Yusef Salaam, one of five Black and Latino teenagers wrongfully convicted of a 1989 rape in Central Park, is finally where he seems to belong: on the campaign trail.
In Harlem, where Mr. Salaam is a first-time candidate for the City Council, he is magic to watch. He gives dap to men outside subway stations in Harlem and charms the women of the district, who tend to linger when Mr. Salaam, who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Idris Elba, breaks into a megawatt smile and begins talking in gentle tones about the need for safe streets.
This is the man whose arrest prompted Donald Trump to publicly call for the death penalty in 1989 when Mr. Salaam was just 15 and charged with four other teenagers with a horrific crime that they did not commit.
Mr. Trump took out full-page ads in four New York newspapers, including The New York Times, calling for the restoration of the state death penalty over the case. In 2002, the young men were exonerated after serving years in prison. Mr. Trump has refused to apologize. “You have people on both sides of that,” he said on the White House lawn in 2019.
It was thanks to Mr. Trump’s high profile that the case vaulted from what had been a local crime story to national notoriety, Mr. Salaam told me. “We were almost untouchables,” he said.
Now that notoriety has provided Mr. Salaam, 49, with a platform on which to run for office. And in a twist of fate straight out of the tabloids, it’s Mr. Trump who has now been indicted on criminal charges while Mr. Salaam runs for office.
“It was karma,” he said of Mr. Trump’s legal situation, while sitting inside the Sugar Hill Cafe in Harlem. “I hope he’s able to do the time,” he said, with a hint of mischief in his eyes.
Behind the smile is the story of a Black man who lost his childhood to the American justice system.
When Mr. Salaam was wrongfully convicted, he was a student at Rice High School, a Catholic prep school in Harlem, and had previously studied at the elite LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts. At home, dinner conversations were filled with Black history and tales of the Jim Crow South, where his mother had been born. Mr. Salaam read voraciously, studying Haile Selassie and Nelson Mandela. After school, Mr. Salaam and his friends would hang out in Central Park, despite his mother’s admonition to avoid the crime-ridden area.
“We had our own botanical garden,” he said of the park. “When she would say certain things to me about how I needed to act or behave, I thought maybe she was bugging out.” After he was convicted in 1990, Mr. Salaam served nearly seven years in prison.
His mother, Sharonne Salaam, spent her earliest years in Jim Crow Birmingham, Ala. Campaigning alongside her son on 125th Street, Ms. Salaam told me her grandfather had been smuggled north to Connecticut in a coffin to avoid being murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. When she was 12, the family moved to New York City. The arrest of Yusef, years later, was the culmination of a lifelong nightmare.
“Walking into that precinct, it was like after all those years, the Klan had finally come for me,” she said.
There is a tendency to minimize the charges facing Mr. Trump in New York because they are financial crimes. In Harlem, Americans who have experienced some of the most intense policing in the United States — regularly seeing children harassed and tossed against walls on their way to school during the city’s stop-and-frisk era — feel differently. Many said the former president should be held fully accountable for any crimes he committed, exactly as they would be.
Mr. Trump is “no different than us,” said Rose Adams, a 56-year-old Black voter who stopped to talk to Mr. Salaam. “He acts like he’s untouchable, but he’s not.”
I thought about the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, the historian and civil rights pioneer whom Mr. Salaam had read in prison.
“They still press on, they still nurse the dogged hope,” Du Bois wrote of Black Americans in a 1897 essay in The Atlantic Monthly, adding that it was “the hope of a higher synthesis of civilization and humanity, a true progress, with which the chorus ‘Peace, good will to men,’ ‘may make one music as before/but vaster.’”
Three decades after her teenage son was wrongfully incarcerated, Ms. Salaam is now on the campaign trail, encouraging New Yorkers to vote.
When Mr. Trump was indicted recently, Mr. Salaam expressed a kind of trust in the justice system that few might expect. “I do not resort to hatred, bias or racism — as you once did,” Mr. Salaam wrote in a message to the former president, who had called for the restoration of the death penalty when he was falsely accused and tried to strip him of his humanity as a 15-year-old child. “I am putting my faith in the judicial system to seek out the truth.”
Mr. Salaam is still waiting for justice, and so is the country.
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