Columbia University Must Hold Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein Accountable

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Content Warning: The following statement contains sensitive language regarding racism, sexual assault, mental and physical abuse, and violence in regard to the Central Park Jogger case of 1989.

On May 31, 2019, Netflix released the Ava DuVernay directed series When They See Us. The four-part series highlights the experiences of Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr., and Korey Wise (more commonly known as the Central Park Five)  who were wrongfully convicted of rape and sexual assault in the Central Park Jogger case of 1989.

Duvernay’s account exposes viewers to the harmful tactics used by the New York Police Department to elicit confessions from these minors, including physical abuse and coercion, as well as how the case, prosecuted by Elizabeth Lederer and Assistant District Attorney Linda Fairstein, was built upon conflicting and false information, the characterization of young black men as inherently criminal, and an overwhelming lack of physical evidence. Additionally, the series offers insight into the difficult experiences faced by these five men after being wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes that they did not commit.

In 2002, these charges were vacated due to a confession from the true, lone rapist and the discovery of DNA evidence linking him to the crime. However, Richardson, McCray, Santana, Wise, and Salaam had already spent years in prison, completely deprived of their childhoods, and had become pariahs to the American public with the help of the media. In fact, many prominent figures, including current President of the United States Donald Trump, demanded they be prosecuted and even sentenced to death.

As highlighted in our recent report “A Brief History of Anti-Black Violence and Policing at Columbia,” Columbia University has always been a site of anti-Black racism and violence at the hands of non-black students, Public Safety officers, the New York Police Department, and even the University administration. The administration has often participated in these acts directly, working in tandem with organizations like the NYPD as well as supporting individuals, groups, and entire countries in their acts of anti-Black violence and policing.

Columbia’s tradition of upholding and perpetuating anti-Black violence, racism, and discrimination is further demonstrated by the employment of Elizabeth Lederer at the Columbia University Law School, as well as the presentation of an Award for Excellence to Linda Fairstein by the Columbia University School of Medicine. While these five innocent teenagers were disgraced by the media and the American public, stripped of their most basic rights and freedoms, and robbed of their childhoods, the women who were directly involved in their persecution were praised, awarded, and even employed by an institution located right in Harlem’s backyard, which many of these boys and their families called home.

Although Columbia’s administration has made countless statements disavowing racism and discrimination and continually boasts of its commitment to the Harlem community, by openly supporting two women who committed morally reprehensible acts against the Black and brown boys of the Harlem community, Columbia University again proves a contradiction between their words and their actions.

We, the Columbia University Black Students’ Organization, demand that Elizabeth Lederer step down from her position at Columbia University Law School. We also demand that the Columbia University School of Medicine revoke Linda Fairstein’s Award of Excellence. This would not be the first award revoked from Fairstein; in 2018, the Mystery Writers of America revoked her of Grand Master Honor due to her role in the wrongful conviction of innocent Black and brown youth. While the fulfillment of these demands could not possibly rectify the injustices that Richardson, McCray, Salaam, Santana, and Wise have experienced since they were fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, it would allow Columbia the opportunity to not only formally acknowledge their role in perpetuating anti-Black racism and violence, but to take a firm stance against it once and for all.

Lastly, we encourage all who are able to watch When They See Us on Netflix. We understand that this is a rather difficult story to watch, but believe that it is critical for audiences to better understand the history of the criminalization, hypermasculinization, and dehumanization of Black people in America, a process that continues to this very day. More importantly, this story offers a humanizing perspective of the boys that the world has never heard.

If you would like to support, please share and sign our petition to join us in demanding that Columbia take a stance and hold Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein accountable for their direct involvement in the wrongful, racist conviction of five innocent boys.

In Solidarity,

The Columbia University Black Students’ Organization