DISBELIEF. Fear. Rage. Pain. Every emotion seemed to go through me as my eyes filled with tears. I found myself taking breaks because my heart just could not take it anymore. It was hard to believe that everything I saw actually happened, that it was real. This was beyond fiction, it is our reality. This was everything I felt as I watched the four part docuseries, When They See Us, on Netflix. The story of the men who came to be known as the Central Park Five in the United States. And while it is in itself a very difficult situation to see, it created questions that are just as important now. The devastating and terrifying rape of the woman was the reason for the rush to close the case at any cost; even when that cost was the disruption in the lives of five families and dare I say it, five communities.
Sexual assault is a gross violation of human rights. It is a terrible thing to have to go through; it is a heinous crime. Yet wrongfully accusing anyone of sexual assault is a crime too and just like we see in this real life story, it can have far-reaching effects in people’s lives. Imagine growing up with the stigma of being accused (and later convicted) of assault, a crime you never even committed. Watching even some of your own loved ones doubt you. It is a harrowing experience that is just as terrifying to go through as the crime itself. The Central Park Five case occurred at a time in history when feminism was gaining more popularity, with more and more women at the forefront fighting against gender discrimination. One of the most painful wrongs against a woman is rape. It defiles and demeans her and robs her of a precious gift that she alone has the right to give up. Yet, when we listen to this very real life situation, it is easy to be carried away, to want to pin it on anyone that fits the bill without actually truly going through the process of diligent investigation.
With the #MeToo movement and the natural rage that comes with rape stories, it is easy to condemn without going through the facts, double checking and taking the pain to thoroughly investigate. It is aptly put by Cathy Young in her article “The Problem with When They See Us”, “the feminist war on rape, though an eminently worthy cause, can turn into an attack on the presumption of innocence—especially when questioning the guilt of an accused man comes to be seen as an attack on women”. This is something we have to take into consideration also in Nigeria as we seek to confront and handle the upsurge in rape cases in the country. We all seem concerned and bothered about the recent surge and there have been calls for drastic punishments to be meted out to culprits. But even in going about this, we must be careful not to engage in mob justice and to be diligent enough not to accuse people frivolously or wrongly and without proof.
The series asks us to look at the story from a racial perspective as five young minority boys were framed for a heinous crime they did not commit. But the lessons go far beyond that, it is a reminder that we question beyond all doubt before we condemn. In Nigeria in particular, we must resist the urge to engage in ethnic profiling in fighting the rape surge. It is also the case that in our day, social media makes things worse with so many people commenting and contributing from different perspectives. It is so easy to be drowned in the raging wave of condemnation but we must do better. There is a reason why the justice system involves so many procedures to create checks and balances that must prove beyond reasonable doubt an accused’s guilt. Yet, in big cases, public opinion can sway even the most rigid of juries and judges. It can quietly seep in and determine everything. However, this is where we must be cautious, remembering that public opinion is not always right or true; and even the best of prosecutors can become emotionally swayed. Social media therefore should not be the “be all, end all” in approaching rape cases.
The lessons from this intricately powerful story are multifaceted. It asks, what role does race play in the war against rape? Do we pigeonhole others based on appearances and where they come from? Are we quick to judge? Do we suspend our humanity to get justice? But perhaps the most important lesson of all is that no one is immune. Beyond the racial and gender issues, “the zeal for a noble cause can result in terrible injustice for anyone”. Those boys could have been anyone caught between a label and a burning zeal for justice. We all therefore have a role to play in ensuring that we do not turn the legitimate desire to confront rape and other sexual assault cases into a platform for mob justice and ethnic bigotry. That would be a disservice to the true need to save our girls and women from sexual assaults and rid our society of rapists and sexual predators. Therein lies the true lesson from the emotional and nerve wracking story of the Central Pack Five.
•Wale-Olaitan is of the Faculty of Education, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.