Yusef Salaam on the Central Park Jogger Case
Yusef Salaam: So it was a normal day. I came home from school and found out that the officers were searching for us, me and some other individuals. And I didn’t know why they were searching for us, but I was walking around with Corey Wise and subsequently told him, “You know, look, we should go to the cops and tell them that we didn’t do anything, and they would stop looking for us because we didn’t do anything.” And eventually that’s what we did, and we found out that we were very naive to think that the officers would believe us because as soon as we told them who we were they told us that we were basically going downtown to be questioned. Well, we looked at it from the perspective of us being arrested and not just, “Would you like to … do you have a problem going downtown with us to answer some questions?” We didn’t think we had a choice, you know.
I remember falling asleep. I remember knowing, just based on my own body and my own sense of time, that many hours had gone by. The officers left me in the room many times for hours by myself, so I would fall asleep and wake up. I just remember feeling extremely tired. I was hungry … it almost felt like an altered state of reality. I don’t think I ate anything that night until some time the next day. Whatever was going on, I had never experienced anything like that before, you know.
I didn’t know what to think. I mean, I didn’t know what was going on. I really didn’t understand the depth of the situation, you know. And it wasn’t until … I think it really wasn’t until we actually got convicted that it sank in. Because up until that time I still in many ways believed in the justice system. I believed that the system would work. I believed that, you know, somewhere along the line they would see that we were actually innocent, and that we would be let go, you know. But, that’s not what happened.
The Filmmakers: What do you remember of your trial?
Salaam: Uh, that it was long. (Laughs) I couldn’t understand why this system would operate in such a way that you had to really prove that you were innocent, instead of being seen first as innocent. But to me the trial wasn’t just in the courtroom. The trial was also on the train going to the courtroom, it was walking around my neighborhood on the weekends, it was walking around anywhere.
I remember one time I was downstairs around my neighborhood and an elderly black woman, you know, she, she looked at me, and it was almost like one of those Malcolm X movie pieces where Malcolm X was walking to the Audubon Ballroom, and he stopped on the corner and the woman was looking at him and said, “I recognize you. You’re Malcolm X. Keep on doin’ what you’re doin’,” you know. And so this elderly black woman looked at me and said, “I recognize you. You’re Yusef Salaam.” And I kinda felt like, well, at least she may, you know, be one of my supporters or something like that. Um, especially a woman who has lived, you know, for some time and probably has experienced a lot of the things that have gone on, like the untold story of Emmitt Till and all of that, you know, just all of the injustices that have happened. And I was so shocked, I mean my face must have dropped, because the next thing she said to me was, “Why did you do that to that woman?” You know. And there was nothing that I could say to her to make her realize that I didn’t do anything to the woman.
The media portrayed me as, like, a demon. I was … I was that person who was the worst person that ever lived, who needed to be disposed of, you know. So much so that common citizens, before the trial had even started … like Donald Trump, took out full page ads in some of the major newspapers. I believe he paid with his own money, um, calling for the death penalty to be reinstated specifically for our case. People wanted us to be hanging from a tree by the end of the day, you know, in Central Park, so that their idea of justice could be served.
I mean, I don’t know how else to describe it other than they painted a picture of us that was so terrible that anyone who saw it would believe exactly what they wrote, you know. And many times those individuals who read those papers and watched those TV shows believed just that. They believed that we were everything they had said we were. And it wasn’t until, um, thirteen years later that they realized— or I shouldn’t even say that they realized because there are still a lot of folks who are still on the fence as to whether we were guilty or innocent of these crimes— but it wasn’t until thirteen years later that we were vindicated of that.
When I first went to prison some of the inmates came up to me and said, “Man, when we heard you were here we thought that we were going to be seeing this big gorilla-looking person,” you know. Back then I must have been maybe 175 pounds. I still was about this tall, about six-three, but I was about 175 pounds. And to them, and to others who saw me on the streets prior to me getting, uh, convicted, it was like … his- his appearance doesn’t match what we see in the papers. People who knew me, who went to school with me, you know, a lot of them were like, “Yusef, what they’re saying that he did, that’s not even … that’s not him.” You know, “We know Yusef, we’ve known him for years. This, this … this description of what they’re saying is not something that he would do,” you know.
I mean, it was rough. Um, being in prison at such a young age and growing up in prison is difficult in that young people, when they’re growing up, they think that they’re adults. They already think, you know, “Hey, I’m fifteen years old, I can make decisions for myself. I’m an adult,” you know, so forth and so on. It’s not until you become an adult and have children of your own that you realize that, wow, I was a child, you know. But growing up in … I’d say, missing a lot of what normal people would do, you know, going to a prom, uh, graduating from high school, um, first years in college and things of that nature, um, … I don’t have any experience like that. But it’s not like I missed it because I don’t know what it’s like to actually have gone through it in the first place.
While I was in prison a lot of the officers would tell me, “Man, we wish we had all of our inmates like you. The prison would be a lot easier to deal with,” you know. (Laughs.) But there was a lot of crazy, a lot of horrific things going on. I mean, I have children myself now and it’s like, I can’t imagine something happening to them and me not being able to defend them, and that’s the position that you’re put in, you know. You have no control. No … no say. You don’t have anything to do with what happens to them. And you are still their parent, you know, “I’m supposed to be able to do something,” but you can’t.
Courtesy of Emily and Sarah Kunstler.
I’ve always held the belief that when you go to prison your whole family goes to prison, you know. A lot of times the parents and loved ones go through a worse prison because they’re not inside. They’re not behind the walls, so all of the horror stories and the crazy things that are going on in other prisons become like, “Man, is it gonna happen to my child?” So they go through a, uh … to me a more stressful time, a more anxious time, a more scary time, because they don’t know, like … once they leave their child, they’re leaving them alone again, you know.
I remember there were times when I was in prison, and I may have been on a phone call, the San Quentin yard or something like that, and I’m on the phone and I see somebody creepin’ up on somebody else and then stickin’ them with an ice pick, you know. And my immediate thought was, wow, what if they were on the phone with their daughter, their mom, their sister, their brother or whoever they were on the phone with, you know, and all of a sudden the line is not dead but they don’t know what’s going on on the other end, you know? But I was in a position where, fortunate for me, I was able to see the things that were happening to other inmates and those things weren’t happening to me. Um, the part that I didn’t know until I came home was the … like, people were sending threatening letters, you know, death threats, you know, wishing that something terrible or evil would happen to me while I was in prison, you know. Um, telling my mom that when I come home that I was gonna be killed and things of that nature, you know.
I knew of people who went to prison for a one- to three-year bid who never came home because they were murdered in prison, you know. I also knew people personally who went to prison for crimes that they committed and who are still in prison because they were put in positions to have to defend themselves or they committed more crimes while they were in prison, you know, so they had time added to the time that they had. And the reason why I said that … it might have worked out differently in my case had a person like Bill Kunstler not been my lawyer or had my mom not been there. If they see you out there by yourself … like, flip the story around and say, “Central Park Jogger Case: Yusef Salaam,” and there’s nobody behind him. That becomes a completely different picture, you know, because then you’re left out there for anything to happen to you. Where because I had all of these individuals behind me, people would think twice and say, “Wait,” you know, “if we let the inmates beat them up,” you know, uh, “his mom is gonna be up here tomorrow,” you know. “Bill Kunstler is gonna get wind of it,” you know. (Laughs.) Somethin’. “We … we’re gonna catch hell for allowing something to go down.” So it’s almost like you begin to walk on eggshells around me, you know.
I remember my mom came to visit me once and she asked me, “What can I do to make the time easier and better,” and, you know, “so that you can deal with it easier.” And at that point in time I felt like I was in a very bad situation, but I was alive, you know. I was able to think on my own, and I was able to be okay, I was still able to read books and I had my family members coming to see me. And I looked around and I said, man, there were so many people who don’t have that. There are so many people in prison who have never gotten a visit, who have never gotten a letter, who have never gotten a phone call. And that in itself creates a completely different kind of individual, you know. But for me it was like, we need to help them, you know. And from that my mom took it upon herself to create a organization called “People United for Children.”
Well, part of what they started doing was going into the prisons, and it was this idea that when Yusef’s mom and her organization came, just for that moment, or for those few hours, it’s going to be like Thanksgiving. And that’s exactly what it was. You know, when they came people were … I mean prison food is some of the worst food … I can’t even … I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, tasted it. It’s some of the worst food in the world. But when you put that side by side with my mother coming by, and you’re having real cornbread, you know, you’re having real fried chicken, baked chicken, real collard greens, you know, uh, real cakes, just stuff that we hadn’t had in so long, in years. You know, when Thanksgiving comes around in prison they don’t give you anything special. You might get sweet potato, but it’s not going to be sweet potato made and cooked in a way that you know. It’s probably going to be a can of sweet potato slopped on your plate, you know? I looked at what my mom was able to do and the experience that we had as inmates on the inside and began to realize that on the streets, like, when I came home, there was still a lot of things going on, there was still a lot of work to be done, you know.
And part of my activism came about from realizing that it’s not enough for me to get a job, sit behind a desk and make money, if I can’t use my situation, my case, to impact the lives of others, you know, and teach them and help them and give them some type of experience. There’s a lot of fifteen-year-olds now that I see, and I’m looking at them and I’m like, wow, was I acting like that, you know, when I was that age? There are so many people that are walking around very unaware, very naïve, you know, and it’s unfortunate for them that some of them will have to go through what they call … a baptism by fire.
Courtesy of Emily and Sarah Kunstler.
You know, a lot of times people don’t truly understand the seriousness of what they are doing. I remember one time listening to a rap artist who has since passed away, his name was Biggie Smalls. This rap artist said, “This song is for all those folks who called the cops on me because I was outside selling drugs so that I could feed my daughter.” And it’s like, it’s not right to sell drugs, you know? But at the same time, some folks think that that’s the only option they have. When I was in prison one of the books that I read was the autobiography of Malcolm X. And Malcolm said something like, you know, if you were out here selling drugs, with a little more education, you could become a chemist. If you know how to manipulate what you have to create something else, if you are out here pimping, and so forth and so on, with a little more education you can become an organizer of the masses. You know, if you are out here doing whatever, you can take that negative and make it a positive, and be a productive citizen, as opposed to something else.
But a lot of people don’t realize that they have that … I don’t want to say that they have that opportunity. They’re almost … they have already been sold up the river. So when they try to fight for something for themselves, they are fighting from the bottom going uphill. And this uphill … it’s almost like, I don’t know if you have been around here in the wintertime, but if they don’t clean the streets and the streets ice over, everybody would slide from Broadway to Riverside, you know, because it’s a very steep slope. And that’s the same type of battle that people are fighting. They’re fighting this not only uphill battle, they’re fighting this uphill battle where, if the people at the top look and see that you are making any, um, advances, they’ll, like, put a little oil out there for you, throw a banana over here so that you could slip … hopefully you’ll fall right back down to the bottom. And, I mean, that same idea has kind of like been my case, where I feel that if they could, if the system could, the system would try to put me in a position to be back in prison.
I definitely think race played a big part in the case, you know, ’cause even in our history where there have been individuals who were white who raped white women, the attention that they got wasn’t as great unless they were known people. But people who come from a background … who aren’t in a position financially or in a position in terms of what people would call classwise, um, it becomes a real big problem, you know. And at the same time, once they can connect such a devious and heinous crime to what they look at as the underbelly of society, those individuals that really don’t matter, it becomes even worse. It becomes, “Not only did we tell you you shouldn’t trust them, but here is further evidence, you know, to prove that these individuals are not to be trusted, that they are the worst people in the world,” and so forth and so on. They paint the picture, and then they put the individuals in play, almost like on a chessboard. Somebody else is moving us around the board, and we don’t have control over that, you know.
I mean, to back up a bit, the pictures and the portrayals of me in the media were such where they chose the tallest person in the group, who was me, presumably the darkest person in the group, who was me, and almost made me out to be the ringleader. They wanted all of the negative and foul and harmful things to happen to me, but here I came through that fire. In the Koran it says that they threw Abraham in the fire, but God is in control of everything in this world and outside the world, so God told the fire to be cool and safe for Abraham, and Abraham came out of the fire. Which, I mean, I work at a hospital and I see people who are burn victims, and fire is not a friend, you know. He came out unharmed, you know, it was almost as if someone just blew some air on him and he was alright.
I think that the legacy that Bill Kunstler has left in terms of me being an activist is one that … his fights and his struggles were, or became, also my fights and my struggles. You know, any time you have injustice, or anytime you’re faced with any kind of injustice and you’re in a position to do something, you have to do something, you know. I mean, part of the religion that I follow states that if you see a wrong, you should change it in one of three ways. If you can, you should change it with your hand. But if you can’t do that, then you should speak out against it. And if you can’t do that, then you should hate it within your heart. You know, so you realize that you’re connected. You are a person just like they are people, and if you have the opportunity to speak up a little louder because of who you are, then you should use that, you know.
Filmmakers: What was it like for you to have the conviction vacated?
Salaam: It was almost like I was being wakened up from a nightmare, you know. Um, even now there’s still … I say that justice still hasn’t been served. Because when you take things away from someone and you don’t put something back, there is this void that needs to be filled, you know. For years there was, like, I had difficulty getting jobs, you know. I had difficulty taking care of my … my family. It’s like, I would meet people and I would have to tell them at some point in time, um, “By the way, there’s something that happened in my past that I was innocent of, but this is who I am,” you know. And some people didn’t want to be friends with me anymore, and other folks, it made the bond closer and tighter, you know. But to be at that point in my life when the vindications were coming down was like, I didn’t have to say anything anymore. You know, it was no longer, “Yeah, I’m Yusef Salaam, from the Central Park jogger case.” It was like, “Hey, man, this is what happened to me, and that was me.” And, you know, it was a very happy time, um, like I say, I still haven’t been able to really, uh, celebrate that vindication, you know. Because it’s still a struggle, you know. It’s still rough.
It’s still a struggle because, you know, when you’re not in a position financially to make an impact on your family, to put yourself in a, in a state of being financially independent. Because, every time you go for a job interview or go anywhere … like right now, I’m vindicated of the Central Park Jogger case, but you can still put my name in Google (laughs), you know, and, and not only will photos come up, the case will come up, everything will come up. So there’s this, this, um, cloud, this dark cloud, so to speak, hanging over my head. During the trial, for I believe it was a whole year and a half, we were in the media. They kept that story alive and fresh in the minds of people in New York City and the surrounding areas. But when we got vindicated, it was like, a story here and then it was gone. People still today, you know, … I may meet some folks who may not be aware and they don’t know that I was vindicated. There should be as much attention, or should have been as much attention brought to the vindication and then to be able to, uh, repair the damage that was done, so that I would be okay, you know. But, it’s almost like only through the grace of God am I okay.
A lot of people say to me, “I’m surprised you’re still sane,” you know. (Laughs.) Um, because they look at it from the perspective of … it would have been debilitating for them. They would have lost their minds. You know a lot of people when I was in prison did lose their minds. You know, I met folks who may have had a little bit of time to do, or a lot of time to do, and to see that time become a reality for them. It was almost like they’re … it’s almost like you see somebody smiling one day and then the next day they had a stroke, you know. That was the difference between them being okay and all of a sudden them being not okay. And, you know, they can’t take a pill to be okay again, you know. There was a … there’s a lot that needs to be done, you know.
I think now I’m less afraid that it could happen again, although I know that anything can happen. But the difference between now and then is that now I am a person who is aware of the reality of where I am, whereas before I was a person who was very naïve, who believed in the justice system, who believed, you know, that things worked. You know, you could never tell me or pay me enough to have me believe that you could pay off a person, bribe a judge and, and, things like that. I would never have believed you before now, you know, but having that bit of understanding gives me an edge in a way because now I know that in raising my children, in speaking to others, that there is something that they need to know. People need to be educated about the law, because it is not enough to say, “Well, I just don’t think that that’s right.” You need to be able to understand what the law says, why it’s stated that way, the implications of it, to be able to deal. Because there are a lot of folks who have used the law and bent it here and there, and still been, so to speak, looking like they are doing things legally, when in fact you know they probably aren’t.
Filmmakers: What is it that you would like to be known for?
Salaam: It’s hard to introduce yourself and say, you know, as a … an identifier from the Central Park Jogger case, because people automatically know exactly who you are. But it would be good to be known as a person who’s a good person, you know. Known as a person who’s a good father, you know. Known as a person who has ideas and thoughts, and, and … who’s trying to make a difference, you know.
All extended interviews were provided by the filmmakers and edited by Andrew Lutsky.