Now they see us

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Last night, the Student Union Board of Governors (SUBOG) held the webinar panel “Now They See Us” with two of the Central Park Five: Dr. Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana. The group, now known as the “Exonerated Five,” actively works to address disparities in the criminal justice system. The words of these two social activists were highly anticipated after a summer centered on the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The Central Park Five refers to Black teenagers accused of raping and assaulting a white woman in Central Park. First questioned in 1989, these five teenagers maintained that they were innocent of the accusation throughout their trial. After being charged as adults, spending five years in prison and facing society’s demeaning eye, they were exonerated by confession of the serial rapist Matias Reyes in 2002. The group went on to sue the City of New York, settling the case in 2014. 

The Emmy-, Peabody- and NAACP Image Award-winning docuseries “When They See Us” tells the story of the “Central Park Five.” This film series focused on the themes of Blackness, criminality and institutional racism. The docuseries was critically acclaimed by the Boston Globe with writer Matthew Gilbert saying, “It’s because the four-parter is such a powerfully human take on one of our justice system’s most heinous blunders.” 

The conversation began with the moderator Shane Young, a seventh-semester finance major, inquiring about how Dr. Salaam and Santana maintained humanity as they were degraded by society. Santana commented on the importance of providing tools to communities of color, and “[w]hat happens when the system goes wrong, but how you can grow and develop … and then march against [it].” 

“We were the most hated in 1989, now we are considered the most loved … we are the example,” Santana said. 

The two speakers shared their experiences of being incarcerated and interrogated.   

“For me this was a whole new world … to now be thrown into … nobody can save me from this,” Santana described his prison experience. “ … It gave me structure, it gave me discipline … But it also was preparing me for adult prison.”   

Dr. Salaam connected his experience to structural issues of the criminal justice system, saying, “… [T]he younger they get you the more difficult it is for you to break out the revolving door of recidivism.” The conversation did include an undertone of hope when Dr. Salaam stated, “We get the awesome opportunity to break generational curses.”  

As the panel continued the speakers began speaking about their experience working with the award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay.  

“We needed somebody who wasn’t going to be afraid,” Santana said. DuVernay was that person for the Exonerated Five. The speakers described the process of film production as transparent and open. The experience consisted of eight hour sit-downs with the writers for each of the Exonerated Five, being allowed on set during filming and grief counselors to ensure the most accurate and impactful truth possible.  

“It rippled around the whole globe,” Dr. Salaam said about the film. 

As the webinar came to a close, the panel took pre-submitted student questions that were read by Young.  

I was able to ask the panelist, “Most incarcerated people can’t vote … How much value can an election have if these people are excluded from the process? How can students make their vote matter for them?” 

Dr. Salaam answered with a two-pronged solution: the first, making sure the incarcerated restore their voting rights and the second, education to participate in elections.  

“Non-participation is participation … If you don’t participate you have just given your power over to people who want their vote to matter,” he said.  

Santanna continued the theme of the importance of election readiness, saying, “Everybody’s not an activist … Activism for you is voting. That’s power.” 

Ending with messages to encourage organizing, the conversation with Dr. Salaam and Santana was engaging and topical, connecting personal experience with the issues America is facing today.  

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