“Your truth is the foundation your legacy will be built upon.”
This profound statement by Raymond Santana, expressed on live television, on one of the biggest stages in the world of music and entertainment—the 2019 BET Awards, echoed far beyond the walls of the Microsoft Theater.
Watching all five members of the infamous Central Park case receive a thundering ovation at the feet of their own community would have sufficed my overly tender yet politically charged heart, had the universe not wielded its serendipitous allyship days prior to the main event.
After wandering aimlessly for hours trying to decipher the best way to go about navigating my first BET Experience, it was there, at the concierge desk inside the JW Marriott LA Live that my eyes zeroed in on a man who, even from behind, felt eerily familiar.
Standing next to a young girl, no more than 14 years-old, he finally turned my way. His black tee emblazoned with a column of names in white block lettering -- Yusef, Kevin, Antron, Korey & Raymond -- corroborated what I had already been thinking. Raymond himself was at this moment checking into the hotel.
When I cautiously approached Santana, it was with a fear that he would brush me off flippantly or at least kindly send me on my way, as the man and his daughter (Melia) were clearly dressed in travelers fatigue.
I extended my clammy hand for a quick and eager shake – anxiety-driven at the thought that I would be perceived as nothing more than a disrupter – before the words came out like vomit: “My name is Marjua. I’ve been following your story for some time. Would you mind sitting with me for a few minutes?”
To my very humble surprise, Santana gave a curious smile and immediately obliged without so much as a moment to unpack his or his daughter’s belongings. Not to mention, I failed to introduced myself as a writer or BET representative, so his response made for the sweetest benevolence. (Let’s keep it a buck, how many of our celebrity faves would have given you the time of day without barter?)
Approximately 30-minutes later Santana, Melia and I hold court in the thick of what felt like the loudest, most busiest lobby area in all of Downtown Los Angeles. Upon ordering food and drinks, Santana is met with a warm embrace from behind. My peripheral vision deceives as I fidget with my phone, setting the device on airplane mode for my next recording.
“Marjua, this is Yusef,” Santana’s voice interjects. To no one’s knowledge, I had gone back-and-forth previously via email with Yusef Salaam’s publicists trying to secure some time with him, before communication simply fell flat. “Join us, please,” I burp out, hardly containing the excitement of this moment.
Before the Exonerated 5 could take center stage at the BET Awards live from the Microsoft Theater, providence would have it that Santana and Salaam offered me just a sliver of their story, in their own words. The pair volleyed accounts of their personal experiences of life before, during and after the group’s official exoneration.
While Ava’s autobiographical Netflix blockbuster, When They See Us, afforded us and the rest of the world an unsparing vista into the lives of the wrongfully accused and imprisoned men (who were just boys when dragged into custody in 1989), our one-on-one offered some much appreciated insight on exactly who the Exonerated 5 are today, what they stand for, who they represent on a global stage and why they’re valiantly going against the machine.
BET: What does exoneration even mean to you?
Raymond Santana: It’s unbelievable, to be honest. That’s when you really grasp the reality that you can have a second chance and you can start all over again. That’s what exoneration represented for us, that we can start all over again. We can try to put our lives back together again, one day at a time. It represents hope.
BET: Considering all things, was the settlement enough?
Santana: Not at all. Originally, we all wanted to go to trial. They were the ones who kept prolonging it. No matter what they say, they’ll try to put it on us—no. We were ready to go to trial, we had the troops behind us, we did those depositions. They were the ones that were stalling for 11 years. We was ready. We took the settlement, $41 million, because it was an 11-year process. This was split among five guys and five different attorneys. Let’s not forget that. An attorney takes a third. So was the money enough? No, it was not. Nowhere near it. But I knew that whatever I got, I would make do. I’ll take the victory. Because at the end of the day, that’s one thing you can’t defend, you can’t defend that: You settled out, not us.
BET: What has changed in your life most significantly since the Netflix premiere of When They See Us?
Dr. Yusef Salaam: The biggest thing is the platform to make some real change. I’m realizing that on one level, social media could be used to magnify yourself and your business, but at the same time you can use it to really talk about the issues that you need to talk about that are affecting our communities. And the ripple effect that this particular series has had in the world, has been tremendous. The outpouring of love on social media, going from a few thousands to hundreds of thousands is tremendous.
Santana: I didn’t know it was going to be as big as it is. The response has just been phenomenal, it’s been overwhelming.
Salaam: This is the part where we can be calm. When you realize that this is a movement and no longer about what happened to just you. It’s about what is happening to us. The play on the film is not just okay people have seen the series, it’s now about okay we can have these very real conversations about the very real things that are happening to us as a community. We’re out, we’re alive, we survived this. Part of the reason why they hate us is because we survived this, because we’re moving forward in spite of, and not just for ourselves but for our future generations.
BET: After watching the film for the first time, what did you walk away with?
Salaam: We found out things about each other through this film. Because I might have seen Ray on the bus and been like, ‘Hey, what’s up man how’s everything going?’ And then keep it moving. But the film showed us that not everything was okay at home. We were balling crying too.
BET: As fathers, what do you want for your children?
Salaam: We want our children to enjoy their youth and we want them to be free. Free to dream as deep and as far and as wide as they possibly can. You realize we were 14, 15, 16-year-old children who the system tried to extinguish.
Santana: Raising a child is difficult, but if you give it enough care and enough truth and reality, the odds can work out in your favor. You understand what I’m saying? I’m just trying to be the best dad that I can be, provide for [my daughter] in the best possible way. That’s it.
BET: What did your worst day look like pre-exoneration?
Salaam: It could be the moment that my ex-wife didn’t want to be with me anymore and how difficult that was to accept. I never asked her why, I’ve only assumed that there were metrics going on in her mind about the outcome of what this relationship could be. She met me and I was the polished guy in a suit and tie, who's got his life together. But wait, he’s also one of the Central Park Five. Oh, damn, he just lost his job. Oh, he got children. It’s a harsh thing to swallow. Here I am shouting at the top of the mountains that I’m innocent, and the only people that’s listening is my mother.
Santana: No one is sitting you down and telling you, ‘Okay, this is how it’s going to be and this is what you have to do.’ No one does that. Exonerees just get dropped off and have to go fend for themselves. The positive side is being optimistic about things turning out okay. But the reality is that no one really knows. So there’s always an underlying fear. Everyday.
BET: Do you have any resentments?
Santana: No, not really. What was taken from me were the options to be successful in this society. But when I look back at it now, I’m a totally different person. I have my daughter, which I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for exoneration. My mentality is totally different. To go through that whole process and still have all my faculties intact, and still be able to try to move on day to day and live my life, I can’t think about what would happen if it were different. I have to think about what’s happening right now. It would be easier to say, ‘I wish I didn’t go to the park that night’ or ‘I wish I didn’t hang out with my friend that night.’ It would be easier to say that, but it did happen. So I’m just grateful that I’m here today. That I’m alive to enjoy the memories that I’m accumulating right now.
Salaam: No. My spirituality teaches me that you were born on purpose and you were born with purpose. So much so that – this is birds and bees talk – when your parents got together, you, you, you and all of the folks in here and in the world were all one of over four hundred million options. You were one of over four hundred million options racing to that one egg, and even if you was a twin or triplet, you were one of those options. And you made it, you survived. You were supposed to be born, and because we know that you were supposed to be born, we know that you were born on purpose. Now, if the rest of the world is telling you in that narrative that you ain’t worth nothing—imagine when they tell young people that? You begin to produce worthlessness. You can’t listen to that, you can’t listen to folk trying to extinguish your light.
BET: Does any of that mean forgiveness? It’s difficult to imagine not being angry…
Salaam: Nelson Mandela said, ‘To be angry and bitter is like drinking poison and expecting your enemies to die.’ I had to leave the anger and bitterness in prison in order for me to be able to do some real work out here. Dr. Maya Angelou said, ‘You should be angry, but you must not be bitter.’ She said bitterness is like a cancer, it eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything upon the object of its displeasure. Then she gives us an action: use that anger—you dance it, you march it, you vote it, YOU VOTE IT! 2020 is just around the corner, so you vote it. You march it, you dance it, you write it, and then you talk it. Never stop talking, because there’s something special that happens when you tell your story.
BET: What was a defining moment for you?
Salaam: When I was in prison, I was asked a question maybe about six months into my prison bid. The officer came up to me and asked who are you? I said I’m Yusef Salaam, one of the guys they accused of raping the Central Park jogger, but I didn’t do it. He said, ‘I know that, I’ve been watching you. You’re not supposed to be here.’ This is one of the officers in the prison. ‘I’ve been watching you—why are you here? Who are you?’ That question changed the whole trajectory of my life. Officer Jerome Jones. Before he asked me that question, I didn’t even know the meaning of my name. I found out that my name means God will increase, that’s Yusef. Idris is the teacher (of justice) and Salaam is peace. My parents named me an entire sentence. An entire thought. I had to do the time, I couldn’t let time do me.
Santana: We can’t stress enough that this isn’t an isolated incident. It happens all the time. It’s about bringing that awareness. At the end of the day, there’s a whole generation who is just finding out about us. And if we can equip them to help make a solid decision later on in life, then we did our jobs. Because we guarantee there will be police officers there, there’s going to be lawyers, district attorneys, even the President of the United States can come out and say something. If we can reach them, through this series, we did our jobs. We can’t stress enough that this is real and that it happens all the time. It’s not an isolated incident, and it happens all across the US. The criminal justice system would rather have our youth occupying a jail cell than occupying a college dorm.
BET: Our current president, a man with a documented history of xenophobia and predatory behavior, was one of the voices that spoke out against the Central Park 5 back in the ‘90s. His sentiments remain the same today. How does that make you feel?
Santana: It’s to a point where we don’t even talk about him anymore. Everybody knows who he is, everybody knows what he stands for. The only thing I can say is that we’ve been telling people [we’re innocent] since 1989. Nobody believed us, nobody wanted to listen. Now everybody can figure it out for themselves. The proof is there. I don’t have to say anything anymore.
Salaam: The worst place to be is in the imagination of a white person.
Salaam: He’s the perfect villain in this story. This story has so many components, so many different sides and it’s so well put together that you have this perfect villain in the story who has risen up the ladder to the top office in the land. What he represents as a person is really the idea of tyrannical terrorism as it relates to black and brown folks in America. He’s a beacon of white supremacy.
BET: If nothing else, what should people know about the moment you were sat in a room full of officers that ultimately succeeded at making you admit to something you knew nothing about?
Santana: A lot of things you don’t think about because you’re under that pressure. When you’re under that pressure, the only thing you want is for the pressure to stop. That’s it. Your mind can draw a blank because the pressure is so great and all you’re thinking about in that moment is how can I get this to stop. That’s what it was. I wanted to go home.
BET: I think about Korey a lot. He was the only one tried as an adult. What would you like to share about him?
Salaam: Korey is magic. A puzzle is not complete unless all the pieces are there, and Korey is the one who looks at something that others might look at as complete, but Korey’s missing piece brings everything together. He’s like magic.
Santana: What I love about Korey… Korey might be the smartest one out of all of us. He’s a warrior, he’s a king, and I really do think he’s the smartest one out of all of us. People don’t know it, though, until you actually sit down with him.
Salaam: Korey’s story is so deep that Korey’s name was not even on the list of suspects. And Korey, while he went to hell, he could’ve at any moment said, ‘I had enough. I’m through with this. I’m going to just say I did it just so I can get out of here and go home.’ The physical representation of Korey’s story on When They See Us—it’s so shifting it caused us all to wail. By part four, you needed to see the guys in real time.
Santana: When Korey says it’s four plus one, it’s because he looks at how far we have come from ’89. How everybody is able to move on and have families and try to put those pieces together. Korey still stumbles. That’s why he says it’s the four plus one because he feels we all moved on, while he’s trying to get it together. What we had to tell him was that it looks sweet, but really we all still trying to put it together. It’s up to us not to move as fast and allow Korey to catch up.
BET: What’s the nature of the group’s relationship today?
Salaam: It’s a sacred bond that we can now look at each other – especially after When They See Us – we can look at each other and be like, ‘Damn, I knew that there was something special about us.’
Santana: When it comes to us, I’ve learned that I can depend on them. Our brotherhood is so strong that I can depend on someone like Yusef. He’s going to always represent us and carry us. And yea, we argue like brothers and have disagreements like anybody. But we’re still brothers at the end of the day.
BET: Looking at how far you’ve come thus far, how do you pay it forward?
Santana: Since the exoneration, we teamed up with the Innocence Project on numerous laws that we are trying to get passed in the state of New York. I am a member of the Justice League NYC; I was one of the original members. We just had our first annual coat drive last winter, where we gave away coats and boots to people in general, but also women in shelters fighting abuse. We do a lot in the community. Some of it might not get any traction, but we don’t do it for the recognition.
BET: What do you want to leave behind?
Salaam: I want people to know that when you find yourself in so-called dark places, there’s always a light somewhere in the darkness. Even if that light is inside you. You could illuminate your own darkness and shine your light on the world. I want people to know that they were born on purpose and that they were born with purpose. That they should not be afraid to live a full life. So that when death comes for them, they’re empty because they have done what needed to be done. I don’t want people to live this life and leave without a trace. I am honored and blessed to be in a position to be used in this way. I’m just a soldier.
Santana: We’re one of the only cases who fought for 30 years, who has won and who has continued to do the work. I want people to know that we were here. That we did it. That we fought relentlessly.
(Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Netflix)