• J. Christopher Hamilton

THE NETFLIX SERIES “WHEN THEY SEE US:” A Case Study on the Weaponization of Race, Class and Gender

Updated: Jun 12

New York City in the mid 80’s and 90’s was entrenched in the crack epidemic, a plague that doubled its homicide rate between 1985 and 1990.[1]The precipitous drop in the price of cocaine from $60,000 per kilogram in 1980 to $13,000 by 1987 (due to the increased supply and purity of the product) equated to a tsunami of violence flooding the city.[2]Even before the crack epidemic hit, the city was teeming with racial tension, high unemployment and urban blight. Nightly news coverage about police corruption, vigilante groups, and turf wars fueled the anxiety of both white- and blue-collar New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs. On May 18, 1993, The Post’s front page dubbed the 5.5 square miles of East New York and Cypress Hills, Brooklyn — a “KILLING GROUND. Someone was slain there an average of once every 63 hours.” White flight from the city skyrocketed 1980 to the year 2000 when the white population in NY declined by over 600,000.[3]But some of them stayed behind and bought illegal guns to fight the criminals on their own terms. Men like Bernhard Goetz were hailed as heroes for shooting four black men who tried to rob him on the subway.[4]Similar stories of everyday people turned vigilante gunfighters instigated a bloodlust for draconian measures to deal with the crime rate.

“When They See Us” (“WTSU”) captures the angst that permeated NYC in the late 80’s, as it chronicles the heart-wrenching story of the five East Harlem boys dubbed in the press as “The Central Park Five” (now known as the “Exonerated Five”). These were the five African American and Latinx teens arrested and wrongly convicted of brutally raping an investment banker jogging through Central Park after dark. At the time, they were considered the scourge of the city. But Ava DuVernay, the director of this limited-series, humanizes The Exonerated Five and their families in a way that compels her audience to reconsider the circumstances that precipitated these teens being immediately vilified by the press and community at-large. Consequently, after the boys served between five to twelve horrific years in prison for a crime they did not commit, the jogger’s actual attacker confessed to the crime and the boys were later exonerated (yet their vindication was barely covered in the news). In addition to the libelous and slanderous treatment they received at the time, the city never publicly apologized for the miscarriage of justice. Even today, the lead prosecutor in their case remains convinced that the boys were party to the crime.

Ava deftly illustrates the profundity of these issues by depicting the confluence of socioeconomic conditions that deprives young black children of their agency in the inner-city. The story of The Exonerated Five almost amounts to a case study on how systemic racism operates as a funnel to feed urban kids into the prison industrial complex. In a world where generations of black boys grow up shackled by injustice, race and then a criminal record, these factors also explain the widespread destabilization of the black family and community at-large. While compounding issues like lack of education, financial resources and unbiased community policing create a vortex of destruction, the emasculation of black men serves the deadly blow to any familial stability. Thus, resulting in black women often being saddled with the burden of both the sole protector and provider for their children in these communities.

That dynamic was made evident in WTSU in the case of Yusef Salem, one of The Exonerated Five, in comparison to the other four boys. When the ill-equipped parents of Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana were all intimidated, deceived, or outmaneuvered by the prosecutors and detectives resulting in coerced confessions from their children, Yusef Salem’s mother beats the cops at their own game. Sharonne Salaam (played by actress Aunjanue Ellis) demonstrated how a quick wit and channeled aggression can be used to short-circuit an unjust system. Aunjanue’s character knew her rights when she arrived at the police station looking for Yusef and was willing to combat an oppressive power structure to protect her child. Sharonne proved this commitment when one of the detectives tried strong-arming her by saying that she couldn't see her son because he waived those rights. Sharonne then threatened to call the Daily News about the interrogation tactics they were using on her underage child. Nonetheless, Sharonne got to her son before he capitulated and signed a bogus confession. But her dubious victory begs the larger question. What kind of world do these parents live in where they literally have to risk their life, limb, and livelihood if they go toe-to-toe with law enforcement to protect their children? What becomes of the children with parents that can’t or won’t do that? What becomes of the parents that engage in that battle and pay a personal price for losing?

We get a glimpse of the pervasive dysfunction in the families of these young boys through the lens of the parents. Fathers broken by the weight of their failure to succeed as men in the world, then crushed by an inability to provide and protect their families is an ongoing theme throughout the series. Michael K. Williams does an amazing job conveying that deep pain and internal conflict in his role as Bobby McCray (the father of Antron McCray). In a heart-wrenching scene where one of the detectives threatens to tell Bobby’s boss about his criminal record to get Bobby to pressure Antron into implicating himself. Bobby then shrivels up fearing the reprisal. In a diminutive voice and child-like deference, he submits to the pressure. But during the subsequent scene in a private moment with Antron, Bobby exerts all of his imposing masculinity, power and control as he throws a chair out of anger trying to convince Antron to provide the confession they want. Antron initially resists but eventually agrees, which ultimately destroys their relationship in the years to come. Most parents from the of outside their community would think Bobby was foolish for not just consulting a lawyer, alerting the senior officers, or just fighting back against the intimidation. But Bobby has been beaten into submission and conditioned to accept this behavior well before his encounter with this cop. The subtext is clear. Over the span of Bobby’s life, he’s learned that there is no such thing as justice for a black man when comforted by white men carrying guns and badges. So, he does what he has been conditioned to do for generations, which is to comply to avoid more trouble. But the shame Bobby later feels about the pressure he put on Antron to lie becomes an emotional barrier to him being present during Antron’s trial, which leaves his son feeling mislead and abandoned by his primary protector. Antron’s disappointment in his dad turns into hatred for him until the day he died.

But then there are the mothers, weathered by the disproportionate load on their shoulders. They are constantly worrying for their children in the streets while trying to nurture the man of their home into a healthy mind frame. WTSU shows how they easily become victims of overwhelming empathy for their children and the pressures being exerted on them by the greater society. Some of the women lose their jobs, get death threats and are left without any remaining resources to fight for their sons’ freedom.

In the case of Deloris Wise (played by Niecy Nash), we see how her son’s pain drove her to substance abuse. We also see how Sharonne Salaam is forced to think only of her own child instead of attempting to work with the other mothers as a unified team during the trial. It's the attitude that “I have to do for me and my own first” that undermines the strength derived from unity in the black community. The prosecutors even strategize on ways to separate the boys’ trials as a tactic to weaken their families’ collective defense. But the resilience of these women is emblematic of how generations of black women have become the foundation of the black community. As war waged against black men by private and public institutions, black women have always sojourned on for their families despite the odds or outcomes.

For many in the African American community, watching WTSU was heart wrenching because it felt so personal for us. These Harlem boys were our peers. When this all happened, I was growing up only fourteen miles away in Brooklyn. In many ways, I identified with their younger selves and understand some of their experiences in the criminal justice system. We listened to the same music, coveted the same sneakers, and feared encounters with cops the same way. Although I’ve never suffered the same systematic victimization by the criminal justice system, as an at-risk teen who later became a criminal prosecutor, I’ve been eyewitness to some of those horrors. The Brooklyn neighborhood where I played basketball as a kid, watched the exchange of illegal narcotics for cash and endured harassment by the police would be the same neighborhood I’d return to as a prosecutor ten years later.

After witnessing all kinds of injustices as an adolescent, I wanted to make a difference and change things as an adult. It was a surreal experience at times. As an assistant district attorney, I got to see the men in police uniforms that I feared growing up become deferential allies in the courthouses and city jails. But a job like that often makes you feel like you’re living alongside the criminals in the underbelly of the system. That was made evident to me when I found myself on a crime scene examining the bloody corpse of a naked black man murdered in the neighborhood. But my work as a Brooklyn ADA was short-lived, partly due to the fact that the paltry salary placed me barely above the poverty line. I was there long enough though to see how broken the system was from the inside. On the outside looking in, the ghettos and jails were creating young thugs on the streets. But on the inside looking out, being a young black male back then was a lot more complicated than that. The system that was installed to protect our innocence was criminalizing us on a daily basis. Just like the Exonerated Five as young boys had experienced, my youth and skin tone was like wearing a scarlet letter. It meant being perceived as a possible predator, while also being targeted as prey by overzealous cops and the criminal element in the streets.

As always, the passage of time provides the best perspective. Were living in the days of radicalized mass incarceration, poverty, injustice, and punishment. Some don’t realize that many of the enhanced police tactics and policies designed to curb crime almost always have harmful side effects on innocent black men in these neighborhoods. The NY Public Housing Trespassing Statue is a prime example of that duality.[5]This law is intended to hinder crime but frequently creates accidental criminals. On its surface, it sounds quite benign: a law created to curb violence and drugs in NYC public housing by arresting the non-resident criminals as trespassers. But in actuality the law often has a disproportionate impact on non-criminals visiting these housing communities, which I witnessed during my days as an ADA. For example, you could be arrested, without any pretext, for trespassing by just visiting a neighbor in one of these housing communities. Then after you’re within the clutches of the criminal justice system, no matter how petty the offense, the downward spiral begins. Lack of cash for bail on a misdemeanor offense results in your plea-bargain to avoid awaiting trial in a dangerous jailhouse. Then the plea-bargain conviction leaves you with a prior record that the judge will use against you if you end up back in criminal court on another petty offense (not to mention the impact it has on limiting access to credit and employment opportunities). Furthermore, correctional facilities initially conceived to protect the public from dangerous elements in their communities and punish maleficence now operate more effectively as training grounds for lawlessness and incubators for sadistic and malignant behavior. The concept of criminal institutions being designed to reform offenders and make them productive members of society has become just as archaic as the notion that “lady justice is blind.” To add insult to injury, we have the anachronisms of eliminating convict training/educational programs and restricting felons from having access to licensed professions once they’re released. The latter is illustrated in the series when one of The Exonerated Five trying to find a job and is told by his barber that he’ll be unable to work for him since barbers are required to be licensed by the state. But somehow, we’re later surprised when these men and women return to a life of crime or find illegal means for subsistence.

Decades after our society dismantled Jim Crow laws, established equal protection legislation and leveraged the sacrifices of the civil rights moment, WTSU is illustrative of how our nation continues to struggle with the ugly vestiges of racism, classism and white privilege. The racist mentality that fomented our nation’s legacy of lynching black boys in the south resurfaces in 1989, as prominent men like Donald Trump publicly demand for the reinstatement of the death penalty in the case of these teens.[6]Donald Trump goes so far as to place four front page ads in four NY newspapers, which amounts to costing him $85,000 (all in an effort to see these children punished based on allegations alone).[7]The public outcry for justice leading up to their conviction is eerily reminiscent of the way blacks had been the scapegoats in the antebellum south for licentious behavior toward white women. Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer, the two prosecutors on the case (played by Vera Farmiga and Felicity Huffman), consistently stoke that subconscious fear as they describe to cops, journalists and finally the jurors, how this innocent white woman was brutally raped by a pack of wild kids. But the proverbial word she uses to describe their behavior is “wilding.” This is a term actually coined by the cops’ misinterpretation of street slang they heard from kids they interviewed to describe what the kids were doing the night of the attack.[8]Nonetheless, the animalistic overtones of the term made for great fodder for the news media. Linda and Elizabeth’s careers were solidified based on these convictions and they have both gone on to be highly successful entrepreneurs. But all too often, for the prosecutors, these trials are less about seeking justice for heinous crimes but more about their career advancement. I witnessed this culture firsthand as an ADA in Brooklyn. High fives and celebratory cocktails after plea deals and conviction scoreboards at the office was the order-of-the-day.

Through generations of systemized programming, which started well before D. W. Griffith’s infamous film “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 (originally called “The Clansman”) to today’s media coverage of urban communities. Black men continue to be the real-life boogieman for law-abiding citizens in our country and the perfect stooge for the dysfunction of the inner city. Birth of a Nation was used to rewrite the history of the South and recast blacks as animals that needed to be controlled by violence.[9]We’ve all been programmed (including other blacks) to immediately presume ignorance, ambivalence, malevolence or aggression to be what we encounter when meeting a black man. These stereotypes are rooted in the early days after the Civil War when the South needed to reconstitute its labor force of four million black bodies.[10]That’s when the mythology of black criminality begins in earnest and blacks are arrested in droves for legal infractions to furnish the Southern States with free labor in the form of chain gangs. Then, just like centuries ago, the system imputes adulthood on black boys as they enter adolescence, thus stripping away their childhood and any chance that they’d engender compassion or understanding from governmental authorities like social workers, police officers, or judges. But many don’t realize that we’ve been systematically programmed to think this way. Through children’s books bereft of progressive images and stories about our community, to the vilifying of our social movements by government propaganda demonizing our leaders. This was all designed with a specific goal in mind: to cripple the black community. Many who don’t know the history of racism, biased media programming, and attacks on black political parties will find it hard to believe that breaking the black community was actually an agenda in many powerful circles of government and private industry.

In the post-civil rights era of the 70’s, crime begins to be used as a dog whistle in mass media for the troublemakers fighting oppression in the 60’s. During an interview, President Nixon’s close advisor, John Ehrlichman, lays out the “Southern Strategy,” which was the strategy his campaign used to win the white southern vote by attacking blacks and the antiwar left.[11]Ehrlichman goes on to explain that they couldn’t make it illegal to be black or against the Vietnam war, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, they could disrupt those communities: We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”[12]He goes on to say: “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.” Then, we see the prison population increase from 357,292 in 1970 to 1,179,200 by 1985.[13]President Regan takes up Nixon’s “War on Drugs” which amounts to a literal war on the black community. As Nixon played on the mass public’s fear of crime and need for law and order to get him elected, Regan promised tax cuts to the rich and to lock up all of the crack dealers in the poor communities. That sounded like a noble stance until Regan’s campaign manager Lee Atwater is caught on tape laying out the Southern Strategy. In his sobering commentary, Lee says: “you start in 1954 by saying: nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968 you can’t say nigger, that hurts you. It backfires. So, you say stuff like forced-bussing, state’s rights and all that stuff. You get so abstract. You’re talking about cutting taxes, and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things but the byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.”[14]As you can see, after being subject to this type of programming people naturally accept the overrepresentation of blacks as criminals in the news, even when that is contrary to actual crime statics.

As a child growing up in the 80’s, I didn’t realize I had been programmed to see my skin and community in a negative light. But then I recalled the first time I saw that glitch in the proverbial matrix as a child. It was in that moment I realized that I was living in an alternate universe, a world with its own reality and fiction. I was ten years old when I really woke up to my racial identity. Like most young boys at the time, my bedroom wall was adorned in comic book posters, articles about famous skateboarders and photos of female teen models. I hadn’t started thinking seriously about my future profession or a fulltime job one day. But then my uncle (who had previously aspired to be a doctor) gave me a couple of posters illustrating careers in the medical profession. As I began to pin them up in the corner of my bedroom wall, I realized that I could never dream of a career like that because I was black (even though the posters were of black doctors). Up until that time and well after my early childhood, all of the images I saw of doctors where white men. There were no black medical doctors in my family, in my neighborhood or on my television screen. To make matters worse, almost every image I encountered of a black man was one with him being subservient to a white. But I eventually realized by the time I reached my 20’s how damning these messages were on my subconscious. When I saw myself questioning the competency and creditability of any black professional charged with my care, I realized I needed to make a conscious effort to undo the damage of the mental conditioning. Even as I entered college as an aspiring business professional, I still subconsciously struggled with my self-worth and intellectual confidence. This crystalized for me when a close family friend questioned my college choice and asked why I didn’t apply to an Ivy League school like Harvard. My immediate reaction was astonishment that this person saw that potential in me. But then I quickly shut down the suggestion as something that didn’t make any sense. Years later after many personal accolades and achievements convinced me of my value, I found myself revisiting that conversation but with a different kind of astonishment: astonishment at the level of programming I was suffering from. Some may think my experiences are unique or relegated to a subset of my community. But the sad truth is that my experiences are the general norm for most of us growing up in lower income black community. The research and studies done on the effects of racism have given us tons of data on its impact and far reaching health implications for the black community (e.g. depression, anxiety, substance abuse and high-risk factors for certain stress-related diseases). But the research is unable to tell us how long the occupying forces ravaging our communities in the form of abundant fast food franchises, predatory lending, and police brutality will continue to have a hand in our destruction.

But with the advances in technology and increased access to the tools needed to tell our side of the story, we’re beginning to see a heightened public awareness. It’s no longer our story against the cop who stopped us on a deserted street. The black community’s greatest weapon against injustice has come to be the iPhone and Internet. Although neither of these resources could stop the lethal police tactics that are killing unarmed black men and children on a regular basis (such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and countless others), they have been indispensable in our collective fight for justice. Documentaries like “The Central Park Five” and “The 13th,”television shows like “When They See Us” and “Seven Seconds” and films like “The Hate You Give” and “Fruitvale Station” are helping to raise awareness and shift the narrative about the civil rights violations we’re suffering from at the hands of governmental authorities. From traditional news outlets to celebrities enlisting their vast social media followers into the fight for justice, the voiceless are finally beginning to be heard. The power of pro-social content and a decisive social media hash tags have mobilized movements like Black Lives Matter, Me Too and Times Up. These are still precarious times because the proverbial pipes being used to propagate these powerful messages are proprietary, not public domain, and the conservative right-wing lawmakers are entrenched partisan politics now more than ever. But at least it feels as though the playing field is finally getting closer to being leveled.

As I think about the story of The Exonerated Five, their advocacy work and their families, it’s overly apparent that their most powerful weapon was the hope and support of their families. The same indispensable resources that carried blacks through 400 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow and 40 years of mass incarceration continues to undergird the black community today. It’s our uncanny ability to persevere at all costs and not allow the hate of others destroy us. I saw this supernatural ability to forgive when met and I talked to Dr. Yusef Salaam about his experience. The vitriol and lack of forgiveness spewed against him and the other boys aren’t in his public appeal for change. The pain they all suffered has been transformed into a powerful story to uplift others and will continue to change the lives of people all over the world for years to come.

[1]Matt Ford, What Caused the Great Crime Decline in the U.S.?, Atlantic(Apr. 15, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/04/what-caused-the-crime-decline/477408.

[2]Scott Stewart, From Colombia to New York City: The narconomics of cocaine, Business Insider(Jun. 27, 2016, 8:50 AM), https://www.businessinsider.com/from-colombia-to-new-york-city-the-economics-of-cocaine-2015-7.

[3]Sam Roberts, Census Shows More Black Residents Are Leaving New York and Other Cities,The New York Times(Sept. 12, 2007), https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/12/nyregion/12census.html.

[4]Larry Celona, The reign of terror when murder was king of New York in the ‘80s and ‘90s,New York Post(Dec. 13, 2017, 11:04 PM), https://nypost.com/2017/12/13/the-reign-of-terror-when-murder-was-king-of-new-york-in-the-80s-and-90s.

[5]Law Offices of Michael H. Joseph, PLLC, https://www.whiteplainslawyers.org/criminal-trespass.

[6]Sarah Burns, Why Trump Doubled Down on the Central Park Five, The New York Times (Oct. 17, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/opinion/why-trump-doubled-down-on-the-central-park-five.html.


[8]Fay Watson, When They See Us: What does Wilding mean?, Express(Jun. 20, 2019), https://www.express.co.uk/showbiz/tv-radio/1143189/When-They-See-Us-What-does-Wilding-mean-netflix-series-central-park-five.

[9]Alexis Clark, How The Birth of a Nation Revived the Klu Klux Klan, History(Aug. 14, 2018), https://www.history.com/news/kkk-birth-of-a-nation-film.

[10]not sure where this information comes from

[11]Erik Sherman, Nixon’s Drug War, An Excuse To Lock Up Blacks And Protesters, Continues,Forbes(Mar. 23, 2016, 6:00 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/eriksherman/2016/03/23/nixons-drug-war-an-excuse-to-lock-up-blacks-and-protesters-continues/#50ca40b42c88.

[12]Wikiquote, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/John_Ehrlichman.

[13]Tom LoBianco, Report: Aide says Nixon’s war on drugs targeted blacks, hippies, Cnn(Mar. 24, 2016, 3:14 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/23/politics/john-ehrlichman-richard-nixon-drug-war-blacks-hippie/index.html.

[14]Wikiquote, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Lee_Atwater.