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When They See Us

BTEG’s Reflections of the British Experience
When they see us

When they see us


When They See Us is a hard watch for many. The series documents the investigation and wrongful conviction of the Exonerated Five: Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Yosef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana - black and Hispanic boys who were convicted for the rape of a white woman in Central Park.

The notorious Central Park jogger case occurred in 1989 where Trisha Ellen Meili was brutally raped, beaten and left for dead. Five teenage boys of black and Hispanic origin were also in Central Park at the time and were arrested. Eventually each of the Five was coerced into giving false testimony without parental supervision, despite there being no DNA evidence linking them to the crime scene. The teens aged between 14-15 were convicted in 1990 and served sentences ranging from 5-15 years. All but one of the teens served as juveniles whereas Korey Wise was tried and served as an adult. The Five were eventually released due to new DNA evidence and a confession from the actual culprit. The Five later successfully sued the city of New York twice and won both times, settling for $41 million and $3.9 million.

‘When They See Us’ is a stunningly crafted hard hitting depiction of the bogus case from the perspective of the families and the children, as well as the aftermath.

The team at Black Training and Enterprise Group (BTEG) found the series so powerful that we have written a collective review and why the story of the Five reinvigorates our efforts to eradicate racial inequalities.

Black and white photo of black man and two cops


‘When They See Us’ is real and powerful, we must take seriously the impact of race in the criminal justice system. Let this story be an opportunity for awareness and action on holding our system to account because we are not above being unjust to BAME children in the UK. 

Revisiting the case from the perspective of the Five reminded me why the work EQUAL performs is vital. EQUAL is a national initiative supported by an independent advisory group and BTEG, which is dedicated to tackling racial inequalities within the criminal justice system. We specifically focus on BAME and Muslim communities who are disproportionately over represented in the justice system.

My family and friends rightly felt dismay at the miscarriage of justice the Five repeatedly experienced, costing them their youth and innocence.

We may not have many cases that mirror what happened to the Five, however, the disproportionality of young black males in the justice system is worse in the UK than in the States. Black people make up 3% of our population but 12% of our prison population which is worse than the US. Black children are four times more likely to be arrested than white children and worse still, BAME youth are now 53% of our youth justice system. Evidently institutional reform is necessary in the UK as it is in the US.



These boys lost their childhood, aspirations, education and dignity. BTEG’s Routes2Success (R2S) Ethnic Minority Role Model Programme aims to inspire young people to raise their aspirations, make positive choices and value education as we are aware that the institutional racism in schools, further education, and employment can be a barrier to young black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) people achieving their dreams. We want to show young BAME people that regardless of their background, race, religion, or gender that they can achieve whatever they set out to.

Upon release, four of the five men were excluded from society despite doing their time (for a crime that they didn’t commit). This resonated with me as we have worked with so many young black males in prisons through the R2S Programme who see no light at the end of the tunnel and furthermore, no second chances. We give them hope by allowing them to hear from our role models who have themselves been through the criminal justice system but are now successful in multiple aspects of their life. We want to show young BAME people that there will be obstacles and challenges in their lives but using examples like Korey Wise (who is resilient and strong minded) they too can have a bright future. In my eyes the Five are true role models and our young people can learn a lot from them: their determination, resilience and pride got them where they are today in a world that seemed stacked against them. Despite this, they waited patiently for the truth to set them free.

The real people


This case was an injustice that sent a ripple effect through America due to the collective narrative from the media that even spurred Donald Trump to take an advert out to bring back the death penalty during the time of the trial in 1990. A collective voice that led to the wrongful conviction of five boys and shattering any hopes and dreams they had as teenagers.

The theme of connection was very evident through watching When They See Us, it highlighted how a collective voice is so much stronger than a single one. Ava DuVernay gave the men a collective voice and helped them to tell their individual story about an experience they shared together. In that moment the Five not only became an identifier of the men that were wrongly convicted but it became a statement of justice, race inequality, resilience, survival and change. 

A collective voice strengthens the ability to create lasting change. Imagine what changes are possible when passionate, capable and determined voices come together with a common goal and with the right tools to make positive changes in the community.  This is the vision of BTEG’s connectivity programme; designed to give a strong collective voice to BAME civil society groups. Through sharing our experience, skills and expertise we develop a connected group of leaders that work collaboratively to solve complex societal issues our communities face; whether it is in regards to justice, education, health or any other inequality. 



In this ground-breaking series, Ava DuVernay successfully depicts the various ways in which the trauma of racial profiling, institutionalised racism, and racial discrimination seeps into the lives of the families and friends of the victims.

Perhaps what stood out most, at least in the first episode was the ignorance of the young boys and the families alike. The old saying ‘ignorance is bliss’ does not necessarily ring true when considering the lives of BAME communities. In fact, When They See Us demonstrates the ways in which ignorance can spell danger, deepening the hole in which one can become trapped. This is why the work that BTEG does is so important. Not only do we work diligently to educate and empower BAME young people, but since 1991 we have been and will continue to be an organisation that seeks to invoke knowledge and change from the ground up and top down.



Although, the adaptation of the portrayal of ‘Central Park Five’ takes place overseas in New York, injustice is not limited to the shores of the US. We know that (even after serving a prison sentence) a criminal record can be like a second sentence, curtailing employment, educational and housing opportunities, especially for young black men. Ava DuVernay powerfully portrayed the barriers Raymond faced upon completing his sentence, struggling to gain even the most basic job. 

A huge part of my job at BTEG is to engage with potential employers for the Moving Up project. The project aims to address the systematic unemployment faced by young black men. A key factor apparent in this issue is the negative representation of young black men in the media in rigid and stereotypical ways. These one dimensional and stereotypical portrayals can be pervasive in both the psyche of mainstream society and in recruitment processes. The unemployment rate for young black men is 31% compared to 12% for young white men. 

When They See Us has been a huge hit, reminding the world of the forgotten Five and the life long scars they still carry from conviction, prison, and beyond. 

Happy in court


There is no doubt of the devastating aftermath the wrongful convictions have had on the Five that still traumatise every aspect of their life. The successful series has humanised the five, cutting through the onslaught of character assassination that even the current President of the US participated in during the trial in the 90’s. Their youth may have been robbed and their lives changed forever but their story is a powerful symbol of the long wait for justice. 


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