I was in my twenties and living in New York on April 21, 1989, when a 28-year-old white investment banker, Trisha Meili, was found brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. Five teenagers — four Black and one Latino, all from Harlem — were indicted for attempted murder, rape, assault, and rioting, and would serve between 6 and 13 years in prison before being exonerated after the real culprit of the vicious assault was found.
The public outrage over the arrests and the trials of the five teenagers exemplified a cultural, class, and racial divide that was reshaping the city at the time. It was a defining moment for me as a young Black woman.
The media frenzy that gave rise to racist, animalistic tropes about young Black and Brown teens as “monsters,” “animals,” and running in “wolf packs” echoed our nation’s history of lynching and revealed to me how language can be powerfully and swiftly weaponized to enact punitive policies and shift public perception. Later that year, I would work for the Child Welfare Administration and witness firsthand the devastating consequences of the crack epidemic on Black and Brown families. The harmful narratives and baseless scapegoating of Black and Brown people created “law and order” policies that ripped tens of thousands of kids from their families into foster care, creating a direct pipeline into the criminal justice system.
When They See Us, Netflix’s new four-part series on the Central Park jogger case, provides a harrowing look at the lives and families of wrongly convicted Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr., Antron McCray, and Korey Wise. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the series forces us to bear witness to the loss of childhood innocence and the unfulfilled dreams of the five teens, who ranged from ages 14 to 16 when they were unjustly arrested and convicted. The series also provides an unflinching examination of race, class, poverty, and the criminal justice system at a crucial moment in our nation when we are calling, with growing urgency, for deep-seated criminal justice reforms.
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