By Sarah Emily Baum
On June 17, protestors gathered outside the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, the very same building where five black teens had been wrongfully convicted of a brutal assault over 30 years ago. There, the protestors called for all cases tried by Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer, the prosecutors who spearheaded arrests of the men who were infamously vilified as “The Central Park Five,” to be reopened and reevaluated.
The 1989 case has long served as a cautionary tale to Black and brown boys, as well as their parents and loved ones, about how the state can twist the truth to abuse innocent people. It was once again brought into the spotlight by the May 31 release of the Netflix mini-series When They See Us, which dramatizes the night of a rape and beating in Central Park, and the subsequent arrests and trials of Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana, then 14 years old; Antron McCray and Yusef Salaam, then 15 years old; and Korey Wise, then 16 years old, who was tried as an adult. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the film exposes the harsh reality of their time in prison and asks viewers to examine and contend with the racism and corruption within the criminal justice system.
The five men, who all served anywhere between five and 12 years in prison, were exonerated in 2002, after another man came forward and confessed to the assault. A subsequent investigation by the Manhattan D.A.’s office found a wealth of corroborating evidence that had always backed what the boys had been saying since the very beginning: They were innocent.
“It was a long time ago, but these things are still happening every day to Black and brown boys,” Angela Black, the older sister of Kevin Richardson, told MTV News outside the D.A.’s office. “We never had this type of support and a new, fresh generation to fight for change.”
The mini-series, she adds, “actually has opened up a chapter that we tried to close in our life, but it’s necessary that we keep telling our story. My brother says it’s bittersweet because of the love that we receive and the acceptance and just people believing the truth.”
When They See Us reignited the conversation surrounding police violence and racism in America, educating a new generation who may have been largely unfamiliar with the case and driving them towards action. One of these young people is Michell-Lee Grahm, 17, a senior at Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School. She told MTV News during Monday’s protest that the show made her realize the impact the corrupted trial on her own community and young people of color like herself.
“[The criminal justice system] works against us,” she said. “It criminalizes Black and brown youth. It tears down Black and brown youth. It doesn’t give them a chance to grow up.”
Co-organizer of the rally Linda Sarsour, an executive board member of the National Women’s March and a local criminal justice activist with Justice League NYC, also acknowledged the impact the show had on her own activism efforts.
“When They See Us reaffirmed for us the story that we already knew, but we didn’t know the type of trauma to the level that was depicted in that series,” she said. “Particularly against Korey Wise, who at the time was 16 years old and was sent to an adult prison where he was gang raped, where he was tortured, where he was left in solitary confinement [as depicted in the film].
Since its release, Lederer has forced to resign as an adjunct professor from Columbia Law School, and Fairstein was released from her literary agency where she had become a prominent crime novelist. However, neither Lederer, Fairstein, nor the New York City government has admitted wrongdoing in the cases, despite the $41 million settlement awarded to the five men in 2014.
New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, an elected official acting as a liaison between the people and the government, spoke at Monday’s rally to call on the Manhattan D.A., Cy Vance, to reevaluate the Fairstein and Lederer cases. “Forty-one million dollars is not an apology,” Williams said.
Vance, however, has no intention to make any kind of public apology, he said in an essay he wrote for the New York Daily News.
Williams also expressed concern that the decision was influenced by the $28,000 in campaign contributions Fairstein has donated to Vance since 2008. In his essay, Vance wrote that he “never allowed someone’s wealth, power, race, or campaign contributions to influence” his decisions — but Williams and other criminal justice activists are not satisfied.
“Cy Vance is continuing to personify what happens when they see us,” Williams said. “When we watch this movie, we see us, we see our families, we see our mothers, we see our sisters.”
This rang true for Alliyah Logan, 17, a high school senior from the Bronx. She told MTV News that When They See Us reminded her of her own loved ones who are incarcerated.
“Once you incarcerate someone, you’re incarcerating their entire family. So seeing the impact it has had on their family…really made me want to come out and say ‘this is enough.’” she said. “I think we’re going to dismantle the justice system and we’re going to change the entire thing to save our black and brown youth.”
Andrea Alejandra Gonzalez, an 18-year-old sophomore at Baruch College, told MTV News that watching When They See Us in part motivated her “to demand justice” for wrongfully incarcerated individuals.
“I’m happy [When They See Us] came out because it just provides information in a very accessible way,” she said. “But at the same time it makes me angry that it took a Netflix series for people to care.”