April 6, 2016

An Evening with Yusef Salaam

Left to right are: student Larry Johnson, president of the college's Black Male Initiative, Yusef Salaam and student Omar Richards, vice president of the Black Male Initiative. Photo/David Fullard
Left to right are: student Larry Johnson, president of the college's Black Male Initiative, Yusef Salaam and student Omar Richards, vice president of the Black Male Initiative. Photo/David Fullard

SUNY Empire State College’s Black Male Initiative (BMI) hosted “An Evening with Yusef Salaam” on March 17 at the Brooklyn location. Salaam was wrongly convicted in what became known as "The Central Park Jogger Case.”

In April 1989, at the age of 15, Salaam was arrested with four other black juveniles for several incidents and charged with the rape and beating of Trisha Meili, a young female financial executive who had been jogging in Central Park in New York City.

“Wilding,” the term used to describe the incidents, also became part of everyday language and coverage by the mass media in the New York City metropolitan area and beyond.

One year later, Salaam was convicted and sentenced to five-10 years in prison.

His sentence was vacated in 2002 when a convicted felon serving a lifetime sentence for unrelated crimes admitted to perpetrating the attack on Meili and provided DNA evidence that corroborated his assertions.

Student and BMI President Lawrence H. Johnson, a current resident and native New Yorker, said hearing Salaam speak was somewhat reminiscent, because he was following the events as they unfolded.

“This city was extremely divided along racial lines,” said Johnson, a past Empire State College Council student representative. “For a man who was railroaded by the system and whose family was harassed nonstop – including by some of the NYPD – he exhibited great resolve. There is much that can be learned from his experience. With all he has gone through, his still being so positive is something we can all learn from.”

Student Omar Richards, BMI’s vice president and a 2016 recipient of the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence, described the event as “a night of sincerity and outrage. There were gasps and sighs from attendees as Yusef shared his story. It was a memorable evening that transitioned into passionate defiance. He stressed the importance of social accountability, recounted the failures of the judicial system and drove home the responsibility each of us has to get involved. There is no effort too small.”

Anthony Gaskin, another SUNY Empire student in attendance, said he found the presentation to be moving and fascinating and was “truly moved by (Yusef's) courage, dignity and nobility. (Salaam’s presentation) accentuated the profound effect learning has in coping with adversities and reinforces my belief in family and how vastly important it is to have this strong structure in place.”

Gaskin said he applauded BMI for organizing the event, especially because it highlighted “the complete disregard for the rights of people of color and abuses that continue to this day. The questions of human and civil rights clearly remain issues affecting the lives of not only of African Americans, but also millions of other people globally.”

Comments from the SUNY Empire Faculty

“Yusef Salaam delivered a riveting presentation about his experiences before, during and after the events in 1989 and discussed his journey to becoming the inspiring father, poet, activist and motivational speaker he is today,” said David Fullard, an assistant professor and faculty advisor to BMI.

“Tonight’s talk by Yusef Salaam for the BMI in Brooklyn was very enlightening and inspiring,” said SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor A. Tom Grunfeld, who specializes in Central and East Asian studies at SUNY Empire. “Mr. Salaam was moving, thoughtful and insightful about his situation and how it fit into the larger issues in U.S. society. The whole thing was impressive.”

“I have, over the years, used a book by a relatively well?known sociologist named Charles Derber,” said Alan Mandell, professor of adult learning and mentoring. “The book is called ‘The Wilding of America.’ Derber uses the ‘Central Park 5’ situation to announce that the culture, the economy, the politics, the whole of American society – a ‘sociopathic’ society as he calls it – is permeated by different versions of ‘wilding.’ But surely what ‘happened’ in Central Park is at the heart of the argument. So our guest’s life story is powerful and relevant and so incredibly important to our efforts to make sense of America. And his eloquence — his success in helping us glimpse his world and his mother’s world –was very striking to me.”

Rosalind October-Edun, a member of the faculty in the Community and Human Services area of study, considered the evening to be “an historical teaching/learning moment. The message to our students was clear that they should aspire to make a di?erence in the lives of others by having and realizing goals to become change agents through policymaking.”

Assistant Professor Daramola Cabral, who teaches and mentors students in the Community and Human Services and the Science, Mathematics and Technology areas of study, called the event “a great opportunity for the audience to learn ?rsthand the impact that racial/ethnic targeting and criminalization of black males has on their lives and that of their family and community.  Mr. Salaam eloquently spoke of his youthful innocence, as he sought justice for a horrendous crime that he did not commit.”

Cabral said she was moved to hear about the impact that Salaam’s conviction had on his family, the depth of his mother's commitment and the backlash of an outraged community that assumed the accusations and convictions were just.

Visiting Assistant Professor Lisa Parkins said she was “riveted” by the presentation and its value as both a teaching and learning opportunity. Parkins added that even now, it is disturbing “the extent to which our society continues to be deeply discriminatory.” She also said that she knew that her students “were impressed and a?ected by what they learned."

Lisa Whiteside, a retired city Department of Correction officer, who also is an instructor at the college, summarized the evening by saying, "Yusef Salaam took the audience on a riveting journey, laying out the disadvantages of captivity for a crime for which he and his peers were victimized, committed and wrongly convicted. His presence and resounding words filled the room. He stated that he was angry, but free, ‘mentally free.' Free of the chains that were meant for bondage.”

Judith Gehrke, who acts as a special consultant to the BMI Steering Committee, attended the event and said there was "warmth and conviviality" and a consensus by all in attendance, regardless of color, age or persuasion to follow Salaam’s suggestion for everyone to get involved, whether by voting, serving on jury duty or similar forms of civic duty.

“He endured long years of hardship for the crime of being black and in the park at the wrong time, yet he did not show rancor or bitterness,” said Gehrke. “There was no sign that he was looking to get even or to do harm to others. The audience was not encouraged to be his avenger but to engage more fully in making this city, this country truly better for all.”

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