Yusef Salaam and the four other members of the "Exonerated 5" did not receive compensation until 12 years after the Daily News declared "We got the wrong kids" on Oct. 11, 2002.
Over a decade before the Daily News' 2002 article, the ‘Exonerated 5’ were wrongfully accused of raping ‘The Central Park Jogger.’ Salaam was imprisoned for nearly seven years for a crime he did not commit.
But he refused to be bitter, and trained himself to channel his anger toward changing the system that failed him, he says. Salaam, a deeply religious man, thinks everything happened so that he could grow. Now, he spends his time retelling his story to ensure others can learn from it.
On Monday, the student-choice “distinguished speaker” gave a speech and recited poems at Alumni Arena. His speech was also recognized as “UB’s 44th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration.”
After his speech in Alumni Arena, we sat down with Salaam to discuss the process of rebuilding his life after prison, how he views politics and his opinions on “The Fourth Estate.”
The interview, lightly edited for style and length, follows below.
The Spectrum: What was it like trying to build a life for yourself after being imprisoned at 15 for six years?
Salaam: That was the most challenging, because you have to remember to be in jail for the amount of time that I was in jail for was all the formative years. It was those years that you will be learning about how to drive a car, definitely how to fill out a job application: all of the things that you would have been equipped with as an adult to move on. [Korey Wise] said it so beautifully. He said, “I have this big hole inside of me that can’t ever be filled.” And one of the beautiful things that we were able to do was we were able to fill it with getting married, having a family … and things like that. But you always remember. When you come back home, you turn the lights off, you still have that time when you’re like “d--n, I really went through this tragedy.” But, you have to get up. You got to look like that Cardi B song, right? “Fall down nine times, get up 10,” you still have to get up. A good friend, Les Brown, says “when you fall in life, it’s not a matter of if but when.” He said, “try to land on your back, because if you can look up, you can get up.” And so even though we were stumbling forward at times, even though we may have fallen on our face, we still had to keep getting back on. That’s a part of the comeback power that we have as a people trying to be resilient.
TS: I know the $41 million that “The Exonerated 5” received in a settlement with New York City can never give you that time back, but did it at least help?
S: Well, you got to remember, money can’t help you with anything. I mean, everybody wants to see if it can help, of course. Everybody wants to get rich. But the truth of the matter is that if you think about what we initially sued for, we each sued for $50 million. That means that the totality of our lawsuit was $250 million. You realize that when they gave us $41 million, that wasn’t even close. That wasn’t even one of the whole $50 million. One-third of [the $41 million] went to paying legal fees. People think that we each won $41 million. There are folks that are young enough that may say to themselves “if I could get $41 million, I would go to jail for that.” But they don’t remember or realize that we went to prison for a crime like rape, which is the worst crime that you can go to prison for: the only crime that trumps rape is child molestation. We were in there fighting for our lives. We came out of that, still not free, because we have parole and we had Megan’s Law and all that other stuff. It wasn't until 13 years after we were initially accused that the truth came out. At that mark, we’re talking late 2002, early 2003, this comes out. This is an article from the Daily News on Friday, October 11, 2002. [The headline reads] “We got the wrong kids.” Once the truth came out, we had to fight. So we were already fighting, but we fought and we put our lawsuit in and it took another 12 years for us to win our lawsuit. That’s a tragedy. You know, so we're fighting tooth and nail a case that the mayor at the time, Michael Bloomberg, said is a no-pay case. So for 12 years we fought. You had a speedy method to convict us, but you don’t have a speedy method to [make things right]. That’s a problem, and that’s the system now.
TS: As recently as fall 2018, Bloomberg said the “Stop and Frisk” policy he expanded during his time as mayor deterred crime without violating anyone’s civil rights, contrary to a court ruling. Since then, Bloomberg apologized for “Stop and Frisk” and is running in the Democratic primary. How does a political candidate’s past weigh into your assessment of them as a candidate and what advice do you have for voters?
S: I think that you should always look at a person’s track record. Anybody could tell you anything. That’s what we know as politricks in our community. But when you look at their track record, that tells you exactly what they’re capable of, what they’re going to do, because whatever they did, they could do in the future. You’re telling us now, “Oh, no, listen, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.” But you did that. I think one number I saw was 700,000 people were affected by “Stop and Frisk” laws that came trickling down. The part that gets me is that they were making it into law to harass people, as if they’re the only people capable of crime. They were making that legal, they were making that a part of the American way. And then black and brown folks that were being victimized, started to accept it. That’s a real tragedy that you’re walking around knowing that you will have full rights, but you don’t have full citizenship. Your rights are being violated. You’re not seen as a full person, that three-fifths law is still in full effect. Those same policies that they put out there and continue to trample over the freedoms, the justice, the equality of the people –– that stuff speaks. If that’s what you had in your past, that’s who you are.
TS: What was it like knowing that the story the media and the criminal justice system –– some of the major institutions that determine what we accept as the truth –– were telling was false?
S: I couldn’t understand what was going on back then. I was too young to really understand that here you’re talking about the Fourth Estate. If somebody puts something in the papers, even now somebody can put somebody’s name in the paper, and let’s say they spell that person’s name wrong. There’s a section in the paper that says, “oh, wow, we got this person’s name wrong; this is the correct spelling of the name.” And then they keep moving forward. How many people read that section? How many will know that that section is actually there? I call it “tricknology,” and I try to explain it. They came out in 1989 and they said “DNA evidence” in big, bold headlines. When the DNA didn’t match, they didn’t have a big, bold headline in the same way that said “DNA doesn’t match.” There was a very small headline. The negative residue of doing this clouds peoples’ judgement. It causes people to think “they had so much evidence against them, they had to be guilty of something.” That’s what Donald Trump said. The truth was that we were only guilty of having the color of our skin. We were guilty of being seen as being the criminals when we weren't. And that’s why I said the worst part about this case is that when you realize that because they got it wrong, because they stopped looking for the criminal who did it, the real criminal was out there committing more crime.
TS: In an interview with The Breakfast Club, you quoted Angela Davis, saying “we as a people have historical amnesia.” Do you ever wonder if the “Exonerated 5” or “Central Park 5” will be forgotten because of this amnesia?
S: What I will say is this: I think what’s happening in most peoples’ lives is there’s a shift. Young people did not know about this story. Young people are furious. Now that they can just sit down and watch a Netflix series in their own house or chat with their friends and things like that, they’re furious that this stuff happened. But [also] that it’s still going on. Because you look at this stuff and you say “at least that was back then.” That’s like somebody saying “slavery was back then.” There’s still stuff going on. There’s still remnants of what was, and so therefore you may turn on the news and say to yourself “damn, why does it look like those are slave catchers?” This is what Michelle Alexander called “The New Jim Crow.” This is what morphed into what you see now. [When we say] “this is what it was,” what we are saying is that it’s gone, we’re finished, we’re not doing that anymore. But, then we’re gonna create vagrancy laws. So, we’re morphing what was into what’s now, therefore creating the New Jim Crow, therefore creating new systems of oppression that keeps things right in the spaces that they used to be in.
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Julian Roberts-Grmela is a senior news editor for The Spectrum and an English and philosophy major. His favorite book is “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith and he hopes that one day his writing will be as good as hers.
Alexandra Moyen is the senior features editor of The Spectrum.