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'When They See Us' should have included trigger warnings for men like me - originally published in USA Today. Link here.

I've experienced New York's police bias, abuse. Ava DuVernay's miniseries is an important reminder of need to fight racism throughout system.

The nation got another reminder of the racism plaguing our criminal justice system with the recent release of Ava DuVernay’s new four-part Netflix series on the Central Park Five, "When They See Us." For any New Yorker like myself who has firsthand experience with race-based police harassment, it should have come with a trigger warning.

I remember being in elementary school at P.S. 188 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the Central Park Five trial — one that put innocent black teens away for a rape they did not commit. I also remember going to the principal’s office to recite the Pledge of Allegiance over the school’s loudspeaker and seeing newspapers there with headlines calling for the teenagers' executions. I couldn’t help but notice that those young men looked like me, my brothers and my cousins.  

The opening episode reminded me of the first time I was stopped by police. In the miniseries, an officer approaches two black teens walking down the street and asks to see ID. They are both taken to the police station, interrogated, roughed up and eventually become two of the falsely accused Central Park Five. 

The first time I was approached by cops I was much younger, the outcome was very different, but the level of terror I felt was very much the same. 


I was in the fourth grade walking home from an after-school program. My friend and I were standing, talking sports on East Fourth Walk between Avenue D and FDR Drive when a police officer yelled, “Hands on the gate!” He cursed at us, patted us down and then told us to leave.

I was so confused. To this day, my friend and I have never spoken to each other about what happened. But I’ll never forget the feeling of helplessness and of my innocent trust in authority being broken. I thought maybe I had done something wrong and just couldn’t think of what it was, or maybe my friend and I should have skipped the sports talk and gone straight home. I felt shame and embarrassment. What if a neighbor had seen me getting in trouble?

Except, of course, I was a child who had done nothing wrong. The Central Park Five were also children who had done nothing wrong.
Growing up in New York City during the 1980s and '90s, verbal abuse via stop-and-frisk was typical for a black or brown male’s first encounter with police. I personally knew two people who were shot and killed by police before I finished junior high school. Both were men of color, and the community still questions the veracity of police reports surrounding their deaths.

Nearly a decade after that incident, a childhood friend of mine was shot by an off-duty officer who fled the scene. The officer was never found criminally liable.

Shamefully, many children of color in America are taught, through similar experiences, that police are never held accountable for their misdeeds. This was echoed throughout "When They See Us."

Today, as an attorney, I know my rights. I also know the legal boundaries for police behavior. Yet, I still hold my breath when police walk by or pull me over. My heart still races when I see a beat cop near me with his hand on his gun. 

We are taught to believe that police officers are not capable of engaging in abusive or brutal behavior. Sometimes victims remain unsure of whether or not they were actually abused. But I know more innocent people who’ve been shot by a police officer than have been shot by a civilian — and in not one case was the officer brought to justice or held accountable.

Victims of police brutality often try to make sense of the abuse, thinking: If only I took a different route home; if only my wallet was not in my back pocket; if only I did not ask the officer, "Why are you stopping me or pulling me over?"

Justice aside, the lack of accountability discourages civilians from coming to the police for anything. When communities don’t trust police, crimes that need police attention go unreported. This is an issue that needs to be addressed by legislators everywhere.

There is no doubt in my mind that most police officers, most judges and most prosecutors are fair and respectful. But programs like "When They See Us" are a vital reminder of how easily the entire system can work its racism in concert — a prosecutor who demands that police target black and brown boys and cops who indiscriminately round them up. Even as holes emerge in the case against the teen boys, justice conspires to put them away.  
It is imperative that every person working in the criminal justice system holds their colleagues accountable and speaks out against bias, brutality and racism.

Not doing so helps to destroy the very communities that members of the justice system have taken an oath to protect.  

Jorge Luis Vasquez Jr. serves as associate counsel for LatinoJustice. Follow him on Twitter: @JorgeVasquezNYC