Like many people—but still never, ever enough—I watched When They See Us and was utterly and completely horrified. Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana were once five teenagers with their whole lives ahead of them until April of 1989. Then, suddenly, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, they suddenly became known as the Central Park Five—monsters who had attacked a white woman and left her for dead when they were out “wilding” in the park. It didn’t matter that the detectives assigned to the case couldn’t come up with anything to prove the boys had been at the scene of the crime, or that every single so-called confession was coerced through the most brutal of tactics; it didn’t even matter that those “confessions” varied wildly in detail, both from each other and from the actual facts of the case.
All that mattered to Linda Fairstein, who was in charge of overseeing the prosecution, was making sure someone, these boys specifically, paid for what was done to Trisha Meili. Or at least that’s what she would lead the public to believe, to the point where, even following the Five’s exoneration in 2002, she refused to admit that anything she had done was wrong. It was all done in the name of “justice” for Trisha Meili, after all.
Sure, Linda. Let’s take a look at how much you, and our justice system, have been proven to care about victims of sexual assault and in a totally-fair-and-not-racist way, to boot. Plenty of people of color have raised their voices and written countless articles about this; but since nobody cares to listen, maybe one more person putting the word out will turn some heads. Doubt it, but…here we go.
This country has a pretty clear history of racism, particularly when it comes to how it handles the concepts of sex and sex crimes. A simple Google search for black men wrongfully accused of raping white women returns a damning number of hits; in some cases, no sex—consensual or otherwise—occurred between the so-called “victims” and the men in question. Take, for example, the Scottsboro Boys, who were convicted of raping two white women after they committed the dastardly crime of Riding A Train While Black.
As recently as this January, Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas, dehumanized and renamed as The Groveland Four, were finally pardoned 70 years after being wrongfully accused.
Don’t want a group of young men with a catchy gang name made up by the so-called justice system? How about Emmett Till? The list goes on. And on. And on. Martenzie Johnson’s 2017 piece, “Being black in a world where white lies matter,” covered the phenomenon pretty extensively.
And yet nothing will ever be enough to cover this gruesome and ongoing side of history until we stop minimalizing and turning a blind eye to it out of…what, exactly? Discomfort? The lie that we keep telling ourselves about how racism is the exception, not the rule, that our criminal justice system works? Well, it doesn’t. “Criminal justice” is supposed to refer to the fact that criminals are brought to justice; in cases like these—far too many—it’s the justice that’s criminal.
And in displaying the facts of the Central Park Five’s case, When They See Us made that as crystal clear as possible. You don’t even have to do the research, people. It’s been done for you by Ava Duvernay and put on your televisions in bingeable format by your friends at Netflix!
But what about the victims??? What about believing women? Linda Fairstein built a name for herself and a market for her trash-ass true crime books (as if she has any clue what “true” means) because she fought so hard for the victim!
In an era where more and more women are coming forward with their stories and asking to be believed, it may be easy to let Fairstein continue to make her excuses. It may even seem like the right thing to do to admit that, while she made a mistake, she shouldn’t be punished for it.
But listen to yourself after seeing the fourth episode of When They See Us, which focuses on Korey Wise’s 14 years in the worst kinds of prisons, all for the “mistake” of Supporting A Friend While Black, and get back to me on that. Or, better yet, take a look at what Fairstein’s real legacy is. She did everything within her power to condemn five innocent boys, all because it would make her a name. And it was easy: Convicting Black teenagers for attacking white women is, after all, extremely easy in public opinion and, apparently, not so difficult in the “justice” system either.
And forget about any so-called care for the victim. Had she given one iota of a fuck about Trisha Meili, had anyone cared, they wouldn’t have paraded her in front of a court and questioned her about a traumatic event of which she had no recollection. All that added to the case was a more urgent need to make someone—anyone, whether guilty or not—pay. She was nothing more than a puppet and a means to an end for everyone involved in prosecuting those teenagers. Period. And no, there’s not one ounce of me saying this was Meili’s fault in those statements, either. The blame lies, and will continue to lie, with the criminals in our justice system. Period.
But beyond Meili, there were other victims who may have been spared had the detectives involved in the case done their jobs. The Cut’s Sarah Weinman did a fabulous job of documenting the consequences of Fairstein’s mismanagement of justice on other victims, like Lourdes Gonzalez who was attacked in June of 1989. June. Two months after that fateful night that everyone wanted to blame 14-year-old Kevin Richardson and four other innocent boys for. Two months that should have been spent searching for Reyes, the real attacker, rather than condemning children.
Lourdes paid for Fairstein’s racism with her life; her family paid by being ripped apart. Several other women, some of them who chose to remain anonymous, paid with the worst kind of trauma that no amount of justice could give them an escape from anyway.
But sure, people make mistakes, right? Forget the fact that our justice system preaches about folks being “innocent until proven guilty,” when there was enough evidence—a lack of ability to put the boys at the scene of the crime, a lack of conclusive DNA evidence, police abuse, confessions that made no damned sense when pieced together—to actually prove Raymond Santana and the others innocent.
The criminal justice system says that you’re innocent until proven guilty. But if you’re black or brown, you are guilty and have to prove yourself innocent.
It was all just a mistake. Sure.
That’s why Linda Fairstein refuses to admit any wrongdoing on her part to this day, to the point where she even tried to control how she was portrayed in When They See Us, right? Fuck a mistake. The mistake here is that Fairstein has gone through the past 30 years with zero consequences, aside from recently running away from social media like the coward she is. Poor baby. She had to see some angry tweets; that clearly means nothing in the wake of Korey Wise’s time in solitary confinement as a child.
Oh, and lest anyone think this was an isolated incident or that maybe Fairstein really does care about victims of sexual assault on some level, let’s talk about how she was a consultant for Harvey Weinstein. Yes, that Harvey Weinstein. But there’s far more before and after that, expertly compiled in the following twitter thread. Click through every ounce of it. It’s your duty:
We’re all quick not to want to white people to suffer when they make “mistakes,” regardless of their crimes. Whether it’s Fairstein’s criminal abuse of the justice system or, say, a white dudebro swimmer who was caught brutally raping a girl, or some MAGA teens harassing Native Americans, it’s all about not wanting to ruin their bright futures. Brock was a great swimmer, after all!
Forget that Yusef Salaam had, according to what Korey tells the cops in When They See Us, (readers, I’ve dug and dug for anything concrete about these men from the “before” and can’t find anything. If you know of something, please hit the comments), skipped ahead a couple of grades. What might he have become, had this not been done to him?
But what about my favorite “he’s so young, don’t ruin his life” story? 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s life wasn’t even worth preserving, all because he committed the crime of Playing with a Toy Gun In An Open-Carry State While Black…But his murderer? Was hired by another police department in 2018.
The cop was ruled innocent, after all. Forget that, even over a decade after the Central Park Five were exonerated, there are still people—most notably, our racist excuse for a president and Linda Best-Seller Fairstein—who believe they were guilty. The majority of the folks who miscarried justice in 1989 are wild successes and still believe they did the right thing. They continue to lie, and they don’t have any incentive not to. Because society will continue to protect them and their whiteness.
There is no justice. Too many lives have been lost or ruined; too many despicable people have gone through life as successes, despite their criminal behavior. Danielle Scruggs of The Observer believes When They See Us to be a call to action. And so do I. But we’ve been called to action, time and again, and remained silent. Complacent. We’ve refused to listen to the many voices of color, screaming into the void since the very birth of our nation.
I, for one, am particularly sick of the way racists try to cover their behavior up by calling it a fight for “justice,” or as a way to protect my otherwise-disregarded safety as a
woman white woman. The system doesn’t care about us; that’s grossly clear. And it cares even less about people of color.
I’m sick of it. To Korey and Yusef, Antron, Raymond, and Kevin. I see you. To everyone doing the hard work, I see you. I hear you.
And to Linda Fairstein, Elizabeth Lederer, and so many others? Fuck you. What you call justice is criminal; what you do in the name of supposedly protecting and serving is hateful. And I have no words for what you’ve accomplished on the backs of the wrongfully convicted.
When They See Us is now streaming on Netflix. Watch it, and listen to what people of color have to say. For once. Because if you’re not looking, and if you’re not listening? You’re part of the problem.