Yusef Salaam

New York City Council candidate Yusef Salaam speaks on June 1, 2023 in New York City.

(Photo: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Stonyfield)

'Incredible': Central Park Five Exoneree Yusef Salaam Declares Victory in NYC Council Primary

"I was 15 years old when I was run over by the spiked wheels of justice. And here I am now taking that same platform and turning it into a purpose, trying to take my pain and doing something about it."

Yusef Salaam—one of the Central Park Five teenagers who spent years behind bars before being exonerated for a rape they did not commit—declared victory Tuesday night in his Democratic primary race for a New York City Council seat representing Harlem and other parts of Upper Manhattan.

Although the outcome of Tuesday's contest may not be officially finalized for days due to New York City voting rules, with more than 99% of votes counted, Salaam leads state Assemblymember Inez Dickens, his closest competitor in a crowded contest for the 9th Council District seat, by more than 2,700 ballots, according to the city's Board of Elections.

The 49-year-old poet, activist, inspirational speaker, and father of 10 children is all but guaranteed to win November's general election in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.

"Started from the bottom, now I'm here," Salaam—who ran on a progressive platform—told supporters during his victory speech.

"This campaign has been about those who have been counted out. This campaign has been about those who have been forgotten," Salaam continued. "This campaign has been about our Harlem community, who has been pushed into the margins of life and made to believe that they were supposed to be there."

"What has happened, in this campaign, has restored my faith in knowing that I was born for this," he added. "I am here because, Harlem, you believed in me."

Supporters hailed Salaam's unlikely rise to the halls of power, with fellow Central Park Five exoneree Raymond Santana tweeting, "From hated to most loved."

Sherrilyn Ifill, former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, called Salaam's apparent victory "a gift NYC doesn't deserve" that "can never balance what this city did to him."

Filmmaker Ken Burns, who along with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon made the 2012 documentary feature The Central Park Five, said he's "hopeful that young people everywhere will appreciate the poetry and justice in this victory."

Bernice King, CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, tweeted one of her father's best-known quotes, "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

Questioned about his lack of political experience earlier Tuesday outside a polling place, Salaam said that he believes being a political novice is "a great thing."

"I was 15 years old when I was run over by the spiked wheels of justice," Salaam told reporters. "And here I am now taking that same platform and turning it into a purpose, trying to take my pain and doing something about it."

In April 1989 Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Santana, and Salaam were arrested following the beating and rape of a woman jogging in Central Park. The five Black and Latino teens were beaten, deprived of food, drink, and sleep, and otherwise coerced by New York City Police Department officers into falsely confessing to the rape. They were tried, convicted, and spent years behind bars for a crime they did not commit.

Salaam, who was 15 years old when his life was turned upside down, was imprisoned for six years and eight months before his exoneration.

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump, then just a New York businessman, spent $85,000—more than $200,000 today—on full-page ads in the city's four major newspapers calling for the restoration of capital punishment so that the Central Park Five could be executed.

Salaam reacted to Trump's March indictment on 34 felony counts in connection with alleged hush money payments to women who say the former president had sex with them by buying a full-page New York Times ad of his own.

"Now that you have been indicted and are facing criminal charges, I do not resort to hatred, bias, or racism—as you once did," Salaam's ad said. "Even though 34 years ago you effectively called for my death and the death of four other innocent children, I wish you no harm."

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