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Exonerated Five member Yusef Salaam speaks to campus community

By Jacques St. Jean

In continuing to advocate and push for social justice at Springfield College, members of the community met at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 22 for Stepping in Activism: A conversation with Dr. Yusef Salaam. The conversation was made possible and presented by the Office of the President, the Student Society for Bridging Diversity, Men of Excellence, Art for Activism, Black Student Union, Latinx Student Organization, Scientists Embracing Equality and Diversity, Women of Power, Spiritual Life and assistance from the Multicultural Fund.

Salaam was one of the five people involved in the Central Park jogger case. Now a member of the Exonerated Five (formerly known as the Central Park Five), Salaam has committed his life to advocate and educate people on social justice issues and issues within the criminal justice system.

Dereck Webb, Vice President of the Men of Excellence Club, opened the webinar by explaining how this event was made possible through the Multicultural Fund, and on behalf of him and the other clubs, they “hope this conversation with Dr. Salaam will encourage our campus community to keep the conversation going, and to continue making change at the college.”

Webb handed it off to SSBD’s public relations officer and president-elect Nia Greenidge, who introduced Dr. Salaam and Secretary of SSBD and BSU Jasmine Hastings, who would have a conversation on Salaam’s experience.

Hastings first asked Salaam about his experience with law enforcement and the criminal justice system prior to his wrongful conviction of a crime he didn’t commit.

“We see the words ‘to serve and protect,’ I thought that’s what [a police officer’s] job was,” Salaam said. “I thought that the idea of policing in America was to assist people, to stop crimes, to make sure that everybody gets a fair chance. I didn’t know that it was almost the exact opposite.”

Salaam described this realization as the “American Nightmare,” which is something that Dr. Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have both mentioned in their lives.

This nightmare was something that Salaam had to experience in the late eighties, and the nightmare still continues today. Aside from the “war-torn” and “dilapidated” areas that Salaam and other black Americans lived in, they are also the ones victimized and criminalized.

“The color of your skin is what is always being judged, and not the content of your character,” Salaam explained. “People see you before they really see you, and by them seeing you they make assumptions.”

Examples Salaam shared included Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie, and Michael Brown being described as a “monster-like figure” from the officer’s perspective who shot him.

“We all have eyes, but often we don’t always see the same thing. We all have ears, but we often don’t hear the same thing,” Salaam expressed.

This is the idea of “tricknology,” which is used by a dominant group to disempower a weaker one. White people have used this against black people, by accusing them of heinous and terrible acts. Salaam describes it as “a rotten seed” planted into the black and brown community.

“Poverty is a crime that has been placed upon black and brown bodies… when you are in a poverty mindset, you begin to turn into a situation where you struggle all the time,” Salaam explained.

The war on crime and drugs are just a few things that perpetrated and illustrated Black people in America as criminals and monsters, and ultimately led to the wrongful conviction of Salaam and the other four men in the Central Park jogger case.

“Everything that happens to you is happening for you,” Salaam said. “It’s the difference between going through something and growing through something.”

Despite his time served in prison for the wrongful conviction, Salaam’s positive outlook on what has happened to him is truly inspiring.

After the conversation, Salaam answered a handful of questions from the attendees through a Q&A. One of the questions was regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to allow teens to be given life sentences without parole.

“What we have to remember is we have never been out of this game… we’re playing the tango: two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward, eight steps back,” Salaam said.

In this ongoing battle, Springfield College is fortunate to have this conversation with Dr. Yusef Salaam. His perspective and commitment to educating people on the issues in the United States are beneficial for the community, and helps to educate individuals on how they can help in this ongoing push towards social equality.

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