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Yusef Salaam: 'Trump would have had me hanging from a tree in Central Park'

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Wrongly jailed for gang rape – a case which inspired Trump to call for the death penalty – Salaam has poured his experiences into a novel about hope, justice and race

If Donald Trump had got his way I wouldn’t be speaking to Yusef Salaam right now. “Had his ad taken full effect we would have been hanging from trees in Central Park,” Salaam says matter-of-factly. “People wanted our blood running in the streets.”

You’ve probably seen the ad in question: it’s infamous. In 1989, a white investment banker was raped and left for dead in Central Park. Five black and brown teenagers, including 15-year-old Salaam, were charged with her rape. Two weeks after the attack, before any of the kids had faced trial, Trump took out a full-page advert in multiple New York papers calling for the death penalty. His inflammatory stunt is credited with prejudicing public opinion and contributing to the Central Park Five – now known as the Exonerated Five– going to prison for something they didn’t do. The boys’ story was retold last year in the Emmy-winning Netflix drama When They See Us, directed by Ava DuVernay.

Part of the hesitation in telling my story in full back then was a fear of who would vilify me

We want people to ask: how did I fail the young black people in my life? It's about being accountable

Punching the Air is published by HarperCollins on 1 September.

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