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“What Are We Going to Do About It?” Mariame Kaba Talks Abolition in Action

To create a world without prisons and policing, we must first push past the ceiling oppression puts on our imagination.

Black Lives Matter activists hold a protest rally calling for the abolishment of all jails and prisons outside The Tombs, the Manhattan jail now formally renamed the Manhattan Detention Complex, on June 20, 2020, in downtown New York City.

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In the wake of the uprisings following the highly publicized murder of George Floyd, new attention has been paid to campaigns to defund and abolish police and policing, and imagine new ways of existing in a world where safety, justice and healing can — and should — exist independently of the carceral state. In this atmosphere of heightened excitement about abolition, Mariame Kaba has delivered the timely collection We Do This ‘Til We Free Us. A perennial organizer and prison industrial complex (PIC) abolitionist, Kaba is renowned for founding and co-founding organizations like Survived and Punished, Project NIA, the Chicago Freedom School, Interrupting Criminalization, and many more. Her many publications, her blog Prison Culture, and her massive Twitter following have also garnered her well-deserved renown. Kaba’s new book, created along with her friend and colleague Tamara Nopper, illuminates today’s movement with new clarity. In this conversation, she offers poignant reflections from her book, describing her journey from the lessons learned from her father, who participated in the struggle for independence in Guinea, to her perspectives on the tasks for abolitionists in the wake of the 2020 uprising. She also offered her thoughts on what it means to push the limits of our imagination.

Jindu Obiofuma: You’ve always been intentional about keeping attention away from yourself and shying away from the spotlight. Now you have this huge Twitter following and you’re writing books or publishing essays and articles and you’re quite public. What inspired this change?

Mariame Kaba: I spent most of my adult life working behind the scenes, doing work with people and in my communities. I was taught and mentored by people who would say: “organizers in the background, leaders upfront.” And so, I was mostly in the background. I’m an introvert by nature, and so I felt very comfortable there. It was actually a friend of mine who asked me a question at a certain point. We were working on a resource together and I was like, “No, we don’t need to put our names on it.” And she said, how interesting that someone who’s like you, who’s been doing all this work for many years, but also spends a lot of time in the archives surfacing the histories of Black women that you admire — how interesting is it that you’ve erased yourself from history? And I was like, oh God, you know — it really hit me at the time. I changed by kind of reinserting myself into my own life. And then from there, people started paying attention to me because I posted my name on the things that I made. The main change that happened with me, frankly, was getting on social media. I never wanted to get on social media. It was a formerly incarcerated young person who got me on Twitter. He also got me to start a blog in 2010. He’s like, you have so many cool things to say; you should make a blog. And he was the one who taught me how to make Prison Culture. And the book came about because Haymarket’s been asking me to write a book for many years. I’ve always said no. And this summer, they came back to me after the uprisings in Minneapolis and they were like, we think you should do a book. How about working with Tamara Nopper? And, after thinking about it for about a week, I came back and said ok, let’s do it.

James Kilgore: Who did you write this for? As the renowned Black liberation fighter Ella Baker used to ask, “who are your people?”

My people are a defined group of folks who I’ve been in organizations with for most of my life. I’m thinking about folks who I have relationships with, who are part of various formations that I co-founded and started and currently do a lot of work with — folks like Survived and Punished, who I’m accountable to. And through Project NIA, I have people I’m accountable to. I believe in organization and in organizations and being grounded in that. I don’t see myself as somebody with people that I’m trying to spread the gospel to.

I hope that people who maybe have never even heard of abolition before, but are curious and willing to be interested in maybe learning a little bit more, will appreciate the book. And I hope that this book provides them with a door to allow them to decide whether or not they want to walk in. And once they’ve walked in, maybe this will lead them to other people in other projects and other organizations that they would look into and deepen their analysis and then take action accordingly. I also hope that people who have been part of abolitionist organizing will find something useful in the book to inform their work and thinking.

Kilgore: You wrote about how important your family’s participation in the liberation struggle in Guinea was, particularly your father. Things like anti-colonial struggles often feel far away to activists in the U.S. What can those of us in the U.S. learn from struggles in other parts of the world?

My father was a deeply realistic man, pragmatic. I didn’t know him when he was idealistic. I came along several decades after that. As someone who believed in socialist revolution and then saw what became of those ideas and of people who espoused those ideas, he would tell me that things in practice were always much messier and more difficult to implement than they are in your head. And that I should be wary of people who spend a lot of time in their heads only.

I would go and visit family all over Africa and other parts of the world. And I noticed pretty clearly that things being global meant that you have to actually ask people about themselves and their lives and understand what their particular context is and not just make huge assumptions…. Be humble, listen and learn from people, really be focused on their cultural perspectives and morals and all the other stuff before you start making big proclamations. That was really something I learned from my dad and from having traveled a lot as a young person.

When my father retired in ‘91, my parents moved back to Guinea. I would talk to him regularly over the phone.

Every time I would start talking about something like an injustice that was going on — you know, “I’m so mad and blah, blah!” — he would just listen. And then he would say, “OK, what are you doing about it?”

And it was a hard thing on one level, because sometimes you just want to vent and you don’t want to do anything. You just want to complain, you know? But it was a lesson to me and it stuck with me to this day.

And I find myself doing the exact same thing to other people regularly, which is hearing people out and then being like, “OK, now what are we going to do?”

Obiofuma: Right now, we’re seeing abolition gain popularity in ways we perhaps have never seen. Even Angela Davis says something feels different about this moment. Something that we haven’t seen as much of, at least not at the level of discourse outside of community settings, is this connection of the defund police movement to the larger need to defund the broader carceral state. So I wonder why people aren’t making those sort of intuitive connections.

I think it depends on who you mean by people. Right, because lots of people who are already PIC abolitionists have been doing long-term work around anti-militarism, and the proof of that is a generation of young people, some who I happen to personally know, who have started a group called The Dissenters based in Chicago but with chapters on college campuses all around the U.S. And what are the Dissenters doing? They’re making those exact connections between militarism, imperialism, and PIC abolition, that these are things that have to be fought together.

The War Resisters League has moved more towards a PIC abolitionist perspective in the last 10 years or so, and they’re making that case on a regular basis to people. I just think there are folks who are at different stages of learning, and we’re going to have to move those folks along the way. And how do you do that? You do that through political education. You do that through conversations. So, we need more people. We need more stuff. We always need more analysis. We always need more connections being made.

Obiofuma: In “Justice,” your short story that’s in the book, you wrote about this beautiful, almost-utopia that wasn’t anywhere in particular, except we knew it was not the United States. I wonder, what was the experience like writing that story where there was peace and justice absent the police and absent gender, but not absent violence?
I’m so happy you mentioned that story because that was actually something I pushed to include in the book. I think in part, it’s because we’re always struggling with our imagination, because oppression puts a ceiling on it. It’s really hard for us to think beyond the world that we’re living in right now, in terms of: What are the potential social relationships that we are going to have in a different world? It was a huge challenge for me. I was asked to contribute to this book called The Feminist Utopia Project. And people were like, can you come up with a utopia that has no prisons, policing and surveillance? Can you create something? And I do tend to shy away every time somebody asks me that question, mainly because I believe that abolition is a collective project. We’re going to have to fight together for that world. So, I don’t find it useful to imagine this stuff as a single individual. I do find it useful to think with other people about what that could look like and what that would mean. And so it was very, very difficult for me to come up with that piece.

Long story short, the central unit of my concern is harm, and that’s why I’m an abolitionist, because I don’t want people in spaces where they are harmed, and prisons and policing and surveillance harm a lot of people. And so, I feel like I couldn’t write a story that imagined a world where we wouldn’t harm each other. Maybe we’re going to evolve as human beings to be a different kind of, you know, humanoid. But as human beings, as I know us right now, I’m sure we’re going to keep harming each other. And the issue that we need to really wrestle with is: What is going to be our response when harm inevitably happens?

There are abolitionists who believe in the abolitionist future, we won’t harm each other. But for me, I don’t think that way, like — I just think we’re going to. And so, I take that as a given, even in a story about a utopia.

Obiofuma: Thank you for just downloading all of your brilliance onto us. Is there anything else you would like to share with readers about your book or your work?

I hope that the way that people see this book, and the way that it was made, shows how collaboration, co-thinking are so important. All that stuff has been an integral part of my life. My name is on the front cover, but it’s a book where you can see so many other people I’ve written with over the years. Many of those people are people I’ve organized with, you know, and I hope it illustrates the idea that the organizing has informed our thinking. Organizing produces theory and is therefore praxis. This is why the book is the way that it is. And I hope that when people open it and look at it that they will see me, as reflected in that. Maybe when I’m 75, I’ll write something that’s just me yapping at people, but that wasn’t what this moment demanded. And I hope that people accept it in this spirit of collaboration, co-thinking and co-organizing.

Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and concision.