We Talked with One of the Central Park Five About Netflix’s “When They See Us”

Yusef Salaam on life after exoneration, the need for criminal justice reform and Donald Trump’s “bounty placed on our heads.”

Chandra Thomas Whitfield

Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five, spent seven years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. ("Courtesy Yusef Salaam")

Yusef Salaam: the name may not automatically ring a bell, but his story likely does — especially if you have seen When They See Us. Last month the miniseries directed by Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay snagged 16 Emmy nominations and currently reigns as the most-watched U.S. series in Netflix history. Salaam, 45, was just 15 years old when his life was turned upside down. He and four other African American and Latino teens were falsely accused and later convicted in connection with New York’s infamous Central Park Jogger” case, in which a 28-year-old white woman was assaulted and raped while jogging in the park in 1989. A central focus of the case and the miniseries is that, after prolonged periods of police interrogation, NYPD officers asserted that the accused boys had admitted to wildin’” at the park on the night of the attack, supposedly a teen slang term that meant acting crazy or violent.

They inserted me and the rest of the five into this horrific experience. We wanted the American dream, but as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X said, we woke up to the American nightmare.

The Central Park Five,” as they came to be known, spent between five and 13 years in prison before serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime in 2002; DNA evidence ultimately exonerated Salaam and the four others. Salaam and his wife, Sanovia, who have 10 children, relocated to the metro Atlanta area after he and his cohorts won a $41 million settlement from the state of New York in 2014. He recently spoke with In These Times’ Leonard Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow Chandra Thomas Whitfield about the impact of the wildly popular Netflix miniseries, life after exoneration, what helped him through the hardest times while doing hard time, and the role that former New York-businessman-turned-President-of-The-United-States Donald Trump played in nearly taking his life.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Wow, DuVernay’s series is provocative, emotional and also covers a lot of ground. What do you personally want people to know about how this case affected your lives?

Yusef Salaam: There were over 400 articles written about us when this first happened. That tsunami of media reports really did a devastating job. They were painting this picture about who we were. The pointing of the finger caused everybody who had an opinion – especially a person like Donald Trump – to say, Let me take out a full-page ad in New York City newspapers. Let me put my money where my mouth is: These folks need to be executed.” A bounty was placed on our heads.

I want people to know the depth of what [the prosecutors and New York Police Department] did. This was the so-called criminal justice system. In reality, it was the criminal system of injustice. They inserted me and the rest of the five into this horrific experience. We wanted the American dream, but as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X said, we woke up to the American nightmare.

Chandra: Your friend Korey Wise was the focus of the final episode of the miniseries. He endured a particularly hellish ordeal, and you two are closely intertwined in this case. How did seeing Korey’s experience unfold in film form affect you? 

Yusef: One of the most magical components of our story is this young man changed his name from Kharey to Korey. If you ever get an opportunity to speak to him, he says things like, This is [my] life after death.” That young man died in prison. I’m fighting for folks like him who didn’t have someone like me to fight for him.

Our brotherhood switched from a brotherhood to a sacred brotherhood because [of the film.]

One of the best things about this film is that we didn’t know each other’s story; we found out just like everybody else found out in When They See Us. We didn’t know what Raymond [Santana] was going through: that at home his stepmom was calling him a rapist. He was scared to death, he didn’t even want to be at home with her alone; she might say he touched her. This is the reality that was placed upon [him], and a lot of [us] were going through similar types of things.

Chandra: Many fans of When They See Us have said it does an amazing job of covering the many hardships you all endured, particularly while in prison. What were some sources of inspiration that you leaned on during the toughest parts of your ordeal?

Yusef: I wrote this book of poetry called Words of a Man: My Right to Be. Most of the poetry was written while I was incarcerated between 1989 and 1997. From the unbelievable accusations from the start, to the wildin’” convictions of the media, to Donald Trump’s full-page ad calling for the state to kill us, to the final judgement and imprisonment; the system wasn’t treating me like I was a man. So, because I knew I was a man, a human being and a son of God, I had to remind myself, and these words were a big part of that. I had to grow up very, very fast, but I wanted [people] to know, that if you ever find yourself in so-called dark places, there’s always a light somewhere in the darkness. And even if that light is inside you, you could illuminate your own darkness. Shine your light on the world. Young people need to know without a shadow of a doubt that they were born on purpose, and that they were born with a purpose.

Chandra: What was the media reaction to your exoneration?

Yusef: It was almost disrespectful, the way I came home. [My release after seven years got] little to no attention, which was a good thing in a way. I didn’t want nobody looking for me now that I was out.

But 13 years after we were accused and convicted of the crime, they found out we didn’t do it. My mother testified in City Hall that [the coverage of the exoneration] was a whisper juxtaposed in comparison to 1989. She wondered if the rats in New York City had heard. Even to this day, there are folks that’ll be like, Who’s the Central Park 5?” I’ve been places and people are like, Are you guys a part of a music group?”

Chandra: You’ve been speaking about your case and systemic flaws in the American criminal justice system for 20 years now. Have you been able to utilize DuVernay’s miniseries and Ken Burns’ The Central Park Five documentary on your case as a teaching tool?

Yusef: One of the things that I loved about it was that these young people [who portrayed us in the movie] are able to give our future generation a seed of understanding [about] where they need to be in this life. [One time] in California we were about to [screen Ken Burns’] The Central Park Five documentary and a young woman stepped up and says, I’m 13, I’m a cadet [and] I want to be a cop. What advice can you give me?”

Now, I’m in a room full of folks that have had some experiences, right? And so, in my mind I’m like, Get out, get out, get out! Abort mission!”

And then something just popped into my head, which was crazy, it was like, Tell her about what you’ve seen as it relates to the criminal justice system.” And very quickly and succinctly, I said to her, You know, as I’ve travelled around the nation on the side of cop cars you have these words; in almost every single city I’ve been in, it says to serve and protect.’ That sounds honorable. In New York City, they go a step further: on the door; it [also] says courtesy, professionalism and respect.’ We’ve all watched Eric Garner get his life snuffed out by [New York Police Department officers] on TV; he was in Staten Island in New York State. He kept saying [to those officers] I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’”

So, I tell this young lady, I submit to you, that they didn’t give that young man the first letters off of those three ideals on the cops’ door. They didn’t give him CPR. My advice to you, is that you do your job. We all know that there are bad apples, but there’s only a small, minute [number] of those. The reality is that if you do your job, you’ll be one of the best cops out there. And we need that.”

Chandra: This movie sheds light on the persistent systemic flaws of the criminal justice system that activists have called out for decades. What do you want people to know about this system that they may not?

Yusef: This film brings to light that there are so many facets to the criminal justice system. You’ve got the jurors. When you get that letter in the mail that says you have been called to serve on a jury, many of us say, Man, I’m trying to get out of this,” right? They tell you you’re going to be judged by a jury of your peers. I swear when I heard that, I looked up [in that courtroom] and I said, Where’s my man Bobo and Raheem at? I don’t know these folks.” You see what I’m saying? We need people to understand that non-participation is participation, even in the voting process. Non-participation is participation.

Chandra: There’s a lot to unpack in this miniseries. When it is all said and done, what do you want people to know about you all, now known as the Exonerated Five?

Yusef: The truth about what happened to us. I want folks to look at us and understand we survived. A lot of people are just finding out about the Central Park Jogger case through this film. But this is 30 years later. We had to deal with all of this that went on and we were [eventually] able to get the recognition of a superpower like Ava DuVernay — who once had a T-shirt on that said, I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams.” With the tremendous work that she’s doing and she will do, for her to say, I want to do this [film],” was beyond our wildest imagination. 

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Chandra Thomas Whitfield is a 2019-2020 fellow with the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.
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