“When They See Us” Depicts Gaslighting as a Form of Police Abuse

    Listen to me, Tron. I need you to do what the police want you to do. You gotta say what they want you to say,” says father Bobby McCray to his son Antron, in the first episode of director Ava DuVernay’s drama series, When They See Us. The show tells the story of a group of Black teen boys⁠—the “Central Park Five”⁠—who were accused of raping and assaulting a white woman in New York City in 1989.

    “But they want me to lie,” Antron McCray replies. Bobby urges his son to falsely confess to rape. When Antron continues to resist, Bobby angrily flips a chair, and then softly says, “I ain’t gonna let them kill my son.”

    The scene depicts a deep bond between father and son amid the tacit understanding among Black people that the justice system is racist. It highlights the intergenerational trauma produced by police relations with the Black community. By scrambling to protect his son, Bobby paradoxically participates in Antron’s entrapment.

    The Netflix series, which premiered on May 31, revisits the jarring case of the rape of Trisha Meili, who was attacked while jogging in Central Park. It illustrates the psychological and financial damages inflicted on the five falsely accused and convicted teenagers and their families.

    The boys were taken into the precinct for questioning without their parents and brutalized. They were stripped of any protections afforded to minors. Two of them, Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson, were 14 years old, while Yusef Salaam and McCray were 15. Korey Wise, at 16, was the oldest. They were reduced to “a wolfpack” by prosecutor Linda Farstein and the New York Daily News, instantly branded as guilty.

    “When you have that kind of pressure put on kids with their parents not present, it does tend to lead to possibly-false confessions.”

    The show depicts the police distorting the boys’ memories—coercing them to describe on video what happened on the night of the crime. With the prospect of freedom dangled over their heads, Wise, Santana, McCray and Richardson all tell fabricated versions of the story.

    When They See Us vividly portrays how police abuse of communities of color is not limited to harassment and violence. Gaslighting is a series of manipulation tactics to make you question your reality, according to experts like Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, a diplomate and clinical specialist in child and adolescent counseling for the American Mental Counseling Association, and the author of Gaslighting (2018).

    “Interrogation techniques are meant to be used on adult criminals, so when you interrogate kids there is a real element of fear,” Dr. Sarkis told Filter. “You have someone asking questions you would only ask a hardened criminal and when you have that kind of pressure put on kids with their parents not present, it does tend to lead to possibly-false confessions.”

    The accused group portrayed in the show were convicted in 1990. The four juveniles each served six-to-seven years; Wise, who was tried as an adult, served 13 years in an adult prison. In 2001, convicted murderer and rapist Matias Reyes confessed to a fellow prisoner that he had committed the attack on Trisha Meili; a subsequent investigation and DNA analysis confirmed this, and the five were exonerated.

    “It would be wrong to assume that [the police behavior portrayed in] When They See Us was an isolated event.”

    Coercion of defendants of the kind used by the officers in the Central Park Five case remains widespread, according to Alexia Arocha-Bergquist, a former legal advocacy coordinator at Justice Now.

    “It would be wrong to assume that [the police behavior portrayed in] When They See Us was either an isolated event or that much has changed,” she told Filter. “If the cops are allowed to behave the way they do in the streets, with no appropriate accountability, one can only imagine what happens behind closed doors.”

    False confessions are instigated by intimidation of the suspect by law enforcement, perceived threat of force and devious interrogation techniques. Suspects may also have compromised reasoning due to exhaustion, stress, hunger, substance use, or cognitive or educational limitations. Young people who do not understand their rights and are taught to please authority figures are particularly vulnerable. 

    According to the Innocence Project, 28 percent of US convictions overturned through DNA evidence involved false confessions; 49 percent of those who made false confessions were 21 years old or younger at the time of arrest, and 33 percent were 18 or younger. Ten percent had mental health or mental capacity issues. And of the 365 total people exonerated through DNA evidence, 225 (62 percent) identified as African American.

    The Department of Justice proactively investigates and, where available evidence permits, prosecutes allegations of constitutional violations by law enforcement officers, according to its website. Along with constitutional violations, the Department states that law enforcement officers will be prosecuted over allegations of obstruction of justicelike preventing a victim or witness from reporting officer misconduct, lying to government officials during the course of a misconduct investigation, concealing misconduct by writing false reports, or fabricating evidence.

    It is impossible to say how often such offenses are committed yet remain undetected. What we do know is that time-after-time, in high-profile cases of excessive use of force, officers are not convicted of misconduct.

    On July 6, 2016, for example, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man in Minnesota, was shot and killed by Officer Jeronimo Yanez. Charged with manslaughter for firing seven shots into Castile’s car because he reached for his ID, Officer Yanez was acquitted of all charges in June 2017. Just a day before the shooting of Castile, Alton Sterling was wrestled to the ground and shot dead by Baton Rouge police officers outside a Triple S Food Mart. The officers were not charged in his death.

    To be fair, officers involved in such cases are not always acquitted. A little over a year before those two shootings, in April 2015, police officer Michael Slager pulled over Walter Scott for a broken tail light in South Carolina. Moments after shooting the 50-year-old Black man multiple times, Slager reported by radio that Scott “grabbed my taser”—but bystander footage revealed that a physical struggle never occurred. Slager was sentenced in a federal court to 20 years in prison for violating Scott’s civil rights.

    Whatever the outcome, anti-Black racism often plays a role in acts of officer violence, argue racial justice advocates. “We repeatedly see in the news how many officers it takes to calmly arrest an armed white man who just shot folks at a school or another public place, but Black and Brown people cannot walk down the street with hands in their pockets or make any movements once pulled over without fear of becoming a hashtag,” said Alexia Arocha-Bergquist. “How come the same fear for my life standard that protects officers killing unarmed people of color does not apply when armed white men are in front of them?”

    For all the headlines rightly generated by police violence, it’s important to remember the harms of untold subtler forms of discrimination and abuse.

    “As a Black woman, I am aware that if I am stopped by the police it can end in my murder just because I am Black and not because I did anything to escalate the situation myself,” a person from California who has been directly impacted by mass incarceration told Filter. She requested anonymity for personal reasons. “Restorative justice models and accountability for the officers’ actions would help solve this problem. There are larger systems in place that would have to be dismantled in order for this to be possible.”

    “Police are authoritative and their presence often escalates situations that otherwise could be diffused or remedied peacefully without their involvement,” she added.

    Yet for all the headlines rightly generated by police violence against people of color, it’s important to remember, as When They See Us reminds us, the harms of untold subtler forms of discrimination and abuse.

    “Whatever they said I did, I didn’t,” Raymond asserts in the show.

    Like Raymond Santana, despite being manipulated into falsely incriminating themselves, the other accused boys continued to believe in their truths. The exonerated five eventually reclaimed their power by doing so. In 2003, they sued the city for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress. After a long legal struggle, the case was settled in 2014 for $41 million.

    In critically considering the role of gaslighting in racially biased police abuse, the boys’ recently re-told stories should inspire us to push for accountability and justice.

    Photograph of Antron McCray, played by Caleel Harris, from the Netflix trailer for When They See Us

    • Nancy is a journalist whose work has appeared in publications including Galore, Dazed Beauty and Black Girl Dangerous. She is a graduate of NYU Journalism School and lives in New York.

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