When they hear us: the pushback of linda fairstein against “when they see us”

Linda Fairstein, the woman who oversaw the prosecution of Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, and Korey Wise, famously known as the Central Park Five, is facing a media storm of backlash for her mishandling of the case thirty years ago. She’s really upset about it. Cue the violin.

In 1989, the four African American and one Latino boy, aged 14–16, were arrested and subsequently tried and convicted on false charges for the rape of a 28-year-old white woman jogging in Central Park. The five teenagers, who did not know each other, were beaten, bullied, deprived of food and water, and coerced into confessions by detectives. They were also interrogated without lawyers or the presence of their parents. Convicted in 1990, each teenager spent between 6–13 years in prison — their youth and innocence stolen. Their sentences were vacated in 2003 after the real rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime in prison in 2002. He detailed his attack and said he did it alone. His DNA also matched the semen found on the victim back in 1989.

Because they were five Black and Brown youth accused of raping a White woman, they were vilified by the court of public opinion and their heads were literally called for by the White American lynch mob. Donald Trump called for the death penalty to be reinstated so they could be executed. Language used in the press heavily influenced public perception as the media referred to them as “wildlings,” “monsters,” “wolf packs,” “savage,” and “feral beasts.” They were painted as less than human, as if they didn’t belong in Central Park, or society for that matter. This was no different from racist language that has been used to “boogeyman,” “scapegoat,” and dehumanize Black people, particularly Black men, for centuries. Stripping the five of their innocence and their status as children, or even human beings, the Central Five were demonized.

Thanks to Ava DuVernay and her series, When They See Us, the world finally got the chance to see what really happened through the eyes of Yusef, Antron, Raymond, Kevin, and Korey. Viewers got to see their humanity, hear their stories through their own voices, and realize the full extent of the railroading and corruption by the prosecution and detectives that destroyed their young lives. We got to see them. See. Them. We also got to hear them. The five men finally found their voices for the world to hear.

When They See Us gives us a glimpse of who they were as young boys, exuberant and full of life, with their entire lives ahead of them. We feel their fear along with the stark realization that they were fighting a losing battle that they were never set up to win. We see the bigotry, the hatred, the disregard for their humanity by the racist establishment that wanted to see them punished — their flame extinguished by a justice system that was never set up to protect them. We watch the years go by, the damage done to their families, their loss of hope, and the stigma they endured. We watch them attempt to rebuild their lives when they’re released from prison.

Naturally, Linda Fairstein feels that she is the person who has been treated unfairly, and facing repercussions including being dropped from the board of Vassar College, losing her publisher and literary agency, and being asked to leave several non-profits, Fairstein published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal defending herself against her portrayal in When They See Us.

Fairstein, who has been defending the conviction of the Central Park Five since their sentences were vacated, is beating a dead horse. She offers the same flimsy evidence to support her unethical actions: the confessions were not coerced, the prosecution always knew there was a “missing” suspect who the DNA belonged to, the detectives did their job finely, and of course, the Central Park Five were guilty of something, even if it wasn’t the rape of the jogger.

In her op-ed, she says When They See Us is “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.”

Her op-ed raises so many issues. What strikes me first is her assertion, and the typical feeling of White America, that her voice matters more, and is to be believed over, the voices of Yusef, Antron, Raymond, Kevin, Korey, and Ava. Fairstein has been heard. She has been telling the same tired story and staunchly defending herself for years. To Fairstein, there is her truth and the lies of Ava Duvernay and the Central Park Five. She cannot handle those she victimized and a director, producer, and screenwriter having a voice, telling their story, and even worse, being believed over her. This is not unusual. Whenever we tell our stories, we’re met with violent disdain. We need to get over it, or we’re liars, agitators, exaggerators. There’s no way it’s as bad as we claim, or happened the way we recount it.

Fairstein also believes that her story, her life, matters more. After stealing the innocence and youth of the five now adult men, she cannot handle the belated consequences that are now being doled out to her for her actions.

The most disturbing part of her op-ed, especially in perspective of history and the climate we now live in, is her assertion that the Central Park Five were guilty of something, even if she couldn’t name what that something was. That is gross and does not follow the letter of the law. They were not prosecuted for any other crime that night and Linda Fairstein does not have the authority to punish young men for crimes that she fabricated or imagined in her mind. According to her, they were guilty, or would eventually go on to do something criminal, because of the color of their skin. Linda Fairstein told on herself, and it is this logic that justifies the murder and incarceration of so many innocent Black and Brown men and women. Every case prosecuted or overseen by her against defendants of color needs to be investigated.

Us being heard is as rare as it is powerful and Linda Fairstein demonstrates why it is in the best interest of so many for us to be silenced.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store