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In 1989, a white woman was violently raped and beaten in Central Park. Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Antron McCray were tried and convicted for the attack; and the accused teens became known as the Central Park Five.
After the young boys spent between six and 13 years of their lives behind bars, their sentences were overturned after a convicted murderer and serial rapist confessed to the Central Park jogger case. A detailed look into their convictions and exonerations were showcased in Netflix’s 2019 docuseries “When They See Us,” which was co-written and directed by Ava Duvernay.
Since his release from prison, Dr. Salaam has become an inspiration to many. He now works as a motivational speaker, activist and poet, but his most important job is being a father to his children. He continues to advocate for criminal justice reform, prison reform; and the abolition of solitary confinement and capital punishment. In 2016, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama.
REVOLT caught up with Dr. Salaam to discuss how Black people can survive two pandemics, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks; and how white people can be allies in the movement. Check out the interview below.
Right now in America, we are currently facing two pandemics: racism and COVID-19. How can Black people get through both of them?
With purpose and hope in the future that we can do it. We have to have the overwhelming faith that we didn't come this far to have everything swept away from us. It’s very important to have that kind of farsightedness because we live right now in a place of tremendous hopelessness. And in that hopelessness, is this wanting to — for lack of a better description — to fall down and stay down. I always call her a great philosopher because of what she said, but the great philosopher Cardi B, what she said was, “Fall down nine times, get up 10.” And so, it’s about that. It’s about that comeback power that we need to be able to have. It’s about the ability right now to think in a way that projects us into our own greatness and our own future. This almost becomes a time, if we can imagine it, to be a place where we can reset. So tomorrow, when we show back up in the world, we show back up better, we show back up stronger, we show back up more purposeful.
Millions of people watched your story on Netflix’s “When They See Us.” How does one regain trust in a justice system that has wronged them?
I don’t think that you can regain trust in a justice system that ran over you with the spiked wheels of justice. I think what we are experiencing, and have experienced, is the continuation of slavery by another name. When I look at, for instance, the juxtaposition of what happens in more affluent communities — people not social distancing, people wanting to get a breath of fresh air, people wanting to change their scenery. They go outside and they are given bottles of water and face masks, and told to be safe. Whereas in the Black and brown communities, same scenario could be going on and we’re told to wear our face masks or where is your face masks? What are you doing? Get back in the house. And then we’re obtained, unjustly, for trying to do the same thing.
The challenge is the how. How do we make sure that the system that is supposed to protect us, that’s supposed to make sure that we are safe, that we are supposed to be the people — we the people — how do we be included in such a way that allows our psychosocial dynamic to take place and to really be grounded in a future for ourselves?
How did you feel when you saw the videos of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s deaths?
You know, both of those unfortunate events created a domino effect in all of us. Myself, I felt the overwhelming triggering effect of what it feels like to be driving while Black in America, what it feels like to be walking while Black in America, to be exercising while Black in America — to be Black in America. To be seen as always armed because of the color of your skin. The most heartbreaking thing that we all witnessed, in addition to him saying, “I can’t breathe” was the fact that he called out for his mother that wasn’t even here. She’s an ancestor and in the most desperate time in your life, you know your mother is there for you.
It was triggering, but it also was a clarion call telling us that enough is enough. Telling us that we have to fight back. And fighting back doesn't always mean going to war with an army as an individual because then what happens? We get shot down. Fighting back mean that's we have to understand all our unity is more powerful than an atomic bomb.
We’re all right now living in the American nightmare that our good friend and our teacher Malcom X alluded to. We all are now trying to be in the house called America that our good friend and teacher Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. alluded to. He said something to the effect that he “feels like he's called our people into a burning house.” And we have to put the fire out.
What advice would you give a white person who wants to be an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement?
Somebody used their privilege to help me in the past, so now it’s on all of us to use our privilege to help others. If you’re able to be in those meetings that we get called to after the meetings have been had, and after the decisions have been made — and we just are now at the meetings for the crumbs on the table — but you are able to get us in to the meetings for the big slice of the pie, then we need you to get us into those meetings. We need the people who have been impacted the most by this criminal justice system, by the injustices we see in America, and in the world. We need the people who have been impacted the most and have the vision and the farsightedness to articulate what it is that we’re talking about. These individuals need to be at the table.
Taking place 31 years after the Central Park jogger case, do you feel like Amy Cooper’s punishment for calling the cops on Christian Cooper in a racially charged incident was adequate enough?
Absolutely not. She is perhaps, unfortunately, a person who now needs to be made an example of because what happens, and what we’ve seen, is as they cry, we die. If somebody said, “He whistled at me,” and the whistle is not a crime, first of all, but we see with Emmett Till, he lost his life.
Thank God for video. What we’re seeing is the false accusation given life and being analyzed. We understand that the true battle is no longer against Black and white. The true battle is about fighting spiritual wickedness in high and low places. And so, when I saw that I said, “She needs to be held accountable.”
You recently attended a protest. How was that experience and why did you feel like you needed to be on the forefront fighting with everyone else?
That experience was important. It was important for me to be able to stand and be counted. To show my face, as a person who’s been impacted, as a person who’s been run over by the spiked wheels of justice. It’s important for me to stand up and use my platform in a manner that spoke truth to power, that spoke life into other individuals. Many people have said that we have all opportunity now to fade into the sunset, to live our lives and just be anonymous. And I think that that’s what the system counted on. They wanted us to go away. But, what they didn't bet on was the fact that we were not. There’s no satisfaction in being or having the ability to sit on the beach and sip mai tais for the rest of your life.
You want to be out echoing the voice of those whose voices have been turned down. I think that’s what was important for me. To be able to look at my so-called celebrity and say, “I gotta stand up. I gotta be counted. I need people to know that I’m with them.” And it’s not for a photo-op. It’s not for me to say, “Hey I’m here. Let me take a picture of myself.” No. It’s about me being there and giving validity to this movement, to the people walking in the streets. They're walking for themselves, they’re walking for their fathers, they’re walking for their brothers, their uncles, their nieces, their mothers. They're walking for us.
Even what Dave Chappelle did, brilliant. I think it was like a 30-minute time frame, he broke everything down and he didn’t need to say anymore.
People had a problem with Dave’s special because he didn’t mention any female victims like Breonna Taylor. Do you feel like Black female victims get swept under the rug?
I think that’s the real unfortunate reality. I’m not taking away from what Dave Chappelle said at all and I don’t want to, but what I do want to shine a spotlight on is the fact that many young women have been impacted as well. Their voices have been quieted. They’ve been told to stay over there. Yes, the Black men are the ones who are constantly being seen as being expendable. The women are the ones who are the first teachers. They are the ones who give birth to society and so, it’s the women who have to be protected. When they are being killed, when they are being violated, there’s a great wrong and harm done to society. And the fact that those voices have been quieted, we need to echo them. We need to lift them up. We need to lift up the Breonna Taylors of the world. All of them. Every single woman, every single person. And the worst part about it is that, we have a laundry list. We have laundry lists of people who have lost their lives in this war — in this political war, in this psychological war. We’ve had people who lost their lives who have just been trying to live.
The one officer who was fired is now appealing his termination. Who knows what’s going to happen with that.
This is a person who’s volunteered their life to protect and serve. What were you doing? You were not protecting and serving. We’ve seen all too often a slap on the wrist of individuals who are in that same space. Why should you have the ability to appeal when you’ve taken the life of someone unjustly? We’ve seen Dylann Roof get captured alive.
How did you feel when you saw the Rayshard Brooks’ video?
He definitely should be alive and I think as we analyze that video, the takeaways that we see are clear. Proper policing would've been, “Let me take you to your home. You are a danger to yourself and society right now. I am going to protect and serve and take you home.” Or, “Listen, walk home. I’ll watch you walk home.” We need to make sure you’re safe. We don't need to kill you.”
You can storm the capitals around the nation and be fully armed. As long as you have the complexion for acceptance, you get a pass. As soon as you look like Huey P. Newton or look like you and me, now you're a threat.
Do you want to let us know about any upcoming events or projects of yours?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m still working as a motivational speaker. I’m out here in the streets trying to effectuate change, trying to plant seeds in the future minds and future generations of us as a people on a global scale. Working on a few book projects that are soon to be released to the public. One is “Punching The Air.” The other one is this book of poetry that I’ve published. Most of the poems in this book were poems that I wrote when I was in prison. I’m also working on another book. These are labors of love.