Bay Ridge, Brooklyn would scare the living daylights out of a Norwegian racist against Arabs.
Once an enclave of immigrants from Norway — they still have a parade every year — an influx of Arab immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s turned it into a place where you can eat lutefisk for lunch and samak wa roz for dinner. They’re both fish dishes. So basically the same culinary choices as Oslo, which is scary for Norwegian racists because, in this one respect at least, they’re cowards because racism requires cowardice.
Now I didn’t bother interviewing any Norwegian racists or self-avowed cowards for this article, so I’m just guessing. But what I can tell you is this is the place in Brooklyn where the edges of Donald Trump supporters and Bernie Sanders fans meet, living next door to each other sometimes. Where you can see the kind of blinding contradiction of a young man in a Trump shirt walking by a store window that reads “Happy Ramandan” in one window and “Happy Mother’s Day” in the one beside it.
I asked the guy for comment, but he sheepishly declined. He was white, and it looked like it was probably his first election. He’ll have many more to look forward to in his life, even if Trump doesn’t win. Heck, he could run himself, but he’ll have to get better at handling the press than mumbling something and slouching off to his parents’ home and be boring.
Trump support in the neighborhood is overwhelming among Republicans in Bay Ridge, with the real-estate mogul taking 75 percent of the vote in some areas, leaving John Kasich in the dust, according to primary results tabulated by The New York Times. Sanders also won Bay Ridge by smaller margins, 55 to 45, but not too much less than what he took in Bushwick and Williamsburg, neighborhoods full of optimistic recent college graduates, the Vermont Senator’s base. Arab support for Sanders in Bay Ridge is undeniably strong.
Blocks away, outside The Owl Bar, Kayla Santosuosso and Abderrahmane Amor coordinated canvassing efforts on behalf of Sanders, handing out leaflets and literature to squads of people fanning through the neighborhood knocking on doors reminding people to vote. Santosuosso is a volunteer for Sanders, and also the deputy director for the Arab American Association of New York. Amor is a staffer for the campaign, a student at Ohio State. Dozens of music venues and bars in New York hosted at least dozens of Sanders fund-raising events over the last three months, including a Valentine’s Day date auction and a comedy show and dozens of music acts that gave some of their proceeds to the Sanders campaign.
Bars and beer halls were the places where future Americans in the 1770s plotted their revolution against the imperious impositions of the British Empire, ruled by another 1 percent — the British royal family. The goal of the American revolution in the streets of colonial America was to challenge a wealthy elite that was double talking and distrusted. That’s a common thread running through the Sanders campaign and the Trump campaign. It’s the kind of “common sense” Thomas Paine talked about. And now we have opinion polls. If 21 percent of people think Hillary Clinton is a liar, maybe she is a liar.
In the Clinton campaign, however, one never hears the term the 1%. It’s all about “breaking down barriers,” she says, whatever that means. “Barriers” are a meaningless metaphor. “The 1%” is a class of living, breathing human beings who are responsible for ruining the lives of millions of Americans forever: a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel. Crooked bankers who gambled pensions and oil lobbyists who led us in the “business opportunity” of Iraq. These are people Clinton takes money from. That is part of the reason people tell me they don’t trust her.
That afternoon, the Owl Bar was closed for business, as it was also hosting an interview for Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite news channel owned by Saudis. Muna Shikaki, a network correspondent, and a cameraman prepared for an interview with Linda Sarsour, head of the Arab American Association of New York. Sarsour is helping lead efforts against unwarranted surveillance by the New York Police Department of the Muslim American community.
Sarsour, a Palestinian born in Bay Ridge, has been a surrogate for Bernie Sanders campaign and is one of the most visible and vocal advocates for the rights of Arab and Muslim New Yorkers. It’s a blue collar neighborhood for everybody — white cops and firemen, Arab and Hispanic shopkeepers and taxi drivers — where the rent is due for most people at the first of the month. For others, it’s the 15th. Everybody’s trying to get by. Everybody watches the Mets lose and the Jets try their best at playing football.
That common struggle and a distrust of establishment politics is what’s behind Bay Ridge’s affections for Trump and Sanders, Sarsour says. Still, many white Trump supporters have Muslim friends and neighbors, just by virtue of being human beings living in an Arab and Muslim neighborhood.
“How can someone vote for Trump and still live in Bay Ridge?” I asked her.
Sarsour said that people in Bay Ridge treat their politics as a personal, not a public matter, and can quarantine the Muslims they know personally from the one-dimensional, dangerous sources of “problems” Trump and his supporters refers to them as.
“Their Muslim neighbors are exclusive to all the things they hear about Muslims. The reason why you have Trump supporters and Bernie supporters is that they’re both anti-Establishment. They’re anti-status-quo. They actually have a lot of values that they share, believe it or not –– put the racism part to the side. If you listen closely, you hear very similar things,” she said.
That is absolute true. Sanders supporters like him because he doesn’t take money from the wealthy elite — but is crowdfunded in a way only the Internet can facilitate. Trump supporters like him because he has his own money, allegedly, and doesn’t need to supplicate himself to big money. And he can “tell it like it is” in a way only the Internet can facilitate.
“I actually don’t think all Trump supporters are racist,” Sarsour added. “I don’t think they’re malicious people. I think they’re misinformed and they see Donald Trump as some kind of savior who is anti-establishment.”
Then Shikaki asked to take some B-roll of Sarsour, Santosuosso, Amor, a couple others standing around. Then discussion turned to where the after party would be.
“I heard it’s something called a beer hall but I don’t drink so I don’t know what beer halls are,” Sarsour, who is Muslim, said.
Her deputy Kayla chimed in: “You’re just going to eat lots of pretzels.”
Sarsour’s magnanimity towards Trump supporters comes even as Islamophobic attacks take place on the streets of the neighborhood. Most of them are verbal, and most of them are targeted at older people and lone women wearing hijab. And it’s getting worse with Trump’s rise.
Two young men told me about this when they drove by the Sanders campaign outpost about an hour before to pick up canvassing materials. Mohamed El-Mansey, 19, a student, sat in the passenger seat as his friend Ahmed Shalabi, 20, sat at the wheel of the idling sedan. I asked them if they had experienced Islamophobia living in Bay Ridge.
“It happens a lot more to our family members. It happens a lot more to our moms, because they wear the veil so it’s more obvious,” said El-Mansey.
“Even in this neighborhood it happens. Like first they might say ‘go back to your country.’ That’s the classic thing. Or say “terrorist,” or a dirty look or a shoulder bump,” he said.
Confirming that cowardice and racism are two sides of the same coin, Shalabi offered an observation. People don’t lob hateful words unless the victim is defenseless.
“I noticed it never happens to our parents when we’re around. It only happens to our sisters or our moms when they’re alone,” he observed.
El-Mansey added: “It’s more easy to attack a girl or a female than if you’re seeing a group of four or five guys. But if you see two Arab moms or two Muslim moms walking. That’s why me and him wouldn’t personally experience it.”
El-Mansey cautioned that bigoted behavior is not something that happens to their family members every day, and that white and Arab New Yorkers get along fine. Still, it’s a matter of concern.
“For the most part everything’s good. But since the Trump campaign started it’s gotten worse,” he said.
I should mention that after I spoke to Arab Sanders supporters, I ducked into a hookah bar for a Turkish coffee and some WiFi. I got talking to one of the patrons, an older Arab American man, originally from Lebanon, who said he was voting for Trump. The Republican’s words against Muslims and Islam don’t bother him.
“You might curse your mother but that doesn’t mean you do not love her,” Ali Moussar said, adding that emotions might have gotten the best of Trump. “We need a strong leader who cares about the country, who will defend us from terrorists.”
He was wearing an I Voted sticker. He had voted for Trump earlier that day.
Moussar’s words remind me of what I used to hear from Syrians when I studied Arabic there in 2006. Despite the brutalities of his government, many adored Assad because he made the country secure. And that was that.
That night, Sanders lost the Democratic primary to Clinton in an election where complaints about problems voting rose more than 400 percent over the last primary in 2012. More than 100,000 voters were mysteriously purged from the voting roles for unknown reasons. Sanders supporters are disappointed, understandably.
Clinton on Thursday said she’s sure young voters will come to her side, given the “stark choice” between her and Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz. The Democratic party should be ashamed of itself for this attitude. Years ago, my Dad once told me that the Democratic party is the party of hope and the Republican party is the party of fear. Well, I don’t know if that’s true anymore, since the Democrats are relying on fear to motivate reluctant voters to cast their vote for Clinton.
“You know what party we vote for? The Democratic Party,” my grandfather, Wilson Paul Dizard Jr., born in Staten Island, in what is today the same congressional district as Bay Ridge, once told me. I think it’s the first thing I distinctly remember him saying to me. It must’ve been just before Bill Clinton’s first election in 1992.
Back then, Bill Clinton offered a message of optimism during a grim recession. I still remember hearing “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” playing at his convention I watched on television. I was about six years old at the time. My grandfather was a loyal Democrat and a great guy, but I don’t think he would want me to vote just based on party loyalty — and certainly not simply out of fear.
Political parties, after all, aren’t political philosophies. They are more like organized crime syndicates, with branches nationwide and capos standing by to enforce order and punish disloyalty. They are a collection of favors and promises and fake smiles. The fact that Independents “have no business” voting in the Democratic primary, as Clinton supporters gloat, is true. In the same way, people who are not members of a neighborhood organized crime syndicate or exclusive social club are not entitled to have a say in dividing the spoils of its protection racket or card game. Clinton has political platforms, but Sanders, for better or worse, has a political philsophy that has its origins in socialist principals, not political expendiency. Millions of Americans have a strong appetite for it. Among them are thousands of future politicians who will repeat his message throughout their careers. The same goes for Trump’s loyal young fans. Clintonism doesn’t have prospects as bright, as her message requires her experience and connections. They retire when she does.
Meanwhile, Islamophobia grows and Clinton struggles to bring Muslims into her camp. Her plans to hold a fundraiser in Tel Aviv shows how little she cares about being sensitive to the concerns of young Arabs. Indeed, she seems to even be distinguishing herself from Sanders in this sense.
It wouldn’t be the first time. In the year 2000, she insulted American Muslims by handing back $50,000 in campaign contributions from a group after a Daily News report outed one of its members as having said something nice about Hamas. For American Muslims, a community with the population about the size of Brooklyn and Queens combined, it’s not an easy insult to forget — and part of the reason so many have flocked to Sanders. That, and Clinton’s history of helping start wars in Muslim countries.
With Sanders likely to lose the Democratic nomination, this means that Muslims and Arabs will not have the same kind of ally in the White House they’d hoped for. Arguably, Clinton is the most pro-Israel of the three contenders, counting out Cruz. The choice for American Muslims, deciding between Clinton and Trump, is particularly bleak.
Meanwhile, Islamophobia marches on. On Thursday, the AAANY received a creative piece of hate mail from a Trump supporter, featuring a red cross with a gold crown on top of it, and a medieval crusader kneeling next to it in prayer. The words beside the cross were simple, clear and threatening.
“It’s time to choose sides.”