Yusef Salaam, who was wrongly convicted of rape and assault for 12 Thanksgivings, is now celebrating his recent election to the New York City Council.
In an interview with POLITICO Magazine, Salaam expressed gratitude for the many things to be thankful for and acknowledged the need for careful planning.
Salaam spent close to seven years in prison for a crime he did not commit – the 1989 attack on a jogger in Central Park. This incident ignited racial tensions in the city and even prompted future President Donald Trump to advocate for the death penalty for the young men of color who were wrongly accused. It took an additional five years before Salaam’s conviction was overturned, and the group, previously known as the “Central Park Five,” was now referred to as the “Exonerated Five.”
Salaam exudes an incredible sense of optimism, refusing to dwell on the idea of harboring sadness, anger, or bitterness. However, he acknowledges the unchanged state of the criminal justice system since his wrongful arrest and conviction.
In a remarkable victory, the political newcomer triumphed over seasoned politicians in the Democratic primary held in June. This win virtually guaranteed his position as a representative of Harlem, an iconic stronghold of Black political influence.
As Salaam embarks on his new journey as a member of the tumultuous New York City Council, he aspires to bring his personal experiences to the forefront of his political endeavors, focusing on building a community-driven approach to governance.
He expressed his ongoing contemplation of his personal experiences and how they intersect with collective experiences. He pondered, “How can we support and uplift one another?”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Emily Ngo: Have you ever thought about what you would say to your 15-year-old self, especially now that you’ve won the election and are reflecting on these past few weeks?
Yusef Salaam expressed his desire to escape from the American nightmare during his teenage years. He longed to hold onto the American dream and avoid facing the harsh reality that Black people experience in America. However, as he emerged from this nightmare, he discovered a newfound perspective that allowed him to see clearly even in the darkness. Now, he possesses the ability to use his voice to speak truth to those in power and inspire others to transform life’s challenges into something positive, like turning lemons into lemonade.
Dreaming with your eyes wide open is not just about feeling sad, angry, and bitter. It’s about becoming better, stronger, and more thoughtful. It’s about planning and holding onto your dreams, even when faced with challenges. Why keep your eyes wide open when you dream? It’s so that you can be prepared and see the rug being pulled out from underneath you before it happens.
Ngo: In your opinion, how has the American justice system evolved over time?
Salaam: Honestly, I don’t believe there has been significant change in the American justice system. While there have been some improvements, they have tried to make people believe that what happened to me and my four brothers, known as the Central Park Five and now the Exonerated Five, was a rare occurrence. However, decades later, we find ourselves in a situation reminiscent of the Scottsboro Boys.
For me, this presents both a challenge and a problem. However, it also offers us a chance to truly make a difference. It’s an opportunity to recognize that simply protesting and pleading for justice is not enough. We need to prepare ourselves to take on leadership roles, so that our voices can be heard and amplified within positions of power.
Ngo: People may be familiar with your story, or at least they think they are, but does that really mean they truly know you as an individual?
Salaam: No way. Being in the political arena comes with its challenges, and one of them is the unrealistic expectation that I can perform miracles. It’s as if I’m the sole representative of our collective pain. However, the truth is that each one of us possesses unique qualities and potential that deserve to be nurtured and celebrated. This is why a sense of community is vital. It is through the collective effort of the community that we can ensure everyone is included in this grand experiment of life.
Ngo: In your opinion, where do you stand on the political spectrum?
Salaam: As a progressive Democrat, I have always been committed to thinking about both my own experiences and the collective experiences of others. I believe in uplifting one another and striving for meaningful progress.
Ngo asked, “What approach will you take to legislating in a time when there is more political division and less focus on community?”
Salaam: In the early stages, I found it to be a tremendous burden to be the individual who was unjustly crushed by the merciless gears of the justice system, to be the person who fell prey to the very system that is meant to assist and safeguard us all. However, this unfortunate experience has granted me an invaluable chance to possess what some may call a distinctive perspective. It allows me to speak from my own personal encounters as I actively contribute to the formulation of policies and the governance of our society. I believe that this aspect holds great significance.
Having individuals who genuinely have your best interest at heart and are actively working towards making decisions in your favor is invaluable. However, it is equally important to seek the perspective of those who have been directly impacted by a specific issue. By asking them for their thoughts and opinions, you can gain valuable insights and a deeper understanding of the matter at hand.
Ngo inquired about the potential for Harlem to regain its position as the hub of Black political influence and power. Some argue that this power has shifted to Brooklyn. However, is Harlem too heavily gentrified to reclaim its former glory?
Salaam: I believe that Harlem will always remain the center of Black culture. Throughout history, Harlem has been a true reflection of the diverse and vibrant city of New York. It has been a melting pot of cultures, where different communities come together. Although gentrification has taken place, and some of us may not be actively involved in our own progress, this situation presents us with a chance to reclaim our faith, hope, and worth. By actively participating, we can ensure that Harlem remains a thriving hub for all.
Ngo asked, “How will your Thanksgiving be different this year than in years past?”
This year, we will be celebrating the victory with our beloved family. We have so much to be grateful for and plenty to look forward to. It’s essential to consider the needs of our community and acknowledge how thankful we are to have basic necessities like clean water, a comfortable place to sleep, and access to books.