5 things to know about Yusef Salaam, newly elected NYC council member and one of the Exonerated Five

BY Preta Peace Namasaba November 14, 2023 3:32 PM EDT
Yusef Salaam. Photo credit: Pacific Lutheran University

Yusef Salaam has been elected to a seat on the New York City Council to represent the central Harlem district. A political newcomer, he was unopposed in the election and won the competitive Democratic primary with a landslide vote.

Salaam had initially considered running for office in 2021 but decided against it due to residency requirements. He moved from Georgia to New York City in 2022. Salaam has focused his campaign on championing justice and fairness, eradicating poverty, and charting a brighter future for Harlem.

Here are 5 things you should know about Yusef Salaam, the newly elected NYC council member.

1. Salaam is one of the Exonerated Five
Salaam was arrested at 15 alongside Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise in what came to be known as the Exonerated Five. The four Black boys and a Latino boy were accused of attacking a white woman running in Central Park. In a highly publicized rape trial, they were wrongly charged and convicted in 1990. Salaam spent nearly seven years in prison. The convictions of all five were overturned and the men exonerated in 2002. DNA evidence and a confession eventually connected a serial rapist and murderer to the crime. The Exonerated received a combined settlement of $41 million from New York City in 2014.

“For me, this means that we can really become our ancestors’ wildest dreams. I am really the ambassador for everyone’s pain. In many ways, I went through that for our people so I can now lead them.”

Yusef Salaam in The Associated Press

2. His story has been immortalised in film
Salaam’s character was featured in the 2012 documentary The Central Park Five. The film received the prestigious Peabody Award. His story was the subject of the critically acclaimed Netflix mini-series When They See Us. The drama was nominated for 16 Emmy Awards and won two. Oprah Winfrey who was an executive director of the miniseries released a companion special, titled Oprah Winfrey Presents When They See Us Now. She interviewed The Exonerated Five, the cast, and creator of the show. The miniseries was streamed by over 23 million viewers within its first month of release.

3. Salaam is a criminal justice reform activist
Of the Exonerated Five, Salaam has been one of the most vocal and publicly active members. He has dedicated himself to advocating and educating people on the issues of false confessions, police brutality and misconduct, press ethics and bias, race and law, and the disparities within the criminal justice system. He is a board member of the Innocence Project which works to free the wrongful convicted and create equitable systems of justice. Salaam will continue his advocacy for criminal justice reform as councilman.

4. He is a champion of the working class
Salaam worked as a construction worker in an apartment complex after his release from prison in 1997. He was fired when the company learnt of his identity. His life experiences have inspired him to ease poverty and combat gentrification in Harlem. He plans on relieving the challenges that his voters encounter daily such as hunger, housing security, economic insecurity, and public safety, among others.

“To be silenced and rendered mute because the narrative against us was so loud, was the most painful thing to go through. You start to believe the negative hateful things said about yourself. To see where we have come to is tremendous and powerful. Our platform is now a global stage. I’m grateful to now be a beacon of hope in the darkness in the world.”

Yusef Salaam in Florida International University

5. He is a creative artist
From childhood, Salaam wrote rhymes and wanted to be a hip-hop artist. He wrote and read a poem entitled “I Stand Accused” when he received his sentence. He credits art as something that helped him live through incarceration. He has published numerous literary works following his release. Salaam is the author of Punching the Air, Words of a Man: My Right to be, and Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice.