From the devastating impacts of a seemingly never-ending pandemic to the police murder of George Floyd and subsequent social justice uprisings, the past year in the United States has been exhausting. Nationwide, people have taken up renewed cries for political change. As part of those calls, young progressives like New York's Rana Abdelhamid, a 28-year-old member of Democratic Socialists of America, are challenging establishment politicians, saying they bear the brunt of the responsibility for the current mess that the U.S. is in.
Last month, Abdelhamid, the founder of nonprofit organization Malikah, launched her congressional campaign for New York's 12th District. She quickly gained the endorsement of powerful progressive groups like Justice Democrats — but she is taking on quite the opponent in Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the current chair of the House Oversight Committee who has served in Congress for nearly three decades. You might also knew Maloney as the representative who wore a burka on the House floor in 2001 in a theatrical move that has since been criticized as an example of American-brand feminist exceptionalism.
New York's 12th District encompasses northern Brooklyn, much of the east side of Manhattan, and western Queens. It's directly adjacent to New York's 14th District, where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated powerful Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018, sparking a string of progressives being elected to office. The 12th District covers a wide swath of territory; its constituents in the wealthy east side of Manhattan have given the district the highest per capita income of any district in the U.S., yet its areas of Brooklyn and Queens include several historically immigrant-populated neighborhoods.
Born and raised in Queens herself, Abdelhamid has spent over a decade as a community organizer, where a lot of her work focused on not only building power, but also developing safety initiatives for women and non-binary people of color. She founded Malikah's predecessor, the Women's Initiative for Self Empowerment, after a man on the street tried removing her hijab when she was 16. In addition to her self-defense work, Abdelhamid says she has facilitated healing justice spaces and overall tried to explore "what the world would look like if all of us had access to safety and power."
"I came to organizing at a very young age, mostly out of my own experiences growing up in a post-9/11 context," Abdelhamid tells Mic, as well as her experiences "growing up in a working-class community that was impacted by gentrification, seeing my family lose our small business, and seeing a lot of state sanctioned violence against my neighborhood community."
In recent years, the election of Muslim women like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have captured headlines. If Abdelhamid unseats Maloney in 2022, she will certainly do the same. But for Abdelhamid, her run for Congress is a natural evolution of the deep love that she has for her community. Mic spoke to Abdelhamid earlier this week to learn more about her campaign and plans for if she wins office. (This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)
Mic: What prompted you to run for Congress? What do you think separates you not only from Maloney, but from the other candidates in this race?
Abdelhamid: Over the past year and a half, the pandemic has ravaged my community and many communities that look like mine across New York City. It was really obvious that the federal government and government policy were not centering working class people or thinking about communities that didn't have access to opportunities to socially distance or work from home. There were so many moments that felt like our communities had been left behind to die.
One of those moments, for me, was when my mom, an educator, contracted the virus very early on. One night, she was struggling to breathe. Many doctors in our community told us over and over again that we shouldn't take her to a Queens hospital because they were at capacity. We saw images that so many of our hospitals didn't have the proper health care infrastructure needed to address this crisis. But I knew this wasn't the case across the district, right? I know this isn't the case across the city. There's so many examples of this when you think about housing, food, access to even quality air to breathe. I grew up in an area called "Asthma Alley." This wasn't the first time that I had been cognizant of this inequity, but it was just so stark, disheartening, and disruptive.
Then at the same time, I was very aware of our current representative, and how she has been disconnected from neighborhoods like mine. And I was feeling inspired by the elections of [Jamaal] Bowman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and seeing, for the first time, voices that aligned with my values being represented at a congressional level. I knew that we could have something different. We could be represented in a way that is rooted in our communities. ... I'm running because I'm rooted in my community. I love New York City, I love where I'm from, and I believe we deserve so much better.
Mic: You're running a campaign in the middle of a pandemic. I imagine the digital sphere is important to raising awareness. Can you talk about how you're using social media to reach voters?
Abdelhamid: I'm someone who really, really appreciates the power of social media. I'm very active on Instagram and becoming more active on TikTok and Twitter. I understand the importance of social media and being able to reach audiences that historically have not been engaged in the political process — especially young people and communities that may not necessarily have been seen as a voting bloc that should be [courted]. I find this such an exciting opportunity to make our events, information, and campaign accessible to people who have not been engaged as part of a congressional race in the past.
Overall, it's allowing this to be a really creative, dynamic, and engaged campaign. I'm excited to use social media as a platform for education, but also as an opportunity to connect with folks through Zoom and different groups. Like, I have a million groups on WhatsApp speaking with a lot of different communities, and then I can really storytell using TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter.
Mic: On your website, you say, "Housing is a human right, not a for-profit business." For those who really aren't familiar with that framing, how do you see housing impacting your communities? What is the problem with for-profit housing?
Abdelhamid: When I think about housing justice, I think about tenant rights, gender justice, racial justice, and climate justice. I grew up in a neighborhood that's literally nicknamed Asthma Alley because of how awful the air quality is. People did not have access to quality air where I grew up and there are so many parts of the district like that. The [12th District] is home to the largest public housing unit in all of North America: Queensbridge. During the pandemic, many public housing units didn't have access to heating or gas to cook their food. Plus, we have such a high rate of homelessness in this city and across the country.
As a young girl, my family struggled a lot with housing. We had to move more than six times during the course of my childhood because of poor landlords, bad housing conditions, and rising rents. I understand firsthand how disruptive that can be for a child and a family unit that's connected to a community. My family ran a small business when I was a young girl. We lost it because of rising rents. We showed up to our small business and happened to be faced with an eviction notice.
I know the struggles of small businesses to be able to keep their doors open, and how that ties to the fabric of our communities and our ability to not only survive, but thrive. So I'm coming at this in a way that is bringing together and centering a lot of the work that has been done around housing justice, but also recognizing that no one should have to worry about keeping a roof over their head because that is a basic need. It is a human right. We should be able to feel safe in our homes and not have to worry about being on the street because we can't afford rent.
Mic: I want to look at specifically your call to repeal the Faircloth Amendment. For those who aren't familiar, can you explain what this amendment is and why it needs to go?
Abdelhamid: Absolutely! The Faircloth Amendment basically puts a limit on the amount of public housing units that are constructed in this country. It is rooted in racial injustice and our understanding of who is afforded public housing in a way that is very discriminatory. It is only because of the eviction moratorium that we have been able to address some of the real issues around how people have been able to maintain some level of stability during this pandemic, even though we know a lot of people are not covered under this eviction moratorium and still have had to deal with homelessness during this time.
"[We need] to see public housing as a public good that is provided by the government."
We need to expand our thinking and understanding of public housing. We need to build and construct more public housing units. That is the only affordable way for us to ensure that housing is not up to what the market is requiring at this time, and is not up to an economic system that is driven by a bottom line rather than by people's needs. [We need] to see public housing as a public good that is provided by the government [and] disrupt some of what the market creates, which is harmful for a lot of our families and a lot of our communities.
Mic: On your site, you say that the Biden administration's Department of Justice must "take the threat of white supremacist violence as a serious threat to our communities and democracy." Many anti-surveillance organizers are wary about how current approaches for addressing white supremacy re-legitimize surveillance programs that targeted Black and/or Muslim communities. Can you speak to these concerns?
Abdelhamid: My neighborhood was directly targeted by NYPD violence [after 9/11]. We had informants placed in our mosques and local businesses. I understand the disruption and violence that this kind of surveillance creates in communities. There is a lack of basic trust among people, and people are criminalized for no reason at all in a way that ... makes it difficult for us to navigate and feel safe in our community spaces.
When I think about being able to stand against white supremacy, I'm not talking about extending the state's role in continuing to surveil our communities. I think about us equipping and being able to fund community-based initiatives that address white supremacist violence.
For example, when I look at the reality of hate-based violence right now in so many communities — especially within Asian communities — [solving it] looks like providing funding to community-based organizations that create opportunities for healing, engaging violence-disruptors on a grassroots level that have deep relationships in communities, and strengthening educational opportunities. [We must] ensure that we are doing anti-racism work at every single level.
I also look at what level of accountability the government has in ensuring that it is not perpetuating this white supremacist violence. We know that that's true historically; we know that it's true in the present, in terms of the rhetoric and policies that are being implemented. I think it's both that call for a check [on the government], so I'm sure that it is not continuing to happen, but also a call for investment in community-based initiatives and community-based organizations that have been doing this work.
Mic: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Abdelhamid: My vision for this campaign is rooted in economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, and a vision of what could be for our communities. This is a really diverse district — people have very different socio-economic backgrounds, very different personal narratives, life trajectories. It's going to be really, really powerful when we build a progressive campaign that is bringing people together who [understand] that there is opportunity for real systemic change.
That is rooted in an understanding that the harms we have been seeing unfold — that have historically been unfolding in this country — are because we have been engaging with systems that have failed us over and over. There's a real opportunity for us to shift, reinvest, and reimagine what could be different and powerful. I'm excited for this campaign to do that.