Yusef Salaam’s mom paced the streets of Harlem, advocating for her son’s freedom after he and four other teens were accused of brutally attacking a jogger in Central Park in 1989. Some two decades after the exoneration of the group once known as the Central Park Five, the son strode down the same blocks, campaigning for a City Council seat he is likely to occupy after winning the Democratic primary. The Associated Press has declared Salaam the winner over Inez Dickens, a longtime politician who represents parts of Harlem in the state Assembly. Her campaign had the support of unions and established elected officials, including Mayor Eric Adams. There is no Republican candidate running against Salaam in the November general election, which he is expected to win easily, reports the Wall Street Journal. Salaam’s personal story powered his political rise, as many voters felt his run-in with the criminal-justice system’s failings made the 49-year-old fit to overhaul it.
His platform—whether talking about affordable housing, investments in economic development and the workforce, or public safety—almost always includes the word justice. “No one knows better than someone who went through it,” said Harlem resident Paul Smith. “With him running for office, he knows the flaws in the system, and he’ll try to fix them.” The story of unjust incarceration resonated in one of the nation’s most prominent historically Black neighborhoods. Some younger voters said they learned about the Central Park Five from a more recent documentary and limited Netflix series—and saw a connection between Salaam’s experience in 1989 and the murder of George Floyd in 2020. “In a post-George Floyd environment where criminal-justice reform is first and foremost on the mind of so many voters, in addition to other injustices, Yusef is a person who has been a face of the need to reform multiple aspects of our government,” said Basil Smikle, who directs the public-policy program at the City University of New York’s Hunter College.