As one of the Central Park Five, a group of African-American and Latino teenagers falsely imprisoned for the brutal rape of a female financier in New York’s Central Park in 1989, Yusef Salaam has lived through an American nightmare — one that could only occur at the nexus of class, race and the criminal justice system.
At the time, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump took an ad out in every New York newspaper demanding that justice be served in the form of the death penalty — this despite the fact that the boys ranged in age from only 14 to 16. The men were eventually exonerated in 2001, after a serial rapist and murderer confessed to the crime. In 2014, the city settled a long-standing lawsuit, paying the men $40 million — a settlement due partly to a 2012 documentary from director Ken Burns and daughter Sarah Burns that managed to shift public perception about the case.
The men were back in the headlines last week, after Trump told CNN, “They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.” Though a wave of sexual assault allegations leveled against Trump would soon dominate the news cycle, the story continues to be another shocking chapter in what is now a historically scandalous campaign. The Hollywood Reporter has already spoken to an outraged Ken Burns about Trump and the case; now we catch up with the 43-year-old Salaam.
After all this evidence and being exonerated, Donald Trump is still insisting you are guilty; explain what that does to your psyche.
You know, it is definitely very upsetting. But as Nelson Mandela said, “When you are angry and you are bitter that can metastasize into something else.” [Anger] really doesn’t do anything toward the object of your displeasure, but it does bring a lot towards you in terms of bringing you down, and bringing your energy down. I look at the positive in it, to be able to really look at the Central Park Jogger case as a pivotal moment and that pivotal moment being that we want America to be great. But in the America that we live in today, a lot of black and brown people are being murdered. A lot of people are being sent to jail for crimes that they didn’t commit. And that brings us full circle.
Trump is the only person still saying you may have done it, right?
He’s going off of reports that the police department produced back in 1989 and 1990. And when you look at the reports you get a false impression. I was the only one that didn’t make a written or videotaped confession. But when you look at the other confessions, these things that they called “confessions” were found to be false; you find out that none of them matched anything that the others were saying. Now he’s patting himself on the back. He’s now calling himself the “law-and-order president.”
Trump took out a full-page ad in every New York daily newspaper calling for the five of you, all teenagers, to be given the death penalty. He never took out an ad for Bernie Goetz, [the “Subway Vigilante,” who was white and shot four black teens in 1984]?
He did not, no, never. Of course, never that.
So it’s essentially taking out ads for a lynching before the cases were even tried.
That’s exactly what I said, because our phone numbers and our addresses were in the New York City newspapers. And we were all minors. But they went ahead and did this.
Did people come to your house, I imagine?
They may have. I mean, my mother definitely had to shield us. Very, very scary position to be in, because like I always say, had this been the 1950s, that thing that they did to Emmett Till — where they kicked in his door, dragged him from his home and they beat him to death and essentially tied a cotton gin around his neck, you know, which is symbolic and very, very much the same as lynching, you know, and put him in the river, you know?
Ken Burns mentioned that during your interrogation, the police were so angry, you thought they were going to murder you at the police station.
I did. You know what they were doing: They were beating up [fellow suspect] Korey Wise in the next room. They knew he was 16 years old and they were beating him up and causing him to say things that he didn’t do. And they would say I was next. And I mean, when you look at the facts in the case against Korey, he made four or five completely different video tapes and written statements, completely different.
He is the one with the developmental disability, right?
Yes. I mean, this is a case in which the public wanted there to be a swift victory; they wanted the fears of the people to go away. They went and got this. But when you look at what happened, this was a case of injustice towards us.
When I lived in New York in the 1990s, Giuliani was the mayor and black men, Latino men were being arrested by the thousands for the tiniest crimes. Now it’s just so ironic for me to see him campaigning alongside the “law-and-order president.”
It’s really, really scary because what does that say? That says that all of the things that we have moved away from, all of the things that have made us a better people, those things that we’re trying to go toward and especially in the criminal justice system — those things could be taken away. When you look at the Attica riots, what were they fighting for? They were fighting for decent living; they were fighting for the right to be able to get an education; they were fighting for conjugal visits. Just things that you would think are part of basic humanity — they were fighting for that.
13th is a very powerful film Ava Duvernay has produced with regards to that; right there in Thirteenth Amendment it says in the Constitution that slavery will be abolished, except for those who find themselves in the criminal justice system. I mean, whoa, that’s really something.
And that was your life for seven years.
Yes, indeed. Well not just seven years, see, that’s what I’m saying. That same cloud followed us ever since. Even when they found out that we were innocent, you know, 13 years later, you would think that the truth coming out would have ushered in a brand new kind of life for us. And it didn’t. That truth came and went, like a whisper. When they thought we were guilty, there was a tsunami of media reports.
You now work as a motivational speaker. What is life like for you now, in spite of Donald Trump’s campaign against you?
My life has definitely gotten a lot better. One of the things that I think has benefited me is that my family continued to support me and continued to stand behind me. Some of the Central Park Five, their families turned their backs on them. When we settled with the city, one of the first things that Trump said was this was “the heist of the century.” He said, “Now these guys are going to be rich rapists.” But at the same time, he has the absolute opportunity and ability to have all of these factual pieces of the puzzle presented to him, to evaluate them and make a proper decision. But he continues to go down this wrong road.
Because he can’t ever say he was wrong.
You recently said the right thing for him to do is take out another full-page ad apologizing to the five of you. But then you laughed at the suggestion.
Yeah, I mean, it’s one of those things that, if he did that, that would be amazing; that would show his humanity. But I’m not holding my breath. I highly doubt that Donald Trump is going take a full-page ad calling for the apology, and apologizing to us. And I equally highly doubt that he would do it in private as well. He will never apologize to us.