Defying Trump’s Racist Death Sentence
An interview with Yusef Salaam, one of the five men of color wrongfully convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger case.
- Interview by
- Danny Katch
Yusef Salaam is one of the Central Park Five — five young men of color wrongfully convicted in 1989 of sexually assaulting Trisha Meili, a white woman jogging in Central Park. The “Central Park jogger” case became national news, and the accused — all between the ages of fourteen and sixteen — were held up as examples of alleged “wilding” by “wolf packs” of black and Latino youth.
Fanning the flames of the witch hunt was Donald Trump, who bought full-page ads in four New York City newspapers using the Central Park jogger case to call for New York State to bring back the death penalty. The ad used the same bloodthirsty themes that became a staple of his law-and-order campaign speeches: “How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”
In 2002, after four of the five defendants had completed their sentences, the Central Park Five were exonerated when Matias Reyes confessed to the crime, and DNA evidence confirmed he was the lone attacker. Yet Trump insisted earlier this month that the five teenagers were guilty — an outrageous statement, though it was quickly overshadowed in the media by the release of tapes of Trump bragging about committing sexual assault.
Yusef Salaam became an activist around issues of racism and the criminal justice system. He talked with Danny Katch about his own story and the larger fight for justice for victims of a racist legal system.
Why do you think that Donald Trump, in 2016, went out of his way to say that the Central Park Five were guilty when you’ve clearly been exonerated?
It really is a sad situation when you have a person in that position — who has the capacity and definitely the wherewithal to do his fact-checking, especially now that he’s running to be president — who still stays on the side of lies and falsehoods.
Part of the reason why I think he said it is because he took out the full-page ad that ran in New York City newspapers basically calling for our death — I think he mentioned recently that that was received so positively.
If you think about the history of black people in this country and the history of other folks, it’s two different types of history. We have black people who were supposed to be freed from slavery, and then immediately, the slave codes were instituted, and so forth and so on.
And so here it is — four blacks and one Latino, and we were immediately looked at as being guilty and had to prove ourselves innocent. Under the law, it says you’re innocent until proven guilty. So for Donald Trump to take out those ads in such a big way, it was the worst thing in the world.
And the worst part about it is that there’s an infallibility to a person like Donald Trump — you know what I’m saying? He had to apologize about these comments that he made about those young ladies, but he was sixty years old at the time!
It’s not like he was feeling his way through life and trying to understand things. He’s a grown man, and this is the fiber in the fabric of who he is. And then he tries to chalk it up as “just locker-room banter.” But most people who hang out in the locker rooms don’t talk like that. They don’t talk about sexually assaulting women and thinking that it’s okay, you know? That’s a very, very sick way to be.
That takes me right into the next question: This person who we now know has a long history of being a sexual predator also has a long history of accusing people of color of rape. There’s your case in 1989, and more recently, Trump has talked about Mexican immigrants being rapists. Do you have any thoughts about that?
That’s the craziest thing about all this. We can’t even talk about the pot calling the kettle black. We always say that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” — well, here’s an individual who’s saying, “Hey, you know, I can do whatever I want to these women because they let me.” They let you even more so because you’re a celebrity.
That’s the part that’s sickening. Our children who were growing up in the Obama era knew that the great thing about this president was that he was a person of color. At least people stopped thinking that the highest aspiration they could have was to be a basketball player or a music artist. They now have the opportunity to even become the president of the United States, and if they fell short of that, that was a start at least, so they can go beyond the glass ceiling.
But now the conversation, even after Donald Trump doesn’t become the president — and I’m making a prediction here . . .
The conversation now is going to be what this man represents for our young people — this man who says that if you do it, I want you put to death, but if I do it, it’s completely fine. Of course, there are a lot of people who don’t accept Trump, but it’s a really sad place to be.
I want to go back to 1989, which I’m sure is not pleasant for you. I think a lot of people don’t understand that what happened to the Central Park Five wasn’t just a case of people being convicted for a crime they didn’t commit. You guys became poster children for a national hysteria about “wilding” — the latest craze about what dangerous young black people were doing in the 1980s. What was it like to be fifteen years old and suddenly be the face of this panic?
It’s hard to say. If I used a word to describe it, it would be that we were the pariahs. But it’s hard to explain that feeling and to give someone else a realistic idea of what it meant, because reading about it is one thing, but going through it is something else.
In prison, we would write letters back to the people who live in the world, so to speak, and in almost every letter that was sent out, we started off saying something to the effect of “May this letter reach you spiritually, mentally, and physically okay.”
It wasn’t until I got into the adult facilities that I bumped into some of the people who were members of the black liberation movement, who used to say to me, “You’ve got to add a fourth component to that.” That fourth component is psychosocial, and what it means is the idea that the society validates you.
If you’re seen as being okay in society, then you have the opportunity to be okay. But if you’re seen as being not okay in society, then a lot of times, you tend to become your own worst enemy because of how the society views you, you know?
So in my case, we were trying to prove to the public — and prove to maybe even some of our peers and family — that we were innocent of this crime. But it’s hard to prove that when you’re a child, because they say children lie all the time.
We didn’t get that opportunity to prove ourselves innocent. We didn’t get that opportunity to have the justice system work in terms of justice for us. It became a system of injustice. It became a system where the spiked wheels of justice ran down the hill and mowed us all down. That part was one of the most difficult things in the world.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t have nearly the same record of personal racism or sexism that Donald Trump has, but as I’m sure you’re aware, during Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s mass incarceration expanded, and Hillary Clinton herself spoke in a racist, Trump-like way about a dangerous underclass of “superpredators.” Do you feel like that history from the 1990s still matters today?
It absolutely does. We’ve always said that even though racism doesn’t seem as prevalent as it used to be, we know very well that racism is alive and well, that it’s institutionalized, that we find it practiced no matter where we look.
Hillary Clinton has apologized about it since then, but to describe a whole race of people, of young people, as predisposed to this kind of behavior was really a sad thing coming from a person who was in power and can effect change. Every time we looked up, it was always somebody white directing things. Nobody ever included us in the process. But everybody always described us.
The same kind of thing happened to the Central Park Five back in 1989. During the first few weeks, there was a picture of us that came out in the tsunami of hundreds of articles. We found our names and addresses and phone numbers in New York City newspapers. People were sending us hate mail and all kinds of death threats, and our families tried to shield us from that.
My mother used to always say that she was from the Jim Crow South, but here I was experiencing Jim Crowism in the North. They were trying to make us modern Emmett Tills, based on Donald Trump’s ad.
Somebody would have probably taken it upon themselves to lynch us. Even more so now, if you look at the crowds that Donald Trump gets in front of. Here you have a person who said, I can go on Fifth Avenue right now and shoot someone, and I won’t lose any voters.
All that says to me is that history is something we need to learn from. Like I said, my mother said she was from the Jim Crow South, and here I was experiencing the same kind of thing they would tell us about, that we thought was just a myth. She would talk about things to us, and we would be like, “Okay, Ma.” But later, I was experiencing something that I’ll tell my children about.
You and the other members of the Central Park Five were victimized, but you aren’t just victims. You’ve been a part of increasing awareness and understanding of the criminal justice system. You were on the national board of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) and got involved in cases like Troy Davis in Georgia. How did becoming involved in protesting other injustices affect you and your own understanding of what you had been through?
It definitely was an eye-opener because I never truly came to grips with the fact that what happened to me could very well have been a death sentence.
When we were given that five-to-ten-year bid, it wasn’t just a prison sentence. It was also something that was going to lead, if we survived the prison itself, to a social death. We were being branded as rapists, and you know that’s the worst crime you can go to prison for.
So when I came home from prison and started involving myself in the CEDP, I plunged head on into the struggle of trying to liberate other people from the clutches of the criminal system of injustice. It gave me a sense of purpose, because on the one hand, I realized that I was a part of that history.
Part of the healing for me was to assist others who were going through something very similar — to make sure that they got their just and fair due, as opposed to what they were receiving.
It was hard, because a lot of people still lost their lives in that struggle. I think that one of the biggest letdowns that I experienced was the execution of Troy Davis in 2011.
But at the same time, this activity also gave me a voice. It began to allow me to share the story of the Central Park Five, and it allowed me to heal from the experience — to heal from wanting to just disappear into anonymity and have a kind of hermit life. That’s the whole PTSD that happens as a result of being in prison, and not having any kind of connection with folks, because their lives have moved on, and you’re still stuck back in the days.
It was tremendous. It still is tremendous. Whenever I look at the injustices going on around the country, I am happy that sometimes people re-tweet what I say — that’s a powerful thing.
You and your mom were recently part of the Justice 4 the Wrongly Incarcerated march from New York City to Albany, right?
Absolutely. That was a tremendous thing to be a part of. In a way, we’ve gotten our lives back, and we’re marching and seeking justice for individuals who are still waiting to get their lives back. They’re languishing behind prison walls.
It’s very telling the numbers of people who are being let go from prison, and not after doing a year or two. Some of these individuals have been doing decades in prison. And they’ve been found innocent of these crimes that they were in prison for, with the decades going past.
You’re someone who has been in the struggle for a long time, and now, there has been the dramatic rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Are there any thoughts you’d like to impart to people who are just getting active?
I think that it’s very important to get involved in the struggle to liberate our people. Because unfortunately, what I’ve learned in the process of being in the struggle is that there are countless people who really believe that the system is designed to assist and protect and serve and all of the good ideals they talk about.
If you look at the police cars in New York City — and I’ve said this on numerous occasions — they have these three words on them: “Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect.” But if you’re a person of color, and you come into the clutches of the police departments of the world, a lot of times, especially in New York City, we don’t even receive the CPR.
What I want to get out there is the idea that the system was built this way. If we look at architectural designs, sometimes, they look like they defy the laws of nature. Somebody built it that way. A lot of these structures are still standing today.
That’s the same way we have to look at the criminal justice system. I call it the criminal system of injustice because they didn’t give us the opportunity to be presumed innocent and found guilty. We were guilty, and we had to fight to prove ourselves innocent. In many ways, we still have to fight to prove ourselves innocent.