When They See Us
Watching When They See Us sucks. It doesn’t make me feel good; in fact, it makes me feel quite bad. I’ve seen several Ava Duvernay movies; I’ve never felt helpless like I did watching this. Perhaps that’s exactly the point. Watching this grueling saga unfold should feel bad and we all should live in that discomfort for awhile, wanting to change something but realizing the story has to run its course.
I equate it to witnessing a crime. You can’t call 911 or fight back or stop the perpetrators. There’s no opportunity to fight it or change it. Its bearing witness to an event that was terrible, a black mark on our nation’s history, and it’s bearing witness to the sheer power, terror, and failure of a system of justice. It’s the realization that tragedies like these affect not just the victims but their families, friends, neighbors, and communities across the country.
Each episode is more or less devoted to a specific part of the process roughly in the order of police treatment, court treatment, life after prison, and life in prison. The most draining is the final episode, Korey Wise’s story. It’s harrowing yet I found myself unable to look away.
From my place of white privilege, I can view these horrific incidents from afar. I can feel sad and hopeless and then, eventually, move on and forget. The real tragedy is that for these five men that’s not the case, and certainly not for the millions more whose cases have faded away into obscurity. They can’t forget. They must always remember. If they don’t, they might end up dead.
That’s why I’m convinced that this piece is speaking to white audiences more than anything else. People of color know this story intimately, it’s a story all too familiar. Now, these men and Ava are asking you to see them. You, my white friend, can’t look away. No one can.
And while it’s great that some measure of accountability is being served to Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein, this story is about far more than that. It’s about the people, the system that on its face pretends to care about rehabilitation, but in reality is only interested in locking poor people up and throwing away the key. It’s a reflection on the schools and publishers that elevated these women and continuously worked with them in spite of the actions these two women took against these young men in 1989. It’s a condemnation of all those who ignored these men and looked away.
If there’s anything to take from this series, it’s that this case wasn’t a fluke. This is how our justice system was designed to run and how it still runs today. It took twelve years for New York City to settle with the group and provide some form of restorative justice. To this day there’s been no admission of guilt or mishandling of the case by any of the parties involved.
It’s damning. All of this is damning, and little has been doen to fix it.
So what’s our duty now? It’s to watch. It’s to witness. It’s to not look away. It’s to really see these boys, now men. It’s for white audiences to really see them and their story, to acknowledge their pain, and work to fix it.
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