“When They See Us- The Fight to Equality” – Gabby Savage

Every year in February, people from all over the world with different backgrounds, religions, and ethnicities, come together to celebrate Black History Month. This month
is designated to focus on transformative and significant Black people, communities, and events in history. While we take this month to shed light and celebrate the importance of African American culture, it is also a loud reminder to our society of how far we still need to go as a whole. Growing up in a predominantly white community, I was not always aware of how influential African American culture has had and continues to have on our society. This year I wanted to really immerse myself and participate and learn more about what Black History Month is really all about.

I attended the showing and live panel discussion of When They See Us on February 11th  on campus at USD which was sponsored by University Ministry and BSRC. When They See Us was released in 2019 and is a four part documentary series streaming on Netflix. It follows five teens, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, and Raymond Santana who were falsely accused of a sexual attack against a white woman who was jogging in Central Park on April 19, 1989. This documentary reveals the argument of the justice system and their blatant discriminatory treatment of African Americans. It traces the youth’s different perspectives of the case and how their lives were turned upside down for a crime they did not commit. Before watching this I was unaware of the institutional racism our country and specifically our justice system displays on a daily basis. 

The presence of the media in this case of the Central Park Five was prevalent. It sparked outrage all over the country. These young men were publicly being branded as rapists and “bloodthirsty animals.” Almost every notable person in New York had something to say about this, specifically Donald Trump who bought full-page ads in the newspapers promoting the  reinstatement of the death penalty. During the live panel discussion, law students from USD and a lawyer spoke and discussed how the media affects people’s experiences in courtroom trials and the dangers of it, especially for young teens of color. The parents of these boys did what they could to shield the boys from the harsh reality of what was happening in the media, but it was near impossible. When viewing the When They See Us series, media outlets should take the opportunity to examine how coverage has contributed to wrongful convictions and led to decades of the unfair criminal justice policy.

For African Americans, equality in the courtroom and in the eyes of the justice system has always been a difficult hurdle to overcome. According to the article “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States,” a research done in 2017 by the University of Michigan, found that “black men are three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white male in sexual assault cases, yet they are so quick to be charged for it and be incarcerated.” As seen throughout this documentary and history, some people believe that blacks are more capable of committing a crime than whites. For African Americans, being accused of a crime can very quickly turn into being sentenced to jail with no fair trial at all, or even worse, death. They are not being held to the same legal process as a white person would go through, even if they committed the same crime, or are just plain innocent.. African Americans have been and continue to this day to fight for their freedom and fairness in the justice system.

In this particular case, the NYPD and prosecutors framed these boys into confessing to a crime they did not commit. The young boys were manipulated to give their false confessions by people who had much greater knowledge of the law and knew exactly how to frame them into being found guilty. The boys were powerless. A key quote from one of the episodes was,“They said if I was there and if I went along with it, that I could go home. And that’s all I wanted. That’s all I wanted, was to go home. That’s all I still want,” said by Jaharrel Jerome who played the part of Korey Wise. This quote specifically shows how law enforcement manipulated and compelled the young boys to confess – by giving false promises. The NYPD knew how scared and fragile these young boys were and they took full advantage of them and their situation. This conviction of  assault and rape was solely based on their confessions. There was no DNA evidence and their clothing did not match what was found at the crime scene. These young men were not given a fair trial by any means. Due to the lack of money the boys had, the only lawyers available to them were not experts in this type of law, again putting them at a disadvantage in the courtroom.

While looking back at all of the different instances of African Americans being treated poorly in the justice system and not given fair trials, there is one case in particular that I found strong parallels to. This case that I found similar to the Central Park Five is the Scottsboro boys.

The Scottsboro case entailed nine teenage boys who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in Scottsboro, Alabama in the year of 1931. These boys did not know each other, except for the two who were brothers, they were all simply just trying to find work. Like the Central Park Five, these boys were given lawyers with little to no time to prepare for court, again already at an immediate disadvantage. According to Freedom on My Mind, these young men were given “an all white jury and a white judge who sentenced these teens.” Despite these two cases being fifty years apart, we can still, unfortunately, see striking similarities. It tells us about their experiences within the criminal justice system and how easily criminalized they are due to racial ideologies and stereotypes they are subjected to. The racial ideology of black men being rapists and volatile towards white women is what sparked these cases to come to be. 

African Americans have come an exceedingly long way since the Scottsboro boys and the Central Park Five. Although much progress has been made, it is the primary goal of black activists to strive to find more ways for the criminal justice system to be one hundred percent equal to all races. The Sixth Amendment of the United States guarantees all Americans the right to a fair and speedy trial and an impartial jury. This was passed by Congress on September 25th, 1789. That was 231 years ago, yet African Americans are still fighting this battle of inequality within our justice system today. This country was built on the backs of African Americans, yet they have been oppressed and continuously put at a disadvantage. When They See Us and the Scottsboro Boys illustrate what life is like for African Americans in the criminal justice system and how easily they are taken advantage of simply due to the color of their skin. While Black History Month is only the month of February, it is important and vital that we continue to uplift African American culture, history and the positive impact they have on the world during the other eleven months as well. 

Works Cited 

RACE AND WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS IN THE UNITED STATES. Edited by Samuel Gross Fun,, www.law.umich.edu/exoneration/Documents/Race_and_Wrongful_Convictions.pdf

When They See Us, Ava DuVernay, 2019. Television 

White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: a History of African Americans,   withJDocuments.Bedford/St.Martins, 2017.



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