There are all kinds of ways Yusef Salaam could have described his experience of being wrongfully convicted of rape as a teenager.
But on Monday afternoon in front of more than 100 law students and faculty at Wake Forest University School of Law, he used an unexpected phrase — a love story. Salaam was one of five Black and Latino teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of raping a woman who was jogging in Central Park in 1989. In 2002, they were exonerated after another man, Matias Reyes, confessed to the rape, and DNA proved that Reyes committed the crime.
Once known as the Central Park Five, the men call themselves the Exonerated Five. Salaam has written a new memoir about his life, his spiritual journey and his activism called “Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice.” Their story has been the subject of a documentary made by Ken Burns and a limited Netflix series, “When They See Us,” directed by Ava DuVernay.
Monday was the second time he made an appearance in Winston-Salem. On Sunday, he was the closing speaker for the Bookmarks’ Festival of Books and Authors. On Monday, he was interviewed by Vice Provost and law professor Kami Chavis.
“This case turned into a love story,” he said. Man has plans and God laughs because God is the ultimate planner, the devout Muslim told students.
“When you think about the grace afforded to folks on the other side of trauma.... this story could have turned awfully tragic,” he said.
But Salaam also didn’t minimize the immense trauma that he and his friends — Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana and Antwon McCray — went through.
When Salaam was arrested, he was only 15. They spent hours being interrogated by New York police detectives. Salaam never made a statement but Richardson, Wise, Santana and McCray made false statements. Salaam said Wise made four or five false statements.
In Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Central Park Five,” there is a scene of Santana, as an adult, reading the false confession he made when he was a teenager.
Salaam paraphrased the confession: “At approximately 1900 hours, me and a group of my colleagues began to walk south...”
The crowd at Wake Forest University School of Law burst into laughter. But Salaam quickly became serious, asking how did people hear that confession and still think that he and his friends were guilty. It was because, Salaam said, people needed to believe that these children had to be guilty of something.
“We convicted the children because we thought the system was telling us the truth,” he said.
The Central Park case was one suffused with racism. As Salaam recounted, they were called urban terrorists and super predators (a phrase specifically made famous by Hillary Clinton). People on the ground, Salaam said, might consider the wrongful convictions in the Central Park case as an aberration. It’s not, he said.
“It is part of the systemic problems that we’ve been having,” he said. “There’s a reason why when slavery was ‘abolished’ they created the Jim Crow laws. They created the laws where you can’t congregate on the corners, even if me and my comrades were pontificating about the Phythagorean theory.”
Only when people take a 50,000 foot view of things will they begin to see that incidents such as what happened to Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are not anomalies, Salaam said.
Sherry-Ann Joseph, a third-year law student and like Salaam, a Brooklyn native, said she was inspired by Salaam’s talk.
“I’m glad that it put things in a real-life perspective,” she said. “Reading something and watching something (is one thing) but having someone here to represent the actual case and their personal stories meant a lot to me.”
Salaam called the Central Park case a “love story between God and his people.”
“It’s a story of a criminal system of injustice turned on its side in order to produce a miracle in modern time,” he said. “It’s a story of a people who were brought low, only to rise because the truth can never stay buried. It’s a story of a people buried alive, forgotten, and the system forgot they were seeds. Instead of a social death, we’ve emerged like a phoenix from the ashes because as they built the fires to consume us, they forgot the owner of the heat.”