Yusef Salaam says he would change the criminal justice system in the U.S.: 'How do we get it right?'

Megan Sims
·3 mins read

Yusef Salaam, a member of the “Exonerated Five” whose convictions were vacated in the Central Park jogger case, shared his thoughts on Black Lives Matter, President Trump and how his life experiences inspired his new book, Punching the Air.

Punching the Air, which Salaam co-authored with National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi, is a young adult novel that revolves around a wrongly incarcerated Black Muslim teenager named Amal Shahid who turns to art and poetry as a refuge. The book is timely amid the continued protests around the United States following the police shootings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and, most recently, Jacob Blake.

“We’re crying for things like Black Lives Matter because all life doesn’t matter to the establishment. The establishment somehow said, ‘It’s OK for you to be down here and for us to be up here,’” Salaam tells Yahoo Life. “This book ... is the beginning of the conversation; it is the answer, in a way, to the trials of today.”

Amal’s story is told in verse, and though it does have similarities with Salaam’s own experiences, he says it is bigger than him.

“The inspiration behind telling the story of Amal is the stories of all the oppressions we’ve all seen. I’ve often said that the story of the Central Park jogger case is not an anomaly,” he says. “They want people to believe that this is just a one-off, ‘We just got it wrong this one time.’ They don’t even admit that they got it wrong. To admit that they got it wrong is to speak to the humanity of us as a people. And so now, how do we get it right? How do we utilize these cases to figure out why we shouldn’t get it wrong?”

Salaam, who is an advocate for prison reform, says that he would change the U.S. criminal justice system altogether by giving inmates access to education to help them have a fighting chance outside of prison and giving them full citizenship rights, like voting.

He also criticized President Trump for not using his role to implement change.

“We haven’t been unified by him. I don’t even want to address his connection with the Central Park jogger case and the Exonerated Five. I’m talking about just him as a person,” he says, “to still be in the same space that he’s always been — his past performance is predicting what he’s going to do in the future.”

In the end, the activist says that he wants Punching the Air to give people hope during these tumultuous times.

“One of the things I often think about imparting, especially to young men of color and to really young people in general, is that they matter,” he says. “God said, ‘you, you,’ he wants you to be. You made it. And in that being has to be the understanding that you’ve been chosen, you’ve been chosen to do something special. There’s greatness that’s inside of you.”

Salaam and Zoboi’s Punching the Air will be available for sale on Sept. 1 and includes book cover art by Temi Coker and Alexis Franklin. For more information, visit HC.com/PunchingTheAir.

Video produced by Stacy Jackman

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