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Jun 30, 2023, 1:03pm EDT
politics

New York City wrongly imprisoned Yusef Salaam. Then it elected him.

Johnny Nunez/WireImage
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The News

Thirty-three summers ago, Yusef Salaam was convicted of crimes that he didn’t commit. He did not rape a jogger in Central Park. He reached adulthood in prison, like the rest of the “Central Park Five,” all of whom had their convictions vacated after another man confessed to the crime. And on Tuesday, Salaam won the Democratic primary for a seat on New York’s city council.

“I’ve been able to use my pain and turn it into purpose,” Salaam said in an interview this week, after defeating a longtime council member endorsed by Mayor Eric Adams. “What pushed everything over was people knowing I was so close to the pain — that I was, in fact, one of them. I’m one of the people who had been left behind.”

Salaam, who’d left New York after leaving prison in 1997, returned to Harlem and was approached to run for something. He had 10 children, decades of criminal justice advocacy, and some priorities, like getting the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to review more closed cases. And he was worried about Harlem, seeing “people who need to be repaired” injecting themselves with drugs and sleeping outside of expensive apartment buildings.

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He launched his campaign in February, laying out a progressive agenda: more affordable housing, “baby bonds” to build generational wealth, and protecting criminal justice reform from the current backlash. His first political conflict — the full-page ads that Donald Trump bought, in 1989 calling for him and four other boys wrongfully accused of rape to “be executed for their crimes.”

In 2016, Salaam called Trump the “firestarter” of a public smear campaign. Given multiple chances to apologize, during that campaign and his presidency, Trump never did. In fact, he continued to suggest they were guilty and that the city was wrong to settle a civil rights lawsuit over their treatment. (The Trump campaign didn’t respond to a question about Salaam’s win.)

Yet Trump would become an unwilling ally of Salaam’s campaign. On March 30, when Trump was indicted by Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, Salaam responded with a tweet: “Karma.” The candidate got a surge of media coverage and endorsements.

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On June 8, with early voting underway in New York, Trump was indicted again, and Salaam got more coverage, contrasting the way the justice system treated him with how it was handling a former president. Over the course of the race, the Salaam campaign clocked nearly 4,500 articles that mentioned their candidate. Just 90 mentioned Inez Dickens, the 73-year old state legislator and former council member Adams and other high-profile Black Democrats endorsed over Salaam.

“When all of the stars line up, you can’t control that,” Salaam said. “There is a statement in Islam: There’s no movement except by the permission of God.”

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David’s view

Stories like Salaam’s had powered the movement for police and criminal justice reform. Momentum for that cause ebbed in 2021, with Adams’ victory, and receded again in 2022, when Republicans made gains across New York while relentlessly blaming bail reform and other changes, like the end of stop-and-frisk, for rising crime.

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But on Tuesday, Salaam triumphed over a better-connected Democrat who’d raised more money, and over skepticism that someone who’d spent years outside the city could represent the district now.

“It’s not what you do when you tweet, it’s what you do on the streets,” Adams had said at a rally for Dickens.

Well-known progressive groups, like the Working Families Party, stayed out of the race, but Salaam’s story — honed by decades of public speaking and writing — was indelible. Reporters who walked precincts with him saw him get recognized, constantly. Dickens tried to outflank him on tricky issues, echoing Adams on how red states were creating an “adversarial situation between the asylum seekers and the Blacks” by shipping migrants up to the city.

“That narrative was very false and unjust for migrants,” Salaam said. “The language I heard from the other side was, like, ‘We don’t know their criminal history.’ These were families that were traveling with their children. They were fleeing oppression, they were fleeing murder. They were fleeing because of the conditions of the countries that they were in. And they walked tremendous distances to get to the borders of America, to be arrested, and to be put in prison as they waited for their paperwork.”

The city showed it could “solve for” a migrant influx, he said, by converting a prison in the district into temporary housing. Its next question should be how to “solve for” homelessness. Salaam was concerned by the reaction to the killing of Jordan Neely, a mentally disturbed subway performer, and the rush by some Republicans to call the U.S. Marine who had put him in a chokehold a “good Samaritan.”

“We can go right to the good book, and we can read about what a good Samaritan is,” Salaam said. “A good Samaritan wouldn’t relieve a person of their life.”

Some of the work ahead, said Salaam, was already knowable. Rikers Island was scheduled to close. Bail reform, which Republicans had campaigned to repeal, was still in effect. He would be advocating to keep reforms in place.

“We might find another Kalief Browder right now on Rikers Island, someone who needs to be released from prison because they were there unjustly,” said Salaam, referring to a Black teenager whose imprisonment, and subsequent suicide, led to a series of prison reforms. “We might find people who are in prison, in jail right now, who have the ability to be released because they were charged with petty crime, they just couldn’t afford their bail. They’re in prison, their families are being broken apart, they’re in jeopardy of losing their jobs.”

And then there was Trump, who’d be on trial as Salaam took office. “Donald Trump gets the opportunity to stay out of jail and defend himself because of the color of his skin, right?” he said. “He has the complexion for acceptance; therefore, he should be afforded every right under the law, the right to due process. We didn’t get that same treatment. My response has been to put up a mirror, not just to Donald Trump, but to America.”

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Notable

  • Erica Brosnan talked with Salaam at length for NY1, and Jeffrey C. Mays walked around Harlem with him, looking at how “in both Harlem and East New York, voters went from supporting self-described socialists to backing moderate Democrats.”
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