Yusef Salaam remembers the night his mother was finally allowed to intervene in his interrogation session. Salaam was 15, apprehended by the NYPD along with four of his friends for a crime he had not committed: assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park.
She immediately told him to stop talking to the cops.
“’They need you to participate in whatever it is that they are trying to do. Do not participate. Refuse, ’” Salaam recalls his mother telling him. He found himself revisiting her advice as he grappled with the current movement, which already is being regarded as a new watershed in the history of civil rights in America.
“That same statement, that same understanding of what she said to me has to be given to the world. The world is now realizing that they need us to participate in our own oppression,” Salaam said. “Our job is to refuse.”
Now in his mid-40s, Salaam was caught in the maws of the criminal justice system as a teen in 1989. He and his four friends, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Antron McCray would become known as the “Central Park Five,” reduced to symbols and racist stereotypes at a time when panic about violent crimes was at a fever pitch. After a sensational and high-profile trial, the teens were found guilty of attacking the jogger, only to have their sentences overturned in 2002 when another man confessed to the crime.
Since his exoneration, Salaam has worked as a motivational speaker and an educator, calling attention to systemic oppression in policing and beyond. He spoke with The Root twice in the last month, first during the week that George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and again on June 16. In that time, scores of people across the world have marched in their city streets, demanding accountability from law enforcement and public officials for past and current racist atrocities. Derek Chauvin, the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, was charged with second-degree manslaughter. Prison and police abolition are at the forefront of the national discourse, and decades of work by abolitionist thinkers and activists like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Miriam Kaba are receiving long overdue recognition. Last week, Breonna’s Law was passed in Kentucky, in an effort to prohibit the circumstances that led to 26-year-old Breonna Taylor’s death.
But there is still much more ground to cover: Taylor’s killers are still free. Elected officials have proudly painted “Black Lives Matter” on city streets, but some, like D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, remain committed to increasing funding for their police departments. And just last Friday, 27-year-old father of four Rashard Brooks was shot and killed by an Atlanta cop at a Wendy’s restaurant after falling asleep at the wheel.
Brooks’ killing is heavy on Salaam’s mind when we talk on Monday morning, as he returns to the horrific details of Brooks’ death at the hands of the police. Salaam lingers on Brooks’ hunger; the fact that he told officers he had a sister within walking distance of the Wendy’s—he even suggested leaving his car in the parking lot and staying with her. He puts himself in the mindset of Brooks’ family, anxiously waiting at home for him.
“He’s never coming home,” Salaam says. “They’re never going to see him again in life.”
Salaam meditates on the details of this story because it’s not unique: it exists on a long continuum of those “disappeared,” black and brown men and women who never returned to the place they called home. “We’re still shedding tears for Emmett Till,” he said. But although pain and urgency is present in Salaam’s voice, so is hope.
“This is courageous living now,” he said, referring to the massive nationwide protests. “At all stages and in all walks of life, we all have a position to play.”
In the past, that role for Salaam included talking to police corps across the world about his experiences within the American criminal justice system. He’s talked to law school classes in Japan, to the graduating class of Israeli police. But while he has taken the mantle of education, Salaam is also quick to say that educating police isn’t the solution to state violence.
Like many other longtime criminal justice advocates, he sees policing as just one chapter in a long history of systemic oppression. He points toward the slave patrols that were the predecessors of modern police forces. He brings up the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and indentured servitude unless a person had been committed of a crime—a simple exception that would lay down the framework for the modern-day incarnation of slavery: mass incarceration.
This understanding of the history of policing has informed Salaam’s advocacy. Salaam is strongly in support of defunding and abolishing our country’s police forces. But in our first conversation, Salaam pointed to two policy changes he felt could instantly transform the way policing is done in this country—removing the qualified immunity doctrine and requiring police to pay out the insurance for on-duty killings.
Qualified immunity is a powerful federal doctrine that protects law enforcement and city officials from personal liability for constitutional violations. In practice, the doctrine makes it nearly impossible for those who suffer from police brutality or police misconduct to hold them accountable in civil court. (A bill pushing for the end of qualified immunity, co-sponsored by Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, is being debated in the house this week.)
Eradicating this doctrine and forcing police to pay insurance every time they kill someone on duty would force a level of financial culpability on police that doesn’t currently exist, Salaam says, adding that funding from taxpayers typically goes toward settling major discrimination and brutality cases, like the $7 million settlement awarded him in 2014 over his wrongful conviction. Despite the hefty price tag, the city of New York took great care to deflect blame for the case, maintaining that the investigating detectives and the assistant district attorneys involved “acted reasonably, given the circumstances with which they were confronted.”
But Salaam sees these actions as necessary intermediate steps as the larger goals of defunding and abolition are pushed.
“When I think about the movement to defund police, I think about all of the systemic things that have been going on and the police force being the army, so to speak, that institutes and allows for those corruption and corrupt laws to be enforced,” he said. Like other abolitionists, he supports replacing police forces with a community-based caretaking model.
Among the factors that make this particular point in time unique to Salaam is seeing the convergence of multiple issues: longstanding racial injustice met with increased anger at capitalism and the polarization of wealth in this country—“The whole of the United States should have crime tape around it,” says Salaam.
“Not just for what’s happening for black folks, but what’s been happening in this country—the whole history of it.”
Weeks ago, Salaam channeled the words of his friend and fellow Exonerated Five member Raymond Santana, urging people to consider “small and minute” actions as necessary—actions like speaking out on social media, learning the history of racist and oppressive policies, or opening up discussions with friends and family.
But while many in the media have referred to weeks of protest as a nationwide “reckoning,” Salaam cautions that we’re still far from having what he describes as our “Sankofa” moment—an honest, critical and total recognition of how the past connects with our present-day oppression.
“It’s difficult to say we’re getting closer because one of the things that we are up against is the total dismantling of a system of oppression that has been in place for over 400 years,” he said. “It didn’t start with the inception of slavery. This is something that has been a part of the human condition for a while in terms of oppression. In terms of running over people with the spiked wheels of justice.”
Still, while the journey ahead is long, Salaam is inspired by what he’s seeing—the diverse throngs of Americans demanding, day in and day out, for a fair, just country that has never existed, but which they are eager to help build, in the tradition of the abolitionists and freedom fighters that came before them.
Here, Salaam leans on the words and wisdom of one of his heroes, Assata Shakur.
“We have the power to fight. We have the power to win. We must love each other and protect each other,” he said, summarizing her famous call to action. “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”