Central Park Five member Yusef Salaam wins city council primary

Exonerated in an infamous rape case, Salaam made a successful bid for the Democratic nod in New York’s Central Harlem.

A man in a suit and tie speaks. Behind him are a set of window blinds.
Newcomer Yusef Salaam surpassed veteran politicians to win the Democratic primary for New York City Council [File: Mary Altaffer/AP Photo]

Yusef Salaam, who gained international attention as one of the wrongfully accused teens in the Central Park Five case, has emerged victorious in the Democratic primary for a seat on the New York City Council.

The Associated Press declared Salaam the winner on Wednesday, after additional votes confirmed his lead.

The 49-year-old Salaam had quickly pulled ahead during the primary election, held on June 27, tallying just more than the 50-percent threshold by the evening’s end.

“I am here because, Harlem, you believed in me,” Salaam told supporters in a victory speech on election day. His closest rival, veteran New York Assembly member Inez Dickens, conceded that same night.

Because of the city’s ranked-choice voting system, the original count was provisional.

Wednesday’s tally — which includes absentee ballots — all but assures the political newcomer of a seat on the city council, representing District 9, the heavily Democratic area of Central Harlem.

A man poses for a cellphone photo with a constituent on the streets of New York City.
Yusef Salaam campaigned on issues like affordable housing and criminal justice reform in his inaugural bid for public office [File: Mary Altaffer/AP Photo]

Salaam first shot to fame as a 15-year-old, when he was arrested for the assault and rape of a white woman jogging through New York’s Central Park.

He was one of five Black and Latino teens taken into custody for the attack. Known as the Central Park Five, the teens said they were coerced into making false confessions, which they later recanted.

The brutality of the crime, however, generated widespread outcry — and a pressure to convict.

In advance of their trial, in 1989, then-businessman Donald Trump, the future Republican president, placed full-page advertisements in newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty.

“How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits?” Trump wrote in the nearly 600-word advertisement.

All five teenagers were ultimately convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Salaam served nearly seven years incarcerated. Another defendant, Korey Wise, spent more than 13 years behind bars.

Five men stand on stage, in front of a screen, some of them lifting a fist in solidarity.
The Central Park Five — Raymond Santana Jr, from left, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Antron McCray — speak on stage at the 2019 BET Awards [File: Mike Blake/Reuters]

But in the early 2000s, another suspect — a serial rapist — confessed to committing the crime alone. His DNA was later matched to the case, and in 2002, all five teenagers were exonerated.

The city of New York ultimately paid them a combined $41m in compensation.

Their case has come to exemplify failures in the criminal justice system, with TV specials like the Ken Burns documentary The Central Park Five and Ava DuVernay’s miniseries When They See Us chronicling what happened.

After his release, Salaam moved to the southern state of Georgia and became a criminal justice reform advocate, as well as a writer and motivational speaker.

He recently moved back to New York in December to launch his first campaign for public office.

“You’ll always get judged by the colour of your skin, and not the content of your character,” Salaam told the TV show CBS Mornings on Wednesday, reflecting on his experiences in the criminal justice system.

“The law says, ‘Innocent until proven guilty,’” he said. “But in our communities, you’re seen as guilty, and the system is just going to play itself out.”

He told the show’s hosts he hoped to “reflect light” in his role as a public figure.

A tall man in a navy suit speaks to young volunteers — in hoodies, pullover sweaters, shorts and backpacks — under some scaffolding outside in New York City.
Yusef Salaam, left, talks to campaign volunteers in May, as he makes his first-ever bid for public office [File: Mary Altaffer/AP Photo]

Salaam and his rivals in the Democratic primary — Dickens and her fellow assembly member Al Taylor — all campaigned on issues of affordable housing, gentrification and poverty.

Salaam dubbed his platform the “Equity & Empowerment Agenda”, with an emphasis on increased social welfare programmes, small business incentives and a greener environment.

But his history as part of the Central Park Five connected with voters in his Central Harlem district.

“He comes from the neighbourhood, and he was incarcerated, then turned himself around,” one resident, Carnation France, told The Associated Press. “He’s trying to do something for the people.”

As of July 3, the New York City Board of Elections had Salaam leading with 63.8 percent of the vote, ahead of Dickens, his next closest rival, with 36.2 percent.

In a June interview with the New York Times, Salaam indicated his status as a political newcomer was no coincidence. “I think this election is largely about change,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies