Yusef Salaam visits campus to speak about his history, the criminal justice system

Yusef Salaam answers questions during a Q&A session after his presentation on Monday night. Salaam is one of the members of the now-exonerated Central Park Five.

Yusef Salaam still remembers hearing the word “guilty” echoed in a courtroom where he and the now-exonerated Central Park Five were convicted of a vicious crime they did not commit.

Salaam was one of five young men who were falsely accused in the rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park in 1989. He served almost seven years in juvenile detention and prison before being released on parole in 1996. In 2002, he and the rest of the five were finally exonerated of the crime.

Salaam started by candidly recalling his initial reaction to the verdict, explaining to the audience he first thought the truth would come out, but then learned that would not be the case.

 “When I walked back into the courtroom, I heard the word ‘guilty’ echoed so many times that I lost count … it was so painful to experience that the only way that I can try to describe it today — it was like being taken from your family in a modern-day lynching, in a modern-day slavery,” Salaam said. 

Ava Duvernay’s retelling of the events, “When They See Us,” is being streamed on Netflix. Salaam has contributed to the Innocence Project, an organization that works on exonerating those wrongly accused, and he’s speaking about his experiences in colleges around the country, Including SIUE.

“This [was] a really great opportunity for anyone that’s available to come hear him speak,” Alexa Bueltal, campus coordinator at the Kimmel Student Involvement Center, said. “He has been through a lot.”  

Salaam spoke about his older brother, who is not only white but was also an assistant district attorney in the United States Government. Salaam said that when his brother came to visit him in the precinct, he was told to leave, or they would make sure he was fired. Salaam used this as evidence to show that while race matters, he believes there is a broader issue affecting the criminal justice system and the country as a whole. 

“I’m not talking about this because it’s a black and white issue, because the truth of the matter is that it’s about spiritual wickedness in high and low places, that’s what we have to fight,” Salaam said. “The system may want you to think that we have to fight on a racial line, but that’s not the truth.” 

When Salaam and the rest of the Central Park Five were on trial, Donald Trump — then a New York business man — took out a full-page newspaper ad demanding New York reinstate the death penalty. When asked about how Trump’s presidency is handling the efforts Salaam and the Innocence Project are focusing on today, he said in an interview he believes Trump’s presidency is dragging America down.

 Junior criminal justice major Lindsey Williams, of St. Louis, attended the event and said she took Salaam’s message to heart.  

“He said how he was in prison and still went to college and got a degree and was able to come out and do all these amazing things, so you can do anything no matter your circumstances,” Williams said. 

Salaam said he hopes his words have affected students at SIUE and other campuses around the country. He said his ultimate goal in speaking at campuses is to spark a flame in young people and their ability to change the system. 

When asked about what people can do to help his cause, he said it’s important they keep themselves informed on what’s happening in their country.

 In an interview with Good Housekeeping, Salaam said that in the light of “When They See Us,” he hopes people understand their story is not a trend, but a movement. He expanded on those sentiments on Monday.

“A lot of times people see what’s popular out there, and they basically say ‘Oh you know what, I want to be a part of that, I want to be able to share in the popular thing of the time,’” Salaam said. “But the reality is that we have to change the system … Because the future’s looking dark, you know. They don’t want us to occupy college dormitories, they want us to occupy jail cells.” 

“When They See Us” is streaming on Netflix, and readers can purchase Salaam’s book on his website, yusefspeaks.com.

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