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Exactly twenty years ago, five black teenagers were falsely accused, framed and jailed for the savage rape of a white woman in New York’s Central Park. The story has huge implications for Kenya and our criminal justice system. Walking in Karura forest last Sunday, I was reminded how we see each other or not is often the difference between life, fear or death for other human beings.

With 1,000 hectares and 600 wildlife species, Nairobi’s Karura forest is one of the largest and most remarkable urban gazetted forests in the world. Wangari Maathai’s vision of Karura as the green lungs and water catchment of Nairobi is now proudly guarded by the Kenya Forest Service. All who walk there today comply with her rule “Leave nothing behind but footprints, take nothing away but memories.”

Walking in the forest last week, we came across a group of Kenya Wildlife Service rangers angrily scolding 15 teenagers for drinking alcohol and climbing trees just before closing time. On seeing the Amnesty International Director, their mood visibly changed. Anger turned to smiles and polite greetings. The tone shifted and the teenagers were courteously escorted to the park gate.

The Central Park 5 were not as fortunate. Two decades ago, tens of young African and Latino-American boys and girls ran through Central Park at night. The media labelled the mixture of violence, mayhem and attacks on joggers and walkers “wilding.” Teenagers Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana Jr., Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam were arrested, framed and sentenced for allegedly raping Trisha Meili. Korey was the last to walk out head high 12 years later when all five were exonerated for their innocence. The moments are captured again in Ava Duvernay’s brilliant “When they See Us.” As the four-part NetFlix movie is shown in Dandora Secondary School today and tomorrow, the lessons it offers to open and democratic societies are clear.

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Human beings often make important decisions with more spontaneity than analysis. People in our law enforcement agencies are no different. If our State House Presidential guards had not had the presence of mind and instinct to apprehend rather than kill student Brian Bera, he would be no more. A family would be bereaved and unable to get him the help he needs. There is power and risk in thinking without thinking, as Malcom Gladwell wrote 14 years ago in “Blink.”

How we all frame others and their issues is important. Unless you have had the experience of being illegally detained in a hospital for fee non-payment due to inability, it may be difficult to appreciate the indignity this causes. If you have never been made homeless by the construction of a road or a railway you may never get a life of uncertainty and the sense of betrayal. If you have never experienced the danger of being raped or abused for loving someone of the same sex, it may be difficult to get into the world of a LGBTIQ person.

Most of us choose to group everyone into either ‘us’ or ‘them.’ Framed this way, it is all too easy to “assume” others and act without much thought. The reaction to the organisers screening “When They See Us” in Dandora today and tomorrow provides an insight to our national psyche. Some have said the themes are too raw and uncomfortable to watch. “Why Dandora and not one of our cinemas or European arts centres?” Others have asked. The answer is simple.

To build a humane society, we must challenge each other to really see each other. The labels we throw at each other do not give us power to understand, appreciate the experiences of others or find our purpose in relationship to those that need us. For those brave enough to take this on, there may be moments of discomfort. The truth is often inconvenient and confronting. However, there is also personal growth, growth and purpose on the other side.

The movie offers us another opportunity to discuss new strategies for improving the Kenyan criminal justice system and how we can transform the way citizens and refugees are arrested, tried fairly, rehabilitated in prison and reintegrated in our communities. Where better to screen it than “ground zero” Dandora among Government Officers, human rights, community and business activists committed to reducing levels of crime, poverty and violence? With more of these diverse dialogues, perhaps we too, will see them, the ones we have been afraid to engage.

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- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. [email protected]

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