has never conflicted with the push to continue enslaving black bodies.
Phrases like, “we can’t arrest our way out of it” that we hear extending compassion towards white opiod addicts were never applied to black crack addicts. For the record, as a Licensed Clinical Addictions Specialist, I agree that we can’t arrest our way out of any addiction. But as a black man, the hypocritical philosophy change isn’t lost on me.
In my career, I’ve seen that despite my white clients’ more widespread use and trafficking of drugs, the level of legal charges and incarceration rates of black clients dwarfs theirs. The number of free passes from law enforcement my white clients have reported receiving is higher, while the number of questionable police tactics described by black clients is higher. The ripple effect of who gets a chance to build a life in traditional education and employment versus who gets 2nd class citizenship with a felony conviction is significant.
While I won’t shame black people for struggling to view this challenging piece, I will pushback on the idea that there is nothing to be gained from us watching it. While many of us inherently know the system is biased and unfair, I don’t think we all are up to speed on the various methods and policies that the interrogation, incarceration, parole and probation systems work to keep our brothers and sisters in bondage. There are opportunities for advocacy that are uplifted.
Lastly, DuVernay masterfully portrays Korey Wise’s strong relationship with his transgender sister Marci, directly contrasting it with the strained relationship between Marci and their mother. Marci’s disowning by her mom and eventual murder are struggles that are all too real in black communities. While I unapologetically challenge all white readers to view this movie in order to dismantle the propaganda you, your friends and family have been fed about the criminal justice system, I challenge black viewers to look deeper into the need for increased intersectionality in addressing each other’s oppression, starting with black transwomen.
By the time I got to high school, as someone who was social but didn’t drink or use drugs, I saw my share of white peer law breaking without legal consequences. I saw one peer tell police to “leave this private property” when drinking underage at a party, and the officer complied. But my mom’s planted seed that “you can’t do everything they do” hit home hardest when I went to a party as a designated driver for several friends.
Students from a local private school unexpectedly showed up. As I walked into a room, I saw white powder on a table for the first time and told the people who were riding with me, “We’re out.” Despite me being the most innocent person there from a legal standpoint, I had learned at 5 that innocence was a matter of perception. And for a 17-year-old black male who was 6’2 and 190 pounds, the odds of American society seeing me as an innocent were slim to none.
21 years later, the game remains the same. My son is now 5 and I’m the one planting the seed. But I challenge you to not only view and share this movie, pushing back against oppressive propaganda, but engage in acts like court watch, bail reform, and legal equity work, so that maybe my kids will be able to plant new seeds in the minds of my grandchildren, different and more equitable than the ones passed down to me.