When They See Us Indicts the System

The new Central Park Five miniseries is about more than five falsely convicted boys.

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Updated at 12:00 AM ET on June 14, 2019

Masthead Weekly 06.14.19

Welcome to your exclusive, members-only email from The Atlantic. Today you’ll get an orientation on the tough questions raised about American public life in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix show When They See Us. You’ll get a quick heads-up about a few items that’ll be making news next week, including Slack’s listing plans and the competition to find America’s ugliest dog (woof). And you’ll hear what other members have been up to this week (kittens!). Read on.

What to Know: A New Look at the Central Park Five Case

By Hannah Giorgis

What we’re watching: Thirty years ago, five New York City teenagers were arrested for—and later falsely convicted of—the rape and attempted murder of a 28-year-old woman named Trisha Meili, who became known as the Central Park Jogger. That landmark case is examined anew in the Ava DuVernay miniseries When They See Us.

The project spends much of its run time explicating the racist logic and manipulative tactics by which New York City law enforcement, aided by uncritical media coverage, criminalized the five black and Latino boys, whose case-defining confessions were coerced and whose guilt was presumed before they entered any courtroom. But crucially, When They See Us also introduces viewers to—and thereby emphasizes the innocence of—Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, Kevin Richard, and Antron McCray as it indicts the systems that led to their incarceration.

DuVernay’s four-part Netflix series began streaming May 31, and has reached wide audiences in the weeks since. (It has been the most watched original series on the platform every day since it began streaming.) When They See Us, originally titled The Central Park Five, joins other artistic works addressing the case and its lingering effects: The final installment of the series depicts an incarcerated man named Matias Reyes confessing to Meili’s rape in 2002; the so-called Central Park Five were exonerated soon afterward, and later received a $41 million settlement from the city of New York. The city did not admit wrongdoing.

Why it matters: The boys each spent between six and 14 years in prison. But the case also rippled out beyond New York state. It established a precedent for children—primarily children of color—standing trial as adults in courtrooms across the country. The language evoked by the case and its attendant media coverage heightened hysteria about “savage” young black and brown men, contributing to an uptick of incarceration rates.

When They See Us has brought renewed scrutiny to the host of actors who pushed the five boys into the criminal-justice system—namely, national media; President Donald Trump, who purchased full-page ads in 1989 in several New York publications to call for the five boys’ execution; and the former New York City prosecutor Linda Fairstein. Fairstein has written an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal referring to DuVernay’s series as a “fabrication,” despite Reyes’s confession and the city’s subsequent settlement. “Some of her assertions do not match up with the record,” The New York Times wrote.

Though Fairstein’s actions contributed to a catastrophic miscarriage of justice, her actions exist within the broader context of the injustices visited by the American criminal-justice system. Or, as DuVernay said when asked about Fairstein’s op-ed, “I think that it would be a tragedy if this story and the telling of it came down to one woman being punished for what she did because it’s not about her. It’s not all about her. She is part of a system that’s not broken, it was built to be this way.”

What we’re asking: What might accountability for the original false convictions look like? Fairstein has resigned from board seats and been dropped by her publisher; other individuals involved might also be removed from their positions of prominence. What does justice mean for Meili, or for the other victims of Reyes, who was never questioned in the Central Park Jogger case and went on to commit several more violent crimes? How might the discussion of the Central Park Five case shift from the aberration of false convictions to the broader catastrophe of incarceration?

What’s next: Wednesday evening, Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network aired When They See Us Now, an interview in which the former talk-show host spoke with the “Exonerated Five” about the case, its aftermath, and their hopes for what When They See Us will inspire in its viewers. Winfrey interviewed Meili in 2002, right after the men were exonerated; at the time, the host’s sympathies for Meili led her to speak about the five men with contempt despite their innocence. Her new interview, which is also available on Netflix, doesn’t find her grappling with her own role in spreading public opinion of their guilt. When They See Us Now does, however, offer viewers an opportunity to hear directly from the Exonerated Five. “It is bittersweet,” Santana says, “because watching this is painful, but it’s necessary … We need to make sure things change now.”

It remains unclear whether the City of New York will amend any legal rulings or public statements about the original case—or the work of any law-enforcement officers. The surge of attention paid to the case could, however, portend heightened public interest in efforts to reform the criminal-justice system.

The One Thing to Read

  • Before, and After, the Jogger (The Cut). The journalist and true-crime author Sarah Weinman maps out a timeline of Reyes’s lesser-reported crimes against women, and speaks with the living survivors about the horrors they endured as the New York Police Department—and the national press—fixated on the so-called Central Park Five as the assailants in Meili’s case.

What to Expect

Notes on the news to come


The distance between the ordinary and the revolutionary is often shorter than it might seem. One minute, the iPhone was a rare, colorful party trick. The next, 2.5 billion people had smartphones in their pockets. So it is, too, with the cloud-based platforms where people congregate to socialize, to work, or to do both. In this realm, the start-up Slack is the darling of the past decade. People who swear by the chat software say it’s had a transformative effect on the way people work in the 21st century. But the business picture is murkier. Slack has enjoyed strong revenue growth in the past year, but the company still isn’t profitable. Now, Slack is going public via a direct listing on June 20—a slightly less intensive process than the IPO route—and investors are watching its performance closely for signs of trouble in tech. They view Slack as a bellwether among high-profile listings, especially after Uber flopped spectacularly in its IPO last month. WeWork, Airbnb, Peloton, and Palantir are all expected to go public in 2019.


A group behind Hong Kong’s massive protests is planning another large-scale political action Sunday, after a week in which hundreds of thousands of residents demonstrated. Protesters object to a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China, fearing that it would undermine the legal autonomy the territory has enjoyed since it was transferred back to the People’s Republic of China in 1999. Beijing controls a majority of the territory’s legislature, but Hong Kong’s leaders have hesitated in the face of popular opposition. Debate on the bill was initially sped up, but today, a member of the territory’s Executive Council warned against rushing any decisions. “Our first task right now is on how to mollify the public to avoid more clashes in [the] future,” Council Convenor Bernard Chan said.

Arts and Culture

The late fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld once said that he’d “rather die” than have a funeral. True to his wishes, after his death in February, Lagerfeld was cremated without a ceremony. But on June 20, Chanel, Fendi, and the Karl Lagerfeld brand will host a memorial event in honor of the three houses’ former creative director. Scheduled during Men’s Fashion Week in Paris, the event has pomp: The theater and opera director Robert Carsen is staging a slate of performances, and only fashion’s elite will be in attendance. But Carsen is careful not to call the event a funeral. It is “a joyful celebration of all things Karl,” he says.


In the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest, the best in show is the worst in show. On June 21, judges will be looking for grotesque jowls, misshapen teeth, and homely patches of hair (Chinese crested mixes frequent the competition). Last year’s winner, an English bulldog named Zsa Zsa, was crowned for her distended tongue that dangled drool down her chest. This year, a bug-eyed chihuahua named Tostito Kevin, whose lower jaw is missing, is a favorite to win. The contest has a noble purpose: Organizers say it advocates “the adoration of all animals,” especially pedigree-less pets with health issues—the underdogs, you could call them. Zsa Zsa, who spent five years at a puppy mill before her owner took her in, died only a month after winning her title.

Items this week by Adrienne LaFrance, Matt Peterson, and Karen Yuan. Illustrations by Matt Chinworth.

What to Remember

Insights from Atlantic history

40 Years Ago

Ten years before the arrest of the so-called Central Park Five, a prominent writer assigned to jury duty deliberated over another young black man’s innocence.

“I did not know if my conviction that the police did not frame David Moore constituted evidence any more than [the juror] Oscar Williams's conviction that the boy could not have raised his arm with a gun in it and not be shot dead constituted a reasonable doubt. And I did not really care if the boy was guilty or not guilty, if he was punished or set free, if the police were supported or attacked. But the abdication of thought frightened me. That did matter. In fact it seemed to be the only thing that mattered, and it mattered that it was we—[the jurors] Gerald and I and all the rest—who wouldn't do the thinking.”  — Vivian Gornick, June 1979

What’s New

Updates from the Masthead community

An Atlantic story that provoked members

“I think that, notwithstanding the apparently irreconcilable dissonances in their position, evangelicals don’t actually think that differently from liberals or any other identifiable ideological group. They are motivated by different goals and principles, but the thought processes by which they get from those goals and principles to the coarse, binary decisions such as who they will support at a national level are pretty similar. We all understand ourselves better by understanding those we disagree with better.”  — @walnutclosefarm, a member, writing on the forums about “What a Clash Between Conservatives Reveals”

An Atlantic editor shares a recommendation with the Book Club

“Barbara Kingsolver [has] a knack for portraying the chance connections and circumstances that can lead ‘ordinary’ women to become passionate about social causes. Her 2012 novel Flight Behavior, while occasionally a little heavy-handed in its messaging, is a poignant story about family dynamics as well as a fable about climate change. (I read it shortly after the 2016 election, and found its critiques of mass media and portrayal of rural Appalachia pretty strikingly prescient to the discourse that then dominated the news.)”  — Rosa Inocencio Smith, an editor on the Culture desk

What’s happening in members’ lives

“We adopted kittens, from the SPCA. I always prefer to acquire cats in pairs, so they can keep each other sane and entertained … It’s been over 95 degrees for the past three days here in the East Bay, and the new additions evidently feel that the place to beat the heat is under a bed. They may still have a few things to learn. They don’t have names yet — which is driving my stepdaughter crazy — but I’m a firm believer that, before too long, cats tell you what their names should be. I can wait.”  — @louquillio, a member, writing on the forums

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