My husband and I with Korey Wise, July 25, 2019
So when I look at this picture, I see past hurt, fear, confusion and injustice but when I also look at this picture, I see purpose, happiness, resilience, and most of all, love. This my friends, is King Korey Wise, one of the Exonerated Five of the infamous case of the Central Park Five.
Due to filmmaker, Ava DuVernay and her ever so timely creation of When They See Us, this previous case has received much recent attention. I was almost seven years old when this case hit the news of one Latino male and four African-American males in New York City who were falsely accused of assaulting and raping a 28-year old white woman by the name of Trisha Melli in 1989. I learned more about this case during my college years when Matias Reyes (a convicted murderer and serial rapist) admitted to committing the crime in 2001 but due to the statute of limitations passing, charges could not be brought against him. Eventually, the five young men were exonerated but what really hurts about this case, is not only were they wrongly accused and convicted of a crime they did not commit, but they were manipulated into a confession without proper representation at the tender ages of 14 through 16. The oldest of the five young men was Korey Wise who was tried and sentenced as an adult and served 13 years in an adult prison.
Fast forward to yesterday, July 25, 2019, I log in to my email account in the morning and I see that Korey Wise is going to be in Chicago speaking at a screening of the first episode of When They See Us. I'll be honest, I was hesitant to attend at first because I have literally avoided watching this mini series for various reasons. First, watching ANY kind of injustice inflicted upon black and brown people just hurts. It hurts like hell. I don't know any other way to express that but through anger and tears and the residue of the visual and audio of it all takes much debriefing on my part. But I'm also a social worker who has worked in the fields of domestic violence, child welfare and school social work for the past 15 years so detaching is practically imperative in order for me to stay sane. I'm typically a very chill and zen kind of person, but when it comes to the welfare of children and adolescents, I can literally turn into an advocacy beast at any sign of abuse and neglect and to say the Exonerated Five were abused is an understatement. So hopefully this paints a picture for you as to why I was a little reluctant about this whole experience.
I watched that first episode and the entire time, my foot was tapping incessantly because of the anger and outrage that was boiling inside of me. I felt the beast beginning to rise but I practiced calming techniques in order to get through it. And as the first episiode comes to a close with Korey Wise (played by the amazingly talented Jharrel Jerome) being escorted to a police car, here comes the real Korey Wise walking in at that very scene and my first thought was how? How does he literally see himself on screen watching the moment that changed his life forever? It took me back to when I first became an intern with the Department of Children and Family Services and the many cases of abused and neglected children who had no one to advocate for them and then I see Korey; a once scared and vulnerable child himself who is now standing here in the flesh, thirty years later.
Korey spoke and he answered questions. His speech was monotone and a bit throaty; a tad bit slurred but it's a result of a slight hearing impairment since childhood. He's rough around the edges, he talks like a person who's been to hell and back because he has, literally. But he's also childlike and there's an innocence that is instantly recognizable behind those light brown eyes. He's not really into the limelight. He's still a resident of NYC and only makes minimal celebrity appearances for promotional purposes of the film but he spends a lot of his time as a public speaker and criminal justice activist. When asked questions, his responses are a bit convoluted but very easy to follow with your heart. His words reside in that safe space and even though it hurts, he's restored.
His birthday is today and we celebrated with him yesterday. He was given gifts, mainly gym shoes (or should I say sneakers as the native New Yorkers say), we ate pizza and listened to a whole lot of Biggie, lol. But he's restored.
I thank God for your life Mr. Korey Wise. You haven't checked out. You're not just existing but you're living. You're an amazing spirit who's endured a lot through your human experience but you're here and you're present. I'm not sure anyone could ever express enough gratitude for that. I guess the main thing we can do is just witness your growth and be in the present moment with you now. Happy birthday Korey!