Trump’s Arrest Lifts Campaign of Man He Once Condemned
Not long after Donald J. Trump surrendered at the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse on Tuesday, becoming the first former president to face criminal charges, Yusef Salaam, a candidate for a City Council seat in Harlem, sent out a statement.
Mr. Salaam, 49, was one of five Black and Latino men exonerated in 2002 in the rape and assault of a female jogger in Central Park in 1989. Mr. Trump stoked the racist and sensationalized reaction to the case by taking out full-page advertisements in four city newspapers, including The New York Times, calling for the death penalty to be reinstated.
Decades later, even after Mr. Salaam and the others, who were imprisoned as teenagers and known as the Central Park Five, had been cleared by the confession of another man and DNA evidence, Mr. Trump refused to apologize to them.
“Now that you have been indicted and are facing criminal charges, I do not resort to hatred, bias or racism — as you once did,” Mr. Salaam, who spent almost seven years in prison, wrote in the statement, a fund-raising email made to look like the ad Mr. Trump published in 1989. “I hope that you exercise your civil liberties to the fullest, and that you get what the Exonerated Five did not get — a presumption of innocence and a fair trial.”
Mr. Trump’s indictment and Mr. Salaam’s history with the former president have generated new interest in his campaign, with more volunteers, a slight uptick in donations and several appearances on MSNBC.
Mr. Salaam, who speaks with the cadence of a preacher and the optimism of a motivational speaker, bounced between quoting James Baldwin, Neo from “The Matrix,” his mother and his mentor Les Brown, a former politician and life coach, as he remarked that the timing of Mr. Trump’s indictment was no coincidence.
“As he is back in the media, the beautiful side of the story is back in the media as well,” Mr. Salaam said. “The five who triumphed and what they are doing now. What platforms are they using to push the needle forward?”
For Mr. Salaam, that platform is running for City Council in the same neighborhood where he grew up and where his life was forever altered. While all 51 Council seats are up for election this year, the race in Harlem, where gentrification and demographic shifts, including the loss of Black residents, are major issues, is expected to be one of the most competitive in the city.
Mr. Salaam will face several candidates in a crowded Democratic primary this June, including the incumbent, Kristin Richardson Jordan, a first-term councilwoman who has faced criticism over her response to the killing of two police officers in her district and her opposition to an affordable housing development.
Longtime residents of neighborhoods like Harlem are concerned about crime and affordability, said Yvette Buckner, a political strategist and the board chair of the New Majority NYC, a group that helped elect the first-ever female majority on the City Council.
“If you’re seeing Black people leave in droves, you want to make sure a place like Harlem, which has so much rich history and culture and empowerment, is a place that actually can be affordable for Black people,” Ms. Buckner said.
Mr. Salaam speaks about the need for average incomes in Harlem to increase and how residents have lost out on opportunity more broadly.
“It’s one thing to say we need affordable housing. Yes, we do. We need more of it and we need it now,” Mr. Salaam said. “It’s another thing to say we need proper education. It’s another thing to say that we need safe streets. All of those things are things that we desperately need. And we need it now because we are taxpayers.”
He hopes that Harlem residents can learn from his journey to overcome trauma. “This is a renewal of my life, and therefore this can be a renewal for the whole of Harlem,” Mr. Salaam said.
Mr. Salaam and the four men who were convicted alongside him — Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Antron McCray — say the police coerced them into false confessions. Their convictions were vacated in 2002 after the Manhattan district attorney’s office determined that the attack against the jogger had been committed by a man named Matias Reyes.
The city settled a civil rights lawsuit with the five men for $41 million in 2014. Netflix produced a mini-series focused on the case. Last year, an entrance to Central Park in Harlem became the Gate of the Exonerated, the first park entrance to be named since 1862.
Mr. Salaam now serves on the board of the Innocence Project and has written a memoir. He is married and has a blended family with 10 children, ages 7 to 27. In spite of all the good things that have happened since he was released from prison, Mr. Salaam said the pain caused by Mr. Trump’s ad persists more than 30 years later.
“I want to hate these muggers and murders,” Mr. Trump wrote. “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”
Mr. Salaam saw those words as not just an indictment of him and his friends but of all Black and Latino New Yorkers. “You see those Black and brown people, just be afraid of them,” he said.
Shortly after it was announced that Mr. Trump had been indicted last week, Mr. Salaam sent out a simple statement: “Karma.”
Keith L.T. Wright, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Manhattan, said he had recruited Mr. Salaam to run for the seat, urging him to move back to New York from Georgia, which he did late last year.
“His story in many ways is no different than thousands upon thousands of young Black and brown men in terms of interactions with the criminal justice system,” Mr. Wright said. “He’s not a politician, but I think the community needs him.”
Mr. Salaam wore a wide brimmed hat, leather gloves and a dark wool coat with a scarf draped dramatically over his shoulders, as he canvassed voters outside the subway station at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue this week.
Standing by his side, as she was when he was charged as a teenager, was his mother, Sharonne Salaam, handing out fliers adorned with her son’s picture.
“We are hopeful that whatever Trump did, he gets the justice he deserves,” said Ms. Salaam. “And we are still waiting for that apology.”
Mr. Salaam received varying looks of recognition from subway riders. Andre Hill, 57, a barber, shouted: “I remember you,” as he came out of the subway station.
“He was framed,” said Mr. Hill. “I also remember when Donald Trump tried to put them brothers away. He’s a clown.”
Darlene Celeste, 64, a program manager, put down her bags to speak with Mr. Salaam even though she was rushing to work because she found his perseverance inspiring.
“They were guilty without having a chance at being proven innocent,” said Ms. Celeste, who called Mr. Trump’s ad “despicable” and a form of “lynching.”
The current members of the Council are serving shortened two-year terms because of redistricting. In addition to Ms. Jordan, the Democratic primary field for the Harlem seat includes Assemblywoman Inez E. Dickens, who formerly held it, and Assemblyman Al Taylor.
When Mr. Salaam announced his candidacy, Ms. Jordan released a statement that took aim, in part, at the size of the settlement he and the other four men had received: “I think we have enough millionaires in office already.”
Mr. Salaam declined to criticize Ms. Jordan this week, except to say that he believed his candidacy was about bringing leadership to Harlem. In response, Ms. Jordan said she was not interested in “getting in the mud” with those who were being “mean-spirited” toward her.
“Clearly any administration would need more than 15 months,” she wrote in a text message. “I am proud of how much we have done in so little time.”
Asked about his lack of political experience, which his opponents have made an issue of, Mr. Salaam said it meant he had no “hidden agendas.”
As for Mr. Trump’s arrest, Mr. Salaam said it was not something that he celebrated.
“It wasn’t a moment where I threw my fist in the air,” Mr. Salaam said. “But it was a moment where people were trying to get justice against a powerful person who was skirting, or appearing to skirt, the law.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.