Yusef Salaam of the “Exonerated Five” Gives Talk on Injustice in America

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Photo Courtesy of Yusef Salaam

Richard Pham
Contributing Writer

Sometimes forgiveness can be one of the most difficult things to achieve. We often associate forgiveness with forgetting, or doing nothing in the face of injustice. On Feb. 11, Yusef Salaam, a member of the “Exonerated Five,” gave a talk at Corwin Pavilion on how his battle with injustice and rage taught him to forgive, but never forget. 

The “Exonerated Five,” more commonly known as the “Central Park Five,” were a group of teenagers, four African-Americans and one Latin-American, charged with and later exonerated of the brutal rape and attempted murder of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white woman, on April 19, 1989. Salaam, 15 at the time, served six years and eight months in prison before Matias Reyes confessed and was linked to the crime using DNA evidence.

Some attendees at the event were there for class credit, but the majority attended on their own volition. Felix Dong, a second-year communication major, spoke of justice being denied, voices being stymied, and our privilege and right to hear their story, to never forget the injustices of the past. 

When Salaam spoke, he did so with no vitriol, no vengeance, only disappointment and trauma: “To me, The American dream was still alive. It was still something to attain. I had not yet truly understood this nightmare I’d been woken to.” 

“When you have the complexion for redemption, they tell you to stand, to put your hands behind your back,” Salaam said. “They place handcuffs on you. They lead you to the back, away from your family and friends. You don’t even get the opportunity to give a person a hug … And in the back, me, Raymond, and Anton held onto each other. We were all we had at that moment.”

For Salaam, his trial wasn’t solely a failure of the courts, nor of the cops, but of the whole of America in keeping its promise to the world. In his talk, Salaam often connected the betrayal of his American dream to the broken promises the U.S. made to thousands of immigrants seeking a better life for their families and children. 

“We are the melting pot of the world. We will accept you if you are good. But yet when those people just south of the border, when those folk were coming here, we stopped.” 

Salaam was certainly angry. He was angry at the system, at the courts, but most of all, he was angry at the prison-industrial complex. “Many of us come from communities where we have been told that we are going to be dead or in jail before we reach the age of 21. And more importantly, we actually believe that … when I left prison, the officer literally said to me, ‘I’ll see you later.’” 

By the first half, the talk seemed to be headed towards an indictment of the American criminal justice system. Even the opening speaker, Dr. Terrence Wooten, assistant professor in the Department of Black Studies, with two separate stories about lynch mobs and sheriffs killing handcuffed black men, was critical towards the entire justice system.

But then Salaam began talking about a seemingly trivial traffic incident. He was pulled over by a white cop and a black cop. At the time, Salaam didn’t have his registration or license, so he had the bright idea to say, “You remember the Central Park Jogger case? I’m Yusef Salaam, one of the guys accused of raping the Central Park jogger.” 

When it came time for his court appearance to contest the ticket, only the white cop showed up. In the courtroom, the officer handed the judge his report, and before Salaam could even mount a defense, the judge declared, “case dismissed.”

Later, when Salaam passed by the white officer, the officer reached out his hand, shook Salaam’s and said, “I couldn’t give you back the time you didn’t deserve to do, but this is at least my little part of what I could give you.”

Salaam wasn’t interested in getting even, he wanted to better the system. He referred to Dr. Maya Angelou’s words, “You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host.” 

With a desire to elevate marginalized voices, UCSB MultiCultural Center Program Coordinator Abire Sabbagh invited Salaam to give the talk at UCSB. In light of last year’s Netflix series “When They See Us,” Sabbagh saw it fit to bring Salaam in order to highlight the continued struggles of African-Americans while also adding more context to the Central Park Jogger case. 

Hearing Salaam’s talk helped Sabbagh validate her anger and come to terms with her own feelings of discrimination.

Salaam had learned to be angry, but not bitter. He aimed his anger, not solely at the judge and jury, but at the flawed criminal justice executed on that day and the system that inches forward at a snail’s pace. 

Many audience members might have found it natural to expect some level of resentment from Salaam. We expected to have to sieve through the pain and anger ourselves for the message but what we found was a man who had done all the filtering and analysis for us.

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