The Before- WHEN THEY SEE US

TW:  The Central Park 5; Police brutality; Industrial Prison Complex; Mass Incarceration

 

The miniseries ‘When They See Us’ started airing on the streaming service, Netflix, in late May 2019. 

The first time I remember distrusting the police I was about 10.

I was about 8 when The Central Park 5 became a national news story.  I remember going with my father to the grocery store in Cahokia, IL (about 40 minutes from where we then lived). We were headed home, and we stopped.

My father wasn’t speeding. He was the only adult in the car. And we had groceries. He was driving a black GMC  pick-up. The officer asked him to step out. He did, and what I vividly remember is the officer, whom was shorter than my father, white and blonde and mustached, asked who the other adult was in the car. I remember my father, in all his 6’2″ could muster, said, “She’s 10.” The flashlight he shone in the car might as well have been the damn sun. He asked what the glass bottle was, because it was drank out of, but capped. He was a fan of Mr. Pure juices, and that’s all it was. I remember he didn’t come back right away.  This pause I am sure now was to make sure the truck he made payments on, registered to him, wasn’t stolen. I think the officer said something like “Take care”, returning my father’s ID and freedom to him.

At 13, after my cousin’s encounter with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, I was done. I saw my cousin illegally searched in my maternal grandmother’s doorway. I remember wondering, “Why is this happening?” My father was there and saw them, and told them to get out. These two white, plainclothes officers, were insistent. They wanted my cousin. My father told them to get out. They acted like they weren’t going to go. But they did. He yelled at my mother for opening the door and summoning my cousin to it. He told me then, “Jennifer, if the police call you to their car don’t go. They don’t have any right to bother you unless they have a reason or a warrant.”

I remember my Dad telling my cousins (John, whom they were looking for; Joshua, whom they weren’t)  they would have to run to my cousin Joshua’s house–about a 10 minutes away. I stood on the red gray porch of my grandmother’s porch and looked back in the yard to where they were. I thought my 13-year-old body would be a big enough, wide enough, strong enough to protect them both. When we got to my Mom’s car, I remember calling the police ‘motherfuckers’ under my breath. I remember praying that they not be caught. I remember and officer in a red shirt, jeans and a ballcap pointing to the side of my grandmother’s house like a wolf after sheep.

That feeling of outraged helplessness I have never lost. Ever.

I saw the police as necessary evil. I never wanted to be in the presence of police officers, but I would watch COPS, and Homicide Life On The Street (the precursor to any Law & Order). I remember my Aunt Linda (John’s Mom) watching Hunter, and L.A. Law. The disconnect of wanting the good guys on TV to win and distrusting the police who I saw I couldn’t reconcile.

From this, and my complicated relationship with dealing with big blue gangs, we have When They See Us.  Have I seen it yet? No. Will I? Yes. Will I have something to say? Yeah! I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t. The thing is, I want y’all to hear my heart. This review won’t be  haymaker to law enforcement (even though I still feel FTP is always going to be a war cry for me). I want those of you that follow this space to know that 10-/13-year old girl is still within the 37-year-old wife and mother. Those experiences have allowed me have the frank conversations that I can around and about police brutality. Those experiences fuel activism and pushes towards the support of police reform.

When They See Us is a reminder just how close trauma is. How malignant it is. It is also testament to how broken the system of law and it’s enforcement truly is. There is no amount of social undoing, op-eds or charity work that will allow Linda Fairstein, Elizabeth Lederer or the gang known as the NYPD to fix this. That’s the thing about history and recording trauma. As long as someone knows what happened, someone else will know too.

[image from Netflix]