Before the Democratic primary on Tuesday, September 12, 2017, for the city council seat that represents Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Bath Beach (presently held by Vincent Gentile, who’s term-limited out), Hey Ridge will run op-eds by supporters of the two candidates we believe are best for the job: Justin Brannan and Khader El-Yateem.
This election feels different to me. It’s about more than traditional, red/blue politics; it’s about who we are as a community, and it’s about how we define community.
I can testify to the character, hard work and dedication to the community of Rev. El-Yateem’s main Democratic rival, Justin Brannan. “Tagging Justin” in various Facebook groups when you have an issue is like putting up the bat-signal. Bay Ridge is fortunate to have a deep bench of capable candidates. Rev. El-Yateem, as a longtime member of Community Board 10, a pastor at Salam Arabic Lutheran Church and a patient liaison at Maimonides, can no doubt share similar stories of being on-call and of tending to people’s needs, whether material, emotional or spiritual. And that kind of personal connection is important in any elected office. It speaks to character, dedication, values and so much more.
But I’m looking for a broader understanding of what government is and what it can do, especially in these times of Trump. I need to know not just that when I pick up the phone I get my particular problem solved but that whoever calls will get their problems solved, even if this problem doesn’t impact me personally. Or, better yet, I would rather know that the person in office is passionately and assiduously working on policies that will address these problems in a way that is transparent, progressive and beneficial to all. Sometimes, though, it seems that as a community we can’t even agree on what the problems are.
I vividly recall the shock I felt in the summer of 2011 on reading the Associated Press reports about the NYPD surveillance program of the Muslim population. This was an important moment for me politically because it impacted not only the large and growing Arab–American community down here in Bay Ridge but also the Muslim students in my classes where I teach. At both my institution and in the community down here, the response to these revelations was disheartening, at least in the circles in which I moved. A little while later, I was glad to see that Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, the authors of the original AP exposé, were speaking in Bay Ridge at the Book Mark Shoppe about their new book, Enemies Within. (I strongly recommend that book to every Bay Ridge resident!) The night of the event, the room was packed almost exclusively with Arab–Americans.
The talk was chilling, and there was a lot of anxiety and anger in the room, though also tremendous focus and, in a way, almost relief—as if people were just grateful to be talking about this in public. When I discussed the issue with my class at the time, almost all the Muslim students were, like, “Yeah, they’ve been spying on our mosques for some time.” For me, the story had been an exposé; for my students or the people gathered at the bookstore that evening, not as much.
I realized that there was a divide in this neighborhood. It wasn’t among the left, or between old-timers and newcomers, or even on or among the various Facebook groups (as loathsome as some of them are, with their constant stream of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Chinese rhetoric). The divide that I saw was between the lived experiences of the Arab–American community and the lived experience of the white community. Sure, it was reinforced by hate speech (from those dark places) and by geography (especially), and by violence (less frequently), but it really seemed to me to have to do with a deep and persistent failure to see one another.
One complaint you constantly hear about minority groups (whether from these hateful Facebook groups or just generally) is that they keep to themselves, that they don’t take an interest in community events or government, or (worse!) that they don’t try to assimilate. This complaint usually comes without any acknowledgment or understanding of the governmental policies, both federal and local, that are responsible for such segregation in the first place (red-lining, for example). Of course people tend to gather with their own kind, especially, for example, immigrants, who are trying to navigate a new reality that can be forbidding and hostile. But that doesn’t mean that they therefore are also choosing to limit their own possibilities for economic growth, or access to healthcare, education or housing, or that they have no interest in participating in government. Xenophobia works in two ways: first, you identify someone as “other,” and then you use that idea against them to keep them from ever truly belonging. Xenophobia is a feeling, a fear; racism is when this fear translates into policy.
The event in the bookstore gave the lie to the idea that the Arab–American community stays to itself. This was an issue that one would think impacted our entire community. Domestic surveillance, for fuck’s sake! Why wasn’t the whole community out for that? Honestly, I didn’t really understand myself the depth of the problem on a local level until then, either, or the extent to which people from that community were already engaged. If things don’t impact us directly, we tend to not see them as political—or see them at all.
And then Ferguson happened (not local, but seared in my brain nevertheless). Who organized a “Take on Hate” rally here in Bay Ridge in the wake of the unrest and brutal police crackdown?Linda Sarsour and the AAANY. Who reached out to members of the white community after a woman wearing a hijab was assaulted here in Bay Ridge and called a meeting that eventually led to the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day walk? Organizers with the AAANY, including Kayla Santosuosso, who now runs Rev. K’s campaign. Who provided space for a local event in the wake of the Orlando shooting, where we tried to build bridges between different groups and different communities? Khader El-Yateem.
Do other candidates or community members not engage in outreach? Of course they do, in very important ways that need to continue and be amplified. But there also needs to be a broader conversation about which issues get attention and who’s at the table to discuss them. And this conversation has to move away from community meals and toward city government.
I’ve heard Rev. El-Yateem say many times on the campaign trail that he’s new to politics, and he might not like my saying this, but—ummm, no he’s not. He’s been “political” for years, in deep and meaningful ways. He’s been advancing progressive values, building bridges and showing up—for a long time. Rev. El-Yateem may not be as familiar to you as other candidates in the race, but for someone so naturally gregarious and so willing to reach out, that will no doubt change.
The challenges and indignities that immigrant and other minority communities face predate Trump by generations, but Trump was the nuclear bomb that broke every camel’s back. Since January, there has been a wave of executive actions and policy shifts or reversals—startling in their rapidity and cruelty—that target the most vulnerable among us: Muslim bans, promises of walls and the shameful pardon of racist Joe Arpaio; just the other day, DACA was rescinded, and God knows what’s next…
This is the first significant election since last November, and Bay Ridge has a chance to stand up and say “Enough!”
This is not a test.
Look up where and when to vote, as well as who and what will be on the ballot, here.