To hear Tahanie Aboushi tell it, a courtroom can be a strange place for a Muslim woman lawyer.
“I’ve had judges call me Tahini. I once had a judge, in open court, look at my name and say, ‘Farsi? Egypt? Pakistan?’ I said, ‘Tahanie Aboushi?’” She laughed, shaking her head.
It was late March, and I was in Lower Manhattan with Aboushi and a few of her colleagues. We had just been among the thousands at a rally in Columbus Park protesting the disturbing rise in anti-Asian violence across the country. Afterwards, we walked to Canal Street and sat, Covid-style, outside a Chinatown eatery. The sidewalk thrummed with energy. As what felt like the world walked by our table, Aboushi, in her characteristic deadpan, continued describing her experiences as a lawyer.
“In the first couple of years of my practice, when I would sit down in the front row, a court officer would come by and say, ‘Excuse me, ma’am. This row is reserved for attorneys.’” She paused to punctuate the moment. “I would say, ‘Good thing that I’m an attorney.’”
We all laughed, shaking our heads.
If the unconscious aim of these comments had been to make her feel like she didn’t belong in jurisprudence, then it doesn’t seem to have worked. Shortly after graduating from law school over a decade ago, Aboushi opened her own practice focused on civil rights litigation, and over the years she has scored some key victories. She has sued the New York City Department of Education on multiple occasions for failing to protect vulnerable children, winning significant settlements for her clients. Through litigation, she has challenged and changed discriminatory practices in the city’s police and fire departments.
Now the 35-year-old Palestinian American has stepped onto the crowded dance floor that is the Manhattan district attorney’s race and is racking up endorsement after endorsement and winning all kinds of support across the city and the nation. If she prevails, she will assume the post of one of the most powerful district attorneys in the land, becoming the first woman and person of color to hold that office. She’s also running one of the most progressive campaigns in the race, promising to reduce incarceration and fundamentally change the direction of the office.
“She’s the most left-leaning,” said former gubernatorial candidate and actress Cynthia Nixon, who endorsed Aboushi early in the race. Nixon said she was particularly impressed by Aboushi’s platform, which she described as the most detailed and deeply considered of the candidates. “People understand how her lived experience makes her the candidate who will transform the legal system, and the people who really care about that understand that she’s their candidate.”
Aboushi’s campaign would have seemed impossible just a few years ago, when the city’s Muslims were battling NYPD policies that put them under blanket suspicion and subjected them to warrantless surveillance. Now Aboushi—like Rana Abdelhamid, who is challenging US Representative Carolyn Maloney in the 2022 Democratic primary—is one of a rising number of Muslims running for public office, mostly on progressive platforms of institutional reform and resource redistribution. If this six-foot-tall, hijab-wearing Muslim woman who has never held public office wins, people will undoubtedly state that Tahanie Aboushi has made history. But it may be more accurate to say that history has made Tahanie Aboushi.
Born to immigrant parents and raised in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, Aboushi is the sixth of 10 children. On the face of it, her family’s story reads like a classic immigrant success tale. From humble beginnings—her parents owned a small grocery store—the children have gone on to impressive careers. Aymen, an older brother and a partner in the Aboushi Law Firm, was recently appointed as the corporation counsel of Paterson, N.J. Aboushi’s oldest sibling, Diane, is also a partner in her firm, focusing on business law. And one of her younger brothers, Oday, is a professional football player, an offensive guard for the Los Angeles Chargers.
But these accomplishments didn’t come easily. In 1999, when Aboushi was 14 years old, her father, Ahmad, was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for conspiracy to rob truck drivers and to transport and sell stolen vehicles and goods across state lines, according to court documents. (The multiple charges stemmed from the buying and selling of untaxed cigarettes, Aboushi told me. “It was a pretty thick indictment.”) He was released three years ago.
Eman, Aboushi’s mother, was also arrested (she was later acquitted of all charges). It was during her parents’ trial that the young Tahanie first stepped into a courtroom. It was also the first time she witnessed how degrading criminal justice can be. “I don’t think there’s humanity in the system as it currently is,” Aboushi said. “Decisions are made without weighing what those decisions mean to the family that is appearing before you. What happens to one person in the system extends to their family, to their community. Does the system care? I don’t think it does.”
As evidence, Aboushi cites a moment in her parents’ trial when the judge interrupted the proceedings to ask the prosecutor a question. “‘What are you going to do with all these kids?’” she recalls the judge asking. “He wanted [the prosecutor] to think about what was really happening.”
She also recalls the prosecutor’s response: “‘It’s not my problem.’”
“She didn’t care,” Aboushi said. “She was focused on that convicting-at-all-costs mentality, even if it meant an entire family and 10 kids wound up in the gutter.”
But through their own efforts, the family survived. They moved to Staten Island, where the cost of living was cheaper. Every family member who could go to work did. Family vacations became oriented around prison visits. And since their father was often moved to different facilities, that could mean traveling to Brooklyn, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Connecticut.
There were times the family would make an eight-hour drive to a prison only to be told they couldn’t go in because they were wearing the wrong color that day. (Prisons sometimes have policies on what colors visitors can wear, and these can vary from facility to facility.) In a rush, they would search for the nearest store to purchase something else to wear, chipping away at the precious time allotted for the visit. “The whole process is so dehumanizing,” Aboushi said.
She finished high school in three years and college in another three and was admitted to Syracuse University Law School at age 20. After passing the bar, Aboushi worked for Judge Milton Tingling (currently the county clerk of Manhattan as well as the first African American county clerk in New York state) before eventually opening her practice in Times Square, to be joined later by the other lawyers in her family.
Aboushi’s notable legal victories reflect not only her fight for equal treatment under the law for her clients but also her commitment to restoring lost dignity. In 2018, she won a $180,000 settlement from the city for three Muslim women who were forced to remove their hijabs when their mug shots were taken; two years later, the NYPD changed its policy, allowing religious head coverings in booking photos in most situations. She won a case for four Black firefighters that forced the FDNY to allow members with medical conditions that make shaving painful and potentially scarring to keep their beards. She’s currently representing 21-year-old Dounya Zayer, who was violently shoved to the ground by NYPD officer Vincent D’Andraia last summer during a Black Lives Matter protest.
As significant as these cases and judgments are, the opportunity to effect system-wide change by seeking public office was too tempting. “I can stay trying to do damage control one family at a time as a civil rights lawyer,” Aboushi told me, “or I can be in a position to do something in a deeper, more wholesale way.” While on a trip visiting family in the West Bank in July 2019, and after several people had suggested she run, Aboushi decided she wanted to become the next district attorney of New York County, the official name for the borough of Manhattan.
The current race for Manhattan DA is unlike any the borough has ever seen. The incumbent, Cyrus Vance Jr., who ran unopposed in 2017, isn’t seeking a fourth term, so the field is wide open. Eight candidates—five with backgrounds in prosecution—are vying for the seat, and all are running as Democrats.
In a Democratic city like New York, this means the race will be all but decided on June 22, the day of the primary—and since primaries generate low turnout, it will probably be determined by a relatively small number of voters. Also, because county district attorney is a state office, the race will not use New York City’s new ranked-choice voting system.
The Manhattan DA’s office is considered one of the most important—if not the most important—in the country, which is not surprising considering the concentration of wealth and power on the island. Vance’s office is leading the ongoing investigation into former president Donald Trump’s possible financial crimes, a push that included a high-profile detour to the Supreme Court and that will most likely fall on the next DA to complete. Yet during his tenure, Vance has also been criticized for being weak on prosecuting crimes committed by the elite. A high-profile sexual assault case against the French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn fell apart in 2011. The following year, Vance dropped a fraud investigation against Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. under questionable circumstances. In 2015, he refused to prosecute Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault. (His office eventually prosecuted Weinstein in 2018, resulting in a 23-year sentence.)
As important as these investigations and prosecutions are, they do not represent the bulk of the office’s work. The Manhattan DA’s office prosecutes tens of thousands of felonies and misdemeanors every year, the vast majority of them low-level infractions that are not committed by the wealthy and white. Unsurprisingly, the people who get caught up in this legal maw are mostly poor and people of color. And Vance’s office has often been considerably more punitive than the DAs in other boroughs of the city, something that most of the lawyers vying for his seat have vowed to change.
Consider petit larceny, a class-A misdemeanor defined as the “petty theft” of goods or services under $1,000. In New York City, most of these cases are small crimes of desperation, according to experts, often involving stealing a sandwich or shoplifting hygiene products. New York County Defender Services (NYCDS), which serves Manhattan, told The City that well over a quarter of the people it represented in 2018 in cases where petit larceny was the top charge—308 of 1,092 people—were homeless. More than three quarters of its petit larceny defendants were Black or Latino, and about a quarter received jail time.
These numbers reflect a racially skewed system of punishment, but a person has even more to worry about when they’re charged in Manhattan. If, for instance, someone is accused of shoplifting and has a prior trespass notice from the same store, the Manhattan DA often “bumps up” the petit larceny charge to burglary in the third degree, a class-D felony. In 2018, NYCDS represented 47 such individuals. One case involved a man, Qulon McCain, who was homeless and stole four pairs of socks from Bloomingdale’s in November 2017, only to find himself facing four years in jail because of the elevated charge.
In the end, McCain, who suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, spent nine months on Rikers Island before pleading guilty and being transferred to Manhattan’s Mental Health Court, where those accused of nonviolent felonies may appear if they’ve been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. In January 2021, he completed a court-mandated 19-month stay at Harbor House, a Bronx-based residential treatment center, according to the Daily News. It was the first time he’d ever received treatment for his chronic mental health issues.
Because McCain successfully completed the program, the felony burglary charge was dismissed and he was sentenced to time served on the petit larceny charge. While this is clearly a better outcome than four years of incarceration, one can’t help but believe that a much earlier mental health intervention would have obviated the need to involve the criminal legal system in the first place.
As it was, McCain spent nine months on Rikers Island. In fact, the current Manhattan DA sends more people to jail than any other district attorney in New York City. A 2017 report issued by an independent commission established by the city found that on a typical day in 2016, “38 percent of the City’s jail population comes from Manhattan’s criminal court,” even though Manhattan processed only 29 percent of the criminal caseload that year. “No other borough comes close” to matching Manhattan’s numbers, the report stated.
And that trend continues. In the first quarter of 2019, almost a third of the average number of people arraigned in the city came through Manhattan, far ahead of any other borough. Moreover, arraignment is just the beginning for most. Law & Order reruns notwithstanding, less than 1 percent of criminal cases in New York City go to trial; most felony cases are resolved by a plea bargain, which shows how much power prosecutors wield over the lives of the accused. They basically determine the charge, the sentence, and the terms of confinement.
Put these facts together, and the conclusion is inescapable. Vance’s office may portray itself as a reform- minded institution—one that has “slash[ed] the number of people entering the criminal justice system in Manhattan nearly in half,” according to its website—but it remains a major driver of mass incarceration and is a crucial part of a bloated structure that manages the lives of the tens of thousands of mostly poor Black and brown people arrested annually for misdemeanor offenses.
Indeed, the policies and conduct of the chief prosecutor in Manhattan have probably never been so out of step with the city, at least in the modern history of the office. We are, after all, living through a period of reckoning with American racism that is stronger than anything we’ve seen in recent years.
The next Manhattan DA will be serving a population whose notions of public safety are evolving away from our brutal present of overpolicing and mass incarceration and toward a more humane future. A July 2020 poll found that 55 percent of city respondents favored defunding the police to spend more on local services. And the candidates for DA are paying attention: All eight are running on some version of reform, and not one is running on a tough-on-crime platform.
New York’s race is unfolding amid a surge in victories by progressive lawyers who have decided to make the unlikely move to political office, including Kim Foxx in Chicago, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, George Gascón in Los Angeles, Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, Kimberly Gardner in St. Louis City, Wesley Bell in St. Louis County, and Marilyn Mosby in Baltimore. Why should Manhattan not come next?
In the November 2020 elections, “reform-minded new prosecutors were elected in jurisdictions that represent over 20 percent of our nation’s population,” Miriam Krinsky, the founder of Fair and Just Prosecution, noted earlier this year. The movement, which has gained most of its momentum since 2016, is growing quickly. And while some of these prosecutors may not have fully lived up to their progressive promises, and while there is still some leeway regarding what defines a “progressive” in these circumstances, the platforms that these prosecutors have embraced—along with many of the Manhattan DA candidates—do share some important features.
At the core is the goal of enhancing public safety while reducing the harm that the criminal legal system inflicts on so many people, especially since the scope of law enforcement has grown so vast after decades of broken-windows policing and tough-on-crime prosecutions. The strategies commonly used by progressive DAs include declining to prosecute a host of nonviolent crimes, expanding treatment programs instead of prison sentences, developing alternatives to incarceration, launching restorative justice initiatives, refusing to prosecute cases brought by cops with a history of dishonesty, abolishing the death penalty and life sentences without parole (so-called death by incarceration), and ending cash bail.
In Manhattan, the differences among the candidates can appear so slight that their online forums begin to feel like you’re watching burgundy and maroon argue over the color red. But there are some key differences. As of January’s filing figures, former federal prosecutor Tali Farhadian Weinstein has raised the most money, and enough large contributions have come from wealthy Wall Street donors (some of whom also donated to Trump-affiliated politicians like Josh Hawley) that some are questioning her future prosecutorial independence. Former assistant DA and current defense lawyer Liz Crotty, considered by many the least reform-minded of the pack, says she won’t decline to prosecute specific offenses, leaving it instead to the legislature to change the laws.
Aboushi, on the other hand, has the longest and most specific list of offenses—over 40—that she will decline to prosecute because, she says, they essentially criminalize poverty, mental illness, or substance use disorders. (Studies show that the non-prosecution of many misdemeanor offenses yields substantial public safety benefits.) Her position is getting noticed. Aboushi has made “some bold promises to reduce the scope of the office and dramatically reduce the number of people who would end up incarcerated,” Alex Vitale, professor of sociology and the coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College (where I also teach), wrote me in an e-mail.
Aboushi says her experience as a civil rights attorney gave her an understanding of the collateral effects the legal system has on the families of those who are prosecuted, a reality she also knows personally. (As does another candidate, former deputy attorney general Alvin Bragg, who often speaks of his formerly incarcerated brother-in-law.) “I’m somebody who has been on the other end of a decision a prosecutor has made,” Aboushi told me. “And I think that’s the perspective that has always been missing from these conversations.”
But what is perhaps the most substantial promise made by anyone in the campaign thus far may also be the most difficult to fulfill, considering the number of career prosecutors working today. Only Aboushi and Eliza Orlins, a public defender, have committed to reducing the size of the DA’s office—which employs about 500 attorneys and has an annual budget of $124 million—by 50 percent and putting some of that money toward partnerships with restorative justice programs and community- based organizations.
“Public safety is not just prosecution, incarceration, and policing,” Aboushi said. “What public safety means is public stability, and what it takes to make a stable person is education, housing, resources, employment, mental health services, substance use treatment programs. Instead of criminalizing that struggle and throwing police and prosecutors at every social inequity, let’s get the experts in here who are actually going to focus on addressing the root causes instead of just making bad situations worse. And then we can reserve our resources for the serious crimes: our homicides, our rapes, our white-collar crimes.”
Based on her endorsements, which continue to pile up, Aboushi is increasingly being recognized as the progressive’s choice. In addition to Nixon, several New York City politicians have endorsed her, including State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and City Councilmember Justin Brannan. Progressive organizations like Citizen Action, Real Justice PAC, and the Jewish Vote have endorsed her run, as have the influential unions DC 37 and Unite Here! Local 100. New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman has endorsed her, as has Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, both associated with the group of progressive legislators in Washington known as the Squad. And in what may be the most consequential endorsement of all, the Working Families Party has also thrown its considerable weight behind her candidacy.
“Tahanie’s clearly running to transform the office,” WFP state director Sochie Nnaemeka told Gothamist. “Her commitment to the values of transforming an office that’s caused undue harm on vulnerable communities was also married with a clear implementation plan.”
Is Manhattan ready for a progressive Muslim woman in hijab as its district attorney? As with most things, it’s best not to look to Twitter for an answer to this question. “Remember 9/11,” read one tweet, “that’s been all forgotten until they strike again. This time from within. So take a close look at Tahanie Aboushi….” Fortunately, Twitter doesn’t necessarily represent the real world, and when I accompanied Aboushi one spring afternoon as she canvassed for votes, the only time anyone said anything about her appearance was when one middle-aged white woman listened patiently to her pitch and then said, “I love your eyebrows!”
Yasmin Dwedar was an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn for two and a half years and was one of the only hijab-wearing ADAs in the five boroughs. “If Tahanie were to win,” she told me, “that would be change on a national scale.” Dwedar, who believes that prosecutors should be required to have some kind of experience on the defense side, pointed out the ways that Muslims have experienced the brunt of law enforcement in New York City. “Coming from a Muslim community, we understand what it feels like to be discriminated against,” she said, “particularly when it comes to NYPD surveillance. And while our experiences are not exactly the same as the Latino or Black communities, we understand how unjust going through the criminal process can be.”
The fact that the Muslim candidate for Manhattan DA is also one of the most progressive in the race is hardly surprising, but it’s worth considering. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and over these two decades—during which Muslim Americans have endured all sorts of Islamophobia, including the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Trump’s Muslim ban—Muslim Americans, especially women, have been getting more involved in electoral politics and are among the vanguard of progressives across the country. The examples of Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Linda Sarsour may come immediately to mind, but there are many more.
In the 2020 election cycle, a record 170 Muslim Americans were on the ballot, with 62 winning their races. It seems fair to say that an increasingly assertive Muslim American community and increasingly effective progressive movements have culminated, at least right now, in the candidacy of Tahanie Aboushi.
Almost 20 years ago, on September 12, 2001, Aboushi (who wore a hijab back then, too) was heading to Tottenville High in Staten Island. On her walk up the path to the school, she was stopped by a security guard. “You can’t be in school today,” she remembers the guard saying. “It’s not safe.”
She went home, unsure of whether the security guard was protecting her or profiling her. She still doesn’t know, but two decades later, what we do know is that Aboushi isn’t turning around and going home anymore. If a door is closed, she’s going to open it. And she’s walking in.