In 1989, Yusef Salaam and four other Harlem teenagers, were arrested for raping a woman in a notorious incident known as the Central Park jogger case He spent seven years in prison for a crime he did not commit and was finally exonerated in 2002.
Salaam, now 41, visited a class of journalism students recently at City College speaking about the hardships of his unfair treatment by the NYPD, the picture the media painted, his experience as an inmate and where he stands now. His story touched all.
When Salaam was first questioned about the crime April of 1989, he and his peers thought, “we’ll just go to the cops, tell them it wasn’t us, and we’ll be good,” he said. “I’ll be home just before dinner.”
But being home for dinner didn’t happen for another seven years.
Salaam described what came next as inhumane. He and the other teens who got arrested – Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise, and Antron McCray – received no food, water, or sleep for hours. The cops coerced the boys into several false confessions by depriving them of these basic necessities.
The media treated them even worse. “Everybody thought we were guilty,” said Salaam. “Over 400 stories were written about [the case] in the first few weeks. But not one of those stories shared our side.”
Most of the community also turned against him and the others. The stress was hard on his mother, then a designer and professor at Parsons. “Instead, she was the b**** mother of Yusef Salaam who raped that woman,” he remembered. She later lost her job.
While out on bail, he explained that he couldn’t go back home. “My mother disguised me real good so no one would recognize me,” Salaam recalled. “I was a rapist to people, and nobody wanted that around their neighborhood.”
Even Donald Trump joined in, taking out an ad that encouraged bringing back the death penalty. Trump referred to the divided city as “Manhattan,” and “everything else above 110th streets.”
Salaam was the first of the boys to be tried in what he refers to as “a legal lynching.” Before his sentencing, he had the opportunity to say something. But he didn’t. He recited a poem, “I Stand Accused.” He remembers the prosecutor’s outrage, who said something along the lines of, “How dare you, a child, scold me like that!”
Though his time in prison wasn’t easy, Salaam believes it was productive. He received his college degree, studied the Qur’an, and learned that his name Yusef, means “God will increase.” His last name, Salaam, means “peace.” “For the first time, I realized my parents named me, ‘God will increase peace,” he told the students.
At 23, he came home, but things things didn’t get that much easier for Salaam. At job interview after job interview, he kept hearing the same question. “Have you been convicted of a crime in the last seven years?” And he would receive the same response: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
Last year, Salaam and the other men shared a $41million settlement for wrongful conviction.
With little bitterness, Salaam, the father of nine, enjoys speaking to students. To learn more about the case, watch the film The Central Park 5, which allows Salaam and the other men to tell their stories.