Why ‘When They See Us’ brought me to tears and made me call my mother to thank her

New York State Assembly Member Michael Blake reflects on the Netflix series and the life-changing courage of the Central Park Five.

New York State Assembly Member Michael Blake delivers this testimony after spending Sunday morning witnessing a different kind of worship experience, watching the final two episodes of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series, When They See Us. 

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I was only six at the time that the Central Park 5 case exploded in 1989. My mother likely shielded me from a lot of the news reports that seemingly pervaded every outlet in New York City back then. Now, at age 36, I’ve spent this past Sunday morning witnessing a different kind of worship experience, watching the final two episodes of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series, When They See Us.

This is my testimony.

As the tears streamed down my face after watching the series, I felt obliged to call my mother, Hilary Lawrence, otherwise known as Mama Hilary to most in my circle. I wanted to tell her thank you for everything she did for my three older brothers and myself. Thank you for protecting us as young, Black men growing up in the Bronx during this era, just behind the five young boys who were arrested that night for a crime they didn’t commit and all the ones who followed. I may never understand, nor know, everything that she did for us, but after watching this, I needed to stop and say, thank you.

Central Park Five — the combination of those words led a city and society to stealing the identity and what little hope was left from a group of young, Black and Latino teenagers who didn’t even know each other’s names until that night, and yet, were called every name in the book for a crime not one of them committed.

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Whether walking through a park in the early morning light or during the haze of night, whether parked at a stop light or sitting in a parked car on your block, the reality is that anyone of my brothers or I could have become one of The Five. In fact, there have been other members of the collective five who were unlucky for other reasons. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Abner Louima, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Botham Jean…name after name can be switched in and out as victims of this unfair game of injustice, prejudice and institutionalized and unpenalized racism.

I see myself as any of these possible brothers within The Five. When I went to DeWitt Clinton High School, I vividly remember walking with a group of friends in the middle of the day. A cop car pulled up next to us telling me and the other young Black man in my group to put our hands on the car. Despite the car driving in the opposite direction with the windows up, the cops claim they heard us yelling at them. The impossibility of such an accusation is the unfortunate probability of our continual situation as Black and Brown men. Do nothing. Say nothing. Yet somehow, you’re still wrong because we are SEEN as threats.

I am blessed. I went from growing up in the Bronx to graduating from Northwestern University. I’ve worked for President Barack Obama only to come back home to my home community be elected as an Assemblyman of the 79th District in New York State representing the South Bronx.

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Two years later, while at a Morris Houses family day event in the Bronx, I was tossed against the wall by police. I was actually trying to calm a situation that was escalating when an officer grabbed me up. Another officer suddenly exclaimed, ‘What are you doing? He’s the Assembly member!”

The one who grabbed me said that they SAW me as a threat. The experience was traumatic enough for me to break down in front of the media as I tried to explain the fear of what could’ve happened to me that day. Right after, I went to the National Action Network’s House of Justice right after not realizing that Korey Wise and so many others who have experienced worse atrocities was sitting there also listening to my words.

Korey Wise, Niecy Nash, and Jharrel Jerome attend the World Premiere of Netflix’s “When They See Us” at the Apollo Theater on May 20, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

I’ve met Korey several times usually sitting in the aisle seat at the House of Justice. I am at a loss for adequate appreciation for how someone could endure such pain, yet focus on a promise that one day it may get better. I’ve asked myself, how could I ever stop fighting for justice when people like Korey refused to give up after being convicted of a crime and found innocent?  Moreover, I’m trying to understand how forgiveness can be an option after serving time for a crime you didn’t commit.

When the men of the Central Park Five won their $41 million settlement on September 5, 2014, just four days later, I won my race for Assembly member. Without realizing the impact at the time, I now see that I had been talking about criminal justice reform throughout my entire campaign. All of the time, God sees things when we don’t see them at all for ourselves. Who would have known that this journey would spark this passion for change?

READ MORE: ‘When They See Us’ actors revisit Central Park Five case and their own troubling police encounters

There is still so much work to be done. The inhumanity that exists for Latinos who, according to a Pew Research Center study on January 12, 2018, were 16 percent of the U.S. population in 2016 and, yet accounted for 23 percent of the prison population. Then there’s the Black population who account for 13 percent of the U.S. population, but are 33 percent of those confined behind bars. Our white counterparts, however, are 64 percent of the population and yet only 30 percent of the prison population is white. The disparities only get worse as we go down this tethered lane of social justice.

Do you see that Black men are vanquishing before our eyes? According to the Sentencing Project, we are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men? Do you see the unwritten tales of the pain for those persons who the Innocence Project says on average spends 14 years in prison before being exonerated ? Do you see the unseen scars of solitary confinement, which the United Nations described as torture in their 2011 report? Do you acknowledge the emotional and physical suffering of those who try like Korey Wise (or those who succeed like Kalief Browder) in taking their own lives because the reality of death is better than the reality of prison?

I don’t recall ever being so silent at the beginning of a film and then so immediately emotional, grateful and motivated by its conclusion. It is my hope, for those like me who may have been too young to truly appreciate the magnitude of this case at the time, to be educated by it and to appreciate that centuries of injustice have been built upon the idea that society sees us as threats and inhumane.  It is my hope that each person who decides to stream this film take a few extra minutes to ask for the truth despite the noise that comes with it. It is my prayer that you understand why we, as men, and people of color stand afraid of your documents, your recommendations and your suggestions.
With that said, equally understand, when you see us and you reflect on this Central Park Jogger case, cast away your previous assumptions, think about the five men who persevered in a seemingly impossible situation, and realize that our HOPE will NEVER be broken.

Michael Blake is a third term Assembly Member in the New York State Assembly representing the 79th District in The Bronx, New York. He worked in President Obama’s administration directing outreach for African-American, Minority and Women business enterprises. Blake is currently running for New York’s 15th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Find him on Twitter @MrMikeBlake