TW: Gun violence, physical violence, sexual assault, police brutality, arrest, etc.
Earlier this summer, I re-watched “When They See Us,” the Netflix limited series about the Central Park Five. In 1989, a young jogger named Trisha Meili was brutally physically and sexually assaulted in New York City’s Central Park. Five innocent boys of color— Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam—were falsely charged with the crime, and were forced to suffer in prison for years. It was not until 2002 that they were exonerated when the actual perpetrator of the crime—Matias Reyes—admitted to it. I cried the first time I watched it. However, when I watched it again after the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others, it deeply enraged me. I had a realization: the way America thinks about incidences like these is fundamentally flawed. We have something I like to call the “wrong place, wrong time” mentality.
These are not accidents
First and foremost, when addressing innocent BIPOC and women being assaulted or killed, we must remember that none of these incidences are accidents. The “wrong place, wrong time” mentality is rooted in the idea that whenever something tragic happens, it is simply a random, unfortunate occurrence, rather than a symptom of a larger issue.
For example, “When They See Us” does a fantastic job of displaying the mindset that the media, the general public, and even the boys’ families had around the Central Park jogger case. “If only Trisha didn’t go on a jog at Central Park that night…” or “if only those boys weren’t hanging out at the park at the same time…” or “if only Kory didn’t go with Yusef to the police station…” The bystanders are linking the events of this case to smaller details that built up to it; everyone was in the “wrong place” at the “wrong time.” This mentality fails to recognize the root causes of why all of this happened: the systems that were put in place to create these horrific outcomes.
Trisha Meili was physically and sexually assaulted because someone physically and sexually assaulted her. Not because of where she was, what time it was, what she was wearing, or what she was doing. In the same sense, Kevin, Antron, Raymond, Korey, and Yusef were not arrested for those reasons. They were arrested because of the deep-set racism and corruption that exists in our criminal justice system.
When we blame incidences like these on external factors, we are participating in victim-blaming. It is not Trisha’s fault she was assaulted. It is not the boys’ fault they were arrested. If we look at New York City in the late 1980s through the early 1990s, crime rates were at an all-time high due to the very racist war on drugs. It targeted crack in black and brown communities rather than cocaine in white suburban communities. Nothing they could have done would have prevented the situation – because it’s not just one situation, it is the system.
A.C.A.B. and the Black Lives Matter movement
When looking at this concept in our contemporary context, the term A.C.A.B. becomes relevant. The Black Lives Matter movement is using this term to combat the “wrong place, wrong time” mentality that many have expressed in response to the police killing black people. For example, “it’s just one bad cop” is a common argument from those against the Black Lives Matter movement. They choose to reduce the situation to a single cop: the victim was at the “wrong place” at the “wrong time,” they crossed one of the “bad cops.” Like I stated previously, this way of thinking holds the victims responsible. When we say A.C.A.B, we proudly reject this mentality. All cops are bastards because they are all part of a system that was created to oppress black people. This was supposed to happen; it was designed to happen: everyone was at the right place at the right time.
“Thoughts and prayers”
Lastly, in an attempt to appear empathetic after a horrific incidence, American media and politicians like to throw in the good old “thoughts and prayers.” This is a key part of the “wrong place, wrong time” mentality. For example, after a mass shooting, it is customary for those in power to send their thoughts and prayers to those affected. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, when they only send thoughts prayers and refuse to change gun legislation, they are reducing the incident to an unfortunate accident. Once again, those killed and injured were at the “wrong place” at the “wrong time.” If we continue to ignore the United States’ fixable problem, we will never make progress. The same applies to everyone who sends “thoughts and prayers” to those affected by police brutality, sexual assault, gang violence, etc. Your thoughts and prayers mean nothing.
When one is a BIPOC, woman, LGBTQIA+, lower-income, or disabled person, they are always in the “wrong place” at the “wrong time.” That place is America, and that time is since this nation was founded. This country was not built for them, and I am so frustrated with everyone who tries to reduce this long-existing reality to some unfortunate incidences. However, I gain hope when I see people my age educating themselves and each other on the real reasons why these tragedies happen, and the work we are doing to finally dismantle oppressive systems. May we resist.