Opinion: ‘When They See Us’ Highlights Why Exoneration Doesn’t Equal Vindication For Blacks and Latinos

“When They See Us” is director extraordinaire Ava Duvernay’s latest masterpiece. The four-part Netflix mini-series debuted on May 31 to rave reviews and incredibly emotional responses from viewers who watched the series. The drama detailed the terrible injustice committed against the “Central Park Five.” It’s not the first time Blacks and Latinos have been punished for crimes they’ve not perpetrated and it, unfortunately, won’t be the last. It also brought me to the conclusion that exoneration isn’t enough. I have to be 100% transparent. I couldn’t bring myself to watch “When They See Us.”

Five boys accused of brutally raping then 28-year old investment banker, Trisha Meili, who was jogging in New York City’s Central Park on the evening of April 19, 1989, were wrongfully and viciously sent to prison for the crime. Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Kharey Wise were known as “The Central Park Five.”

At the time of their arrests, the boys were only between the ages of 14 and 16 years old. They were sentenced to prison for various years. Their innocence was torn away and violated.

The boys’ families and reputations were destroyed. I was 16-years-old and I, vividly, remember the hatred spewed against them. President Trump even launched a full-scale attack on the “Central Park Five” by spending $85,000 on a full-page ad meant to demonize the young men. Blacks and Latinos have seemingly always had a love-hate relationship with The Big Apple and its racist implementation of law and order.


They were exonerated over a decade later by DNA evidence and New York City settled with the now grown men for $41 million in 2014. In 2003, the men sued the city for malicious prosecution, emotional distress, and racial discrimination, so it took over another decade for them to receive punitive damages.  However, that exoneration wasn’t enough. New York City’s Police Department has a sordid past with racism among Blacks and Latinos so, to be honest, no one should have expected the police to do its job.

Related Story: Two Black Men Finally Receive Justice After Serving 43 Years In Prison

Linda Fairstein, the person, in my opinion, who is most responsible for this travesty of justice has never been punished. Fairstein oversaw the prosecution and was supposed to uphold the law to the highest standard.

She didn’t nor did she manage the exoneration of the men. Linda Fairstein was instrumental in railroading the boys and was the overseer. Fairstein had no regard for the lives of Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Kharey Wise. Her job was to make innocent Black and Latino boys pay for raping Trisha Meili- guilty or not.

She has since gone on to become a successful author, a member of the board of trustees at Vassar College, and was even awarded the Federal Bar Council‘s Emory Buckner Award for Public Service. Although her actions were devious and evil, Fairstein has been celebrated and has lived a rich and full life.

Ava Duvernay disclosed that Linda Fairstein attempted to change her ominous role in “When they See Us.”

“She actually tried to negotiate,” Duvernay told the Daily Beast in an interview. “I don’t know if I’ve told anyone this, but she tried to negotiate conditions for her to speak with me, including approvals over the script and some other things.”

“So you know what my answer was to that, and we didn’t talk,” she said.

In my opinion, Fairstein’s attempt is proof positive that she was fully aware of her actions and didn’t want to be viewed as the monster she was.

She has never made amends for her crime. Linda Fairstein has yet to be punished for what she did 30 years ago.

If it wasn’t for Mari Robles, an international studies junior at Vassar, who created and published a petition on Sunday morning calling for Fairstein’s removal from the board, she may have never faced any repercussions. The petition has over 3,000 signatures, and the college is now reviewing Fairstein’s status as a board member.

An exoneration should take place when people are innocent. With that said, punishments should be handed out to those guilty of falsely accusing and prosecuting the innocent parties. The penalty should be equal to the crime they committed. In this case, Fairstein should be thrown in jail and stripped of her accolades.

Alas, that only exists in a fair and just world and only “When They See Us” for real.