3 questions for Yusef Salaam, the member of the exonerated 'Central Park 5' now elected to office in NYC

After spending seven years in prison as a teen for a crime he never committed, Salaam sees his latest foray into politics as an opportunity for redemption.

Yusef Salaam.
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NEW YORK — Yusef Salaam, an exonerated member of the “Central Park Five,” believes everything in his life has happened for a reason. More than two decades after spending the majority of his teenage years behind bars for a crime he never committed, Salaam declared victory Wednesday in a Democratic primary race for a New York City Council seat in Harlem.

“I call this story a love story between God and his people,” Salaam, 49, told Yahoo News. His win almost guarantees he’ll win the general election in the heavily Democratic district.

For many of his supporters, the political newcomer’s win represents a shift in a neighborhood with a long history of backing the political establishment, which critics claim historically got little done for the most marginalized. For Salaam, an activist and father of 10 who has vowed to dramatically improve the quality of life in Harlem, the win represents destiny.

“We've been in pain for a long time, and we need to be restored,” he said.

Yusef Salaam, hand on heart, poses in a crowd in Central Park on a cold day, wearing sunglasses, black gloves, a black wool coat and a gray and black checkered scarf.
Salaam at the unveiling of the "Gate of the Exonerated" in Harlem on Dec. 19, 2022. The gate honors the Central Park Five — Black and Latino teenagers who were wrongly convicted for the 1989 rape of a jogger in Manhattan's Central Park. (Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

'Central Park 5' case

Salaam was one of five teenagers in 1989 — then just 14 — who were wrongfully arrested and imprisoned for the rape and assault of a jogger in New York City’s Central Park. The group infamously became known as the “Central Park Five,” and Donald Trump, known then as a brash real estate mogul, boosted the national profile of the case that year, after taking out full-page advertisements in several major city papers, including the New York Times, calling for New York to adopt the death penalty before any of the teens had faced trial.

The five young men were exonerated in 2002, when DNA evidence linked another person to the crime. They sued New York City, and the case was later settled. But the lives of the young men, and many of their hopes and dreams, had already been upended.

Yusef Salaam, in suit and tie, is flanked by NYPD officers, as a news reporter points a video camera at him.
In a photo taken around 2000, Salaam, who was then accused of the rape of a Central Park jogger but was later exonerated with the other members of the Central Park Five, enters the Manhattan Supreme Court building. (Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Salaam, who left New York City for Georgia in 2016, nearly two decades after he was released from prison in 1997, returned to Harlem last December in hopes of revitalizing the community that had helped to shape him. With a focus on increasing affordable housing, mental health access and better public safety, Salaam suggests, there is no reason why Harlem can’t regain the allure for which it was known worldwide in the 1920s.

“Harlem is known around the world as the Black mecca,” he said. “Harlem is such a special place in Black society, because it created the first Renaissance. Imagine if we got the opportunity to create this second Harlem Renaissance. How beautiful, how magnificent, how powerful would that be?”

In the kickoff edition of a new series, Yahoo News asked Yusef Salaam 3 Questions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

1. You called former President Trump’s recent legal woes “karma,” alluding to the fact that he called for the execution of the Central Park Five in 1989. Yet decades later, he’s the Republican frontrunner for a third straight time, and some Black Americans think he’s the best option. What would you say to Black Americans, and more specifically Black men, who might consider voting for him in 2024?

Yusef Salaam: The worst part about having a choice in America is that we don't groom ourselves to be those in leadership. We tend to believe we have only what is presented in front of us, and as a part of that, there's an assumption that we can be just like Trump. I remember years ago, when I heard one of my favorite rappers, Nas, say, “I want to be rich like Trump.” Truth is, we could never be a Trump, because a Trump has the complexion for acceptance, whereas a Yusef has the complexion for rejection. Because that's how the system sees us.

If we look at the history of Donald Trump as it relates not just to me — forget the fact that we're talking about his [failed] record as a landlord and a businessperson and so forth — not all experience is good experience. But that's the only choice we think we have.

When we look at people like Donald Trump, he represents, very clearly, white supremacy and white male dominance. He may not say that himself, of course, but look at the people he surrounds himself with in his campaign and the fact that they want to galvanize their base. … So to those Black men and those Black women who are looking at Trump as the answer, they have to also become educated.

2. Crime is a major concern for people across the country, and especially Harlem residents. Though you tout public safety improvements, a recent Pew survey shows that the biggest racial justice movement, Black Lives Matter, is steadily losing support. Where does the justice reform movement go from here?

The justice reform movement has to keep its mind on the prize. The prize has always been to ensure the fact that there is true justice, because the opposite of justice is what we've been experiencing in America. Dr. James Baldwin has always said, “To be African American is to be African without memory and American without privilege.” And so here we are, in a situation where we have no privilege in America. Now, it's an opportunity to continue to remain on task and to stay on point.

If you only look at it as a moment, then we will lose sight of what's really at stake. We have to do the tremendous work of nation-building movements. It's movement time. When we do that work, then what we're doing is planning: Instead of just for the weekend, we begin to plan 50-year to 100-year cycles.

3. In a New Yorker video interview five years ago, you quoted Nelson Mandela, who said that being angry and bitter “is like drinking poison and expecting the enemy to die,” adding that it does nothing to the person and does everything to you. But you also said your experiences still haunt you. What does freedom, both personally and professionally, look like to you?

Freedom is the ability to be able to reach your purpose, to find your purpose, and to be able to be on task. I've always said that I represent the microcosm of the macrocosm of cases and stories just like mine. It's just the beauty of our story that we've had a magnifying glass that put a spotlight on it and a megaphone attached to it.

The worst part about it is to have your life interrupted in such a terrible way. And to feel like you were born a mistake, to feel like you are not worthy. To be able to be truly free is to know that you were born on purpose and then that you have a purpose. When that purpose becomes more clear and you're able to assume the leadership position in your own life, that is true freedom. That is true justice. That is true equality.