By: Madalyn Amato and Julia Terbeche
Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five, along with members of Rising Scholars addressed their experiences with the criminal justice system Wednesday night at Associated Students, Inc.’s third night of Diversity Week.
ASI’s “An Evening With” event featured several formerly incarcerated individuals who discussed barriers faced after incarceration as well as opportunities they’ve overcome since their release.
Mir Aminy, Project Rebound enrollment specialist at California State University, Fullerton, advocated for civic engagement and voter participation.
“If there are any individuals out there that you may be in contact with that you feel are on the wrong path, reach out to us. We would love to chat with them and let them know what this life holds and the power of transformation and using higher education and the transformative tools,” Aminy said.
Danny Murillo, co-founder of the Underground Scholars Initiative at University of California, Berkeley, was incarcerated from the age of 16 to 30. Upon his release, he turned his focus to education and civic engagement, goals he said all students should strive for.
“It doesn’t have to be formerly incarcerated students, but it could just be any population of students who feel that they’re being marginalized on campus,” Murillo said. “They can use their voice as a collective and understanding that together as one we are much more powerful than seeking our own individual interests.”
President and Co-founder of Rising Scholars Irene Sotelo said she felt it was important to create a safe space for formerly incarcerated individuals who can share their experiences with the criminal justice system and move forward.
“When I came to CSULB I had no direction, I didn’t understand the system itself,” Sotelo said. “I didn’t know which direction to look for because I didn’t know there was any other students or anybody on campus that was formerly incarcerated. So, for me, Rising Scholars has created a safe place for students who have entered the CSU system who have no direction like myself.”
Convicted in 1990, Salaam was just 15 years old when he was sentenced, along with four other boys, for a crime he did not commit. Known as the Central Park jogger case, the criminal case involved the assault and rape of a white female jogger in Central Park in Manhattan, New York on April 19, 1989.
Four of the five teenagers who were deemed suspects were wrongfully convicted of rape, assault and other charges in 1990, and one was convicted of lesser charges in 1991 as an adult. The group became known as the Central Park Five.
In 2002, Salaam and the other four boys were exonerated and are now known as the Exonerated Five.
After serving six years in prison, Salaam was released in 1996 and has dedicated his life to championing the rights of the incarcerated, challenging police brutality and demanding more press ethics.
“I didn’t have a fighting chance. Me and my brothers, my sacred brothers, now known as the Exonerated Five, were railroaded into a system that became the modern day cotton fields of America. We were the new Scottsboro boys,” Salaam said. “They wanted us to become perhaps the modern-day Emmett Tills.”
Salaam touched on the role of the media influencing the inequities in the criminal justice system, referencing an $85,000 ad that President Donald J. Trump took out in the New York Times in 1989 calling for the death penalty to be applied to himself and the four other teens.
“Donald Trump took that out 31 years ago, and he’s never apologized,” Salaam said. “I’m not necessarily waiting for an apology, I’ve actually forgiven Donald Trump because what I found was that I needed to forgive him in order for me to move past and move beyond what it was that was holding me back. And that thing that was holding me back was the proverbial ball and chain of wanting someone to say I’m sorry after harming you in such a horrible way.”
Salaam said he and his mother received death threats after the publication of Trump’s ad. One letter even said that his mother didn’t “deserve to live.”
He also referenced Patrick Buchanan, who wrote a commentary for the New York Post that called for the lynching of Korey Wise and later suggested that the other four to be horse-whipped.
“Within the first few weeks of our case, there were 400 articles, perhaps more than that, about us. It was a tsunami that we weren’t supposed to survive,” Salaam said. “They were describing us to people and giving a definition of us to people so that whatever they were planning to do would be seen as okay.”
According to Salaam, the American criminal justice system, which he calls “a criminal system of injustice,” needs to be demolished as it is “overwhelmingly against us.” He said that the “abolish the police” movement, which has recently gained traction after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, has been taking “meaningful” steps.
“I think that the ‘defund the police’ movement has not been defined nationally so that it can be clearly understood. But I do believe that it has taken off in a way that is meaningful,” Salaam said. “When I hear ‘defund the police,’ when I hear ‘abolish prisons,’ when I hear ‘abolition’ in general, I don’t hear ‘We want to live without a system.'”
Salaam said, however, he hears the people calling for a reformed system because “the system that we are currently under is not a system for the people.”
As a survivor of the prison industrial complex, he said, he has had the chance to inspire others with his story and use it as fuel to call for systemwide reforms.
Salaam said during his time of transitioning back to civilian life, something members of Rising Scholars also touched on, Salaam said he felt fortunate to “get his name back” and receive his ability to vote again.
“You really want to hide in plain sight, you as an adult that is not really equipped with the tools to be an adult. So, mentally, you’re not an adult. Mentally, you’re still 15, you’re still 16, and you’re coming out into that world, into that reality, very embarrassed and not wanting to even ask for help,” Salaam said.
He said he felt that he and the four other teenagers had been used as scapegoats, making him feel like he was “run over and trampled by the system.” Salaam remarked that he and the other four teens, upon release, struggled to assimilate into modern society.
“You look at the transit system, you look at the bus system, you look at using computers, you look at just everyday life. And to the outside public, they don’t know that you’ve had this challenge,” Salaam said. “Even people who may have committed a crime, when you think about the fact that they are now returned citizens, that means that they paid their debt to society. And they should be looked at as such, but a lot of times it is still punitive.”
He feels that the education system fails to adequately teach American’s youth about civics.
“I didn’t know anything about the law until the law ran over me,” Salaam said.
The system, he said, is intentionally set up to discriminate against Black and Brown folks.
“It’s not about the law, it’s about who tells the best story…that’s where you really see the disparities, when it comes to the criminal justice system,” Salaam said. “As we all know, we are not minorities. They want us to believe that, but the truth of the matter is, as we look around we are actually the majority, we have the numbers. What we don’t have is the organization. So we are out organized, we are not outnumbered.”
He encouraged students to become involved in local organizations and “operate as if everything matters because it does.”
“You don’t have to use your money. You can use your time and energy to enact change,” he said. “To really enact the law and part of the enacting of the law is that I need you to marry your vision with how you think it would feel.”