Yusef Salaam, one of the boys originally known as “the Central Park Five” who were wrongfully charged in 1989 of assaulting a jogger in Manhattan’s Central Park, spoke in a webinar on Oct. 29 as part of the C. Christine Johnson Voices of Color Lecture Series.
Salaam, who is now an activist, author, and motivational speaker, served 6 years and 8 months before his conviction was overturned. He began the webinar by recalling the experience of being accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit. In the eyes of the public, he said, the five boys “were seen as guilty and therefore having to prove ourselves innocent, as opposed to what the law states.” He shared hate mail sent to his mother, and highlighted the negative media response spearheaded by figures such as Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump.
It was up until that moment that I truly believed that there was still a criminal justice system, a system that worked and that saw the truth through the lies.
“It was really our introduction, I think, to what Malcolm X called the ‘American nightmare,’” Salaam said.
Similar animosity was noticed by Salaam and the other boys during their trials. Upon entering the courtroom, they were informed that the verdicts had already been decided. “We heard the word ‘guilty’ echoed so many times that we lost count,” Salaam said. “It was up until that moment that I truly believed that there was still a criminal justice system, a system that worked and that saw the truth through the lies.”
The conversation soon turned to the influence of systemic racism on Salaam’s life and interactions with the legal system. “Just by the mere fact that you’re born a person of color, you’re born fighting for your life,” he said. “The prison industrial complex is the modern-day cotton field.”
Salaam placed his story in a broader context of discrimination that includes such recent events as the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The year 2020, Salaam said, has provided us a “front-row seat to oppression.” He encouraged people from backgrounds of privilege to help by “continuously shining the light in the darkness we find ourselves in” and leveling their privilege against the society that produced it.
Salaam also described methods through which he made constructive use of his time in prison. In response to a question about the role of his Muslim faith, he recalled how he discovered the meaning of his name, and in turn, found new purpose in life. “Faith is something that gives you hope in your own future, because you know that God is not through with you,” he said. “Instead of saying ‘why me’ — take those lemons and start juggling.”
Finally, Salaam expressed his gratitude for the opportunities now afforded to him by his traumatic past. “One of the beautiful things about our story is we now get the opportunity to travel the globe, and talk to young people in particular, who are the caretakers of tomorrow,” he said. Being in front of audiences, Salaam noted, is like a “therapy session” for him and the other members of the group now known as “the Exonerated Five.”
“Psychosocially, you’re telling us we matter. Psychosocially, you’re telling us that we are needed. And it’s so beautiful for us to be reoriented like that, because at one point in our lives we were seen as the scum of the earth,” he said.