Yusef Salaam, who was one of the five Black and brown teenagers wrongfully accused and imprisoned for the 1989 rape of a white woman in Central Park, is taking a look at presidential candidates’ track records on criminal justice as he considers who to support in 2020.
Salaam, whose story was explored in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series “When They See Us” last year, was convicted at age 15 and spent nearly seven years in prison. He and the other teens falsely accused were only exonerated in 2002, over a decade after they were first imprisoned.
Now a 45-year-old father of 10 living in the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area, Salaam spends much of his time as a public speaker, namely around criminal justice issues. As someone who was directly impacted by the ways the U.S. criminal justice system disproportionately targets Black people, he wants to see reforms from the “top-down,” as he put it, starting with the federal level.
“The biggest thing I’m looking for is their track record,” Salaam said of the 2020 Democratic candidates for president, declining to name any particular candidate he’s supporting outright. “If they have any past dealings with the criminal justice system, that tells us a lot.”
Leading Democratic candidates in the race have pledged to slash the number of people behind bars, legalize marijuana and more. Their track records on criminal justice are mixed. Former Vice President Joe Biden was behind the notorious 1994 crime bill, which many attribute with increasing mass incarceration. Under Pete Buttigieg’s time as mayor in South Bend, Indiana, Black residents were four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. Criminal justice reform advocates have criticized Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) for her record as a former prosecutor, including her push for harsher sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
“In Black and brown communities, we’ve always seen situations where people promise us the world, then take office and give us nothing,” Salaam added.
Read the interview below for more from Salaam on what changes he’d like to see in the U.S. criminal justice system today and how DuVernay’s series changed his life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Last year Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” Netflix series came out and made major waves — how has the public response to the series been for you?
It definitely did a lot to bring us back into the front of society and bring [out] the issues of the criminal justice system and the problems we’ve been facing. It’s done a lot to provide a platform for us to talk about the issues in a real and powerful way.
It was probably 90% accurate, one of the best retellings of our story. … The idea, for instance, was to understand everybody in the community — anyone — was a suspect. I got arrested in front of my building, but many people when I came home from prison — it was a ghost town. People were getting picked up and taken off to prison.
You were wrongly accused in 1989 at 15 years old, released in 1997 and only exonerated in 2002. What was your life like after your release?
I had completed prison and parole, and kind of resigned my life to, “Okay, I guess this is it. I guess we’ll be fighting and not have anything to help us fight, other than our voice.”
After the exoneration, things began to normalize a bit. But the problem was that it wasn’t met with the same tsunami of fanfare that you saw when the case first came out in 1989. In those first few weeks [in 1989], over 400 articles came out, viciously, to make sure we got a conviction. When we found out we were innocent, it was just a blip.
My mother testified and used the words: “When we were found to be innocent, it was a whisper.”
It was very difficult. We fought the system for 12 years just to win our lawsuit [in 2014]. The Ken Burns film [“The Central Park Five” documentary] gave us a tremendous opportunity to get our voices back. They were able to hear from us and understand the impact of why it was so devastating.
[Ava DuVernay’s series] changed everything. That really positioned us back in society in a very powerful way. We get people sending us love and respect and honor from all around the globe. It’s a really overwhelming, psychosocial redemption to be placed back into society knowing you’re seen as a valuable piece of society … as opposed to being a person hiding in plain sight.
The Central Park jogger case … It’s famous, but it’s just one in a can of worms of cases just like it.
What do you think your experience says about the criminal justice system in the U.S.?
I think the Central Park jogger case has to be looked at as a microcosm of a macrocosm of cases just like that. It’s famous, but it’s just one in a can of worms of cases just like it. … Things like that are markers for us to understand how bad we’re doing as a result of our system.
If they got it wrong this time — how many other times have they got it wrong?
With the Innocence Project, you see 300+ people found innocent through new [DNA] evidence — some people doing almost 40 years in prison and then found to be innocent. It’s telling us we have to reevaluate what the American criminal justice system is all about.
Why do we have the overwhelming [disproportional number] of people there are people of color? It’s a huge problem.
This is a big year for bringing potential change at the federal level on criminal justice, with the 2020 presidential election. What do you think of the Democratic candidates?
I haven’t put my full support behind anyone in particular yet, but I do like people that speak to the marginalized, the downtrodden … and not just those at the top. … But I’m not gonna put a name out there.
We need to understand how we have more power as a people to hold people accountable. We have the power to vote people into office and make sure they keep our issues at the forefront. That’s one of the things I look for: When they say, “This is what I’m planning,” show me you’ve done something like this in the past.
Speaking of candidates’ records on criminal justice, what do you think of former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg running for president? As mayor, Bloomberg’s administration spent years fighting the civil lawsuit by the Five and defended the actions of police and officials in the case. The Five settled with the city in 2014, a year after Bloomberg left office.
I don’t know that I have too much more to say about him running. His record speaks for itself.
At a December campaign event, Bloomberg was asked his stance regarding the Central Park jogger case and how New York City police handled it. “I really have no idea,” Bloomberg said, and later added, when pressed: “I’ve been away from it for so long, I just really can’t respond because I just don’t remember.” What do you think of Bloomberg’s response?
I think when we have the opportunity to have smartphones in front of us … we know what’s happening. It’s unfortunate that sometimes you hear people think things that doesn’t really make sense.
I don’t think that’s genuine. I think he needs to put forth a better response than that.
Are there particular policy changes you’d like to see in terms of criminal justice reforms?
I think it would be a tremendous step if we reform the 13th Amendment. The fact we have that still, as a part of the founding documents of this country — it says something very covert about what’s been going on. As we look at the criminal justice system, what is the makeup of people? How is it that the overwhelming [disproportionate amount] are people of color?
We have great books. “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander lays out the fact that here you abolish slavery, then created different laws to really keep it going. This is the new Jim Crow system: Slavery is abolished, but you get punished for a crime, they can turn you back into a slave.
You have a huge push of people saying, “We should never forget, we should have reparations” — then people at the top are saying, “You should forget, slavery is already over.”
This Black History Month, HuffPost is covering stories through a lens of “We belong here,” how Black American life is integral to U.S. politics and culture. How does that resonate with you?
I know that we belong here. I know that Black life is integral to the American experience. … We were taken from our countries and brought here, and robbed of the ability to be us in our totality.
If we have participated in building this country, for free, then there should never, ever be a question as to whether we should be included or not. It should be fact.
How do you think the way the criminal justice system treats people, disproportionately Black and brown people, sends a message about their belonging? For instance, the U.S. disenfranchises many people in prison and some even after they’ve served their time.
It’s a tricky thing. … Those like myself who have been able to get our rights back, so now we can be part of it again — but when we participate in the process, there’s a whole lot of trickery going on. You go to different polling areas, things aren’t working — all these layers make it a difficult process to be part of. Every effort has been made to cause us to want to give up. But I say, don’t give up. I say, never give up. Your participation in the process is so important.
One of many examples is the census. When it’s taken, those people in prison are not counted as citizens of places they came from, but of towns where they’re warehoused. That’s a huge, huge problem. That’s not a true representation of the citizenship in that place.
The other thing is, when they come out of prison, getting your voting rights back. If you’ve paid your debt to society, there should be every effort to restore those people back to a place that makes them whole. But there’s been every effort to make them not whole, still broken. To feel like they don’t matter.
What would you want people to know about your experience of the criminal justice system?
Everything is building you to become the person you are to be. When you think about struggle, the person who is guiding the ship can never become a skilled person on the seas unless you hit rough waters, to understand how to navigate in the future.
For young people part of the mass incarceration agenda, a lot of this is teaching us how to fight, not just tomorrow but eons from now: How do we sustain a positive outlook of how we survive in this country?
You weren’t inherently a slave, you’ve been taught that — just like people put into a poor situation, taught you’re supposed to be poor. There’s people who took out a red marker and said, “We’re gonna disallow people from coming into this neighborhood.”
The government can fix every social ill that is out there, by tomorrow.
Is there anything you haven’t said that you want people to know, particularly going into this 2020 election year?
I will echo the words of one of my “sheros,” Assata Shakur. This may be my adaptation: We have the power to fight. We have the power to win. We must love each other and respect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
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