Rising from the Abyss, to Winning an Election in America! Who is Yusef Salaam – the Exonerated “Central Park Five” Defendant?

A story of injustice, redemption and triumph

In 1989, a brutal crime shook New York City to its core. A young woman, known as the “Central Park jogger,” was raped and left for dead in the iconic Central Park. What followed was one of the most frenzied and controversial cases in the city’s history, involving five teens from Harlem who would become collectively known as the “Central Park Five.” Among them was Yusef Salaam, a fifteen-year-old whose life was about to take a tragic and dramatic turn.

Yusef Salaam, along with Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, were coerced into confessing to the crime after enduring grueling 30-hour interrogations. These four black and one Latino teenager were indicted on charges including attempted murder, rape, assault, and rioting. Donald Trump, then a local real estate developer, even took out full-page ads in major newspapers, calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty for the accused teens.

After a six-week-long trial, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, and Raymond Santana were convicted of the attack, despite glaring inconsistencies between their confessions and the actual facts of the case. In December 1990, Korey Wise and Kevin Richardson were also convicted. However, in a dramatic turn of events on June 12, 2002, a known rapist named Matias Reyes confessed to the Central Park Jogger attack. The DNA evidence from the rape kit matched Reyes, leading to the overturning of the Five’s convictions on December 19, 2002.

While justice had been served, the damage inflicted upon Yusef Salaam and the others was irreparable. They had spent between seven to 13 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Their lives had been unjustly stolen from them, and the scars would forever remain. In a subsequent internal review, the NYPD claimed no wrongdoing on the part of its officers, despite the overturned convictions.

However, the story of Yusef Salaam does not end with injustice. He emerged from his wrongful imprisonment with an unwavering spirit and a determination to make a difference. Over the past two decades, he has become a family man, a father, a poet, an activist, and an inspirational speaker. Yusef has utilized his platform to share his story, educating the public about the profound impact of mass incarceration and police brutality ingrained in our justice system.

As an advocate for criminal justice reform, prison reform, and the abolition of juvenile solitary confinement and capital punishment, Yusef Salaam passionately fights to restore the “humanity” of those incarcerated and to rectify the injustices that have plagued our society. His efforts have earned him recognition and respect, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama in 2016.

More recently, Yusef Salaam made headlines of a different kind. In a surprising turn, he declared victory in the Democratic primary for central Harlem, positioning himself as a potential New York City councilman. Salaam, an insurgent candidate and a father of ten, believed that by entering politics, he could make a significant impact in the community he has always called home.

His primary win virtually assures him of a victory in the general election, given the district’s inclination towards Democratic candidates. Salaam’s journey from a victim of injustice to a potential public servant is a testament to his resilience, determination, and commitment to effecting change.

Salaam, a practicing Muslim, attributes his victory to the belief that he was destined for a greater purpose. In a speech to his supporters, he expressed how his campaign had renewed his faith in his calling. He viewed his time spent incarcerated as a unique gift that enabled him to witness firsthand the racial inequalities within the criminal justice system. Salaam’s voice, tempered by personal experience, resonated with the people of Harlem, leading to an outpouring of support during the primary election.

On the night of the primary election, Yusef Salaam emerged as the clear winner, securing 50% of the votes with 98% of scanners reporting. His closest rival, state Assemblywoman Inez Dickens, trailed far behind with 25% of the votes. The third candidate, pastor Al Taylor, garnered only 14%. Salaam’s unexpected triumph signifies a desire for change and a rejection of traditional political establishments. His win demonstrates the trust that the people of Harlem have placed in him to advocate for their concerns and fight for their rights.

Throughout his campaign, Yusef Salaam championed an “Equity & Empowerment Agenda” focused on crucial issues such as housing and criminal justice reform. He pledged to address the over-policing and mass incarceration that disproportionately affects marginalized communities. Salaam vowed to reshape the scope of the NYPD, collaborate with public and private sectors to create high-paying jobs, and incentivize local businesses to hire from within the community. Affordable housing and homelessness prevention were also high on his agenda, aiming to restore dignity to the lives of those most affected.

What sets Salaam apart from other candidates is his unique perspective and personal journey. While all contenders emphasized the importance of affordable housing, controlling gentrification, and alleviating poverty, Salaam capitalized on his celebrity status and personal experiences. He firmly believes that his voice represents the struggles and aspirations of the Harlem community. Salaam’s lack of a political track record served as an advantage, as he positioned himself as a fresh voice that can offer new solutions to age-old problems. He has demonstrated his dedication to fighting for freedom, justice, and equality throughout his 34-year association with the Central Park jogger case.

As he moves forward in his political career, Yusef Salaam remains guided by his unwavering dedication to the fight for freedom, justice, and equality. He offers a new voice, one that speaks from personal experience and can shed light on the struggles faced by his community. Salaam recognizes the importance of family and community, seeing them as the nucleus of a thriving society.

His story resonates with people from all walks of life, inspiring hope and igniting a collective desire for a fairer and more just world. Yusef Salaam’s journey, from wrongful conviction to political candidacy, reminds us that triumph can emerge from the darkest of circumstances and that the power to effect change lies within us all.

Yusef Salaam’s victory in the Democratic primary virtually guarantees his success in the general election, as the district is unlikely to elect a Republican representative. As he prepares for the November election, Salaam remains focused on listening to the needs of the people and engaging with the community. By prioritizing direct interaction and understanding the challenges faced by Harlem residents, he aims to build a strong foundation for positive change. Salaam’s commitment to his family and community, along with his unwavering determination to address pressing issues, bodes well for his future as a councilman.

Yusef Salaam, member of the Exonerated Five, speaks during the Players Technology Summit in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Top leaders in the tech community and venture capital met with professional athletes to exchange ideas and share expertise through panels, discussions and interactive networking to help athletes take control of their careers as business professionals. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Yusef Salaam’s triumph in the Democratic primary for central Harlem signals a significant turning point in his life and the lives of those he will represent. His victory serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of justice. Salaam’s journey from wrongful conviction to political candidacy is a testament to his unwavering dedication to fighting for a fairer society. As he assumes the role of New York City councilman, Salaam has the opportunity to bring about meaningful change, advocate for the marginalized, and serve as a beacon of hope for his community and beyond.

As Yusef Salaam looks toward the November election, his campaign remains focused on connecting with the people and addressing their needs. He understands that unity and genuine engagement are key to overcoming the divides that plague society. Salaam’s commitment to being on the ground, listening to the residents of Harlem, and advocating for their concerns demonstrates his dedication to making a lasting impact.

Yusef Salaam’s story is a powerful reminder that even in the face of unimaginable adversity, the human spirit can prevail. He stands as a symbol of resilience, redemption, and the relentless pursuit of justice. Through his advocacy, he seeks to ensure that no one else falls victim to the injustices he and the Central Park Five endured. Yusef Salaam’s journey is an inspiration to us all, urging us to confront and dismantle the systemic flaws in our society, and work towards a future where justice and equality prevail.


Joseph Omoniyi