When We See Them
“Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable” -James Baldwin
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s mini-series When They See Us recently premiered on Netflix. The series details the 1989 case of the now exonerated men previously referred to as the Central Park Five. It is a scathing look at, and critique of, an American justice system that can often seem anything but just.
Some may be familiar with the Central Park Five case, yet may not have followed the broader details as closely. While other directors have produced features on the Central Park Five, Ava, whose canon of work includes 13th and Selma, focused on telling a larger story; returning a sense of humanity and dignity back to the men directly implicated in the case. In an interview with GQ, Ava said “I want to talk about their case, but I also want to talk about the overall landscape and culture in which their case can exist.”
At the Apollo Theater premiere, in the midst of the fan-fare around the film’s red carpet and celebrity attendees, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and their families sat a few rows away. With four out of the five men now living outside New York, it was a homecoming in the truest sense of the word. As the emotional, heart-wrencher of a first episode began screening, I found myself attempting to process the series both as a fan of Ava’s work, and also as a longtime Harlem resident. For the ‘exonerated five’ as Ava said she now calls them, what must it feel like to experience the film from the perspective of some of those same Harlem neighbors our legal system knowingly separated them from?
There was another perspective that also weighed on me. This was the one I internalized in between tears, yelling at the screen, and thinking about how I would handle possibly needing to go for a walk. For many the film was their first introduction to Felicity Huffman’s character, Prosecutor Linda Fairstein who lead the Manhattan District’s sex crimes unit for over 25 years. I know Linda Fairstein; I had served with her on the Trustee Board at our alma mater, Vassar College.
An immediate question would be how? How does someone whose active role in a position of power that so drastically alters the course of life for these black and brown boys, have that chapter of their own life edited out as easily as a cashier’s void at a supermarket? How do we grapple with understanding that the worst days of someone’s life might be a stepping stone for someone else’s best? How might we unpack the reality that the success can attract the kinds of attention that leads to speaking engagements, publishing opportunities, awards, and even board appointments? Far too often we internalize compliance above critique, but what happens when the critique is more than justified?
It can both be true that Linda Fairstein’s work helped create a framework for approaching the adjudication of rape cases at a national level, and her office’s approach in the Central Park Five case warrants a level of scrutiny that should not be exonerated. These two understandings are not mutually exclusive. For all the threats posed by Trump’s administration, there remains a real conversation to be had about the ways intentional policy and decision making by perceived allies directly impacts, and often fails, black and brown intersectional communities. Sometimes, we do not see the full scope. Other times that scope is minimized or not acknowledged because some of the communities affected are already on the margins; rendered invisible. We do not often talk openly enough about externalities; the side effects or consequences of an activity that affects other parties without being reflected in the initial cost. Places like Silicon Valley, and the controversy surrounding the Sackler family opioid connection; the many examples in which one’s rise to the so-called “top” can blur the ‘how,’ which is arguably just as important.
Initially I wrote this post because it is 2019 and I did not wish to cape for Linda Fairstein’s past, but the bigger part of this essay is an acknowledgment of the role we all play in breaking through the silence for the purpose of greater accountability to the communities we claim to care most about. This is a broader conversation about power; the things we discuss behind closed doors, at fancy tables over hard dinner rolls, and the things we do not. The late Maya Angelou said “speak truth, even if your voice shakes,” and we should make it a point to seek out that same truth whenever possible. Civility should not be mistaken for full transparency.
My ask for my alma mater would be that they more seriously consider the legacy of programs and social justice initiatives that allow students and faculty to understand and unpack the humanity in all spaces. That we continue to align our policies and practices with the values we say we stand behind. That we listen, and advocate for that collective humanity, even with its complexities.
When I think about the legacy of Vassar, I reflect on the powerful history of Black students at the college. The Black women in 1969 that lead the takeover of Main Building to establish a Black Studies program on campus and allocate funding for more Black professors. The 1990 protest of then campus lecturer Senator Daniel Moynihan, which lead to advocating for the creation of a Black Student Center, an Inter-Cultural Center, and the hiring of a campus rabbi. Work by the late Dr. Larry Mamiya to establish the Green-Haven prison project in 1979, as a weekly dialogue on current events between Vassar students and detainees at the maximum-security prison in Stormville, NY. The push for need-blind admission and making Vassar more affordable to the very students who pushed against the structural and systemic barriers to better education, and whose genius and excellence was not defined by their zip code.
Trustees have a ‘fiduciary’ responsibility to the institutions with which they serve. When I first joined the board, honestly speaking, I didn’t know what that word meant. Language can often serve as an intentional barrier to inclusion. Essentially the word translates to caretakers; being responsible for the physical and financial well being of a space. Making sure there’s a campus to come back to ten years from now, and that students are equipped to receive the very best education. What is the kind of institution our policies are shaping, and in what ways do our current on-boarding practices for fiduciary members reflect that evolution? How is this aligned with the diverse vision of the future institution and community we claim we are committed to building?
Just last month, Vassar’s 2019 Commencement speaker was Van Jones. A CNN contributor, he serves as the newly appointed CEO of Reform Alliance, a social justice organization pledging to change the criminal justice system through policy change around probation and parole. If an institution and its Trustees support elevating this message, perhaps it is a worthy objective to ensure adequate resources to support the kinds of continued work and investment in these social justice efforts. Programming like that of the former Green-Haven project, or of comparable initiatives. Those that unpack and combat the kinds of twenty first century injustices that contribute to cannabis app delivery services thriving at the same time our neighbors are serving mandatory minimums. The kinds of interactions that shatter racially biased perceptions, and highlight we are all deserving of love, while re-imagining the roles we can play in transforming the systems behind that process.
They may never see us, but we see them. The power is in shifting how we see ourselves. What we choose to do with that is up to us. Thank you Ava, Raymond, Korey, Antron, Yusef, and Kevin for reminding us all of that power, and that responsibility.