Disclaimer: This article briefly mentions rape and false accusations.
“I’ve been watching you,” the officer said. “You’re not supposed to be here. Why are you here? Who are you?”
These words, said Yusef Salaam, changed the trajectory of his life. Had this question not been asked of him, the speaker predicted, he wouldn’t have been standing in front of an attentive audience, sharing his story in the Smith Student Center ballroom Monday night.
For a week after being born, Salaam’s first name read plainly, “Boy.” His parents observed for seven days, pondering what to name their child. They settled on a full name that, while in prison, Salaam would learn translates to “God will increase the teacher with justice and peace.” While in prison, Salaam began to seek the purpose for his life.
Sponsoring the event was the Philosophy Club, Gender Studies Program, FMLA (Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance), SGA (Student Government Association), Black Action Society and the Office for Inclusive Excellence
The Central Park Five, a case that would gain much attention, began in April 19, 1989 in Central Park for Salaam and four other young men. Although there were multiple suspicions for assaults on other joggers and harassment that night, four young, black men and one Hispanic were charged with rape, including Salaam.
The story of the Central Park Five was not unique in its wrongful convictions, fitting the pattern of unjust arrests of Latino and young black men in the United States. Several years later, after being exonerated, Salaam reiterated the fact that the system went after the wrong people.
Salaam’s journey began in 1989; he was convicted and sentenced in 1990.
“What happens in the black and brown community is this idea that has been woven in and throughout, you’re going to be dead or in jail before the age of 21,” Salaam said.
Salaam believed life would go back to the way it used to be when he was bailed out. A year later, during the trial, with court almost over on a Friday night, Salaam was out in the hall on the phone with a friend.
“I said, ‘Hey, listen, we’re about to leave here. I’ll see you later,’” Salaam remembered. “’We’re going to have a good time.’”
Somebody approached him with news; there was a verdict.
“I walked back into the courtroom, and the jury foreman was asked to stand and read the verdict. And when he came to me,” Salaam said. “I heard the words guilty echo so many times in the court room that I lost count.”
Before sentencing, Salaam was given the one last chance to say his piece before the court. Those close to him advised him to throw himself to the mercy of the court, in order to receive the minimum ruling. The judge allowed Salaam to say what he needed, asking him to stand.
“I stood up,” Salaam said. “And the most amazing thing happened.”
Throughout the court process, Salaam said, the prosecutors, jury and city all looked at him with a hatred he couldn’t fathom. When he unfolded his six-foot-tall frame from the chair, he realized that, the whole time, they’d been looking at his future self, trying to get him to accept a 13th Amendment that reserves the punishment for a crime to turn a man back to slavery. He wouldn’t accept it.
Salaam spit out a three-minute-long freestyle rap, blasting those in the room who had wrongly accused and racially profiled him.
“Man, after I sat down, that judge was so angry at the words I just said, it looked like he wanted to change the law right then and there,” Salaam said.
He was sentenced for five to 10 years. He served six years and eight months.
“As I thought about my life and what was happening at that particular point in time, I realized that I wasn’t able to escape that gravitational pull,” Salaam said. “I, too, was caught in that system. And now I was going to jail.”
Salaam was told that he and his friends were being brought to Brookwood, a “country club compared to the particular jail we were pulling up into.” That jail was Harlem Valley, a maximum-security juvenile prison.
The young Salaam hobbled forward in shackles, allowing himself a look at the side of the building.
“I stopped for a moment,” Salaam said. “The windows looked like they were painted black. Then I saw movement. Those were people. They were shaking the windows, telling me that they were going to get me.”
He tapped Antron, “Man, keep your head up in this place.”
“We held onto each other,” Salaam said. “We were all we had. It was such a painful reality. We took a vow that day to watch each other’s backs, to protect each other.”
When Salaam was a kid, he participated in martial arts training with Master Little John Davis and world-renowned, 10th degree black belt Moses Powell. One exercise was doing push-ups with his knuckles excruciatingly pressed against the concrete in the middle of Central Park.
Salaam would slowly inch closer to the grass, seeking comfort, but later realized that these exercises were discipline, shaping and preparing him for life. The instructors’ looks of parental disapproval pulled him back.
“How am I going to survive this?” Salaam thought to himself, sitting in a holding cell.
Other than going to jail for rape, Salaam explained, child molestation is the worst crime you can be locked up for. Myths and legends are told, he said, about horrors that prison inmates sentenced for these crimes are subjected to.
“I’m not going to let them take me,” he said about starting to shadowbox in his cell, “without a fight.”
This, six months in, is around the time the officer asked Salaam that fateful question. He now knew that he not only was chosen to go through the ordeal but could handle it.
“God saw fit for you to be and therefore you are,” Salaam told the crowd. “If you were born on purpose, then that means that you have a purpose.”
While Salaam was in prison, his grandmother wrote him frequently, addressing her grandson as “Master Yusef Salaam” on the front of each envelope.
“That did something to me,” Salaam said. “That told me to straighten my path. That told me that I was still the master of my destiny and my fate. That told me that this too shall pass. That told me that this was not the worst.”
Salaam said that one of the worst things about being in prison was that the real perpetrator was free, committing more crimes. Before being apprehended, the real offender had raped and murdered a pregnant woman and her unborn child.
“They want you to think that the Central Park jogger case is an anomaly,” Salaam said. “That they just got it wrong this one time.”
Over the past 25 years, through the Innoncence Project, 349 men and women had been realeased through DNA evidence.
Salaam serves on the Board of Directors for the Innocence Project.
In addition to serving on the Board of Directors, Salaam received the President’s Achievment Award from Obama in 2016.
The Central Park jogger case was more profound than one could even imagine, Salaam said. Actually, it’s a beacon of hope being reintroduced to society 30 years later.
“It’s actually a love story between God and His people,” he said. “It’s actually a story of how people can be brought low only to rise, because the truth can never stay hidden.”