Yusef Salaam, one of the exonerated Central Park Five (along with Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Raymond Santana), has appeared to win a Democratic primary for City Council in Harlem’s 9th District. Racially profiled and falsely imprisoned in 1989 for the murder of a white jogger in Central Park, Saalam was just one victim of a case that captured the attention of a nation with its stark exposure of mass incarceration and racism within the justice system. Now, after running a campaign for City Council in Harlem that included planks for housing as a human right and “right-sizing” the NYPD–not to mention providing baby bonds as a form of economic justice and addressing everything from food deserts to climate change–Salaam has won the Democratic primary.
If he wins in the general election (which seems highly likely given the concentration of Democratic voters in the district) he will take over from Kristin Richardson Jordan, the current incumbent who declined to run for reelection.
Under the city’s ranked-choice voting system, the board of elections must ascertain if any one candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote in order to avoid a runoff election. Early results showed Salaam had just over 50 percent, but the results still must be officially certified before official winners are declared.
Yet with a substantial lead over competitors including Assembly member Inez Dickens (who had been endorsed by Mayor Eric Adams), Salaam was declaring victory.
In a victory speech at a Harlem tavern on Frederick Douglas Blvd., where he was surrounded and introduced by family and friends, Salaam quipped that he had “started from the bottom, now we here.” He posited that his campaign was for marginalized Harlemites that have been counted out and forgotten. He mused that he was “born” for such a job, to the cheers of gathered supporters.
He also made sure to allude to the trauma that has made such as imprint on his public image, saying that he was “kidnapped from his home as a 15 year-old child” and “lodged in the belly of the beast.” However, he reflected that he “was gifted to turn that experience into the womb of America. I was gifted to see for what it really was—a system that was trying to make me my ancestors’ wildest nightmare...but I am my ancestors’ wildest dream.” This was received with a roar of applause.
In a pointed jab at Donald Trump, who when then living in New York City during Salaam’s 1989 arrest and had taken out full-page ads advocating for the Five to receive the death penalty, Salaam added that “large ads [were] bought...a whisper for the state to kill us, a whisper into the darkest enclaves of society for them to do to us what they had done to Emmett Till.”
Filmmakers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, who directed a 2012 documentary on the Five, issued a statement congratulating Salaam on his win: “We spent a lot of time with Yusef when we were making our film earlier in this century, as we did with Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray and Raymond Santana. On screen we saw them as young men caught in an awful cycle of accusation and public anger. In life, we saw them as grown men who were remarkably able to forgive, to grow and to share their experiences in a way that allowed all of us to understand how racism impacted not just the criminal justice system and the media, but also so many of the institutions that rashly assumed their guilt.” They concluded by applauding “the people of Harlem for electing a man who has dedicated his life to reconciliation. There’s a lesson here for all of us.”