NEW YORK — This summer will mark 30 years since the arrest of the Central Park Five — five teens of color accused of raping and severely beating Trisha Meili, a white female jogger, in Central Park. The story of the five — Corey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana — is the centerpiece of the four-part television series set to be released on Netflix later this month, titled “When They See Us.”
The series raises questions about how the nation views young men of color. “When They See Us” does so specifically through the Central Park Five’s plight.
Three of the Five — Santana, Richardson and Salaam — have spoken with PIX11 News in the past about how the story of their arrests, convictions, incarcerations and, ultimately, their vindications provide important lessons for American society at large to learn.
“If the public knew going into this,” Salaam said in an interview with PIX11 News in 2016, “…these guys are completely not the people who did this crime, a lot of things would have changed for us.”
Santana actually initiated the idea of this production when he contacted Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay to see if she would be interested in making a film about the Five’s plight.
“What people don’t actually see,” Santana told PIX11 News in a 2016 interview, “is the whole process of an interrogation.”
“First, there’s fear,” he continued. “It’s cold in the room, they don’t want you to sleep, so you gotta stay up, right. There’s no food, no drink. And that takes hours, before they actually get to the process of questioning you.”
The series seeks to show how teens of color, with no prior criminal record, and most of whom didn’t even know one another, could confess to something they did not do. Part of the reason, they’ve said — and now DuVernay concurs, through her work — is that, as young men of color, they were viewed as criminals from the start.
“I’m asking the question to everyone,” DuVernay said in a recent interview on CBS Sunday Morning, “‘What do you see when you see black boys?’ And that’s a painful answer because I know what the answer is for many people,” she said.
“It’s exactly what these boys were called,” she continued. “‘Wolf pack, animals, criminals.’ So much that they could be tossed aside in a case that was made from a complete lie.”
In interviews with PIX11 News, members of the Central Park Five strongly echoed DuVernay’s assessment.
“People in society say,” said Kevin Richardson, “They see us, and they think, ‘Oh, nothing is wrong. Their parents are there [during the Five’s interrogation], and everything is fine.’ But what they don’t see was that we was interrogated for 24 to 36 hours.”
Richardson, Santana and Salaam spoke with PIX11 News as part of their ongoing efforts to promote reform in how people who are taken into custody are treated.
“We’ve taken this loss as a positive for us,” Salaam said about the years in prison the men spent when they were still in their mid- to late teens.
They’ve been some of the biggest advocates for state legislative changes that require that people in police in custody for violent crimes be video recorded during their entire questioning.
“Basically, you can see what happened behind closed doors,” Richardson said about the need for video recording of interrogations, “and you can take your own, you know, information about it.”
The Five have been successful in getting that legislation passed, as well as reforms that hold prosecutors accountable for alleged misconduct.
Among their reasons for advocacy, Salaam told PIX11 News, is that their work is a healthy way of reckoning with what happened to them.
The severity of what happened is emphasized in the last episode of the four-part series. It focuses on the member of the Five who’s been the least vocal over the years. Corey Wise, unlike the others, was convicted as an adult, and served the longest — 13 years — in prison.
In a random encounter there, he met the actual Central Park Jogger rapist. Matias Reyes confessed, having felt remorse for the length of time Wise had spent behind bars for Reyes’s crime. Reyes’s DNA was found on the rape survivor’s body.
Despite being vindicated, Wise was deeply scarred, having endured extensive abuse in prison.
Also, even though they received a settlement giving more than $8 million to each of the five men, they all say that they’re permanently wounded in ways that they hope the Netflix series can help prevent for other men of color.
“A lot of times people don’t understand,” Salaam told PIX11 News in a past interview. “They’ll see us, and they’ll be like, ‘C’mon, just get over it. You guys are home now.'”
“But the reality is,” he continued, “we’re still coming home.”
“When They See Us” premieres on Netflix on Friday, May 31.