When They See Us. [R]
Ever since this film series released, I had multiple conversations with friends about our reticence in watching because we knew it was going to be painful and heart-wrenching. We had to “steel ourselves” up and prepare for what was sure to be an atrociously painful and angering viewing. While we knew this to be true, the fact that I had the freedom to prepare my mind to watch reeks of a truly audacious and comfortable privilege that I am ashamed to say I took advantage of. How nice, that I could emotionally prepare to watch this story when these young men lived it. And so, I confess this at the opening of my reflections, to repent of my sin, and to challenge others to embrace discomfort for the sake of pursuing justice. Most importantly, I watched, and am now writing to honor the lives of Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise.
In the follow-up show, “Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now,” featuring the actors and the Exonerated Five (formerly known as the “Central Park Five,”) Oprah asks Joshua Jackson, the actor who played Mickey Joseph, one of the defense attorneys,
“What did you learn about the justice system?”
Joshua replies, “Nothin’ good. … What did I learn about the justice system? It’s the wrong name for it.”
This may be the first and most important truth that needs to be told. The system we have in America that is known by the moniker “justice,” is more about punishment, retribution, and politicking than it is about truth, public safety, and humanity. Equivocating on “good” cops or “good” judges is only evidence of a system that is broken, as if identifying the exceptions is to disprove the rule. In this institution, it is appropriate to use the cultural maxim, “If you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention.” Even with all the advancements in technology, forensics, and political science, little has advanced in our psychological maladies. Our prejudice, predispositions, insecurities, and scapegoating is just as alive today as it has been for millennia. I lament that I don’t foresee much change coming anytime soon, given that we have a serious incarceration problem that is bending to the will of the general public and financing private industries. Add to that the current attitudes of our Executive Branch, and we have the recipe for barbaric and abhorrent injustice within our so-called “justice” system.
This makes Ava DuVernay’s insistence on the film series’ title so powerful, and poignant. Being seen–fully, honestly, and truly–is the critical foundation upon which true justice is built. In episode 4, Korey Wise declines to go to his parole hearing stating, “If they don’t want to hear my truth, I don’t want to waste my energy.” This scene was powerful to me. Korey’s refusal to participate in a system that cannot hear another person’s truth is an act of resistance, a prophetic act of condemnation, and a commitment to that which is right and fair. In other words, Korey’s abstention is an act of pursuing justice. He refuses to not be seen. Justice, according to Korey, is when you see me, when you see the truth of the matter, rather than what you already think you know.
Conversely, justice happens when we also see ourselves. Those who have been commissioned to be servants of a societal peace must see clearly their own biases and prejudices. We must perform the impossible task of seeing our cognitive blind-spots. We must see our dehumanizing attitudes and behaviors. We must see our own insecurities and fears. By seeing those elements of our selves, we bring them into the light. And by bringing them into the light, our vision is vastly improved. And when our vision is improved, so will our pursuit of justice.
I am deeply grateful to the work of Ava DuVernay, as well as Ken Burns for his documentary, “The Central Park Five.” They, along with others, have helped us to see more clearly.