Ava DuVernay's powerful Netflix miniseries When They See Us chronicles the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five in 1989, and the actions taken by prosecutors and local figureheads to frame the five black and brown teens for a crime they didn't commit. In a recent interview with Shadow and Act, three of the five men—Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana—opened up about how they're doing in the wake of the show's release, and what will bring peace, or justice, to the 30-year-old case.
Korey Wise was 16 years old at the time of his conviction. The eldest of Central Park Five, Wise spent the longest amount of time in prison as he was convicted as an adult, whereas the other young men were sent to juvenile prison prior to transferring. At the time the five men were exonerated in 2002 after serial rapist Matias Reyes admitted to assaulting Trisha Meili that night in Central Park, Wise had spent 13 years in maximum security prisons, a large portion of which he sat in solitary confinement.
While watching Sarah and Ken Burns' 2012 documentary The Central Park Five, Wise became aware of the actions taken by people like Donald Trump to convince the public that he and the other young men were guilty. “He put a bounty over my head,” Wise said of the New York real estate mogul. “I found myself learning [about what Trump did] after the Burns family documentary.” The current president took out $85,000 worth of full-page ads in New York papers, asking the state to “bring back the death penalty.”
“I’ve been doing nearly 15 years without hearing from anybody, so I’m used to that,” he said in reference to his time in prison and the time that's since past. “Outside my survival, I just try to live the life of not being 'CP5' but just being hip-hop from the ‘80s, on self-empowerment, self-improvement. Just keep moving ahead.”
During an interview with Complex, Jharrel Jerome, who plays Wise in the Netflix miniseries, explained who he believes Korey to be all these years later. "I think that 16-year-old boy is still inside Korey today, man," he said. "For me, knowing who he was today proved to me who he had to be before because if he could be this confident today, this funny, this joyful, this bright, this Harlem, then I can't even imagine how much of that he was before the present system tried to knock that out of him."
Wise and Yusef Salaam were the only young men who knew each other prior to their wrongful convictions. Wise was not one of the initial suspects in the case, however, he accompanied Salaam to the police station for support, which is when he too was arrested. During his interview, Wise notes that the case prompted estrangement between him and his childhood friend. “I love you, Yusef Salaam. It wasn’t your fault that you left me behind,” he said. “You’re going to always be my brother, man. I still need your help.”
In response to Wise's statement and after watching When They See Us, Salaam notes that his friend's experience drastically differed from his own. “I think even more so now [after watching When They See Us and knowing what Korey went through], I get it,” Salaam explained. “To me, that was the hardest part. I had often thought that we had always gone through hell, but I realize his part in particular—because he was not on the list of suspects, he came [to the police station with me in 1989] to be my ace in the hole, to be like, ‘I got your back,’ without knowing anything about the justice system.”
"Even though we’re free now, I’m in Atlanta, he’s in New York, and what I’ve been trying to do is bridge that gap, to let him know that I’m there, to make sure that he’s okay," he continued. "We all have to check on each other and see how they’re doing."
For Raymond Santana, who's currently based in Atlanta, watching When They See Us provided an in-depth look into what the other young men went through, and brought them all closer as a result. “[Watching the series together] brought us closer. It made our circle tighter. The brotherhood was really cemented. Any way that we can help [Korey] and each other, we’re there for each other now. Period. We talk more regularly than we did before. It’s a blessing,”
He has since launched a clothing line—Park Madison, for which he has released t-shirts with his and the other members of the Central Park Five's names on it. However, that's not to say that he and his brothers are at peace with the maltreatment they experienced.
“We continue to battle. When we went to prison, we were 14, 15, 16-year-old boys and now we’re grown men. The mentality is different. You sent us to prison and now we’re warriors. We’re fighters. We’re not afraid to battle," Santana explained. "And now the war has become deeper because we see that the system is set up to take away our youth, make them occupy a jail cell rather than a college dorm. Our fight takes on a different ministry now."