Yusef Salaam, Central Park 5 Exoneree Turned NYC Council Candidate, Champions Forgiveness And Advocacy For New York City
Yusef Salaam, one of the wrongfully accused Central Park Five who served nearly seven years in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit, talked with Esquire about his position as a Harlem city council primary race winner and how he plans to serve the city that turned its back on him in 1989.
It is expected that Salaam won’t face a serious challenger, if any, in the November election.
“I was a pariah. They said I was born a mistake. I’m not a mistake,” Salaam said. “And I think that what I have been through gives me perspective on what people go through in life. I never thought about politics or holding elective office until recently, but I feel that this—I guess you might call it empathy—will be helpful to me as I serve my community. If, as Nietzsche says, you can find the why, you can live anyhow. We all need a reason to live. This is mine. I was supposed to go through what I went through.”
Salaam recalled the incident when he was just 15 of being wrongfully accused and charged with the assault and rape of Trisha Meili, a white woman, in Central Park. He and four other innocent boys were sent to jail by a racially divided society that was extremely prejudiced toward people of color. Even after being exonerated, Salaam described being burdened by the past.
However, as a council member, Salaam said that he’s aware of all the problems still plaguing New York as a city: hunger, housing security, public health, race discrimination, and economic instability. Despite what he went through, he still will devote himself to the community he intends to serve.
‘I’m dedicating my life to being useful to my community, to my neighborhood, to my city. And to do that means letting go of some burdens of the past. Never forgetting, but forgiving. There is power in forgiving.”
“I have had to learn how to forgive. It is the only way I know to repair myself. I have to forgive Donald Trump. I forgive the prosecutors . . . I forgive the police . . . I forgive those who have threatened me and who told me to watch my back forever. I forgive. I forgive. I forgive.”
Salaam continued to use his knowledge of the system to inform his advocacy. “I know enough from when the spike wheels of ‘justice’ ran over me and my family 34 years ago that if we are not involved and in numbers and using our voice to change the world, then they will use our voices against us.”
He maintains a mentality of standing together as a city to make changes. “You have to trust me when I say that divided, we won’t stand a chance.”
He subscribes to the African concept of Sankofa, which is the practice of looking back to life forward. Salaam hasn’t forgotten what happened to him in 1989 and will never forget those who don’t take responsibility for their part in his victimization, but he promises to use it to better those around him.