In 1989, 15-year-old Yusef Salaam was tried and convicted in the “Central Park Jogger” case, along with four other young black and Latino men.
Members of the group, whom Oprah Winfrey has dubbed the ‘Exonerated Five’, spent seven to 13 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit – until their sentences were overturned in 2002 .
Salaam, over the past two decades, has become a family man, father, poet, activist and inspirational speaker.
Salaam regularly advocates for criminal justice reform and prison reform.
The Black Student Union, Emerge at Auburn and the University Program Council hosted Salaam at the Student Center Thursday night to talk about his life during and after the false incarceration.
“We found a list of some people who were in our budget, and we sent out a list of all those people to student groups and had them vote on it,” said Alexis Davis, coordinator of student organizations at Auburn. “We saw who was available during our period and he was available and one of the top ranked people as well.”
Salaam attributed the high level of interest people had in hearing him speak in part to “When They See Us,” a documentary that premiered on Netflix in 2019. The content of the documentary spans a quarter of century, chronicling the time the teens were first interrogated in 1989, their exoneration in 2002, and the $40 million settlement they reached with New York in 2014.
“The interest that people have had and has a lot to do with the fact that the climate in America is very unstable, but it’s always been unstable,” Salaam said. “But I think the attention that climate gets is very different. I think today we see more oppression happening through social media, through memes and other things. We have also powerful media like ‘When They See Us’ really reinforces the opportunities to talk about it in a meaningful way.”
Salaam spent seven years in prison, from 1989 until 1996, when he was released on parole.
Life in prison was terrible.
“It was one of those things where you have to know that the only way to survive prison is to do the time,” Salaam said. “You can’t let time do you because then you turn into a monster as part of your survival tactics. … [Surviving] has a lot to do with keeping your dreams in front of you, keeping hope alive, making sure you know this too will pass. When you know you are innocent, you present yourself differently in your own space, knowing that God is the orchestrator of everything you go through.”
In May 2021, Salaam released her memoir “Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice” which tells her story of what it’s like to be in America as Black and survive the system. of criminal justice.
Although Salaam received a government settlement, maintained his innocence and continued to write bestselling books, he said his feelings about everything he had been through were bittersweet.
“All of these things have transformed my life and continue to transform it, but the bittersweet part about it is that I know we should never have gone to jail,” Salaam said. “The other part that we have to consider is that after the Central Park rapist, after he raped the Central Park jogger, one of his last victims was a young pregnant Latina – raped and murdered while her children were in the next room. the young woman should have been alive today.”
Salaam said they were victimized, but not in the same way as rape and murder victims because they had made the ultimate sacrifice – and the system believed it had the culprits.
“When the truth came out, yes it set us free,” Salaam said. “But we still have the trauma of that experience that we have to deal with. Part of the beauty of being in Auburn is that when I share my story with the community, it’s also a therapy session.”
Part of the healing, Salaam said, was understanding that you can’t become enraged.
“The mental capacity you have to make sure you keep a cool head and, more importantly, to make sure you don’t fall into the anger and anguish that the system may try to drag you into,” said Hello. “I always remember my heroes like Dr. Maya Angelou who taught us to take whatever makes us angry and turn it into power to change systemic issues. Because ultimately, forgiveness is a tool that is really for you.”
Salaam was interviewed by BSU political science senior Tyler Ward and BSU senior adviser Jalen Sanders for 45 minutes before the floor was opened for questions.
After the question and answer session, there was a meeting with Salaam.
Before leaving, Salaam imparted one last bit of wisdom in the Student Center’s crowded ballroom.
“The most meaningful and important thing I’ve found that I’ve learned from speaking and sharing and standing in my truth is that I didn’t experience this for me,” said Hello. “I’ve been through this for all the other generations that weren’t even born yet. If you’re a child of a former slave or even a former slave owner, if you haven’t been transformed by hate, you have the opportunity to dream of the kaleidoscope of the human family, the cohesion that allows it to come together and shine as brightly as we need to as a human family.”