I was six when the Central Park Five case rocketed to prominence in the USA in April 1989. The trials started after police detectives hunted down five random African-American youth after the rape and brutal beating of a white female jogger in New York City.
Now Ava DuVernay’s latest Netflix miniseries, When They See Us illustrates the horror that defined the boys’ arrival into manhood while behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. Law enforcement, possessed by the “law and order” agenda, snatched the boys off the street. Prosecutor Linda Fairstein dispatched police to hunt down all black youth at Central Park on the night of the crime. She sacrificed these underage black boys to the penal system, which devoured them in four brutal stages: police aggression and arrests, the court system, juvenile detention and parole, and incarceration.
I’ve never directly encountered this singularity that claims so many black lives. Others around me have in an elaborate scheme known as the school-to-prison pipeline in the USA. It is the gravity that feeds the black hole of the penal system: a social construct that disproportionately sees black and brown kids labelled as “troubled” plucked out of school and swallowed into the penal system. Zero tolerance policies that inflict maximum punishment is the force that propels this process forward.
I recalled kids I went to school with that teachers labelled as ‘repeat offenders’. My friend Ricky got expelled in sixth grade after his final strike. He hit another kid in the eye with a paperclip propelled by a rubber band. It happened while on a field trip to the state zoo.
I saw first-hand the gravity that was to collapse him. Seeing the little white boy with a puffy eye, the teachers instead of disciplining Ricky themselves, called the police. We shuddered as blue and red lights illuminated Ricky as an officer handcuffed his small wrists. He fell to his knees on the hot concrete sidewalk, begging to call his mother. The officer promised him the opportunity after they got to the station.
I never saw or heard from Ricky again.
When They See Us is resonating here in Australia too for obvious reasons. This country also has a singularity at the centre of our justice system, a black hole that disproportionately drags in men of colour from a variety of backgrounds.
According to a report from the Aboriginal Law Reform Commission published in 2018 and covered in The Conversation, First Nations People make up 27 per cent of the Australian prison population despite making up only two per cent of the total Australian population. In the Northern Territory, a report found the youth detention centres are completely made up of Indigenous kids. Reports of mistreatment abound: kids being strapped to chairs for hours or 14-year-old kids being tear gassed. Abusive practices were so rife at the NT-based Don Dale Youth Detention Centre that a Royal Commission handed down a report advising the centre be closed. It’s still open despite recent efforts by incarcerated youth there to literally burn it down. No charges were filed against any staff for abusive practices.
In the African-Australian community, we see the same mischaracterisation as the Central Park Five: ‘Packs of dangerous youths roam the streets of Melbourne destroying the innocent’.
A popular and mispronounced term thrown at the Central Park boys in When They See Us is that they were "wilding" that April night. The slang term is actually wilin': to act outside of public norms in a disruptive or atypical, though not necessarily violent, way. But "wilding" conjures up a more carnal, bestial behaviour that must be punished.
Stories about African gangs recently dominated Australian headlines and Sunday night news shows following a series of crimes, even though law enforcement officials weren’t sure the crimes were even committed by gangs at all – let alone ‘African gangs’.
Back in Sydney, the Arab Muslim community suffered the same stigma after the Skaf Gang rapes of the early 2000s. That case saw headlines splashed with confirmations that the Australian-born rapists were ‘Lebanese’ and ‘Muslim’. Tom Switzer argued in his article, “Why Muslims Make Headlines” that, “A series of gang rapes in south-west Sydney in 2000 and 2001 saw young Muslim men stigmatised as potential sexual predators.” Such indistinguishable characteristics targeted at a number of culprits breeds unfounded fear upon an entire population of predominantly innocent people.
Meanwhile, Pasifika-Australian men, often blessed and cursed with larger frames, join this complex tapestry of oppression. A report from Dr. Jioji Ravulo from Western Sydney University looked at the over-representation of Tongan youth in detention a few years ago. His findings concluded that a difficulty of assimilating into south-west Sydney, coupled with their cultural tendency to congregate in large groups, led to fear and unwarranted attention from law enforcement.
All these groups in Australia see their story in DuVernay’s new series. We share the curse through blood and heritage that when they see us, their safety and protection usurps any assumptions of our innocence.
Then we are all devoured.
Tyree Barnette is an American writer, currently living in Sydney.
The article is part of a collaborative series by SBS Life and Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement which is devoted to empowering groups and individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through training and employment in creative and critical writing initiatives. Sweatshop is directed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad.