From Rikers Island to City Hall: Yusef Salaam’s Ultimate Exoneration

From Rikers Island to City Hall: Yusef Salaam’s Ultimate Exoneration

From Rikers Island to City Hall: Yusef Salaam’s Ultimate Exoneration

Falsely imprisoned as one of the “Central Park Five,” Yusef Salaam will likely become Harlem’s next city council member. His top antagonist, Donald Trump, is likely heading to prison.

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Yusef Salaam strode into Harlem Tavern wearing a pinstriped suit, a bow tie, and an enigmatic smile. Only when he recognized an older Black woman in the crowd outside the bar did he show elation. He drew her into a hug and lifted her into the air, joyously.

The video of that moment is exhilarating. Local news had just declared him the surprise winner of Harlem’s ninth district city council seat.

The 49-year-old is a member of the Exonerated Five, five Black teens wrongly imprisoned by a city frothing to avenge a white female jogger raped in Central Park in 1989.

His victory was a clear rebuke to twice impeached former president Donald Trump, who took out full-page ads in 1989 in major papers, including The New York Times, demanding the death penalty for the five young men. Defense attorneys said after their clients were convicted that the Trump crusade played a big role in cementing public opinion against them. Then, after the actual rapist confessed in 2002, the five were freed, and the city paid them $41 million in 2014 to settle a lawsuit for malicious prosecution and racial discrimination. Trump called the settlement “a disgrace,” and continued to insist, deplorably, that they were guilty while he was running for president in 2016.

Salaam looks to be headed to City Hall; Trump might well be headed to prison, federally charged with espionage.

“This campaign has been about those who have been counted out, those who have been forgotten,” Salaam said at his victory party at Harlem Tavern, where he decidedly did not mention Trump. “I am here because, Harlem, you believed in me.”

Salaam’s victory was also a rebuke to Mayor Eric Adams, the crime-exaggerating, immigrant-scapegoating bane of New York progressives. In a fiery speech at Harlem’s Harriet Tubman statue, just across from the 28th Precinct police station, the former cop endorsed centrist Assemblywoman Inez Dickens, widely considered the well-funded favorite in the race, as did Representative Adriano Espaillat. Salaam had few high-profile endorsements despite his fame, though one establishment figure, Manhattan Democratic leader Keith Wright backed him; his son, Jordan, was Salaam’s campaign manager. The Working Families Party didn’t endorse him, nor did the Democratic Socialists of America, or any comparable progressive groups active in local politics (I could have missed someone, I admit.)

His platform is vaguely progressive, with the emphasis on vague: What does it mean to “right-size the scope of the NYPD”?

One local progressive political operative told me, “We couldn’t figure out what his coalition was, what forces he was aligning,” though they and other progressives applaud his win wholeheartedly, and the council’s Progressive Caucus is set to reach out to him, if it hasn’t already. But Tuesday night’s outcome is not so much a victory of left over right as a defeat for the inbred, ultimately ineffectual Harlem machine.

Oh, and the criminal justice machine that wrongly convicted and imprisoned Salaam, which has been reined in and reformed, but insufficiently. That was the moral center of his campaign.

The woman who first showed that the Harlem machine could be beaten, incumbent city council member Kristen Richardson Jordan, unexpectedly dropped out of the race in May. Two years ago, the Black lesbian poet-activist knocked off longtime Harlem politico Bill Perkins, who barely campaigned for the seat, thanks to the debut of ranked choice voting, which let voters pick more than one candidate. The democratic socialist came in second on primary night that year, but beat Perkins in the runoff, on a platform of police and prison abolition, community mutual support, and “radical love.”

A former radical turned machine pol, Perkins had earlier served in the council from 1998 to 2005, when he went to the state Senate until 2016. Then, when Inez Dickens, who succeeded him in the city council, resigned to run for state Assembly that year, Perkins won back his old seat. It was that kind of insular Harlem-machine seat-shifting—Perkins to Dickens to Perkins again—that Salaam beat by defeating Dickens. (Perkins died in May of this year.) But Jordan got there first.

Although I had interviewed her several times during her short tenure, Richardson Jordan did not return my e-mail. (Salaam’s campaign manager, Jordan Wright, didn’t return my texts.) She hasn’t given interviews about her decision not to run again. “Thank you for seeing the true possibility for radical love in the loveless land of politics,” she wrote to supporters on Instagram.

As a police and prison abolitionist, her views didn’t represent mainstream Harlem voters. When two police officers were murdered in her district in early 2022, she expressed sorrow for their families but also for the accused killer’s. That was the first time The New York Times deigned to profile the upstart, in a harshly critical piece calling that “messaging…vastly out-of-step with many of her fellow Democrats.” A right-wing New York Post columnist depicted her as a would-be cop killer herself. “It’s really, really hard not to picture a thought bubble over this bitter woman’s head: ‘One cop down, 35,999 to go,’” he wrote. Richardson Jordan received death threats; her political career probably died in that political firestorm.

There were other issues: Developers and building trades unions opposed her for blocking a long-planned affordable housing development, Bruce Teitelbaum’s One45 project, which she said was insufficiently affordable. She also reportedly missed half of her committee meetings. Salaam has not come out for or against Teitelbaum’s revised One45 proposal.

There’s a slim chance absentee ballots could force Salaam into a runoff, probably with Dickens, though he’d almost certainly win it since she ran 25 points behind him. Come November, local Republicans couldn’t beat him in Harlem even if they put up Kanye West or RFK Jr.

On Tuesday night, Salaam said his victory was for “our Harlem community, who has been pushed into the margins of life and made to believe that they were supposed to be there.” The man who so wrongly spent seven years in prison described being “kidnapped from my home” at age 15, and being made to believe “I was my ancestors’ worst nightmare.… But I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams. What has happened in our campaign restored my faith in knowing: I was born for this.”

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