‘Once in a lifetime opportunity:’ Yusef Salaam speaks at UB
Exonerated Five member visits UB for Distinguished Speakers event Monday
Yusef Salaam said the Central Park jogger case is a “love story” between “God and his people.”
He said it was a story of a “criminal system of injustice placed on trial” by the people who then fixed it, to create a “miracle.”
Salaam, UB’s 44th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration Keynote Speaker, was part of the Exonerated Five –– formerly, the Central Park Five –– who were wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of a female jogger on Apr. 19, 1989. Today, he is a businessman, poet and an activist fighting for prison reform. Salaam spoke for 30 minutes to at roughly 1,000 UB community members Monday about how his life changed after this “tragic experience” during the Distinguished Speakers Series event in Alumni Arena. He also discussed racial disparity between white people and minorities in prisons, how predominantly black and Hispanic areas are “heavily policed” and the ways we are “socialized” into forgetting our history.
Salaam said the current generation is “planting seeds” for the next generation to prevent cases like his from happening again. He called the current prison system “sick” and said it has been “morphed” into new Jim Crow laws.
“Through the 13th amendment, if you get punished for crime, we can take you and turn you back into a slave,” Salaam said. “When I got there, there were a whole lot of black and brown folks that look just like me as part of the landscape of the prison industrial complex.”
Salaam quoted MLK Jr., saying we currently have “two Americas divided.” He asked the audience to imagine an “imbalance” in society where people take illegal measures to make money and it results in a drug war. He said this scenario has caused people to judge others on their race instead of their character.
“Nobody’s got a backyard that has poppy seed fields in it or nobody’s manufacturing guns,” Salaam said. “Yet, we’re heavily policed, stop and frisk permeates throughout the communities that we come from. Because we’re seen as more capable [to commit crime].”
While Salaam is fighting against the current prison system, he says he has noticed some men view prison as a “badge of honor.” He warned the audience not to treat prison as a “rite of passage” and to be careful about how they choose to “define” their “reality.”
Yousouf Amolegbe, SA President, said Salaam’s speech was “amazing” and that we as a society still aren’t past the injustices Salaam faced.
“We are taking steps forward but it’s important we’re taking steps as a collective to make sure we are fixing these injustices,” Amolegbe said. “I hope we take the advice he gave us seriously as it’s very important that we try to make an impact and difference in the community.”
Salaam offered audience members a “paradigm shift” and said “everything that happens to you, happens for you.”
Six months into his prison sentence, an officer told Salaam that he knew he was wrongfully convicted. When the officer asked him what he was doing in prison, Salaam said he then remembered the meaning of his name, “God will increase the teacher with justice and peace.”
Salaam said, at the time, the officer’s question reminded him of a discussion he had with his mother. She told him that, in Muslim culture, the parents “watch” the baby and “understand” what God’s purpose will be for him in life in order to come up with a name.
“Every single one of us when our parents got together, there were one of over 400 million options. You were one of over 400 million options and you made it,” Salaam said. “That means God said to you, ‘be.’ He wanted you to ‘be’ and therefore you are. So if you made it, that means that you were born on purpose and if you were born on purpose, that means you have a purpose in this world.”
Varnel Fleurisma, vice president of the Black Student Union, said Salaam’s speech made him “look toward the future” and have “hope.” Yet, what stood out to him the most was learning about Salaam’s name.
“Something so little that he didn’t even know, just gave him so much hope moving forward,” Fleurisma said. “He still had that hope, ‘I'm still going to go to college, I'm going to get my degree.’”
Fleurisma called the event a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Ashley Wiah, a senior in the Interdisciplinary Degree Programs Social Sciences, said she came after watching the Netflix docu-series “When They See Us” and said his speech was an “eye opener.” She said the quote from his speech that stood out to her the most was, “Everything that happens to you happens for you.”
“I feel like that in itself just shows that –– yes, bad things happen, but they mold us and shift us to be who we are today,” Wiah said.
Salaam said people “immediately” saw the Exonerated Five as the modern day “Scottsboro boys,” a group of nine boys, aged 13 to 20, wrongly convicted of the rape of two white women on a train. He said two weeks after their arrest, there were articles “pulling their lives apart.” Yet, when people used this reference, he had “no idea” who they were talking about. His good friend Angela Davis said people have “historical amnesia,” in which people forget their history, but he doesn’t believe this is true.
“The truth of the matter is that we don't,” Salaam said. “The truth of the matter is that we've been socialized in such a way not to remember our own history and things that happened. So when people said that we were the modern day Scottsboro boys, I had no idea who they were referencing.”
Although Salaam called his experience “tragic,” he thanks God for the “blessings” and “lessons” in his life. He said, while in jail, he received a college education that allowed him to apply himself so he can “dream again.” If he hadn’t been able to do that, he said he would’ve been a man “full of fear.”
“When you go to jail, and you do the time and don’t let time do you, when you come back out of that, you are a person that is fearless,” Salaam said. “You realize that fear is false evidence appearing real.”
Alexandra Moyen is a senior news editor and can be reached email@example.com and at Twitter @AlexandraMoyen