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Peekskill NAACP March for Wrongfully Incarcerated by Regina Clarkin

Words by Regina Clarkin - Photos by Andrew Courtney

Sharonne Salaam with Nada Khader, director of WESPAC [Andrew Courtney]

Sharonne Salaam with Nada Khader, director of WESPAC [Andrew Courtney]

Sharonne Salaam observed Mother’s Day this year by starting a week-long walk to Albany from Harlem to draw attention to the issue of the wrongfully incarcerated. The walk is a direct action to the injustice she lived through in 1989 when her 15-year–old son Yusef was arrested and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit involving a Central Park jogger who was raped and beaten unconscious.

“My experience is not unique. We’re marching to Albany because we need to make a change,” said Salaam when she and other 9 marchers stopped in Peekskill Monday evening. Her son Yusef, now 42, and Jeffery Deskovic and David Bliven spoke to about 50 people at the Kiley Center on Main Street during an evening sponsored by Peekskill’s NAACP.

Sharonne spoke from her perspective of being an ordinary working mother who was unaware of the reality around her. The experience of her son being held at a police station where she couldn’t get to him opened her eyes to a new reality. “I saw news differently. For the first time I saw handcuffed children and adults. I was never touched by this kind of experience.”

“It’s often said there is no school for motherhood. But my grandmother came and stayed with me for a month when I was pregnant. But no one came and stayed with me to prepare me for this period when my son was picked up and accused and incarcerated. I was one step away from hell. I was immobilized.” she said

She recalled the day she left her apartment, after she had difficulty getting out of bed, and a woman gave her a $5 bill and said she wanted to help her. She looks at that moment as catapulting her out of a fog. She realized that she could become an organizer and a public speaker, something she had never done before in her life. She was pushed in a direction she didn’t know she would’ve gone in.

“People today need to ‘arm themselves with information” she told the crowd. She said what needs to be learned can’t be learned ‘on the road’. “It used to be that we learned how to talk to people and how to act. That has been put aside and now we need to learn it over again, before things happen,” she said.

She exhorted the crowd to get involved in the lives of their children. It’s only going to stop when we get involved.

Yusef Salaam with activist Nick Mottern [Andrew Courtney]

Yusef Salaam with activist Nick Mottern [Andrew Courtney]

Yusef gave a powerful witness to his story of injustice. He explained how the prosecutors and media of New York City in 1989 tricked the public into believing that he and the four other youth weren’t human beings. “They were causing us to be seen as something less than humans,” said Yusef. He read letters that were sent to him and other family members (after their names, phone numbers and addresses were printed in newspapers) calling for cruel punishments.

He showed an advertisement that Donald Trump placed in the newspapers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty and he referred to a column by Pat Buchanan that said the eldest of the five boys should be hung from a tree and the rest of them should be horse whipped and maybe Central Park would be safe again. He referred to these clippings from newspapers as props that were used to trick the public into believing the five boys had committed the crime.

Deskovic , who was born and raised in Peekskill, described his experience of being wrongfully convicted of a crime in Peekskill when he was 16 years old. He spent 16 years in jail and was released in 2006.

The group of marchers, wearing orange shirts with Justice for the Wrongfully Incarcerated blazoned in black letters, is creating support for two bills in the New York state legislature: Assembly Bill 1134 and Senate Bill 24 which would create the nation’s first commission on prosecutorial misconduct. The group also wants confessions to be videotaped. Deskovic was coerced into a confession after 7 hours of police interrogation when he was 16 years old.

Justice for the Wrongfully Incarcerated wants services such as short-term housing, job training, and transportation available immediately upon release of those wrongfully imprisoned

David Bliven a member of the March for Justice group gave an overview of the criminal justice system and told audience members how the United States’ prison population has mushroomed from 300,000 people in the 1970’s to 2.3 million today. The private prison industry is also expanding; in the 1980’s there were 5 private prisons. In the decades since, there are some 400. The social movements of the 1960’s regarding civil rights and women’s rights need to be resurrected again. “We have to create social movements that connect all these issues to fight for a just society where there is social and economic equality,” said Bliven.

by Regina Clarkin.

Regina Clarkin is the founding publisher of the weekly Peekskill Herald, an award winning newspaper that operated in Peekskill from 1986 to 2000.

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