By Helen Shamamyan
NEW YORK CITY, NY – Yusef Salaam achieved a major victory for the community of the wrongfully prosecuted this week when he won election to a seat on the New York City Council.
After spending nearly seven years in prison in a 1989 rape case of a jogger in Central Park as a young man, the convictions of Salaam and four other minority men were overturned as a result of an admission of guilt by the true perpetrator and recovered DNA evidence decades later.
Running for the seat unopposed, Salaam’s position symbolizes the racial tensions of the city spanning decades after the “war on crime” was declared, with society and police targeting predominantly black and Latino males as the source of these crimes, according to an article published by the Felony Murder Elimination Project.
The article states Salaam and his fellow men were indicted for the rape of a woman jogging through Central Park, spanning over a decade before the re-examination of evidence lead to their exoneration.
Salaam said he serves as an “ambassador for everyone’s pain,” stating, “I went through that for our people so I can now lead them.”
Amani Onyioha, who played a major part in Salaam’s campaigning, suggests the public “saw him as a survivor…he was vindicated and the system eventually ended up working out for him.”
Consistent with this statement, Carnation Fance said they voted for him because “he comes from the neighborhood, and he was incarcerated, then turned himself around… He’s trying to do something for the people.”
According to an article on the Felony Murder Elimination Project website, Salaam will serve as the Democratic representative for a central Harlem District.
Salaam said he plans to make significant changes to combat gentrification and ease the poverty rate in the predominantly black district, citing his false imprisonment and conviction as a testimony to his experiences with injustice towards the Black community.
Salaam, who ran unopposed, had won a commanding victory in a contested Democratic primary in June. He defeated two sitting members of the New York State Assembly. The Democratic incumbent who currently holds the Council seat, Kristin Richardson Jordan, dropped out of the race before the primary.
Salaam, 49, “spoke frequently during his campaign about his conviction, exoneration and persecution by former President Donald J. Trump, who took out full-page ads in The New York Times and other papers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in response to the case of the Central Park jogger,” reported the New York Times.
Salaam said Tuesday night that it was ironic that as he was elected to the Council, Mr. Trump was facing multiple criminal charges, noting, “Karma is real, and we have to remember that,” he said in an interview.
During his troubles, Trump’s racist rantings only inflamed those tensions against Salaam and others wrongfully charged.
The NY Times reported, “Salaam said he harbored no ill feelings toward the former president as he faces his own legal cases — only a desire for justice,” and said, “I hope he gets treated the way we did not. They judged us guilty before we had a fair trial.”
“Speaking from his crowded victory party, Mr. Salaam said the story of his wrongful conviction, the nearly seven years he served in prison, his exoneration and his efforts to reform the criminal justice system were why Harlem residents connected with him,” said the NY Times.
That life experience, he said, “guides me and informs me and allows me to be a humble servant for the people. Our participation in the greater good can move us to be a community that works together, organizes together and has a vision that is inclusive, rather than exclusive.”
The NY Times writes, “Salaam is a moderate Democrat, unlike his predecessor (Jordan), a democratic socialist and among the most left-leaning members of the Council. She took strong leftist positions on housing development and the war in Ukraine but did not have the support of many progressive organizations and failed to show up for more than half of her committee meetings.