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Yusef Salaam speaks on June 1, 2023, in New York City. | Source: Dave Kotinsky / Getty

Yusef Salaam, one of the five Black and brown teenagers now known as the Exonerated Five following their cleared convictions from being falsely accused of raping a white woman jogging in New York City, on Tuesday night won the Democratic primary in an election for a seat on the city council.

The 49-year-old was projected as the winner in the City Council’s 9th district that represents Harlem. The primary election included a pair of seasoned politicians vying to fill a spot made vacant when the incumbent recently decided against seeking reelection.

As of nearly 11 p.m. with 92% of the votes counted, Salaam was enjoying more than 50% of the vote. He was leading sitting state Assemblymembers Inez Dickens, who registered a little more than 25% of the vote, and Al Taylor, who trailed in third place with nearly 15%. Incumbent Kristin Richardson Jordan, who unexpectedly dropped out of the race last month, garnered nearly 10%, according to a running tally by the New York Times.

The win Tuesday night all but guarantees victory for Salaam in the general election in November.

A video tweeted by City & State NY reporter Jeff Coltin showed Salaam walking into a restaurant in Harlem and giving a victory speech of sorts before the race was officially called.

A subsequent tweet attributed the following quote to Salaam:

“What has happened on this campaign has restored my faith in knowing that I was born for this. I am not a seasoned politician. So therefore, this was not politics as usual.”

The city council race was Salaam’s first formal foray into politics.

This is a developing story that will be updated as additional information becomes available.

Salaam’s unique background may have set him apart from his opponents. A member of the “Exonerated 5,” previously referred to as the “Central Park 5,” Salaam will be adding city councilman to his impressive resume which includes being a justice seeker, criminal justice advocate and motivational speaker.

Salaam and the others falsely accused and wrongfully convicted for the assault and rape of Trisha Meili in 1989 — — Antron McCay, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise — all served between nearly seven and 13 years in prison. All of them except for Salaam were coerced into making video confessions.

Salaam and his co-defendants were ultimately exonerated only after another man confessed to the crime.

The experience of being railroaded by an overzealous prosecution and wrongfully convicted is not unique to Salaam. But he has spent his years post-incarceration as an advocate for justice. 

Forgiveness, redemption and rebuilding community relationships have long been themes across Salaam’s work. In 2021, Salaam released a book Better, Not Bitter: Living on Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice.

Better, Not Bitter is his second book release in the past year with Punching the Air, a young adult story building on Salaam’s own experiences as a teenager thrust into the prison system. Salaam co-wrote Punching the Air with children’s author Ibi Zoboi. 

 “When I remember this case, and those boys look like the boys in my classroom, the character had to be inspired by Yusef, and this story had to instill a sense of hope in the reader,” Zoboi told NPR in an interview. “So, we came up with a name, and that name is Amal. And Amal means hope in Arabic.”  

He is the first of the five men to release a book about his experience. 

“From very early on, I innately knew that I had a destiny that existed beyond the one the criminal justice system attempted to assign to me,” he wrote in the book. “I just needed to live long enough for that purpose to come to fruition.”


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