The Long Road to Decriminalizing Blackness | Sojourners

The Long Road to Decriminalizing Blackness

'When They See Us' and the Central Park Five
From Netflix's 'When They See Us'

I watched Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us and found myself angered by the people and systems that had a role in the incarceration of five innocent boys. The Central Park Five, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Saalam, and Korey Wise, were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated of a variety of charges related to the rape and assault of a white female jogger in 1989. While the series itself honors the stories of the Central Park Five, in choosing to title the series When They See Us, DuVernay invites us into a broader conversation on the criminalization and mass incarceration of young boys and girls of color, and challenges us to define our own role within this system.

For some within the faith community, it is easy to point fingers. We know that many self-proclaimed white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the election and continue to support him. Many asserted that he was the candidate with the “Christian agenda” defined primarily in terms of two topics: abortion and gay marriage. Some Christians who affiliate themselves with the Republican Party assert that they are pro-life, and yet all of this is called into question in watching When They See Us.

The series shows Trump’s prior efforts to have the Central Park Five, the five wrongfully convicted black boys, given the death penalty. Thus, the fact that Christians can support this president brings into question what is really meant by “pro-life” and what lives are included in those that matter. Are the lives of these wrongfully convicted black boys worth saving and valuing? What about the life of Korey Wise’s transgender sibling, Marci, who was murdered? Does her life have value?

I also can’t ignore my own faith community, the Black Church. There are black Christians and other Christians of color who voted for President Trump. There are black Christians and other Christians of color who advocate for the incarceration and over-policing of those within our own community in efforts to “keep our streets safe.” Sometimes we, as racially oppressed people, can become the oppressor in other systems and institutions, such as that of the criminal justice system. There are scriptures that warn us of this, such as Esther 9, in which the Jewish people who have been saved from genocide kill more than 75,000 people. In Genesis, Sarai experiences oppression in Egypt after Abram claims she is his sister then, but then turns around and oppresses their slave Hagar.

In my reflecting, I realized that — more often than not — those of us within the faith community fall within the “they.” We are the ones who view little black boys as “animals,” a term used by prosecutor Linda Fairstein in her prosecution of the Central Park Five. Like President Trump, we view them as “muggers and murders.” We see little black girls as older than they are, treating them like grown women when they are still young girls. We, as a society, are responsible for the criminalization of blackness and the continuation of a system of mass incarceration that has been proven to be unjust by such books as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

One of the most painful scenes to watch in this series is the one in which Antron McCray’s father, Bobby, confronts him with the reality of what this criminalization looks like in practice. While Antron is adamant about his innocence, his father wants him to confess because he’s been told that if Antron confesses, he won’t go to jail. Bobby screams, “When the police want what they want, they will do anything, do you hear me? Anything. They’ll lie on us. They will lock us up. They will kill us.” Nevertheless, his efforts and Antron’s false confession are in vain. Antron McCray and the other four boys are caught in the system his father tried so desperately to protect him from and get him out of.

It is time for us to redefine what we stand for and believe in. We must advocate for the value in all lives, including the lives of people of color who are incarcerated and members of the LGBTQ community. Additionally, we must work to confront our own prejudices and to create a world in which we will not have to fear for our children when they go to the park, like the Central Park Five and Tamir Rice, or listen to music like Jordan Davis, or go to pool parties like Tatyana Rhodes. We must work to create a world where all children are free to be, live, play, and imagine endless opportunities.