In 1990, New York City police officers harassed and coerced Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise—all black and brown boys between the ages of 14 and 16—into delivering false confessions to the rape and attempted murder of 28-year-old Trisha Meili and the assault of 40-year-old John Loughlin.
Although each confession contained wildly conflicting details of the attacks, and the DNA samples found at the crime scenes did not match any of the suspects, the court convicted the five boys, and they spent six to 13 years, respectively, in juvenile detention centers and adult prisons until they were exonerated.
It would be incredibly easy to write off this case as an unfortunate anomaly, but tragedies like this happen far too often to be considered coincidences. There is a disproportionate amount of black and brown men and women in American prisons that have been convicted for crimes they did not commit—like the Exonerated Five—or are serving outrageous sentences for minor or petty crimes, such as shoplifting or marijuana possession.
Though our country prides itself on the values of freedom and liberty, it seems as though these privileges exist for some, but certainly not others. The American justice system was founded on the principles of habeas corpus (innocent until proven guilty) and the right to a fair trial. But time and time again, excessive violence from police officers towards black and brown citizens is quickly defended, justified and excused as seen in the cases of Rodney King, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Plea bargains substitute court hearings, and many lower-income minorities find themselves pleading guilty to crimes they never committed.
How can our system claim to uphold the values of equality and justice if, on average, a black man receives a sentence 20% longer than a white man for the same crime? Racial discrimination seeps into every aspect of the justice system, and the evidence is everywhere, from the streets in our own city to the videos on our Twitter feed.
Not nearly enough has been done. Instead, our elected officials attempt to write off movements like Black Lives Matter and squander the cries of grieving communities that are losing their fathers, sons, mothers and daughters.
This bias is an attack on our democracy, and it is unacceptable to remain apathetic in the face of such dire threats to our fundamental values as Americans. We have a responsibility to hold the perpetrators of hate and discrimination accountable.
How can we sit passively as thousands of teenagers waste their youth in juvenile detention centers and lose any possible hope for a future? How can we ignore the bitter tears of the mothers who have lost their sons? How can we be the haven of freedom and acceptance for others if we cannot even deliver justice to the citizens that are the victims of our atrocious system? How are there so many of us who are not outraged?
Of course we have to take action, but we have to do more than just vote or write to our legislators.
We have to strive to create a culture that fosters equality and acceptance. We have to be willing to evaluate our personal biases. We have to start having the difficult conversations. We have to call out the injustices. We have to have the courage to speak up for the voiceless.
We need to create a country that upholds the values of the Constitution—a country where all people are free to roam the streets without the fear of discrimination. A country where odds are not stacked against minorities. A country of truly equal opportunity.
We have to do better.