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 August 8, 2019

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. 

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