Yusef Salaam of the Central Park 5, An Innocent Black Man Donald Trump Campaigned to Execute in 1989:
We Can't Wait Four Years, We Must Change the Course of History Now
December 28, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
A special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.
Sunsara Taylor, writer for revcom.us/Revolution, recently interviewed Yusef Salaam, one of the initiators of RefuseFascism.org.
Yusef Salaam (AP photo)
Sunsara Taylor: I thought it would be helpful to introduce yourself and talk a little bit about The Central Park Five, and your earliest encounters learning about Donald Trump.
Yusef Salaam: My name is Yusef Salaam; I’m one of the so-called Central Park Five. On April 19th of 1989, I became a part of a group accused of a crime we didn’t commit. A crime which we were exonerated of 13 years later. That crime was the rape and near murder of a white investment banker in New York City along with the assault of others who has been in Central Park that infamous night. Interestingly, Donald Trump became the figurehead of the mob mentality that New York City took against us. Sarah Burns recently wrote a book which encapsulates the thought process of New York at that time; it is called The Central Park Five, A Chronicle of a City Wilding. The city was wilding against us.
There were assumptions made, and the worst assumption of course came from Donald Trump. Two weeks in, Donald Trump used his money to pay for ad space in New York City’s newspapers, essentially calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty specifically for The Central Park Five. He wants “us” to be murdered. Mind you, many people don’t make $85,000 in a year, the tab it cost him to pay for the ads, but for him it wasn’t even crumbs off his table, it was dust. And here it was, he was making this grand assumption about Black and Brown people, an indictment because of the color of our skin, that we were the “worst of the worst” because we had been “accused.” Instead of the law being the law of the land for everyone, the law was not, and still is not, the law for Black and Brown folks. We are guilty and have to prove ourselves innocent.
So there we were, because of the accusation of “us” being near murderers and rapists, “us” being called “urban terrorists,” as Mayor David Dinkins had said back then, even though he has since apologized. “Super-predators,” as one of the presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton, called “us.” She also has apologized. But Donald Trump has never apologized, and still stands on the side of the full-page ads he paid for decades ago. He still thinks and maintains that we had to be guilty of something.
And it’s unfortunate, because it’s that same thought process that a lot of people have. Where if you are accused of a crime, if your name is mentioned in the media as a person of interest, then you have to be guilty. And I don’t blame the masses, I blame the System imposed upon us. A system, although highly fallible, pushes the idea that it’s infallible. That the police department(s) of New York City, of the country, and perhaps of the world, are infallible. That they’re there to impose the law for the citizens they are sworn to protect, and make sure that things stay under control. This isn’t an indictment against the good officers; we're talking about the bad apples that spoil the bunch. In our case there was a willful overstepping of the boundaries of the law. We were scapegoated and railroaded into the System. A System where the overwhelming majority are Black and Brown folks.
Ultimately we spent upwards of 13 years in prison for crimes we didn’t commit. And when it was found that we didn’t do it, the System whispered, “We’re sorry. We apologize.” And then we began our tremendous uphill legal battle, trying to piece our lives back together, and also trying to seek some type of monetary justice. There was no speedy method to repair this wrong, but there was a speedy means to convict. Another 12 years passed, we didn’t receive an award until 2014.
Yusef Salaam entering court with his mother, Sharonne Salaam, 1990. (AP photo)
ST: How old were you? And how old were the others who were accused? You emphasized that you were eventually exonerated legally. But even at the time, the only quote, unquote “evidence” the police produced was extracted through a tremendous amount of intimidation and mistreatment to very, very young people. What is the toll that this took on you?
YS: We were between the ages of 14 and 16. I was 15 years old. When you think about what scientists have stated, that a child’s mind is not fully developed until they reach the age of 25; we should have been afforded the opportunity to be children. Instead, the System turned on us in such a way that they said you know we need to treat these youngsters as adults. They began changing the laws based on the prosecution of The Central Park Five. This is one of the reasons why we have the cry to “raise the age.” When we were exonerated they never changed those laws back, it was now the law of the land. This took a heavy toll on us, we were pariahs, and we became the examples of what they wanted to bring down against Black and Brown folks. The future present of what was to happen.
We were being paraded in the media. Our names, phone numbers and addresses were published in the newspapers. All of this was as a result of us being accused. We weren’t even convicted yet. And then people like Donald Trump begin to chime in and other media personalities followed suit. One guy in particular was a guy named Pat Buchanan. He essentially said we should take the eldest one and hang him from a tree in Central Park, and take the others and horse-whip them.
Usually people don’t think about the collateral damage. What happens to the individual? What happens to their families? And what happens to the communities those families came from? You know, they changed the name of the building complex that I was living in because people didn’t want it to be associated with this horrific crime that had happened back in 1989, even though we were found to be innocent. But there was this cloud, a sort of dust that made people confused as to our guilt or innocence. The collective thought was “maybe they let them go because of some type of a technicality, or something like that” The truth in the case was never presented in the way we were introduced to the nation. The tsunami of media covering our innocence was dwarfed by 1989.
There were over 400 articles written within the first few weeks of this case in 1989 attacking us in the media. When we were found to be innocent, my mother testified at City Hall, in front of City Council, and stated it was a whisper that she wondered if the rats of New York City had heard. So to this day, there is this cloud of doubt in the minds of lots of people. It’s not until they get a chance to sit down and speak with some of us that they get the opportunity to really see and experience our innocence for themselves. There is usually a collective “how did I believe that these guys were guilty of these crimes?”
Not everyone has seen the famed film that Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon produced called The Central Park Five. I really encourage everyone to see that film because it really paints the picture of both sides, even though the Police Department says that they weren’t interviewed. They were asked to be interviewed and they declined.
That didn’t matter, all of the media coverage surrounding this case that had already been produced. The false confessions that had been made by four out of the five of us, these historical documents, these historical pieces of evidence, were used in order to paint the full picture of what happened. And just like in 1989, the film shows these false confessions to the public for them to decide again. The difference this time was that they showed these false confessions side by side, and you had an opportunity to hear Raymond Santana talk about his version of what happened alongside of Korey King Wise's version of what happened, and that of Kevin Richardson's, and of Antron McCray's. And it was almost the first time the public began to realize that these versions were inconsistent.
TV shows like the CSI and NCIS teach us something. They teach us that the science of forensics is very, very exact. So much so, that if a crime happened, forensic scientists can come in and recreate the crime scene, even if there’s no one there to tell it. They can tell by the splatter of blood whether the assailant was left-handed or right-handed, by the footprints what height the assailant is. You know, all of these things tell them bits and pieces of information. And here you have the retelling of this story by the famed filmmaker Ken Burns, you found out for the first time that these stories were completely inconsistent.
People were very upset, people were very, very upset because they felt like they had been hoodwinked. On the one hand, you had Mayor Koch stating this was the crime of the century. He said, people want to see how the justice system works, and they’re going to be able to see that through the Central Park Jogger Case. And then they railroaded us. We became modern day Scottsboro Boys1 Had they had their way, we would have also become a modern day Emmett Till.2 Every single one of us. Every single one of us.
And the part that’s really, really scary, and I’m very, very concerned about, is that Donald Trump, throughout his campaign, he kept talking about making America great again, and it was almost like a code word that he was going to try to make America white again. We began to see the darker enclaves of society start to raise their ugly heads. The people, who absolutely believe in the annihilation of races other than their own, begin to raise their heads. The people who believe that slavery was good and should be continued, begin to rear their heads. The people who believe that we need to go to a state of Hitlerism, a state of alt-right, I didn’t say all right, this whole Nazi attitude and idea of making a superior race, is what Donald Trump was talking about.
If you talk to these people, they will most absolutely, certainly say, “No, I didn’t mean it like that.” But the people who have eyes to see and ears to hear know exactly what’s going on. Because, as people were being beat up as they came to the rally to protest against Donald Trump, Donald Trump told people that he would pay their bail money. Donald Trump said that he could go on Fifth Avenue right now, shoot someone and he wouldn’t lose any supporters. And true to form, this is exactly what his thought process was, and probably still is. The person(s) dying from his assault would be Black and Brown folks. While others take out their cell phones to broadcast it to the world.
And I think that the worst part is that now we as a country have to deal with this very real threat of a person who does not have our best interests at heart; a person who has repeatedly told us what his thoughts and ideas are throughout his campaign. And none of that stuff is good for any of us. And by “any of us” I mean the whole melting pot of people who are in the Americas. And then we have to think also about the rest of the world who is going to be affected by this new regime that Donald Trump is putting in place. You know, back in the day, it would be said that the president really doesn’t have any power; it’s only a position. But when you look at what Donald Trump is doing, he is putting persons in position so that when he says anything, these people will absolutely agree and carry out his orders.
We need to be very, very concerned about this. Fights have already broken out, people have been assaulted, and threats have been made. Statements like “go back to Mexico, or Africa” are the least of our worries. There are folks running around with the mentality of Klan. Folks who braggadociously brandish their Confederate flags and dare us to say something. When I would drive around, I would see that kind of stuff all the time. And now it’s a little bit scarier because you realize that just down the road are folks who have their Klan symbolism right out there in front of their homes, letting you know exactly what they think, and letting you know that now their time has returned. It’s a very scary time for us to be in.
ST: You recently became one of the co-initiators of the fight to stop the Trump-Pence regime before it comes to power, www.refusefascism.org. Could you talk about that?
YS: The pulse of America right now is one of anguish. The majority had their hopes squashed, because the Electoral College did not only give Donald Trump the presidency, but when recently challenged by “We the People” they reconfirmed. People began to have this “wait and see” attitude, one where we’ll just buckle down and prepare for the next four years, and then after that we’ll deal with things on a different level.
I really think we have to be wiser about what this really represents for us as a people. It doesn’t represent four years. It represents something much bigger and much greater than that. There’s a real threat out there. For example, for years you’d see YouTube videos talking about American concentration camps, these open-air camps, I mean prisons; I called them camps but they were really prisons. And they didn’t have anyone in them. This is in America... my thought was, what are they getting ready for? And what they’re getting ready for is what this day represents.
Here we are. We’re on the cusp and the brink of a precipice. But what’s different is we most certainly have everything in our power right now to change our tomorrow, to change the course of time and the course of history of what our tomorrow is going to be about. But if we sit back and wait and see; wait and say let’s buckle down and just prepare for the next four years without doing anything, I think that that is one of the worst things that we could do. We need to be very vigilant and prepare. Preparation is key, but in that preparation we also need to make sure that we align ourselves with people who are fighting for freedom, justice, and equality; people who are thinking about things on a completely different level, and that level is possibly and most certainly the ability for us to make sure that this person doesn’t even come into power.
I think that this is one of the most powerful things that we can do as a people. I have always encouraged people to stand on the side of history that is right and correct. And I think that this is something that is absolutely right, and absolutely correct, and something that we all should get behind, and push forward. Like we need to not just get behind, but also think about our position and this great ability of ours. We need to now collectively drop our shoulders down, and begin to push forward as a people to make sure that we can change the course of history.
That’s how I think about this whole process now. It’s not enough to wait and see. I think we already saw and anticipated what’s going to happen. It’s not going to be the best of times. No, this is going to be the worst of times. This is going to be much more worse than what we even imagined. And this is why I’m very concerned.
ST: Yusef, it's really important that people hear what you are saying and many more join in, as you say, right now. I want to thank you for doing the interview.
1.The Scottsboro Boys: In 1931, nine young Black men were framed for the rape of two white women and initially sentenced to death, except for the 12-year-old defendant who was given a sentence of life imprisonment. In a subsequent trial, four were acquitted, but the others spent years in jail and achieved their release only after a massive campaign against this injustice. [back]
2. Emmett Till: In 1955, Till, a Black 14-year-old in Mississippi, was horribly beaten, shot, and his dead body thrown in a river for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His body was so badly disfigured that even his own mother could hardly recognize him. [back]
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.