Yusef Salaam stood at the front of the City Council Chamber in Lower Manhattan with his right hand raised and his left hand on the Quran that his mother gave him when he was 15 years old and standing trial for a crime he did not commit. Its pages, filled with notes and bookmarks, were kept intact by a cloth cover that Mr. Salaam made during nearly seven years in prison.
Surrounded by relatives including his wife, mother, sister and some of his children, Mr. Salaam was asked by Michael McSweeney, the city clerk, to repeat an oath.
With each passage that Mr. McSweeney recited and Mr. Salaam repeated, their voices took on volume and urgency: “I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York,” Mr. Salaam said. “I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of council member of the ninth district, in the borough and county of New York, in the City of New York, according to the best of my ability.”
“Council Member Salaam,” Mr. McSweeney said, “Congratulations.”
Mr. Salaam’s family broke into cheers. He placed his hand over his heart.
It was one day and 21 years after his exoneration from a first-degree rape conviction in a case so brutal that it had stunned a crime-weary city and aligned New York’s political, law enforcement and media establishment squarely against him and his co-defendants.
In 1990, Mr. Salaam was sent to prison as one of the “Central Park Five.” This summer, he beat two incumbent State Assembly members in a Democratic primary and officially won the Council seat in an uncontested election in November. He will take office on New Year’s Day.
Mr. Salaam is a political neophyte whose skill as an operator within the byzantine universe of the city’s municipal government is completely untested. “I’m not a part of that world,” he acknowledged. “It takes time.”
His value to his constituents in Harlem is not measured, at least not yet, by a talent for weighing policy matters or solving neighborhood problems.
He brings to his community the power and the symbolism of his own life story. “Everything — every single thing — that I experienced has prepared me for this,” Mr. Salaam said before being sworn in on Dec. 20. “I needed to be in the belly of the beast, because now I can see that those who are closest to the pain need to have a seat at the table.”
Mr. Salaam is escorted into the State Supreme Courthouse in Manhattan in 1990. He served seven years in prison before being exonerated.Credit…James Estrin for The New York Times
Those who have followed the story closely, watching Mr. Salaam’s rise from a powerless member of the Central Park Five to an elected official in the very city that wronged him so terribly, appreciate the astonishing arc of his life.
“This is what justice looks like,” said Ken Burns, one of the directors of the 2012 “Central Park Five” documentary that told the hard-to-stomach story of the arrest, conviction and exoneration, weaving together interviews with the five men and details about the conduct of the police and the press.
“It is a testament to the resilience of the man who is about to take this position, and I think we can only just stand in awe,” Mr. Burns said.
For the other men who made up the Central Park Five — “my brothers,” as Mr. Salaam refers to Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Antron McCray — it is “a full-circle moment,” said Mr. Santana.
“There is a lot of emotion in knowing that we are all these years later still trying to make a difference, still trying to give back,” he said.
Does New York deserve the effort?
“Not at all,” Mr. Santana said. Then he added, “But the people do.”
‘He Knows About Rebirth’
When Mr. Salaam, now 49, walks the streets of Harlem, even on a blustery cold day when few are outdoors, he is recognized. “I’ve really been a public citizen since I’ve been 15,” he said.
One day in December, he left the campaign office on West 135th Street and headed east. He shook his head at a man on a bicycle who whizzed by on the walkway. “I really want to get these bikes and scooters off the sidewalk,” he said. “I want there to be quality of life in Harlem.”
Darryl T. Downing, a marketing consultant, stopped to say hello. “Let me shake your hand,” Mr. Downing said. He had met Mr. Salaam during the campaign and thought his experience would benefit Harlem. “He knows about renaissance,” Mr. Downing said. “He knows about rebirth.”
Mr. Salaam ambled on, chatting easily with other constituents as he strode the neighborhood that has defined the most important events in his life.
In April 1989, along with other Black and Latino teenagers, he was accused of the rape and assault of a white woman who had gone for a nighttime jog in Central Park. Mr. Salaam had been near the park with a friend and happened upon a larger group of teenagers whom the police and the press later accused of “wilding” — a term which, from that moment, entered the lexicon of New York, creating a fear that large groups of young men of color were suddenly marauding through the city.
New York in the 1980s was already on edge because of crime and violence, and the report of “wilding” and a rape in Central Park amplified the panic. Mayor Edward I. Koch called the teenagers “monsters.” A Daily News front page headline said, “Wolf Pack’s Prey: Female jogger near death after savage attack by roving gang.” Donald Trump, then a prominent developer, took out full-page advertisements in newspapers including The New York Times about the case. “Bring Back the Death Penalty,” the headline said.
In two trials, juries convicted the five teenagers based on false confessions, inconclusive physical evidence and no eyewitness testimony. (Mr. Salaam never signed a confession, nor was he videotaped providing one.)
The five unsuccessfully appealed their convictions and maintained their innocence.
Better Not Bitter
In 1997, Mr. Salaam was released from prison. He moved back into the Schomburg Plaza housing development in Harlem with his mother but, as a felon and registered sex offender, struggled to find work. He was ill-equipped at 23 to pick up the life he left at 15. “Coming home was the most exciting time of my life, but it was also the most challenging,” he said. “You don’t know how to live.”
He found relief in books and motivational speakers. He tried to internalize Nelson Mandela’s words, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
In early 2002, after four of the Central Park Five had finished serving their prison terms, a man named Matias Reyes, a murderer and serial rapist who was already in prison, confessed to the rape, providing a DNA match to evidence found at the scene. By year’s end, a judge voided the convictions of the five men.
In 2007, Mr. Salaam met and then married his wife, Sanovia Salaam, becoming a father to her three children, in addition to the three daughters from his first marriage. (Together they also have four children, ages 7 to 15). He began to work with the Innocence Project, a criminal justice reform group that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions, and is now a member of the board.
But he said he and the others still lived under the shadow of the crime.
That began to change in 2011, when the book “The Central Park Five” by Sarah Burns led to a documentary of the same name, directed by Ms. Burns, her husband, David McMahon, and her father, Ken Burns.
Mr. Burns, Mr. Salaam said, “gave us our voices back.”
The film helped Mr. Salaam build a career as a motivational speaker. The release of the Ava DuVernay Netflix series “When They See Us” and his own memoir, “Better, Not Bitter” heightened his renown.
A few years after the documentary aired, bringing widespread attention to the injustices suffered by the young men, the city agreed to a settlement, paying each about $1 million for each year they served in prison.
“The compensation is a Band-Aid,” Mr. Salaam said. “It’s not complete justice, but it gives you the opportunity to finally take a break from the rigors of what life had become for us.”
Mr. Salaam and his wife decided to raise their family in Stockbridge, Ga., near Atlanta. They lived in a nice house, surrounded by deer, rabbits and humming birds. But it was almost too peaceful. When he looked up at the sky, it reminded him of “The Simpsons.”
“It felt like I retired,” he said.
Mr. Salaam had been traveling the country and speaking to audiences about racial justice, and he began to think about running for public office.
“You could go into politics anywhere,” he said a cousin told him, “but anywhere other than New York is Off Broadway.”
The timing was good. In 2022, Keith Wright, the New York County Democratic leader, flew to Atlanta to ask Mr. Salaam to consider running for City Council. The meeting confirmed his perception of Mr. Salaam as a figure of intellectual heft and righteousness, he said.
“Yusef is Harlem’s version of Nelson Mandela,” he said.
Much of the political establishment, including Mayor Eric Adams, supported Mr. Salaam’s more seasoned primary opponents. And while some in Harlem privately say they are reserving judgment, others say his inexperience is not a concern — and may perhaps provide a breath of fresh air. “Harlem suffers from a tenacious grip that the old guard retains on positions of power,” said Shawn Hill, a founder of the Greater Harlem Coalition, a group of community-based organizations working for systemic justice.
Now that he has won, Mr. Salaam knows there will be a learning curve at City Hall — and that he will have to manage his constituents’ expectations.
He found a four-day orientation session illuminating. A portion of one day was spent learning how a road gets fixed, to show the complications of municipal government.
“The process isn’t like, ‘Oh, I want a road built, let me block the street for a second with no permits and just have my friends help and, oh, shucks, how am I going to get a cement truck?’” he said. “It’s a whole process, and it might not happen tomorrow. It might not even happen during the entire time of your elective office.”
Mr. Salaam shared with voters his vision for a “new Harlem renaissance” and said he hopes to focus on the quality of public schools, availability of affordable housing and keeping young people engaged in their community.
He said his background leads many to miscast him as a far-left progressive. “People think I am ‘Defund the Police’ and ‘Abolish Prisons,’ but we need prisons for real criminals,” he said.
“I mean, if we abolished prisons, where would Donald Trump go,” he said, allowing himself the quickest smile. Mr. Trump declined to comment.
A ‘Script Writer Could Not Make This Up’
Many people at a fund-raising celebration held at Melba’s Restaurant in Harlem after Mr. Salaam’s swearing-in mentioned Mr. Trump — mostly to note Mr. Salaam’s transcendence amid Mr. Trump’s legal woes.
“A movie script writer could not make this up,” said Hisham Tawfiq, who grew up in the neighborhood. He recalled the way that the police seized on the term “wilding” amidthe Central Park Five case. “You all going wilding?” he said a police officer once asked him, pointing a gun at him and a group of friends on the subway just after Mr. Salaam’s arrest in 1989.
“Imagine how many brothers and sisters were harassed like that because of that incident,” he said.
Mr. Salaam’s supporters talked local politics, as waiters passed trays of macaroni-and-cheese bites and fried chicken and waffles. For many, it was also a night of personal reflection.
“It’s incredible that our last name is now a part of a legacy,” said one of his daughters, Poetry Salaam, 20.
Kevin Richardson came from New Jersey to toast Mr. Salaam.
During their incarceration, the two men were for a time housed in the same prison. When they saw each other at meals, they would link eyes, lift a milk carton and call out, “To the good life.”
Mr. Richardson remembered it as an act of hope. “We had to change the dynamic,” even for a moment, he said.
Now, he said, “I’m a girl-dad.” He took a look around the room. “Life is good.”
Soon Mr. Salaam addressed the crowd. “You all stood by me, you all stood with me, you carried me up,” he said.
As he campaigned through the district, “You all were telling me that I was what you had hoped for,” Mr. Salaam said.
He added, “What people see in me, I see in you.”