“This is my first rape. This is my first experience. This will be my last.” So speaks a young Khary Wise while “confessing” to a crime — the brutal 1989 rape of Trisha Meili — while being videotaped by the New York Police Department. (Meili publicly identified herself as the victim in 2003. Until then, she was known simply as “the Central Park Jogger.”) Of course, Wise was not guilty — at least of rape. As the saying goes, “his skin was his sin.” The same was true of the other four boys, known collectively as “The Central Park Five,” who were convicted of the crime. In addition to Wise, they are Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana. Jr. (Khary changed his name to Korey after being released from prison.) Now adults, these boys were framed by the NYPD, which was under tremendous pressure to find, prosecute and convict someone (anyone). Notably, only two of the boys knew each other at the time the crime was committed.
As painful as it is, I am watching Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us.” I could not do so in one sitting. (It seems that, in creating a four-part docuseries, DuVernay anticipated that many people would react similarly.) All five boys served jail time, ranging from six to 13 years. Eventually, all were exonerated after a serial rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime in 2002. (Wise met him while both were behind bars; Reyes’ DNA matched that which was collected in Meili’s rape kit.) After decades of legal wrangling, the final legal settlement occurred in 2016. Still, the trauma to all six victims will endure for the rest of their lives. Incidentally, all of these men are younger than I am. I was finishing my freshman year of college, in neighboring Massachusetts, when Meili was assaulted. It’s still chilling to me to know that, while I was going to class, these boys were going to jail for something that they did not do. Even more chilling is the fact that I’m rearing a Black son. (Note: While Meili seems to agree that the boys were not guilty of the crime, she maintains that there was more than one attacker.)
These boys were on trial both in physical courts and in the court of public opinion — and were convicted in each. They were found guilty because of an ethereal, yet omnipresent star witness: white womanhood. There is no greater symbol of purity and innocence than this witness. It is the star not only of the courts, but of cinema as well. For example, white womanhood took center stage in D.W. Griffith’s legendary 1915 movie, “Birth of a Nation,” in which a “Black man” (i.e., a white man in blackface) attempts to rape a white woman, who was portrayed by famed actress Lillian Gish. Her character jumps to her death rather than succumb to such a fate. (Spoiler alert: The KKK literally rides in to save the day as if they were the cavalry. The film was so successful that the Klan used it as a recruiting tool for at least half a century.) The sad truth is that if Meili — or Nicole Brown Simpson — had been Black, the public outcry would have been much more muted.
Because of the “star witness,” this story went viral long before anyone had heard of the term “social media” or “Me too.” These boys were virtually guaranteed to be the convicted, and it wasn’t simply because their confessions were coerced, that they lacked legal counsel and that their parents were pressured. No, they were going to be convicted because they “fit the description” of the usual suspects. Of course, the fact is that then — as now — white men most often rape and murder white women. But, let’s not let pesky facts get in the way. By the way, dear reader, did you know that Emmett Till’s case is still being investigated more than 60 years later?
“When They See Us” is a more terrifying horror movie than any ghosts, ghouls or goblins that Hollywood could dream up. Most of the time, Black men and boys are invisible to much of white America, much like the air or dust. When we are seen, we are most often perceived as a threat, much like a snarling pit bull. Whenever I am around white women — even ones I know — I consciously try to make myself seem as unthreatening as I can (especially if few other people are present). So far, I have been lucky. Keep your fingers crossed for me and others who look like I do.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at email@example.com.