“I just wanted to go home.”
That simple sentence has been seared into my brain and into my heart since May 31, 2019. Over a month later, and still I can’t shake it. It’s simple, not just in its structure, but in its meaning; it explains very clearly why a young boy would say he did something that he didn’t do. That simple sentence is how the Exonerated Five lost years of youth and innocence that can never be reclaimed. It is this same sentence that could damn any black or brown youth to the same fate today, because the system has not changed. That sentence haunts me because I am certain my fourteen year old son would utter it just to get home to me.
Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us is heartbreaking: no, soul crushing. With every episode, a piece of my soul felt like it was being torn away. And with each tear, I felt as if I was going through the stages of grief, albeit in a manic sort of order.
The story of each boy’s horrific journey from being picked up to imprisoned, and then trying to put what pieces of themselves they had left back together, was difficult to watch. It was difficult because the entire time I watched, I envisioned school boys that I know today who would have made the same choices Antron, Kevin, Yousef, Raymond, and Korey made. Parents whose circumstances would cause them to react the same way their parents did. And when I watch the news, I am reminded almost daily that black/brown boys aren’t boys to the “system.” They are seen as men, and as such often punished like men.
The depression and sadness only intensified as I thought of my son. Questions started to swirl in my head: How could I keep him safe? Is that even possible? How do I tell him to respect and trust law enforcement after watching this? The questions seemed endless, as did the headache and dry eye syndrome I experienced from crying so much.
My son came into my room at times to ask what I was watching, and if I was okay. He saw my reaction and the tears waiting to spill at the rim of my eyes. He came in towards the middle and end of the series, so I tried my best to sum up what I could, but finding the words to explain to a fourteen year old just how fucked up the world can be escaped me. Why? Because how do you tell your kid the world is this way to you because you are black: that was hard, and so I did my best, but at the time my best was a a feeble attempt. I didn’t have to right words or the energy to tackle the conversation that my son needed. A month later, I still don’t.
A certain part of me thought that the boys would be saved, even though I knew the reality of what occurred. Someone on that screen would hear their story and believe them. How crazy is that? This atrocity happened years ago: the sentences had been handed down and served. I knew all of that going in, but somewhere deep in my heart, I could not accept that fate for those boys.
Denying it meant that the hate, the rape, the beatings, the isolation and the ongoing trauma wasn’t real. It meant that I didn’t have to believe that adult human beings could treat children that way. It meant that the system of policing and criminal justice wasn’t institutionally racist, and more importantly, it let me lie to myself on a personal level: “That wouldn’t happen to my son because I’ll tell him exactly what to do and say. I’ll have the best lawyer, blah blah, blah.” I was reassuring myself that the world is a safe place for boys like mine.
Denial was short lived. I hate to even admit that it cropped up, but it did. What followed quickly, though, was acceptance. Acceptance that the dreams and lives of black and brown kids didn’t matter then or now. Kevin, you wanna play an instrument, right? Who cares? Korey, you wanna be a police officer. Nobody gives a damn! Tamir Rice, you wanna just fucking grow up? Nope!
Though I didn’t spend much time in this stage, I absolutely wallowed here for a minute. As I watched each young man’s life, and his family’s life, be ravaged by the lies told, I asked God “Why” often. I found myself talking to God, mostly pleading that this not ever be allowed to happen to my son or to anyone else’s. I thought about what I could do to help God see that no child deserved this kind of hell, especially if they are innocent.
We could go to church more, spend more time being a better role model at work, donate to the Innocence Project; I was desperate to find some piece of hope in the despair I was feeling. I knew what I was thinking about doing couldn’t help the Exonerated Five: they have and continue to live with the scars of that case, but just maybe caring about something that they care about, or being a better person could help keep my son out of the line of fire.
This. This is the stage that I cannot seem to leave, and I’m not sure I even want to. More than a month in, and yes, I am still angry. After finishing the series, I called a few of my friends to see if they had watched it. I needed someone to discuss my feelings with. To my surprise, none of them had. They all told me they couldn’t bring themselves to do it. They were afraid of the trauma and the anger it would cause. And I can’t lie, they’re right. I have anxiety and lingering anger about what I saw and what I learned about the case.
Angry that the former sex crimes prosecutor went on become a best-selling crime novelist, while those boys rotted in prison. Outraged that even with a confession of someone whose DNA was a perfect match for the crime, the sole rapist was labeled as the sixth attacker and still is to this day. Seething that the American President can’t bring his ignorant ass to apologize for calling for the DEATH PENALTY for these young men.
But more than anything, I am angry because no matter the settlement sum, what was lost can never be found again. Antron, Kevin, Yousef, Raymond, and Korey have to find something new to hold on to, something new to help them cope with the horrors they endured, something new to make life worth living each day.
For some of the men, it has been a little easier to move forward, but others have admitted that as time has passed, they are stuck. Anger, inability to discuss what happened, lingering fear: they cannot move on no matter how much we cheer for them or tell their truth. That is what trauma does; it paralyzes and blinds. It steals and suffocates joy until it kills, can be compartmentalized, or continually worked through. No matter what though, it stays with them. And now in some lesser form, with those of us who have seen.
There is no acceptance.
I needed to see When They See Us, but now that I have I know that there’s an obligation to not just be angry. There has to be some action taken to make sure that this type of railroading doesn’t keep happening. But what can I do? I keep asking myself that. What can I do that will matter?
Now that I have worked through most of those stages, I have a little clarity. Though anger remains, I realize that before I can help anyone, I have to help myself. Doing so means having that scary conversation with my son. Watching the series together, and telling him the truth about how awful this world can be at times for people like us.Then after he has worked through his grief, I’ll spend the rest of my life praying he never feels he has to say or do anything “just to get home.”
When They See Us is available to stream on Netflix.