The new Netflix series, “When They See Us,” portrays a disturbingly sober reality of the role racism plays in law enforcement proceedings. The show tells the story of five young boys who are wrongfully convicted of the brutal rape and assault of Trisha Meili in the Central Park Jogger Case.
It showcases the danger of feminism that is not intersectional — feminism that also focuses on how different aspects of social and political discrimination overlap with gender — and how focusing solely on gender inequality actually just fails women.
This type of blind-feminism, popularly known as “white feminism,” is showcased through the infamous role of Linda Fairstein in the Central Park Jogger Case. Portrayed by Felicity Huffman in “When They See Us,” the audience gets a behind-the-scenes look at the woman who was supposedly focused on the crimes committed against women and children.
Fairstein was the head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney from 1976 through 2002 and oversaw the prosecution in 1989 of five boys — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise — who were charged with a crime they did not commit.
Fairstein painted a dark story with no supporting evidence, and somehow, her story won over fact. So, what image did she procure that was so powerful it muffled the voices of five innocent black and Latino boys?
She told the victim’s story. For New York City, the ’80s were a fearful decade because of high crime rates, including nearly nine rapes reported daily. By 1989, the under-policed city was being buried under mounds of cases, and it was difficult to maintain order and unison between neighborhoods, classes and races.
Trisha Meili was going to become yet another woman whose near-death assault would be forgotten. As shown in “When They See Us,” Fairstein saw an opportunity to make someone pay for the harm caused, and she fought for it. She, like all of New York, wanted someone to blame for the worsening conditions of the city.
However, if she and her unit had looked a little harder, they would have identified a matching crime M.O. to a rape in the same area of Central Park just two days prior. After the five innocent boys were arrested for the rape of Meili, Matias Reyes, the actual perpetrator, proceeded to attack four other women before being arrested and indicted.
When he was found and charged with two murders, five rapes and two attempted rapes only months later, Fairstein didn’t bother to realize that the serial rapist could have been responsible for the assault of Meili as well.
It wasn’t until Reyes confessed in 2001, when he was already serving his sentence of 33 years to life, that the five boys were considered innocent by the general public and exonerated a year later. Since the statute of limitations had passed, however, Reyes could not be charged with the rape and assault of Meili.
Fairstein claims that she and her unit performed their job correctly, and they stick to their story that the five boys were involved with Reyes somehow.
But she didn’t do her job and neither did the rest of the police. They did not protect or serve anybody. Instead, they ruined five innocent, young lives with a falsified story and let the real rapist run rampant. No justice was delivered to Meili or the four other women Reyes assaulted after her.
Though the five exonerated men were given $41 million after suing, there was no apology granted to them by Fairstein or the state. And there’s really no justice that could possibly make up for the years those boys spent in prison and their tarnished image in the eyes of the public.
Fairstein claimed to be looking out for women, but all she did was let her racism overpower every fact presented in the case. This is the danger of white feminism. By not paying attention to other factors by which one may be discriminated against, she allowed her bigotry to blind her and lead her away from procuring justice for Meili and women in general.
Thanks to the expository nature of “When They See Us,” audiences can see how Fairstein failed at her role to protect all women as the head of the sex crimes unit and how she failed as a feminist, too.