Show caption Tahanie Aboushi: ‘The fact is that we’ve had a DA for the last 80 years here in Manhattan that’s only ever been a white man.’ Photograph: Kisha Bari/Tahanie Aboushi New York ‘We live here too’: Tahanie Aboushi bids to become New York’s top prosecutor The standout progressive is the underdog for district attorney, but she’s confident she can win – and change the system Erum Salam in New York Fri 21 May 2021 10.00 BST Share on Facebook
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Tahanie Aboushi was 13 when police barged into her home and arrested her parents. When she was 14, her father, a shop owner in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, was sentenced to 22 years in prison for charges relating to untaxed cigarettes and stolen goods. Her mother was acquitted of all charges.
“Every day throughout the trial, I thought he was coming home with us. And then the day he was sentenced, he couldn’t come home with us. It was just so abrupt. I remember asking myself: ‘Is this it? He doesn’t come home with us?’ That was the day it actually sank in,” Aboushi told the Guardian in an interview.
She added: “That night, there was no dinner with my father at the table, and that this would probably the last time we had dinner with our father in our home for the next 20 years.”
Now over two decades later, Aboushi is entering a competitive race to become Manhattan’s next district attorney – the chief prosecutor who possesses the power to decide which cases will be pursued in the financial capital of the world and the heart of New York City. It’s a beat that covers Wall Street and downtown Manhattan to the uber-rich avenues of the Upper East and West sides, to the bustling communities of color of Harlem and Washington Heights.
Aboushi is an underdog, but is already the standout progressive in the race, having earned the endorsements of the leftist Working Families party, the Jewish Vote advocacy group, and progressive political figures like congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, congressman Jamaal Bowman and the actor and activist Cynthia Nixon.
Outside a coffee shop in Harlem, Aboushi is greeted by Yemeni women in burqas carrying groceries. A car pulls up to the curb and a man rolls down his window to say “Salaam” to the candidate. The man is Brother Tariq, a director at the Malcom X mosque down the street. Aboushi shouts back to tell him he owes her a phone call.
“This is the side of Manhattan that’s forgotten about,” Aboushi said at the Manhattanville coffee shop. “This is one of the reasons why I jumped into this race – because there are other constituents who have been hurt. And like, we live here, too. What about us? It’s a very heavy working-class [place] here, predominantly black and Latino. But you can see we have a good mix of Yemeni communities and Pakistanis. A lot of the the immigrant African cab drivers live up here. It’s just a diverse, beautiful community up here.”
In a competitive race with seven other candidates, the odds are stacked.
Aboushi’s most formidable rival is Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who clerked for Judge Merrick Garland, who now heads the justice department. If elected, Farhadian Weinstein or Aboushi would be the first female district attorney for Manhattan. While Aboushi joked that she and Farhadian Weinstein have already been confused for each other since both are women of color with ethnic names, she said she couldn’t be more different than her opponent, a millionaire who is married to a wealthy hedge-fund manager.
“The fact is that we’ve had a DA for the last 80 years here in Manhattan that’s only ever been a white man. It’s been somebody that is part of powerful and privileged communities that haven’t walked in our shoes but tells us what’s best for us. We have the movement and the advocates. People are demanding change. We know we have to control and address crime, but we also know the system is very unfair and it is racist.
“And so people want to know how we’re going to do both. And we can do both. I’m going to show them we can do both. That’s why I jumped in the race.”
Aboushi’s hope is to succeed the current district attorney, Cyrus Vance, who announced his retirement earlier this year. Whoever is elected to the position of DA will inherit Vance’s investigation into Donald Trump’s taxes – a key issue in this race.
“We know what Vance could have done this with Trump back in 2015. This was your career prosecutor and people wanted something to be done in that 2015 investigation and it ended up nowhere, right? So is it really somebody that’s never been a prosecutor that we’re worried about, or somebody that has always been a prosecutor that we should be worried about shutting things like this down?”
Despite having practiced law for over a decade and running her own practice with her siblings, Aboushi’s lack of prosecutorial experience could be seen as a vulnerability in her candidacy, but she views this as a strength.
“I’ve been on the other end of the decision a prosecutor has made,” Aboushi said, referencing her father’s prison sentence. “I know what it looks like on the ground and what it means to fight, to not become a statistic where you just get trapped in this cycle. And that’s the perspective that has always been missing from this office.
“We’ve had career prosecutors. We can’t sacrifice any more of our families hoping that a person is going to see us as human beings and do something different.”
We have the most diverse cross-sectional support system – more than any other candidate
Taboushi said what she’s lacking in prosecutorial experience, she makes up for in lived experience. Her most high-profile case to date was against the New York police department, where she defended Muslim women who were forced to remove their hijabs to get their mugshots taken in arrests. She won, and New York City paid each woman in the case a settlement of $60,000.
“I told myself, ‘What kind of kind of environment are these officers in that you can do that and feel so comfortable about doing it?’ It was one of first impressions in the courts, meaning the NYPD never had that issue come up with them before. Now, the policy extends to all New Yorkers.”
She added: “What I loved about that case is it started with a high-school student – a Muslim girl who tried to speak up for herself and her voice was stamped out. It doesn’t matter what religion you are. To work through their arguments was an active changing of systemic racism and understanding that you are in a vibrant city of so many different cultures.”
Aboushi hopes to clinch the nomination in the primary election on 22 June and she is confident she can win.
“We have the most diverse cross-sectional support system – more than any other candidate. We can have a safe and fair justice system and accomplish accountability in a way that’s focused on rehabilitation and preventative measures. People trust us. People hear my story and read about the work that I’ve done.
“And they know I’m not going to ‘otherwise’ them, and that we’re going to be open and honest about this process. And we’re going to be responsive. We’re going to ensure a safe and stable society for everyone.”