Ava Duvernay put her foot and all 10 toes in her cinematic retelling of the American horror story of the Central Park Five, now known as the Exonerated Five. The true-crime drama, When They See Us, follows the wrongful conviction of Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise, along with the lengths prosecutor and lackeys — went to prosecute them.
The film exposes “the system” that operated as a “wolf pack” seeking to destroy the lives of these five Black youth, out of its predatory need to denude, degrade and denigrate Black life.
It exposes a system of individuals who were thuggish, savage, monstrous, barbaric and downright demonic, refusing to repent or apologize for their crimes against these men. According to the dictates of White supremacy, the Central Park Five were guilty yesterday, are guilty today, and will be guilty tomorrow.
It also uncovers the sickness hanging over an America that is unable to accept or face up to its sins, instead, projecting them on to the Black body. How else to explain this gross miscarriage of justice, civility, and decency?
People were shocked by actor Liam Neeson’s revelation earlier this year that he believed in Black corporate responsibility, i.e., if one Black person is guilty, or commits a crime, then all are guilty — so when it comes to punishment, any one of them will do.
Apparently, this same belief motivated the criminal justice system’s response to the rape of a White woman, Trisha Meili, and other assaults on April 19, 1989. The system saw them all as guilty because, in the parlance of White supremacy, there is no such thing as an innocent Black person.
The Central Park Five case was a near lynching, mirroring the Red Summer of 1919, the Scottsboro Boys and Emmit Till — the only difference was the boys lived. Just like in the “good-old-days,” practically everyone was complicit: law enforcement, the judicial system, elected officials, and the corporate press whose steady drumbeat of racist categorization and disparagement painted them as guilty before their trials.
Much of the public gave quiet assent to their lynching. Donald Trump publicly advocated for their murder. And even Black people, with the exception of a few brave activists and the Black press, voiced little to no opposition.
After the youth’s exoneration more than a decade later, many insisted on their guilt despite evidence wthat unequivocally proved their innocence. Local newspapers continued to imply that the youth must have still been involved somehow.
Despite acknowledging she did not see her assailants, Meili also expressed doubt about the boys’ innocence. More troubling, the prosecutor who knew they were innocent continued to uphold the wrongful charges.
Why were so many people and institutions invested in the guilt of these five Black youth? One explanation is cognitive dissonance.
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong,” explained philosopher Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks. “When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable: cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”
What feeds this need to see Blacks as criminals? Blacks have no record of giving diseased blankets to Native Americans or wiping entire North and South American civilizations off the map. There is no record of Black people transferring human beings in hulls of ships packed liked canned sardines, guaranteeing that a third of their “human” cargo would perish, while not being concerned with losing lives, because their losses were covered by insurance.
Blacks did not enforce the “Trail of Tears,” or mass murder indigenous peoples or create a record of lynching Whites. And, there is absolutely no record of Blacks murdering millions of Jews in gas chambers and ovens. There is no history of slavery among Black and African people that demanded that humans be treated as chattel.
Furthermore, there is no corresponding Black Ku Klux Klan, despite FBI lies about so-called “Black identity extremists.” There are no corresponding Black Rosewoods, Tulsas or Elaine, Arkansases involving Black massacres of Whites.
To support the theory of inherent Black criminality, the system even intentionally established ghettos, making it as difficult as possible for Black and Brown people within to live. This resulted in impoverished, underserved and undernourished environments almost guaranteed to produce anti-social nihilists filled with burning rage and internalized self-hatred. And instead of striking out at their oppressors, they attacked their neighbors, as Fanon noted that they because they see the oppressor in one another.
What was it that caused such inhumanity? Was it because taking these boys down from their cross left them with no one to bear the sins of White supremacy? Or is it White society imitating primitive society, wanting to a Black life to satisfy the gods when a White life is lost or damaged?
Deep down most of us know the truth. The task at hand, should we have the guts to accept it, is to work on creating a system that does not allow such injustices to occur. A system in which there is no need for scapegoats — instead, providing justice, equality, and prosperity for all.
Justice, then peace.M