Thursday, June 20, 2019

When They See Us

When They See Us
Ava DuVernay, director, screenplay

When I say “Central Park 5” you know what I mean. When I cryptically mention “wilding”, you get it. Same thing if I say southside or westside. Code words for African Americans. POC, people of color.

In mid- to late-April there was a news story about groups of roving black kids downtown. A warm April night (a rarity this past spring, not even goin’ to get into the fact it’s June and we’ve barely broken into the 70s yet) add social media and the mayor and the police chief were calling an emergency. According to the Chicago Tribune:
What happened?
About 500 teenagers gathered downtown early Wednesday evening. Police were ready for them because of social media posts, strategically staging patrols and calling for transport vans.
The teenagers spread out across Millennium Park and near the Lake and Grand Red Line stops, passing packed restaurant patios.
Some teens got in fights among themselves. In one case, police and teenagers got into a tense confrontation near a Potbelly sandwich shop.
Police on bicycles surrounded the kids and tried to direct them to public transit. No one reported a crime. They were just out there. And, that was scary.

Now, back to Central Park on a warm evening in April, 1989.

And the night bunches of youth gathered, rough housed, some got stupid, some broke the law, but none of them raped a woman jogger. They were run out of the park before that incident happened. Nevertheless, they were targeted and 5 were falsely arrested, convicted, and served time.

The story of When They See Us. What they see are animals, roving gangs (indeed almost 100% of the names on a “gang watch list” recently under scrutiny were POC), assumptions are made, tourists/white folks get uncomfortable. Whatever happened to freedom to assemble, freedom of speech, the right to exist? Civil Rights?

In the end, 31 people were arrested, Chicago police said in a statement to the Tribune. They are facing charges ranging from disorderly mob action to resisting arrest, battery and CTA violations. No injuries were reported.

Thankfully, Civil Rights lawyers jumped all over this. This: the cops squeezing the teenagers onto the Red Line and Express-ing them to the southside.

The thin line between kids congregating and mob action seems so tenuous. A matter of interpretation. Or a difference in color. On Pride weekend there are so many groups assembling, carousing, the ordinance against public drinking is not enforced, thousands of tourists/out-of-towners crowd the parade route, the parks afterwards, etc. There are a few arrests, but mostly the police take a hands-off approach. Pride Weekend is good for the city vs its own residents assembling on a warm spring night is an issue.

Same thing goes for the Air & Water Show—no one is thinking, Shit! There are way too many white folks here in one place! Let’s not talk about what’s in their coolers.

I remember as a kid wanting to break free, cut loose, go “wilding.” Poets write about this, that feeling of wanting to fly, spring—jump so high, hang with friends, talk loud, and laugh like a crazy person. Except if you do it downtown while being black—expect to be expressed back to your turf.


DuVernay deserves an Emmy for both directing and writing the screenplay. A masterpiece that should be viewed by kids in high school for years to come.


The Central Park Five with series director Ava DuVernay
The real crime: wrongful conviction

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