Ahead of next month’s race towards becoming Manhattan’s first female and Muslim district attorney, Palestinian-American Tahanie Aboushi talks dismantling the American justice system from within.
If you’ve followed Tahanie Aboushi’s ongoing race to become Manhattan’s next district attorney, heard about the high-profile cases she’s tackled over the past decade as a civil rights lawyer, or asked her about either of the above, you’ll have witnessed an unadulterated fearlessness that is rare in American politics today. Nothing, it seems, can scare this woman: not the trolls, a rancorous side effect of simply existing as a woman of color; not the New York Police Department, the largest police force of its kind, with an eye-watering annual budget of US $11 billion; not even former President Donald Trump, no aside necessary.
Standing at a commanding 2m in height, the 34-year-old, hijab-donning lawyer is hard to miss, but it’s not her physical appearance that makes her impossible to ignore. There’s an aura to Aboushi’s unwavering drive – you can feel it when she speaks, even if the conversation is maintained within the rectangular parameters of a Zoom call. And it’ll knock you right over if you’re standing in her path towards justice.
“My identity is what got me into politics before I could know who I was, or who I wanted to be,” says Aboushi, one of 10 siblings born to Palestinian immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. Growing up a Muslim American, especially in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Aboushi’s heritage and faith became increasingly prevalent in the chary eyes of her peers. She decided to embrace these parts of herself fully, and with resolve. “This was the life that was chosen for me, and whether I bury my head in the sand, whether I look the other way, it doesn’t make me any safer or more accepted,” she says. “And it doesn’t make my neighbors any safer or more accepted, either.”
Aboushi’s dexterity in channeling her otherness into a force for change developed from a deeply personal family struggle inflicted by the very office she might be one step closer to occupying come June 22, the date of the Democratic primary election. At just 14, Aboushi saw her parents, who were owners of a neighborhood grocery store, arrested on charges related to untaxed cigarettes. Her father was sentenced to 22 years in prison – a destabilizing punishment that ricocheted across his entire family. When asked what would happen to the 10 children now set to spend two decades without a father, the prosecutor replied, “They’re not my problem.” That response has stuck with Aboushi like a scar. Those four words, delivered with willing nonchalance, set in motion what has now become Aboushi’s life work as a purveyor of fairness against all odds, in a society that believes an abundance of policing and prosecution is the only way to stop crime. Instead, her radical vision to reshape law enforcement involves addressing the root causes of criminal misconduct – homelessness, poverty, mental illness – while reallocating funds to support rehabilitation and prevent recidivism. This, she says, is the key to public safety and stability. This is how to ensure families from marginalized communities don’t just survive in New York, but thrive.
“That moment in the courtroom is when the system became my problem, because I realized, this prosecutor doesn’t see us, and we don’t have any more time to convince people that we are human beings, that we are families, that we deserve justice, equality, and respect,” Aboushi explains. And so began her mission to balance the scales of justice by combatting racism, discrimination, police violence, and malicious prosecution. It’s a fight she aspires to bring with her to the DA’s office with the intention of restoring a sense of humanity in a biased system that is blind to the human cost of its jurisdiction.
It’s Aboushi’s story and identity that make her candidacy for Manhattan DA – one of the most influential ranks in US politics – unlike anything her city or her country has seen before. Unsurprisingly, it’s a role that, in the last century, has been filled exclusively by white men, none of whom have ever walked in the shoes of those directly impacted by their actions. Aboushi has walked in those shoes, and for miles on end. She’s got a pair of her own, too. What’s more: she would be the first woman and the first person of color to hold this office in Manhattan, and the first Muslim DA in the nation’s history. The way she sees it, this office has long operated as an obstacle to progress for criminal justice reform, which is why it needs to be dismantled from the inside out. This requires standing up to Manhattan’s powerful and privileged – something former DAs have consistently failed to do, she asserts, pointing to the decision to drop a promising criminal fraud investigation against Trump and his children prior to his presidency.
“Imagine the world we would’ve been living in now had they been held accountable,” she quips, eyebrows raised in a matter-of-fact sort of way. It’s a fair point, coming from a woman who co-lead the legal team that showed up at John F Kennedy International Airport in 2017 after President Trump issued the infamous so-called Muslim ban. “We sued Trump for every person that he detained and we did not leave that airport until every last person went home,” she recalls. This wasn’t the only instance when Aboushi’s legal work garnered international attention. She also represented three Muslim women who had their headscarves removed by police before mugshots were taken in their arrest, each of whom eventually reached a $60 000 settlement from New York City. This news was covered globally and celebrated as a feat for all New Yorkers who wear religious gear. Those individuals now enjoy permanent protection of their right to do so during post-arrest processing as a direct result of Aboushi’s efforts.
Aboushi’s aptly described “insurgent campaign” is an aggressive rejection of the status quo, and an answer to urgent calls to abolish the US’s oppressive prison industrial complex since the police murder of George Floyd last year. Those calls are only getting louder as the country reckons with the death of yet another Black man, Daunte Wright, who was fatally shot by a police officer in April. It’s no coincidence that Aboushi declared her candidacy in early 2020 at the National Black Theater in Harlem, the neighborhood of Manhattan where she now resides. It’s these kinds of deliberate choices that reflect Aboushi’s commitment to an intersectional, community-first approach and reimagining a system that is still grappling with the vestiges of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy. “I think it’s important to know that we stand on the shoulders of giants, who have paved the way for us to be having these conversations,” she posits. “It didn’t just start with me.”
While the fight to create a less punitive criminal justice system didn’t begin with Aboushi, her focus on ending mass incarceration is clear. The power now rests in the hands of Manhattan’s people, who will soon decide if they’re ready for her to do just that.
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Originally published in the May 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia