The Central Park Five were five young black and Latino teenagers convicted of viciously beating and raping a young white woman in 1989. There was no evidence tying them to the crime other than their confessions, coerced after hours of brutal interrogation, mostly without their parents present and which they later withdrew.
Four of the teens served between six and seven years in prison, while the 16-year-old, who was sentenced as an adult, served 13 years. Donald Trump played a role in the tragic story, taking out full-page ads in four New York City newspapers that called for the death penalty for the accused. All five were fully exonerated in 2002 after the real perpetrator confessed to the crime from prison, supported by DNA evidence.
Their story took on new life when Ava DuVernay produced a four-hour docudrama that hewed closely to the facts and ran earlier this year on Netflix. In November, one of the exonerated Five, motivational speaker Yusef Salaam, spoke at Yale University. Since his release more than 20 years ago, Yusef has spoken out across the country on the issues of mass incarceration, police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct. In his talk, he describes the consequences of the nation’s criminal ‘injustice’ system for himself and many others falsely accused. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus attended the talk and presents this short but powerful excerpt.
YUSEF SALAAM: You know, when they sent me to prison, one of the worst things happened, and it wasn’t that they sent me to prison, but the worst thing that happened because they sent me to prison was that the real perpetrator was still outside committing more crime. Our protesters were there and they kept saying, you got the wrong ones. These guys didn’t do it. For them it was too sexy for it to be what the evidence showed; they wanted to paint the picture. This was the story of American history. This was the story of five brutes raping one of the most precious of America’s people – a white woman. And unfortunately at that point when a white woman was raped, any black person would do. They started going into the surrounding communities and trying to round up every young person they could find. And we know this even if we don’t practice law, right? Because we watch TV shows like CSI and NCIS. Mine’s is probably NCIS because LL Cool J is there, me being a hip hop artist I have kind of an affinity with LL Cool J.
But we know is that forensics is an exact science. We know that, at least on TV, they show you that they can recreate a crime scene, and they can tell beyond the shadow of a doubt what happened first, what happened next, and what happened after. In the Central Park jogger case, this young woman was brutalized in the worst way. They thought she was going to die; she lay in a coma for a number of days, and unfortunately, when she came to, the people who came to her aid lied to her. They told her they had the right people for the crime. They used to put things out like DNA evidence in the case; in big bold headlines. We didn’t realize as a people that we were being tricked. So we created a term that’s part of the urban dictionary, called “tricknology,” and it simply means that when they do something right in front of your face, it has nothing to do with what they’re trying to show you but everything to do with what they’re trying to leave in your mind. So the negative residue from a big, bold headline like “DNA evidence” leaves people thinking that these are actually the culprits. These are the ones that America keeps teaching us if you’re black or brown, you are guilty and you have to prove yourself innocent.
See, we leave in two divided Americas. My appellate attorney, the late, great William Kunstler, one day he came to visit me in prison and he told me, Yusef, in this predominantly Christian country, this case is such a case that Jesus Christ himself couldn’t have won it. That’s how badly they wanted you. That’s how badly they wanted you.
Right there in the founding documents of this country we found an amendment called the 13th Amendment. Never read this amendment before until I got to prison. And to my surprise, they were telling me that they could take a person and turn them back into a slave for the punishment of a crime. They used that kind of language. They’re talking about a system that has morphed into the new Jim Crow. There was a tsunami of media reports; usually in a tsunami you don’t survive that. There was a war; there was an onslaught. There were over 400 articles written about us, ripping apart our lives. No one came to our homes and said, “Hey, listen, we want to do a story about you all and we want to just find out what happened.” They painted a picture. It’s a wonder that we survived prison. As a matter of fact we weren’t supposed to survive. By them vilifying us in the way that they did – we were 14-, 15- and 16-year old children – they published our names and phone numbers and addresses in New York City’s newspapers.
The Central Park jogger case is actually a love story between God and his people. The Central Park jogger case is the story of a criminal system of injustice turned on its side in order to produce a miracle in modern time. It’s the story of how a people can be brought low only to rise because the truth can never stay buried. It’s the story about a people buried alive and forgotten. The system forgot we were seeds.
For more information visit Yusef Salaam’s website at yusefspeaks.com.