“When They See Us”: The Injustice of Black Men in America

Oscar Nominated Director Ava DuVernay, has had the whole world talking over the past week. Her four part Netflix series “When They See Us”, follows the 1989 case of five teenage boys of colour Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson who were wrongly accused and later convicted of the brutal rape and assault of a white female jogger in New York’s Central Park.  

The series has sent shockwaves through the world, with its raw depiction of the racism within the criminal justice system. I personally got through a few minutes and had to turn it off. As a person of colour it was both upsetting and infuriating to watch such a cruel act of injustice towards a group of children. The group of young boys were only between the ages of 14-16, and were literally hounded and beaten by the police to admit to a crime they didn’t commit. Although the convictions of ‘The Central Park Five’, as they were later called, were vacated in 2002 due to the real perpetrator, Matias Reyes admitting to the crime. Collectively the boys spent 7 – 13 years in prison, and during Reyes’s admission to guilt one of the boys, Korey Wise was still incarcerated. 

Although each boy’s treatment was undeniably horrible, viewers as well as myself were especially bothered by the torment 16 year old Korey Wise endured.  Not even initially a suspect, Wise was drawn into the case for essentially being a good friend. During the 1989 investigation, Wise accompanied friend Yusef Salaam and was quickly taken into interrogation as a suspect. 16 years old and the eldest of the group, Korey was allowed to be questioned without a guardian. Combining this with the fact that he struggled with hearing issues and a learning disability.  The teen was an easy victim for the detectives, who repeatedly beat and threatened him to admit to the crime. Despite lack of evidence, all five were convicted but unlike the other four teens, who were tried as minors and sentenced to 5 to 10 years in a youth correctional facility (where they could be held until they turned 21). Korey was sentenced to five to 15 years — all of which were to be spent in an adult prison. A child thrust into a group of adult criminals, Korey was subject to great violence and abuse during his time and spent several long periods of his incarceration locked away in solitary confinement. As you can imagine, the true brutality Korey endured is something we will never know or fathom.

As heart-breaking as this tale is, history seems to have repeated itself on more than one occasion. April 19th, 1989 is a date that the Central Park Five’s lives changed forever. Nonetheless April 9th, 1931 also holds a great significance to black history. Exactly 58 years and 10 days prior to the events of The Central Park Jogger Assault. Nine black teenagers, who were later dubbed ‘The Scottsboro Boys’, between the ages of 13 to 20 were also wrongfully convicted of raping two white women on a train in Alabama. Although some of the boys were later pardoned, they each spent years in prison. Clarence Norris was the only one to outlive all of the other Scottsboro Boys, dying in 1989 at the age of 76. All boys were officially pardoned in 2013 posthumously by the state of Alabama. 

20 years after the Scottsboro Boys, 14 year old Emmett Till a young black teen was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. After being accused of offending a white woman in a grocery store. The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the United States. Till became an icon and his death sparked the Civil Rights Movement. A more recent example of the mistreatment of black men, is that of Kalief Browder. He in 2010, at the age of 16 was accused of theft. Unable to pay his bail, Browder awaited his trial, and just like Korey Wise 20 years before him. Browder was jailed on Rikers Island for three years, nearly two of which were spent in solitary confinement. Although he was eventually released, he never recovered from the torment he suffered inside. Two years after his release, Browder died after hanging himself. His family as well as supporters have stated his suicide was a result of mental, physical and sexual abuse sustained in prison. 

The details of each case is disturbing but what is more alarming is the timeline. The miscarriage of judgement towards men of colour still seems to be happening. The examples I have given are notable cases that the public are aware of. It’s chilling to think of how many other cases such as these have happened through the years, (especially during my life time). It’s important we discuss them to give any slight chance of change.