For Yusef Salaam, a Landslide Just Might Be the Best Revenge


After his wrongful conviction as one of the Central Park Five was overturned, Mr. Salaam found it hard to rebuild his life. Now he stands to take office next year.

This week, 34 years after he and four other teenage boys who barely knew one another were bound together by notorious failures of justice, Yusef Salaam was officially declared the winner in the Democratic primary for a seat in New York’s City Council, having received almost 64 percent of the vote. Given that more than three-quarters of voters in the district identify as Democrats, we can assume that beginning in January, he will represent Harlem, where he grew up, was arrested and returned after serving nearly seven years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

The crime — the rape and near-fatal beating of a 28-year-old investment banker who was jogging in Central Park one night in April 1989 — came to define a late-20th century city plagued by entwined crises of violence, ferocious racial polarization and worsening inequity. The boys, known as the Central Park Five, were convicted on the grounds of coerced false confessions. In Mr. Salaam’s case, there wasn’t even recorded evidence of an admission of guilt. No DNA evidence linked any of the accused assailants to the victim; they were exonerated in 2002 only after the actual offender, an imprisoned serial rapist, came forward and provided forensic evidence that proved his culpability.

Mr. Salaam’s electoral victory is as much a poetic correction as it is a political success. It signals not only a triumph over an entrenched political establishment — his rivals were longtime elected officials in their 60s and 70s — but also over an idealistic brand of progressivism embodied by the incumbent councilwoman Kristin Richardson Jordan, whose popularity fell off quickly. A young Democratic Socialist elected two years ago on a platform of “radical love” and police abolitionism, Ms. Jordan dropped out of the race in May when her defeat seemed certain.

From the vantage of middle age — Mr. Salaam is now 49 — he can reflect and say that Harlem has been poorly governed for a long time. “When I look at 125th Street, I see rats, drugs, empty lots, the need for wraparound services,” he said during a conversation a few days before the race was called. “We’ve had legends here, but we have not had the full investment our tax dollars require.”

Six years ago, Mr. Salaam moved to Georgia; Harlem had become so expensive. He returned at the end of last year. He sees the lack of affordable housing as the area’s chief concern, and he is committed to working with developers to create more. The problem, as he sees it, is that too often when “developers are coming into a community to develop, we are usually called to the meeting after they have decided to do whatever they are going to do.”

Ms. Jordan did not show the same kind of flexibility. One reason she fell into disfavor with Harlemites was that she effectively killed a project on 145th Street that would have delivered hundreds of apartments at below-market rates; she insisted there were not enough for those in the lowest income brackets. Ultimately, the developer used the land for a truck depot.

Mr. Salaam’s ascent suggests the political appeal of lived experience over the attraction of outlier ideologies that have been cultivated at a privileged distance. Ms. Jordan is also from Harlem, but she is the daughter of doctors, a graduate of the Calhoun School (a private school on the Upper West Side) and Brown, a poet and an independent publisher focused on the work of literary activists. After the murder of George Floyd, much of the rhetoric around defunding police seemed intentionally hyperbolic, a means to an end of reducing, not eliminating the presence of police. Ms. Jordan, though, held a literal, more absolutist view.

“I actually believe in moving toward a world without cops,” she told The Nation in a 2021 interview. Not long after she was elected to the council, two police officers were killed in her district during a domestic violence call, and she found herself widely criticized for expressing sympathy not just for the slain men but also for the person accused of killing them. Despite what he suffered at the hands of a warped system, Mr. Salaam maintains a position on policing that is comparatively moderate, calling for better and more sensitive policing, not a world without it.

One of his political supporters is a former corrections officer who first encountered Mr. Salaam in a Lower Manhattan courthouse in the early stages of his long ordeal. The officer, Derrick Taitt, believed in the innocence of the five teenagers from the outset. He recalled seeing them in court for the first time. “It’s just an experience I’ll never forget — going home that day,” he said. “I walked from Centre Street to 14th. I couldn’t get on the train because my head hurt so badly.” As the president of the Community Association of the East Harlem Triangle and a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, Mr. Taitt, who is now 68, has witnessed an unsettling resurgence of crack in the area recently, and he maintains that Mr. Salaam could not have built a viable campaign on anti-law-enforcement sentiment.

When I spoke with Mr. Salaam, he ended our conversation for afternoon prayer. He has been a practicing Muslim for most of his life, and the notion of a career in political leadership was born, against all odds, not long after he was arrested. He could not help but see uncanny similarities between his own story and that of his namesake, the prophet Yusef, in the Quran who was thrown into a well, sold into slavery, wrongly accused of rape and imprisoned. Ultimately he rose to a position of authority in his kingdom.

“I was just blown away,” Mr. Salaam told me. “For me reading that as a young person, it was a seed that was planted.”

After his conviction was overturned, he re-entered the world at 23, to endure the predictable indignities common to those who have been incarcerated. One of his first jobs after prison was working construction at a Mitchell-Lama apartment complex on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. When the company he was working for found out who he was, he said, he was fired. The experience provided a terrible insight. “Prison is about continuous punishment,” he said. “But if you survive prison, every single door for success will be shut in your face.”

Many people in the community supported him when he was released, Mr. Salaam’s mother, Sharonne, told me. But many others did not. “You still have that boiling sensation as you try to move on with your life,” said Ms. Salaam, who was teaching at the Parsons School of Design when her son was arrested. Exoneration did not bring peace for everyone. “It was easier for Yusef to move on and see a path forward.”

After the construction job, Mr. Salaam worked in tech at Weill Cornell, became a motivational speaker, wrote books, received a lifetime achievement award from Barack Obama and helped to raise 10 children — seven of his own and three stepchildren.

He would like to bring more public bathrooms to Harlem. He worries about the effects of global warming on people who make their living as outdoor vendors. He wants people to look inward and to look outward, to try to stay positive. Yet to this day he has not had an apology from any of the prosecutors in his case. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Upper Manhattan voters have embraced him overwhelmingly. A landslide can be the best revenge.


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