When my family first immigrated to the US from Somalia, we were placed by a refugee agency in Buffalo, New York, in one of the city’s seedier neighborhoods. Our neighbor Trey, a hulking giant of a man and a trainer at a local boxing club, had quickly come to befriend and watch over this strange family from this strange country he’d never heard of. One day, he took my brother and me shopping for school supplies. I remember walking alongside him on the crumbling sidewalk, amid a forest of run-down houses, and Trey nodding his head toward a police car idling across the street. “Look at that motherfucker over there. Just waiting to pounce.”
Mark, the subject of Bassam Tariq’s Ghosts of Sugar Land, was an outsider in high school, being one of the only black students in his class, but as his South Asian Muslim friends tell it, they always tried to make him feel welcome in their culture. Converting to Islam seemed like an inevitable act of friendship. Over time, Mark committed himself to Islam much more strongly than his friends did, driving them apart. He posted increasingly conservative views online. One day, Mark’s friends woke up to a Facebook post from him location-tagged in Turkey. A few days later, there was a new post: “I am now currently living in the Islamic State [in Syria].”
Although calls for defunding and dissolution, rather than reform, may feel new to many, abolitionist organizing against the “prison industrial complex”—which includes prisons, police, and surveillance—goes back more than two decades. There is no delusion among abolitionists that we will ever live in a world without conflict or interpersonal violence. Right now our go-to response to all manner of social, political, and economic conflict—whether it is homelessness, domestic violence, migration—is prisons and police. The abolitionist invitation is to investigate these problems with care and particularity, and collectively craft responses that do not rely on violence and punishment.
I handed him my identification. He did a warrant check. A few minutes passed. Then he let us go. Nothing violent occurred. Unlike Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others whose names are known because of tragic encounters with the police, I walked—or, rather, was driven—away from the event with no visible impairment. This whole episode could be seen as trivial, given that I came to no physical harm. But the moment was deeply instructive.
It is easy to think of New York as more of a concept, an easily traversable, cosmopolitan hub, than a place, a part of the natural world. Covid-19 has clarified that our health and lifespan is tied to a zip code. Climate change will make the consequences of the environmental history of the land, of both overdevelopment and neglect of the coasts, of environmental racism and displacement, and of our economic and cultural reliance on our coasts and waterways terribly apparent as the city’s water returns like a recovered memory.
In 1988 the French novelist and photographer Hervé Guibert was diagnosed with HIV. Two years later, Éditions Gallimard published To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, a stark autobiographical book about his desperate effort to gain access to an experimental “AIDS vaccine.” To the Friend comprises a series of portraits of friends and lovers whom illness and its specters torment throughout its one hundred chapters.
Would you buy a used car from a man with a hair-do like that? It arouses immediate suspicion and distrust. How long must it take to construct that look every morning? Do other people have to work on it? Who are they? How can we find them?
By the end of May, Brazil had surpassed the half-million mark for coronavirus cases, becoming the world’s No. 2 hotspot for the disease, behind only the United States; 38,000 have now died here. Experts believe the outbreak has not yet reached a peak: according to one research institute, the virus is predicted to have killed more than 125,000 people by early August. Yet the president’s response remains insouciant: “I regret each of the deaths, but that’s everyone’s destiny.”
There will be hundreds, likely thousands, of claims for damages because of the police’s violence. Yet none of this comes out of the police budget: we, the broke and beaten residents and taxpayers, will be paying for their abuse of us. A police courts van sat on now-boarded-up Broadway, its windows smashed. Someone had scrawled FTP, short for “fuck the police,” on every side. When I walked by, a kid in black stood atop it while his friend shot photos. I asked to take his picture. He agreed. “You’re gonna get a million likes on Instagram,” he told me. He stood there as if astride the world.
People like my father, a lifelong leftist Zionist, an officer in the Israel Defense Forces in reserve, and the son of Holocaust survivors, have been forced to rethink their shrinking electoral options. In the March elections, an unprecedented number of such Jewish voters turned their backs on Meretz, the last bastion of Zionist two-state supporters, and gave their votes to the Joint List. For many of them, this was a crossing of the Rubicon. Having identified as Zionists their whole lives, they had never imagined casting a vote for a non-Zionist Arab party.