Wrongly Convicted at 15, Yusef Salaam of Central Park Five Praises the Promise of America's Youth

PEOPLE's Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice

Yusef Salaam
Dr. Yusef Salaam. Photo: Staci Nurse

Dr. Yusef Salaam was 15 years old when he and four other boys were falsely imprisoned for the rape and near-death beating of a white woman in Central Park in 1989. Thirteen years later, the Central Park Five (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise) were exonerated after serving years in prison. (Convicted murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes had confessed to the crime.)

Now known as the Exonerated Five, their story came to the national spotlight again when filmmaker Ava DuVernay released her acclaimed series When They See Us on Netflix last year. This month, Salaam, a poet and activist, released his powerful YA novel, Punching the Air — a story about a teen artist who is sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit.

"Punching the Air is about the healing and redemptive power of art," says Salaam's co-author and National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi. "There's not much we can do about juvenile justice today, but what we can do is empower young people to use their creativity and art to speak truth to power."

Here, Salaam shares the moment he realized the criminal justice system was not designed to protect him, the way slavery and racism persist in the form of mass incarceration, and how hope lives on in the young people who are participating in the Black Lives Matter movement.

I realized I was being completely let down by the system when I was convicted. I had so much hope, up until that point. I thought the truth was going to come out. I thought that my truth was going to allow us to not go to prison. But, unfortunately, we got an opportunity to see how the system really works. We saw them turning a blind eye to the fact that there was nothing that connected us to the crime scene.

The police knew who this person was, had an idea of who he was, and were looking for him. Yet, when it came to those of us who became known as the Central Park Five, I think it was more attractive in a way for the story to be about how a group of five boys attacked a white woman in Central Park, rather than what the truth was.

The truth of the matter is that the Central Park jogger case is a story of the criminal system of injustice. We live in a society that says, "You're innocent until proven guilty," but not for Black and Brown folks, who have been pushed to the margins of society, who are the victims of slavery, which is being continued by another name. We all seem to be guilty and we have to prove ourselves innocent.

As I was growing up, my mother would always say that she was raised in the Jim Crow South. I had no idea what she was trying to teach me, but with time, she became my modern-day Harriet Tubman.

In America, you go to bed thinking that you will be able to attain the American Dream. Then something happens sometimes in people's lives, especially when you're a person of color and your life in America doesn't matter. You then get awakened to the American nightmare. After I was convicted, I realized that there was no way that I could have gotten out of this.

Punching the Air
Co-author Ibi Zoboi. Joseph Zoboi

In 1995 I turned 21 and they gave me the number 95A1113. If you’re in a youth facility, they shave your hair as a gift and welcome you to the correctional facilities, which they call the big house.

I would say, "Yusef Salaam, 95A1113." It took a little while, maybe a few weeks or months, before someone let me know what it was that I was being conditioned to and the truth about what was happening. They told me that my number, 95A1113, signified three things. One was the year that I was introduced into the big house, the second was the time of the year, and the third was my position on line. I turned 21 on Feb. 27, 1995. I was the 1,113th person to enter the door and it had not even been half of a year.

The fact that my number was 95A1113, that I was the 1,113th person to enter the door, it tells a really alarming story about the 13th Amendment. Slavery was abolished, but yet allowed to be continued through Jim Crow and other laws, through a system of oppression that we still experience to this day, through a system of oppression that allows for the drug epidemic in the late '80s to garner the name "The War on Drugs," whereas the same drug epidemic today garners hope. People say to themselves, "We need to open up the Betty Ford Clinics. We have an opioid epidemic," as opposed to what they did to people who look like me: they left them in prison and gave them unimaginable time.

In the film When They See Us, my mother comes into the precinct and is getting me out of the clutches of the officers who were interrogating me, trying to get me to make a false confession. You see something really important happen — my mother gets an opportunity to talk to me. This isn't shown in the film, but when she had that moment to give me my marching orders, she said to me, "Stop talking to them." Mind you, she didn't say, "How'd they treat you, baby? Are you okay? Have you had anything to eat?" She said, "Stop talking to them." Then she gave me the most powerful thing that I share with young people all the time. What she said was, "They need you to participate in whatever it is that they're trying to do. Do not participate. Refuse." Those were the thoughts that she planted inside me.

For more of PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism, click here.

Yusef Salaam
Yusef Salaam with his mother, Sharonne Salaam. Phillip Schoultz/AP/Shutterstock
Yusef Salaam
Dr. Yusef Salaam. Earl Gibson III/Shutterstock

Activism played an important role early on as I began to write poetry. I remember reading a piece of poetry, "Prison Life," that really set it off. The poem simply says:

Prison life in many ways can be likened to the womb.

If the life inside becomes stillborn, the womb becomes the tomb.

It was that whole notion that I had to speak life into myself. Because if you're in prison, you could either let time do you or you could do the time.

I think of Punching the Air as a love offering. This book is based on my life, even though it's not my story. It's based on my life and many of the others who have gone through the criminal justice system, many of the others who have been pushed to the margins of society or who had their voices turned down. I hope that Punching the Air becomes the water that is watering the seed of greatness inside of everyone, especially young people.

With young people, the younger you get them in the criminal justice system, the more difficult it is for you to create a strong people. Frederick Douglass once said, "It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men." Now the young people, they are the heart of America, their heartbeats are erupting. They are trying to become their ancestors' wildest dreams. They're saying, "We have to tear this whole thing down and build something that speaks to the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; that is inclusive of the kaleidoscope of the human family." It's important. It's necessary. And it rests on us.

— As told to Sam Gillette

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

Campaign Zero works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.

ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.

National Cares Mentoring Movement provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.

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