Yusef Salaam has been living in the dark shadow of Donald Trump since he was a teenager accused, and convicted, of raping a woman in New York City’s Central Park more than 27 years ago. It was a crime of which he was innocent.
“I still have to defend myself,” says Salaam. “I still have to talk about the DNA evidence, which clearly shows we didn’t do it. What happens if he becomes president?”
Salaam and Trump go way back. Salaam was one of the four boys (now men), four black and one Hispanic, who were known as the Central Park Five. They were accused of raping and leaving for nearly dead a white investment banker then known only as “the Central Park jogger” in the northern (read: black) end of Manhattan’s Central Park in 1989.
At the time, the young men were excoriated by the New York City press with headlines screaming “wolf packs,” editorials calling them “thugs” and private conversations naming them much worse.
Trump, then known only as a boisterous New York real estate mogul, took out full-page ads in the New York City papers blaring, “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” less than two weeks after the case broke.
The teens—Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson and Antron McCray—all from working-class homes in Harlem, were tried, convicted and eventually spent between seven and 13 years in prison; four of them had to register as sex offenders upon release. In 2002 a man named Matias Reyes confessed to the rape. Reyes’ DNA also matched evidence on the victim’s clothing (which was not linked to any of the teens). The five were fully exonerated in a court of law.
In 2012 Ken Burns released a documentary called The Central Park Five. It recounted the youths’ story with the precision of hindsight and a keen analysis of the racial and gender dynamics playing out in New York City back then. It also looked closely at how the police, press and city railroaded these young men at the height of a racialized hysteria that has a long history in this country: of black men raping white women, the denigration of “white” spaces and the so-called animalistic nature of people of color.
In 2014 New York City settled with the Central Park Five for $41 million, at which time Trump, never one to back down or apologize (until recently), responded that the settlement was the “heist of the century.”
Days ago, when asked about the Central Park Five, Trump gave a statement to CNN saying that he still thinks Salaam and his cohorts are guilty.
“They admitted they were guilty,” Trump said in the statement. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”
Trump is referring to the fact that at the time of their arrests, four of the five teens gave statements on video that later turned out to be false. According to a 2013 study by Florida International University, juveniles are four times as likely to give false confessions.
Salaam recounts the night of the arrests when police told the teens that if they just said that they or a friend was in the park, they could go home.
“We were interrogated for 24 to 36 hours without being given anything to eat or drink. Everyone who made a false confession said [the jogger] was attacked and raped in a place she wasn’t attacked and raped,” Salaam tells The Root. “Looking back, when you read the confessions and see words [we] supposedly used, like, ‘Me and a group of my colleagues began to walk southbound’—no kids talk like that.”
Salaam now says that he once again has to defend himself to Trump’s “fans” who still believe that he is guilty based on the Republican candidate’s word—despite his exoneration. Despite the tens of millions in restitution paid by New York City. Not only does he have to relive the trauma of being jailed and convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, but, Salaam says, he is truly afraid of what a Trump presidency would mean.
“In the first debate, Trump said that stop and frisk, which was ruled unconstitutional, he said those were practices and policies that worked,” Salaam notes. “And he says he wants to bring that back across the country. That makes me scared. I’m saying I’m scared because I know what this guy is capable of.
“This is the same person who spent his money as a common citizen to ask that teenagers be given the death penalty,” Salaam continues. “Now he’s seeking the top office of the country. If he did that to us back then—not affluent blacks like Russell Simmons or 50 Cent—what does that say for the least of us? The reality is that even faced with evidence, he won’t admit that he was wrong. A lot of the people being shot today [by police] are the common people, like I was. Who do you think Donald Trump will bully?”
Salaam, who says that he will be watching the second presidential debate Sunday between Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, says that he feels the whole idea of the presidency has been hijacked.
“It’s a joke,” he says. “I truly believe it would be tremendous to see a woman as president of the United States. I don’t know if I’m going to publicly come out for a candidate or not, but for the most part, it’s really about making sure that Donald Trump doesn’t make it into office. He’s unfit to be president.”
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Angela Bronner Helm is a writer, editor and professor of journalism at the City College of New York. Follow her on Twitter.