‘I was supposed to be protected’: Yusef Salaam speaks at Notre Dame as part of Race Relations Week
Kelli Smith | Monday, September 23, 2019
Six months into Yusef Salaam’s prison sentence, an officer came up to him with one question: Who are you?
It was a seemingly innocuous question, but it was one Salaam says changed the “total trajectory” of his life.
“I said ‘I’m Yusef Salaam, one of the guys accused of raping the Central Park jogger but I didn’t do it,’” Salaam said. “[The officer] said, ‘No but I’ve been watching you. You’re not supposed to be here. Why are you here? Who are you?’ … That question allowed me to look at myself and understand something that I never truly understood.”
It was a question that eventually helped lead Salaam to an entirely new perspective: He was meant to be in prison.
Salaam is one of five men who was wrongfully convicted of raping and brutally assaulting a female jogger in 1989 in New York City’s Central Park. He was imprisoned at 16 years old and served nearly seven years before the real perpetrator confessed to the crime. Known collectively as the “Central Park Five,” Salaam and the other four men — four of whom are black and one who is latino — were exonerated in 2002.
Now an inspirational speaker, Salaam shared his experiences with about 400 people at Washington Hall on Friday night as part of Notre Dame Student Government’s “Race Relations Week.”
“When we were first accused of this crime, there were over 400 articles written about us,” Salaam said. “There was a tsunami of media that was destined to the murder of us. And we somehow survived. We weren’t supposed to survive … but somehow, miraculously, we came out of prison.”
Salaam said he was convicted for the worst crime in New York City at the time. Throughout the trial he went through as a teenager, he couldn’t reconcile the hatred everyone had in their eyes.
“Then when [the court] asked me if I had anything to say before they sentenced me … they were telling me that I should not live on purpose,” he said. “They were telling me to turn my life down. But when I stood up, God put something in me.”
Reading what he told the court at the time, Salaam recited his poem “I stand accused.” The poem was met with thunderous applause from Friday’s crowd of attendees, but Salaam said the court in 1990 didn’t react so positively.
“I was 16 years old and what I was trying to get at was the understanding that I had been given in this short amount of time, that here I was in America,” Salaam said. “Here I was supposed to be protected. Here I was supposed to be afforded the same opportunity as the law. But America was looking at me as if I was not even a whole person — as if I was 3/5 of a human being.”
He wanted that sentiment to be addressed, he said, because being in America doesn’t make him an American.
Salaam held up a full-page ad U.S. President Donald Trump took out in the New York Times after the Central Park incident, which called for the death penalty and police to be “brought back.”
Trump was whispering into the darkest places of society, Salaam said. He referenced recent high-profile cases in which black men were shot and killed by police officers.
“It’s such a horrible thing when you realize that you are not protected under the law,” Salaam said. “That oftentimes, if your name is Tamir Rice, or Treyvon Martin, or Eric Garner — as a matter of fact Eric Garner is interesting. Because he kept telling the officers, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
The interesting thing about Garner’s case, Salaam noted, is that on the side of any cop car are the noble words “serve and protect.”
“As a matter of fact, in New York City it goes a step further,” he said. “It says courtesy, professionalism and respect. Now I feel like everyone wants to be treated courteously, definitely with professionalism and most certainly respect … but when Eric Garner kept saying ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’ they didn’t give him the first letters [on] that cop car. … I began to understand this in a completely different way.”
During his own time in prison, rather than crying “Why me?” to God, Salaam said he also eventually saw his experience in a different light.
“Now I understood that when they call prison the belly of the beast, that is similar to a mother’s womb,” Salaam said. “Where in the belly of your mother, you’re being shaped and formed in order to find a purpose and to survive. … The fact that we made it means we were born on purpose, and not only were we formed on purpose but we were formed with a purpose.”
In such a way, Salaam likens prison to a cocoon because life inside “becomes stillborn” but growth is still possible.
“One of the most fascinating things about life is that you can never truly understand what you’re going through or rather what you’re growing through until you look back on your path,” Salaam said. “… And so the story of the Central Park Five, now known as the Exonerated Five, turns into a love story.”
God put them in a space that allowed them to become working class citizens, Salaam said, and also allowed for the criminal justice system to begin to be restored from being “a criminal system of injustice.”
“I want people to know that when you find yourself in so-called dark places, there’s always a light somewhere in the darkness,” he said. “And even if that light is inside you, you can illuminate your light in the darkness.”
The “Central Park Five” case gained even more attention recently following Netflix’s summer release of the series “When They See Us” — a drama based on the case that is nominated for 16 Emmys. Salaam fielded a question during a question and answer portion of the lecture about the series.
“Our prison time was hard but it wasn’t what I expected when I saw ‘When They See Us,’ Salaam said. “As a matter of fact, when we got to part four [filmmaker] Ava Duvernay pulled me aside and she said ‘Yusef, this is the TV version. We can’t show all of it. We can’t show how bad it was.’”
We have to see ourselves as our future selves, Salaam said. In that way, he often circles back to that question the officer asked him six months into his prison time — who are you?
Spurred on by that officer’s question, he discovered the true meaning behind the name his parents gave him.
“My parents named me a sentence: God will increase the teacher with justice and peace,” Salaam said.
That realization helped alter his perspective, he said, and allowed him to see that growth allows people to plant seeds for the future and look at themselves in the past, present and future tense.
“It’s so beautiful when you know that everything that happens to you was supposed to happen,” he said.