Yusef Salaam, one of the exonerated “Central Park Five,” was only 15 years old when he was falsely accused and convicted for the assault and rape of jogger Trisha Meili, who was found nearly dead in Central Park on April 20, 1989. Salaam spent more than six years incarcerated.
On Wednesday night, more than 20 years after his release, Salaam sat before a packed audience in McCosh 10, as he recounted his story of survival and perseverance. Salaam was joined by Eddie Glaude GS ’97, Chair of the Department of African American Studies and current president of the American Academy of Religion. The two discussed how Salaam’s faith in Islam guided him through his racially unjust incarceration and empowered him to work towards change after his liberation.
In recent months, the 2019 Netflix series “When They See Us,” which has garnered over 23 million viewers worldwide and became the United States’ most-watched series after its release, has renewed interest in the unjust trial and incarceration of the Central Park Five, who were demonized as predators ravenous for their white victim.
Short on seats for the overflowing crowd, attendees squeezed into aisles, sat on the stairs leading to the balcony, and stood on any available floor space for the chance to hear Salaam speak. The audience ranged widely in age, from University students to staff and faculty members, as well as many older visitors who had lived through the sensational media coverage of the case.
Salaam began by addressing the many faces staring up at him. He said, “I've never been in a place that has been filled to capacity in this particular way,” which the audience answered with hearty laughter and applause.
Glaude dove into the discussion by addressing Salaam’s enduring faith in Islam during his time behind bars, asking him what he thought God was doing with him.
“Muslims are only servants to God,” Salaam said. “There is a truth and a power to that, because when you are not looking to serve anything but the Creator, you’re free. What I couldn’t reconcile with while I was on trial was what caused them to look at me with such anger and hatred in their eyes ... I couldn’t understand what they were looking at.”
On the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, Salaam spoke about how the loophole clause allowing slavery and servitude as a punishment for convicted crimes gave rise to a prison industrial complex that disproportionately targets people of color, acknowledging the “slave labor that is continuing to be allowed to be a part of the criminal system of injustice.”
“This was a part of a process, a systemic issue which has been a part of the founding fiber of our country — it’s right in the 13th Amendment … They can take you and turn you back into a slave,” Salaam said.
At one point, Salaam pulled out a copy of the 1989 full-page ad that U.S. President Donald Trump, then a business tycoon, ran in all four of New York City’s leading newspapers. In the personally signed letter, Trump called for New York to reinstate the death penalty, specifically in response to Meili’s rape.
In reference to Trump, Salaam said, “for every story to be truly great, you’ve got to have good villain.”
Salaam also recalled former White House aide Pat Buchanan’s statement suggesting that Korey Wise, the eldest of the accused, should be hung from a tree.
Salaam noted the ways in which racial prejudice influenced his case, identifying the notion “when you see a black person, you should be afraid” as a critical factor in the Central Park Five’s unjust conviction. He also cited the country’s disparate responses to the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s and the opioid epidemic of today. Whereas the national response to the opioid epidemic, which largely impacts white people, has centered around treatment, many Americans supported criminalizing cocaine use, particularly as it concerned African Americans and other minority groups.
In addition, Salaam discussed growing Islamophobia. He posed the hypothetical example of someone rushing onto an airplane and shouting “God is the greatest,” which would garner praise and approval, as “folks take out the cameras on their phones saying, ‘do that again.’” If that person had said the same thing in Arabic, Salaam contended, he would “probably not be allowed to stay on that plane.”
Salaam’s assessment of America reflected the complexities that many African Americans encounter living in the United States, with many systematic factors that work critically against them, long after the dark history of slavery.
“We have not been afforded the same opportunities and citizenship that we should, despite [the fact] that we were born here,” he stated.
“In the moment that they asked me if I had anything to say before they sentenced me, I stood up and said the beginning of what I’ll say here — I said, ‘I’m not gonna sit here at your table and watch you eat and call myself dinner.’”
Salaam emphasized that participating in government affairs remains vital on the part of African Americans. “Once we figure out how we can become a part of a franchise,” he said, “game over.” He encouraged people of color to use their ability to vote to influence the current and future state of affairs.
On Ava DuVernay’s widely acclaimed Netflix series, Salaam expressed appreciation for the global platform that “When They See Us” has afford him to distribute his message of endurance.
“As I go out around the country and world, I can only thank God for allowing me to grow and go through this in a way I can affect people’s lives,” he said.
Salaam told the story of a woman who approached him during a recent trip to Mexico and, to his surprise, told him that suicide was the leading cause of death in the town where he was speaking. “You don't know what you do [to] the people that were listening to you. You gave them hope,” he relayed.
Ultimately, Salaam credits his relationship with God for how he became the person he is today and for the influence and inspiration he now provides to others.
“What’s beautiful about what happened to me is that I recognize that God gave me life on purpose. God gave us life on purpose. This stuff is so simple and profound at the same time … It blows our minds.”
Hosted by the Muslim Life Program and co-hosted by the Carl A. Fields Center, Campus Conversations on Identities Public Lecture Series, Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR), and the Department of African American Studies, “An Evening with Dr. Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated ‘Central Park Five’” was held at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 20 in McCosh Hall 10. The event was also streamed on Facebook Live.