“Your son should be fried in oil.” “Your son should be castrated.” “It’s people like you who make New York suck.” “You are scum. I wish you hell.”
Yusef Salaam read the preceding excerpts from letters that had been addressed to him and his family when he came home from prison — innocent.
Salaam, a member of the Exonerated Five who was accused and convicted of a Central Park sexual assault, discussed a wide range of issues on Oct. 27 with Charles L. Robbins, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Executive Director of the Center for Changing Systems of Power.
“They tried to place us in a box and that box was a box where we were only going to be defined by this indelible scar,” Salaam said. “We could not escape it and we could not remove ourselves from that horrible reality.”
In 1989, Trisha Meili — a white 28-year-old woman — was brutally assaulted and raped while jogging in New York City’s Central Park. Meili had no recollection of the incident. Salaam was among three other Black boys and one Latino boy who were imprisoned after being coerced by the NYPD to give false confessions and take the blame for the incident.
Salaam dove into the discussion and spoke about the connection between Donald Trump and the five boys who were once titled the “Central Park Five.” Two weeks after the attack, Trump took out a full-page advertisement in various newspapers calling for New York state to adopt the death penalty. This was before the trial even started.
However, his advertisement is credited with prejudicing public opinion and contributing to the five boys going to prison for something they did not do.
Salaam said that it was the most damaging advertisement taken out against them because it ran in all of the major New York papers.
“Pat Buchanan saw the writing on the wall — getting the nod that it was okay to be racist,” he said. “He comes out and in the New York Post he writes, we should take the eldest one and hang him from a tree in Central Park and we should do this by June 1.”
In 2019, many years after the advertisement, Trump still would not apologize for calling for the death penalty.
“Imagine how afraid I would be as a 15-year-old child looking at Donald Trump’s ad being placed in New York City’s newspapers, only to be awakened, 30 years later that he’s the president,” Salaam said.
Salaam served about 6 years and 8 months in prison for a crime that he did not commit. When asked how he stayed strong during his time in prison and whether he hates the people who cause him pain, Salaam said his Muslim faith helped him maintain his humanity.
Six months into his time in prison, Salaam said he found out the meaning of his name. His full name translates as “God will increase the teacher with honorable peace,” which made him realize the importance of who he was at the time.
“I was able to look at my experience from a completely different vantage point and I was able to realize that if I was born on purpose, then there has to be a purpose that I’m going through this,” he said. “And instead of just going through this, I’m going to grow through this.”
Andre Minueza, a senior health sciences major, said that Salaam’s words were motivational and touched him.
“You wonder how a person that has gone through what he has, doesn’t have hate or anger towards those who did this to him or those who have said things that are malicious about him,” Minueza said.
Salaam and the other boys were finally exonerated in 2002.
He connected his experience to the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and mentioned victims of police brutality, including Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Sandra Bland.
“The system is not broken, but the system is actually alive and sick,” he said. “The unfortunate reality is that, as we have a front row seat to oppression, we get the opportunity to be witnesses of the duality in America.”
As Election Day is coming up, Salaam also spoke about the importance of voting.
“I think this is the opportunity to have the perfect vision we need, and to move into our future in a more progressive way that allows us to understand that we are now the people,” he said.
However, he emphasized that it does not just stop with casting a ballot and people must continue to fight, even after the election.
Salaam also reflected on the 2019 Netflix miniseries, “When They See Us,” which was created, written and directed by Ava DuVernay. As the series realistically portrays the stories of the Exonerated Five, Salaam said that the five did not know each other’s full stories until then.
“We saw it as brothers and we were completely broken down and rebuilt, all over again,” he said. “We went from becoming brothers to sacred brothers and the most important, and the most powerful and the most special is perhaps Korey Wise.”
When the boys were taken in for custody, Wise decided to accompany Salaam, who was brought in for questioning. However, Wise then ended up being pulled into the interrogation room as well. Unlike the other four boys, he was sent to an adult prison because he was 16 at the time. After his exoneration, Wise went on to become an activist for criminal justice reform and spoke at the closing ceremony of Black History Month at Stony Brook University back in February.
“Because of the specialness inside of Korey, he was able to hold on a little while longer until the real perpetrator bumps into him in one of the prisons he was in and finally sees him for the first time, and says ‘I need to tell the truth’ — and he tells the truth,” Salaam said. “If Korey had not gone with me, we would have never been found innocent. That’s how impactful Korey is.”
Korey met Matias Reyes, a murderer and serial rapist in prison, and Matias confessed to be to being the actual, lone perpetrator of the Central Park jogger rape. A DNA test of Reyes confirmed his guilt.
Robbins has heard Salaam speak multiple times at various events, including when he came to Stony Brook University back in 2016 for Black History Month.
“Every time I’m just taken back by the power of the words and by the power of who you are as a man,” Robbins said.
Julie Nwaogbe, president of the Black Student Union and a senior biology major, said that hearing Salaam speak was moving and his presence reached her even through the screen.
“He is the embodiment of Black excellence, such eloquence, such brilliance and such grace,” she said. “To see what a beacon of light he is despite going through very dark times during the formative years of his life is beyond inspiring.”
After his exoneration, Salaam was awarded an honorary doctorate in humanities and decided to dedicate his life to criminal justice reform as a motivational speaker and author. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from former President Barack Obama in 2016.
Salaam ended with this: “We have the opportunity to join forces with the most fearless generations and realize that the future is going to be alive and well because of all of us.”