'Karma': Yusef Salaam, one of the falsely accused Central Park Five, reflects on Trump indictment

Trump has never apologized for taking out a full page newspaper ad that called for the death penalty for the wrongly accused defendants.

Yusef Salaam, one of the wrongly convicted
Yusef Salaam, one of the wrongly convicted "Central Park Five", looks on following a news conference announcing the payout for the case at City Hall in New York June 27, 2014. (UNITED STATES)

NEW YORK — Of the myriad press releases that candidates, elected officials and organizations published in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s indictment by a Manhattan grand jury on Thursday, none was more succinct than the one-word response issued by the campaign of Yusef Salaam, currently running to represent central Harlem on the New York City Council.

“Karma,” it read.

There were no paeans to the rule of law, no condemnations of Trump’s misdeeds, no vows about justice being served. Salaam didn’t need those. He and his campaign figured that people would get the message. That people would remember him as one of the Central Park Five, wrongly accused of raping and beating a woman in 1989 and sent to prison only to be exonerated after the actual perpetrator confessed to having committed the crime.

And they would remember how Trump, the brash young real estate mogul, took out an advertisement in the city’s newspapers that said the accused “should be forced to suffer” and deserved the death penalty — despite the fact that no trial had yet taken place.

“How can our great society,” Trump’s inflammatory ad read, “tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits?”

Trump’s attack on the suspects came as Manhattan prosecutors — working from the same storied Hogan Place offices now set to bring charges against the former president — prepared for trial. Long before he ever sought public office, Trump already knew how to capture and amplify public anxieties while ultimately focusing attention on himself.

“Trump played a big role in that,” Salaam told Yahoo News, referencing the widespread public belief at the time that the five young men — all of whom were Black or brown — had to be responsible for the brutal assault on the jogger.

From left, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson attend the unveiling of the
From left, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson attend the unveiling of the "Gate of the Exonerated" in Harlem, Dec. 19, 2022. (Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

At a Thursday media appearance, Salaam held up a copy of the infamous advertisement, preserved in a laminated sleeve but showing wear around its edges.

“Justice is always right on time,” he said.

The rape and beating happened at a time of rising crime across the city, a trend spurred by the crack epidemic and federal disinvestment in social services and public housing.

Salaam and his four co-defendants were depicted as an asocial “wolf pack.” Much of the press coverage carried a barely concealed racial animus. Patrick J. Buchanan, most recently President Ronald Reagan’s communications director, wrote in a column in which he advocated that “the eldest of that wolf pack” should be “tried, convicted and hanged in Central Park, by June 1.” The younger defendants, Buchanan offered, could merely be “stripped, horsewhipped and sent to prison.”

In 2002, however, a man named Matias Reyes, who was already in prison for murder and rape, confessed to the Central Park attack. Forensic methods that had been unavailable in 1989 confirmed that he was the attacker.

The Central Park Five were exonerated that year. In 2014, they settled with New York for $41 million.

In 2019, Netflix released “When They See Us,” a miniseries from celebrated director Ava DuVernay that dramatized the Central Park case and focused attention on flaws in the criminal justice system.

On the cusp of a massive social reckoning, society saw the Central Park Five — the Exonerated Five, as they came to be known — in a new light.

But not Trump. Speaking to Yahoo News at a Harlem café, Salaam said that he had once hoped that Trump would take out another ad, expressing regret for his initial involvement in the case.

“I was waiting for him to say, ‘Damn, I got it wrong,’” Salaam told Yahoo News. “‘Let me take out a full page ad apologizing.’”

Trump, however, rarely shows contrition or regret. “You have people on both sides of that,” Trump said in response to the renewed interest in the case engendered by the Netflix series.

Donald Trump
Trump speaking with reporters on his plane after a campaign rally in Waco, Texas, on Saturday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Salaam understood that waiting for Trump to come around was pointless. “I realized that all of that wanting was a ball and chain that I was carrying around,” he said in an interview over coffee. “I’ve already forgiven him.”

Fifteen years old when he was arrested, Salaam earned his high school and college degrees while in prison. He later became a writer and activist. Now 49, he has launched a political career, running against city council member Kristin Richardson Jordan, a socialist who favors defunding the police. Though an incumbent, she is unpopular in the district and is facing several challengers.

Despite his own harrowing experiences with law enforcement, Salaam retains no evident bitterness. “Policing is important,” he said. “But safe policing. Safe communities.” Instead of anger, he draws on spirituality.

Still, the possibility of trolling Trump was impossible to resist, especially since Salaam is an untested candidate facing a crowded Democratic primary. He needs all the attention he can get.

Thus, “Karma.”

The single-word release, which quickly became a viral sensation on social media, was the brainchild of Eric Koch, a veteran political strategist in New York who has worked on national and city campaigns, and now runs the firm Downfield Strategies.

Koch told Yahoo News that as soon as he learned of a potential indictment of the former president, he saw a way to highlight Salaam’s own unlikely journey, culminating in the poetic justice of watching his antagonist Trump face a courtroom reckoning of his own.

“It just came immediately,” Koch said.

Salaam, though is not especially preoccupied with Trump these days, was amenable to the idea. He just wants some evidence that laws apply to South Florida billionaires as thoroughly as they do to teenagers from Harlem.

“I truly want to be able to see the system do what it’s supposed to do,” Salaam said.