On Thursday, November 14, I attended a speech by Raymond Santana, a member of the Exonerated Five who was jailed at age 14 for six years after the Central Park Jogger Case. I was struck by the brokenness to be found in our systems and the role that now–president Trump played, a fact that I did not know prior to Santana’s speech. Trump spent tens of thousands on full page ads calling for the death penalty for five boys between ages 14 and 16, and has refused to apologize even when asked in June 2016 – long after DNA evidence and a confession from the perpetrator of the crime proved they had no involvement, and the Exonerated Five had received a settlement for their wrongful imprisonment from New York City and State. Santana’s depiction of media impacts on the Central Park Jogger Case provided another shocking connection to today’s events. The terminology used by the media in order to sensationalize the case, terms such as “wilding” and “wolf pack,” as well as the frequent characterization of the boys on trial as “animals” is demonstrative of racist animalistic characterizations of people of color that have existed since the Ku Klux Klan promotional film “The Birth of a Nation” in order to create fear and prejudice against people of color. Santana expressed the psychological impact of such terms upon young men who had a variety of life experiences – who went to school, loved their parents, played sports and would never have committed the action of which they were accused. Santana also explained the connections between the utilization of this language to implicitly characterize crime as committed by people of color that influenced the mindset leading to the 1994 Crime Bill. This bill sparked the institution of arrest and sentencing practices that created the disproportionate imprisonment of people of color when compared to white people, as well as the prison industrial complex.
It was incredibly moving to hear Santana’s impressions of his experience, as well as to see him and personally hear his words – for me, in conjunction with Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, this allowed me to fully comprehend the horrors that these boys had endured. Despite my greater understanding, I felt disgusted at myself and American culture for my initially dismissive attitude towards the humanity of these boys – I was unwilling to consider them as human beings that had experiences like me, and I hadn’t really heard of their case prior to the popularity of DuVernay’s docu-drama series. In a psychological lens, Santana’s expression of the emotional impact of formative years spent behind prison bars was striking in its tragedy. Santana described the impacts of the 11 year civil suit that finally gave the men compensation for their wrongful imprisonment as “Even though we have won, we still lose because at the end of the day that gap is gone. How do we keep moving, keep living? They controlled the narrative of our story.” It was amazing to me what light Santana brought to us despite everything that he had endured. He was nothing but positive and supportive of our role as the next generation of voters, activists, and leaders. His words were incredibly inspirational, and moved me to feel as if I could truly help to create change. “We found out we had a voice. We gotta use this platform to save our children. All of ’em…You have ideas. Use them. Live life to the fullest and go to the grave empty…March the truth. Don’t cut the corners. Occupy those spaces. Shoot for the top.” He ended his speech telling us to fight for change, and that “I’ll see you on the battlefield.”
Santana spoke to a packed student/community audience – there weren’t enough chairs for all of us, standing room only, which was particularly striking to me. Within Davidson College, a space where white male voices have been the only valued contribution for so long, a true change is building. A generation is forming that can create real change, informed by the mistakes and injustices of the past. I feel so lucky to be living, growing, and learning in a place where that could happen.