Formerly Unjustly Imprisoned ‘Central Park Five’ Member Running for Office

by Andrew Wright
Central Park Five

Yusef Salaam, a candidate running for New York City Council, enthusiastically greeted voters as they exited a Harlem subway station along Malcolm X Boulevard. Some recognized him immediately, familiar with his face, name, and the profound story of his life. For those unfamiliar, Salaam simply introduced himself as one of the Central Park Five—a group of Black and Brown teenagers, aged 14 to 16, who were wrongly accused, convicted, and incarcerated for the rape and assault of a white woman jogging in Central Park on April 19, 1989.

At the age of 49, Salaam aspires to become part of the very power structure that once conspired to imprison him.

In an interview at his campaign office, Salaam expressed, “I have always believed that those who have experienced immense pain should have a place at the table.” He stands as one of three candidates competing in the highly contested June 27 Democratic primary, which will likely determine the representative for Harlem—a district that is unlikely to elect a Republican candidate in the general election. With early voting already underway, Salaam faces two seasoned political veterans: Al Taylor, 65, and Inez Dickens, 73, both New York Assembly members who have previously represented Harlem in the City Council.

The incumbent, democratic socialist Kristin Richard Jordan, withdrew from the race in May following a tumultuous first term.

Presently known as the “Exonerated Five,” Salaam and his four co-accused individuals—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—spent between five and 12 years imprisoned for the 1989 rape before a reexamination of the case led to their convictions being overturned in 2002. Subsequent DNA evidence linked the attack to another man, a serial rapist. The city ultimately agreed to pay the wrongfully convicted men $41 million in a legal settlement.

Salaam, who was arrested at the age of 15, endured nearly seven years behind bars.

“When people look at me and hear my story, they connect with it,” shared Salaam, a father of ten children. “Now, 34 years later, I can use the platform I have to transform that pain, assisting people as we rise above despair.”

The district Salaam seeks to represent is burdened with numerous challenges, including entrenched poverty and exorbitant rental costs. Data compiled by New York University’s Furman Center reveals that poverty rates in Central Harlem are about 10 percentage points higher than the citywide average of 18%. More than a quarter of Harlem’s residents spend over half their income on rent, and the district has alarmingly high rates of homelessness among children.

Salaam is determined to address these crises and more, although his opponents argue that he lacks sufficient knowledge of local government operations to effectively tackle these issues.

Dickens, one of Salaam’s opponents, remarked, “No one should endure what my opponent experienced, especially as a child. After returning to New York, Harlem is facing a crisis. We cannot afford to have a novice learn the ropes, familiarize themselves with the issues, and rediscover the community they left behind in Stockbridge, Georgia,” referring to Salaam’s decision to leave the city after his release from prison. He returned to New York in December.

Taylor acknowledges that Salaam’s recognition carries weight in the race.

“I believe people will relate to him and the horrific circumstances he and his colleagues endured within a prison system that treated them unfairly and unjustly,” Taylor acknowledged.

“However, this reality extends beyond him; it’s the everyday experience of Black individuals in this city,” Taylor added.

Raynard Gadson, a Harlem voter, is keenly aware of this aspect.

“As a Black man myself, I fully comprehend what’s at stake,” Gadson affirmed. “I don’t think there is anyone more passionate about challenging systemic issues at the local level in the name of justice due to what he has been through,” he said of Salaam.

During a recent televised debate on Spectrum News, Salaam frequently referenced his arrest, prompting Taylor to reveal that he, too, had been arrested. At the age of 16, Taylor was caught carrying a machete—a charge that was later dismissed by a judge willing to give him a second chance.

“We all desire affordable housing, safe streets, effective policing, jobs, and quality education,” Salaam emphasized, highlighting the shared goals of the candidates. He believes that his unique voice can shed light on the struggles faced by his community.

“I may not have a political track record,” he admitted, “but I have an exceptional track record of fighting for freedom, justice, and equality during the 34 years since the Central Park jogger case.”

All three candidates have received significant endorsements. Prominent Black activist Cornell West has endorsed Salaam, while Dickens enjoys the support of New York City Mayor Eric Adams and former New York U.S. Representative Charlie Rangel. Taylor has garnered the backing of the Carpenter’s Union.

During a campaign rally, Rangel recalled receiving a call from Salaam about his candidacy, playfully remarking about Salaam’s “foreign name.” Salaam responded assertively on social media.

“I am Yusef Salaam, a son of Harlem,” he tweeted. “I was imprisoned because my name is Yusef Salaam. I take pride in being named Yusef Salaam. I was born here, raised here, and belong here in New York City—even if I hadn’t been, we all belong here.”

Rangel later apologized for his comment.

Salaam also desires an apology from Donald Trump, who in 1989 took out newspaper ads advocating for the death penalty before the Central Park Five went on trial. When asked by a reporter in 2019 if he would apologize, Trump stated that there were “people on both sides” of the matter.

“They admitted their guilt,” Trump claimed, referring to the Central Park Five’s coerced confessions. “Some of the prosecutors,” he added, “think the city should never have settled that case. So, we’ll leave it at that.”

When Trump faced indictment in New York in April on charges of falsifying business records, Salaam responded by mocking him through a social media ad that visually resembled Trump’s past ads.

“Over 30 years ago, Donald Trump called for my execution in full-page ads,” Salaam tweeted alongside the ad, titled “Bring Back Justice & Fairness.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Central Park Five

Q: Who are the Central Park Five?

A: The Central Park Five refers to a group of Black and Brown teenagers who were wrongly accused, convicted, and imprisoned for the rape and assault of a white woman in Central Park in 1989. The members of the Central Park Five are Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise.

Q: What happened to the Central Park Five after their convictions?

A: After spending several years in prison, the convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated in 2002 when new DNA evidence linked the crime to another man. They were released from prison, and the city of New York reached a settlement, compensating them with $41 million for their wrongful convictions and imprisonment.

Q: Why is Yusef Salaam running for New York City Council?

A: Yusef Salaam is running for New York City Council to bring his unique perspective and experiences to the table. Having been unjustly imprisoned as a member of the Central Park Five, Salaam aims to fight for justice, equality, and better living conditions for his community, particularly in addressing issues like poverty, housing, and education.

Q: What are the main challenges faced by the district Salaam is hoping to represent?

A: The district Salaam is running to represent, which includes Harlem, faces significant challenges such as entrenched poverty, high rental costs, and homelessness, particularly affecting children. The district also grapples with issues related to systemic inequality and racial disparities.

Q: Who are Yusef Salaam’s opponents in the Democratic primary?

A: Yusef Salaam is competing against two seasoned political veterans in the Democratic primary: Al Taylor and Inez Dickens. Al Taylor and Inez Dickens are both New York Assembly members who have previously represented Harlem in the City Council.

Q: Has Yusef Salaam received any endorsements?

A: Yes, Yusef Salaam has received endorsements from prominent figures. Black activist Cornell West has endorsed Salaam, while Inez Dickens has the support of New York City Mayor Eric Adams and former New York U.S. Representative Charlie Rangel. Al Taylor is being supported by the Carpenter’s Union.

More about Central Park Five

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JohnDoe22 June 27, 2023 - 8:13 pm

its crazy how the system failed these young men, but glad they were finally exonerated. yusef salaam has a powerful story to tell and it’s important to have someone like him in office, fighting for change.

Jane123 June 27, 2023 - 10:11 pm

wow, i never knew about the central park five, that is so injust. yusef salaam is a true hero for fighting for justice and runnin for office. hope he wins!

LocalProud June 28, 2023 - 4:00 pm

the fact that donald trump never apologized to the central park five is shameful. yusef salaam’s ad calling out trump is spot on. we need leaders who take responsibility for their actions and stand up for justice.

CityDreamer June 28, 2023 - 6:47 pm

harlem faces so many challenges and it’s great to see someone like yusef salaam stepping up to make a difference. i hope he can bring much-needed attention to the issues of poverty, housing, and education in our community.

FreeBird87 June 28, 2023 - 7:15 pm

yusef salaam’s opponents shouldn’t underestimate him just because he doesn’t have a political track record. his life experience and passion for justice give him a unique perspective that could really benefit our community.


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