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Yusef Salaam, a member of the ‘Central Park Five,’ a group of Black and Brown teenagers wrongly accused and imprisoned for the rape of a White woman in Central Park in 1989, has announced his candidacy for the New York City Council.

Salaam, now 49 years old, aims to secure a position as a member of the City Council, despite having been wrongfully incarcerated by the very system he seeks to be a part of, according to the Associated Press.

In an interview at his campaign office, Salaam emphasizes the importance of including individuals who have experienced similar pain at decision-making tables.

He faces formidable competition in the upcoming June 27 Democratic primary, which will likely determine the representative for Harlem, a district that traditionally leans Democratic.

His opponents, Al Taylor and Inez Dickens, are seasoned political veterans, both New York Assembly members who have previously represented Harlem on the City Council.

Salaam, along with his fellow exonerees Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, collectively known as the “Exonerated Five,” served between five and 12 years in prison before their convictions were overturned in 2002.

DNA evidence linked another man, a serial rapist, to the crime, leading to their eventual exoneration.

With a profound understanding of the struggles faced by his community, Salaam is determined to address the significant challenges that burden the district including entrenched poverty, high rent, and elevated rates of homelessness among children. “Here we are 34 years later, and I’m able to use the platform that I have and repurpose the pain, helping people as we climb out of despair,” Salaam said.

However, his opponents argue that Salaam lacks the necessary knowledge of local government to effectively tackle these complex issues. They contend that as a newcomer, he would not have sufficient time to learn the intricacies of the job and reconnect with the community after his time away in Stockbridge, Georgia, following his release from prison.

 “No one should go through what my opponent went through, especially as a child. Years later, after he returns to New York, Harlem is in crisis. We don’t have time for a freshman to learn the job, learn the issues, and re-learn the community he left behind for Stockbridge, Georgia,” Dickens said.

Salaam’s fame as a member of the Central Park Five undoubtedly provides him with an advantage in the race, as people can relate to the horrific experiences he endured within an unjust prison system. However, Taylor acknowledges that Salaam’s story is just one among many similar stories within the Black community.

Salaam’s past is inextricably attached to his present

One Harlem voter, Raynard Gadson, recognizes the importance of Salaam’s perspective and passion for addressing systemic issues at the local level, considering what he has personally endured. “I don’t think there’s anybody more passionate about challenging systemic issues on the local level in the name of justice because of what he went through,” Gadson stated.

During a recent televised debate, Salaam repeatedly referenced his arrest, prompting Taylor to mention his own arrest at the age of 16, which resulted in a dismissed charge. Salaam emphasized that all candidates share common goals, such as affordable housing, safe streets, improved policing, job opportunities, and quality education. 

However, he believes his unique voice and firsthand experiences with his community’s struggles set him apart. While Salaam acknowledges his lack of political experience, he proudly cites his 34-year track record of fighting for freedom, justice, and equality in the Central Park jogger case.

Harlem is heating up

All three candidates have garnered significant endorsements. Salaam has the support of prominent Black activist Cornell West, while Dickens is endorsed by New York City Mayor Eric Adams and former New York U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel. Taylor has the backing of the Carpenter’s Union.

During a campaign rally for Dickens, Rangel initially made a comment about Salaam’s “foreign name.” Salaam promptly affirmed his identity on social media as a son of Harlem. According to the Associated Press, a spokesperson for the Dickens campaign revealed that Rangel and Salaam have since resolved the conflict.

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An apology from Donald Trump, who placed newspaper ads calling for the death penalty before the Central Park Five’s trial in 1989, remains unlikely. When asked about apologizing in 2019, Trump made controversial remarks.

In response to Trump’s recent indictment in New York for falsifying business records, Salaam cleverly mocked him on social media.

He created an ad visually resembling Trump’s “Bring Back The Death Penalty” advertisement and tweeted, “Over 30 years ago, Donald Trump took out full-page ads calling for my execution.” The headline of Salaam’s ad read: “Bring Back Justice & Fairness.”