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We Do This 'Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice

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“Organizing is both science and art. It is thinking through a vision, a strategy, and then figuring out who your targets are, always being concerned about power, always being concerned about how you’re going to actually build power in order to be able to push your issues, in order to be able to get the target to actually move in the way that you want to.”

What if social transformation and liberation isn’t about waiting for someone else to come along and save us? What if ordinary people have the power to collectively free ourselves? In this timely collection of essays and interviews, Mariame Kaba reflects on the deep work of abolition and transformative political struggle.

With a foreword by Naomi Murakawa and chapters on seeking justice beyond the punishment system, transforming how we deal with harm and accountability, and finding hope in collective struggle for abolition, Kaba’s work is deeply rooted in the relentless belief that we can fundamentally change the world. As Kaba writes, “Nothing that we do that is worthwhile is done alone.”
Year:
2021
Publisher:
Haymarket Books
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
9781642595260
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EPUB, 1.30 MB
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Praise for We Do This ’Til We Free Us

“This book writes a political genealogy of one of our movement era’s most significant intellectuals and community organizers and her people into the record of a feminist and abolitionist Black Radical Tradition. She teaches us to praise the choir, appreciate vulnerability, and be disciplined in service of transforming ourselves and the world in which we live.” —CHARLENE A. CARRUTHERS, author, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements

“Mariame Kaba isn’t trying to save the world. Instead, this collection of liberatory practice serves as a building block for a new kind of existence, filled with the hum only evolved humanity can sound. Kaba returns questions unanswered; Kaba spirits the flame untethered; Kaba is the water well in the middle of a thirsty town. And in her unyielding abolition work, Mariame Kaba reveals our reflection’s purpose. She is generous in offering us a blueprint to save ourselves.” —MAHOGANY L. BROWNE, author, Chlorine Sky

“So many of us have been introduced to abolition—or invited into a deeper understanding and practice of abolitionist politics—through Mariame Kaba’s words, work, and vision, as well as her brilliant sense of humor, skillful use of Twitter, love of poetry, practice of hope, and appreciation of art. For those of us new to abolition, this book is the primer we need. For those of us who have been on an abolitionist journey, it is full of the reminders we need. No matter where and how you enter the conversation, We Do This ’Til We Free Us brings all of us infinitely closer to creating a world premised on genuine and lasting safety, justice, and peace.” —ANDREA J. RITCHIE, author, Invisible No More: Police Violence against Black Women and Women of Color

“Anyone and everyone who has had the privilege of learning from Mariame Kaba has been transformed into a better thinker, organizer, artist, and human. What Kaba does is light the path to abolition and liberation with equal parts intelligence and compassi; on, experience and hope. This book brings together the scattered pieces of her wisdom she has shared publicly in different venues so that those who don’t have the pleasure of sitting and learning with her can absorb a small part of what makes Kaba one of the most impressive and important thinkers and organizers of our time. Let this work fortify those who are already engaged in the struggle and be an energetic spark for those just starting out on this path to freedom.” —MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH, author, Stakes Is High: Life after the American Dream

“Mariame has the rarest of gifts: the ability to imagine a better future, the skills to help construct it, and the courage to demand it. For years, Mariame has been thinking through some of the toughest questions about society’s addiction to punishment, and We Do This ’Til We Free Us showcases the extraordinary depths of her knowledge about our criminal legal system. This book could not arrive at a better time—as more people become familiar with abolition, Mariame’s words are especially critical. But it is not just a book about systems. It’s a book about people, the powerful and the struggling. And, ultimately it is a book about each of us—the values we possess and the choices we make. Mariame has the uncanny ability to illuminate the murky and complicated elements of who we are and give them voice. As an abolitionist, Mariame is not just calling for the destruction of old systems but also the creation of a new world. This book will change the way you think about your community, your relationships, and yourself.” —JOSIE DUFFY RICE, writer

“Mariame Kaba is a people’s historian, an ultra-practical problem solver, and a visionary prophet whose work dreams and builds a world made by collaboration and healing where putting people in cages is unimaginable. We Do This ’Til We Free Us is packed with Kaba’s brilliant insights and detailed examples of how the work of abolition is put into practice in grassroots campaigns. Kaba’s boundless creativity is rooted in her rigorous study of resistance and inspiration, and the wisdom of her words is woven through with poetry, literature, history, and music, so that her offerings are both grounded in practical discernment and inclined toward our most robust imagination of what freedom could mean. This book will be both a practical tool and a source of comfort in hard times for change-makers and world-builders.” —DEAN SPADE, author, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next)

“This suite of essays and interviews blends the verve, insight, skill, and generosity of one of the most brilliant abolitionist thinkers, curators, and organizers of our time. Marked by lush imagination, care, and strategic acumen, We Do This ’Til We Free Us is a manual for all those who want to create new collectivities and new futures from the ashes of entire systems of carcerality, racism, sexism, and capitalism. Always teaching us how to ‘have each other,’ there is no wiser or more inspirational figure in the fight for justice than Mariame Kaba.” —SARAH HALEY, author, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity

“We Do This ’Til We Free Us is an organizer’s gift: a vision of abolition that is also a practice of it and a road map. Essay by essay, Mariame Kaba guides us through the abolitionist futures she has created in real time by turning questions into experiments, learning from failures as much as successes, and doing everything with other people. Let her words radicalize you, let them unlock your imagination, let them teach you how to practice hope, and let them show you why the everyday is the terrain of our greatest abolitionist creations. We Do This ’Til We Free Us is not a book to be read; it is a portal to a collective project of liberation that literally requires every last one of us.” —LAURA McTIGHE, Front Porch Research Strategies and assistant professor, Florida State University

“In her new book, We Do This ’Til We Free Us Mariame Kaba demonstrates the ways that discipline—in intellect, in practice, in relationship—leads not to despair, but to hope. The far-ranging series of essays and interviews draws on her deep practice as a seasoned organizer who persistently distills the questions surrounding abolition to basic human decisions about the world we want to inhabit and how we will go about building it. Abolition, as Mariame sees and practices, is fundamentally both generous, and pragmatic and her writing will move both seasoned abolitionists and those just now asking these questions for the first time to join in her conclusion that ‘your cynicism is unrealistic.’“ —DANIELLE SERED, author, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair

“Mariame’s wisdom trues my restorative justice compass. The restorative justice movement has much to learn from Mariame’s steadfast commitment to protecting our approaches to harm and healing from state co-optation and control. Her unwavering belief in ‘we got us’ offers powerful inspiration to imagine, ground, and elevate our practice. What a gift!” —SUJATHA BALIGA, restorative justice practitioner

“The intertwined analysis and collective organizing archived in this invaluable collection provides crucial entry points in the everyday work of abolition. Engaging the most pressing questions of our time with clarity and commitment, as always, Mariame makes abolition irresistible and, as imperatively, doable.” —ERICA R. MEINERS, author, For the Children: Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State

“Working through a range of concepts and struggles—from the criminalization of self-defense to what is needed to inspire our imaginations toward abolition— We Do This ’Til We Free Us truly demonstrates, Mariame Kaba’s teachings that ‘hope is a discipline.’ With this book Kaba brings with her a community of organizers, workers, and writers to show us how abolition is a practice and to guide our actions for liberation.” —SIMONE BROWNE, author, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness

“For the last twenty-ive years, prison abolitionists have been treated like the Don Quixotes of social justice movements, chasing an impossibly unrealistic vision. In We Do This ’Til We Free Us, Kaba demonstrates, through her work as an organizer and scholar, that putting an end to the carceral state is not only necessary but also possible. This collection offers a remarkable history of abolitionist organizing and a road map for the work we must do to make a new world and transform ourselves in the process.” —KENYON FARROW, Co-Executive Director, Partners for Dignity & Rights

“We Do This ’Til We Free Us is a beacon, a watch fire, a guidepost for all of us who are seeking transformational and life-giving change in a death-dealing society. Mariame Kaba is a force of nature, unafraid to step into great storms of violence. As this long-awaited collection of abolitionist essays, interviews, and conversations demonstrates, Kaba knows that relationships are at the center of everything; that new possibilities and insights arise from the organized efforts of ordinary people; that only collective endeavor can move us forward. This isn’t simply a book. It’s a portal.” —KAY WHITLOCK, coauthor Queer (In) Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States

“Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ’Til We Free Us exudes her brilliance as an organizer, educator, and visionary. A primer in abolition as an organizing vision, strategy, and practice, this collection of essays is rooted in a structural analysis of policing, incarceration, and surveillance while uplifting collective strategies, actions, and practices that lend themselves toward ending these systems. The collection shares some of the amazing abolitionist projects she’s initiated, organized, and nurtured, and is a testament to the power of collectivity and community. This is a book for those who have never thought about abolition and for those who have thought about it for years. Through the lens Mariame Kaba offers, the possibilities for abolition become quite tangible, possible, even inevitable.” —ANN RUSSO, author, Feminist Accountability: Disrupting Violence and Transforming Power

“If ever there was a time we needed Mariame Kaba’s words and insights all in one place, it is now! Principled, pragmatic, and, most of all, visionary, We Do This ’Til We Free Us not only casts an unflinching light on our violent carceral system but also illuminates real pathways towards justice and freedom. This book should be read, studied, and acted upon by everyone committed to seeding new worlds amidst the ruins of the old.” —RUHA BENJAMIN, Princeton University

“We Do This ’Til We Free Us is a series of essays that operate as gifts, reflections, and political interventions from the humbly prolific organizer Mariame Kaba. Whether contending with abolitionist organizing, the application of transformative justice, or relationships as survival, she creates necessary guideposts for all of us. This is a deliciously nuanced read, one that you will pick up multiple times and receive something new each time. And this is a book designed to accompany your political endeavors, inspiring you to deepen your activism and organizing, and insisting that you, alongside Mariame, have a place in the creation of a more liberatory society.” —EJERIS DIXON, organizer, strategist, facilitator, and coeditor of Beyond Survival: Stories and Strategies of the Transformative Justice Movement

“Brimming with organizing insights and burning questions, this collection is a must-read for those engaged in, or looking to learn more about the movement to abolish the prison-industrial complex. We Do This ’Til We Free Us so clearly and beautifully shows us that the road to abolition is paved in collective struggle, solidarity, accountability, love, and ‘a million different little experiments.’” —EMILY THUMA, author, All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence

“This long-awaited collection of the works of Mariame Kaba is what the movement for abolition needs right now. Kaba blends radical critique, historical analysis, ground theory, and practical application to help guide organizers building an abolitionist future. Tere are very few scholars and/or organizers who are able to seamlessly bring abolitionist and transformative justice theory with practical organizing strategies as Kaba so successfully does. Kaba’s essays also demonstrate the transformation our movements need to make so that they are guided by principles of love and care that can sustain our communities into a different world. She teaches how to build the discipline necessary so that we can be guided by hope rather than despair. Kaba’s work is a true gift to the movement.” —ANDREA SMITH, professor of ethnic studies, University of California, Riverside

“Mariame Kaba is a political genius and truth-teller for our times, as an abolitionist, political organizer, educator, and writer, she is audacious in her dreams for our Black future freedoms. This book says what needs to be said in this political moment as we reckon with abolition in response to police brutality, white supremacy, and a pandemic that is disproportionately killing people of color globally. Each chapter is a beautiful and archival testimonial to the lineage of Black organizing, especially Black feminists, that have led us to this political and cultural moment of mass uprisings creating resilient, abolitionist, and transformative strategies in the face of police brutality, massive incarceration, and the genocidal state response to COVID19. We Do This ’Til We Free Us is a remedy for our collective survival, and a manifesto for responding to harms and violence for our future.” —CARA PAGE, founder of Changing Frequencies

“Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ’Til We Free Us is a treasure trove of essays and interviews that shares her knowledge, insights, and wisdom developed over decades of organizing against the prison industrial complex and supporting survivors of violence. In this book, Kaba recounts scores of campaigns, projects, collaborations, and activists that brought us to historic moments in 2020 and beyond, and provides concrete steps people can take on the path to abolition. A brilliant organizer, educator, political theorist, and preeminent abolitionist of the twenty-first century, Kaba succinctly breaks down the anti-Black foundations of the US criminal legal system and makes the case for abolition and transformative justice. This book is a must read for anyone striving for more peace and justice in this world.” —JOEY MOGUL, coauthor, Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States

“This collection of writings embodies Mariame’s gifts to the abolitionist movement, not only in content but in format. As readers, we are invited into the conversations Kaba has been having for decades as she lifts up countless stories that belong to the larger movement of which she is an essential leader. We are offered Mariame’s personal and also collaborative writing that highlights a central message running throughout the book; we will not achieve liberation alone. While there are no blueprints for abolition, this text is a guiding light that offers crucial answers and an expansive invitation for all to join in the work.”—REV. JASON LYDON, Second Unitarian Church of Chicago

“We Do This ’Til We Free Us outlines an approach to transformative politics that we have been hungry for: brilliant strategies that are at once practical and prophetic. For decades, Mariame Kaba’s pathbreaking leadership has steered us towards a horizon of radical freedom that, as she has repeatedly demonstrated, is within our reach. Tis remarkable collection is a powerful map for anyone who longs for a future built on safety, community, and joy, and an intellectual home for those who are creating new pathways to get us there.”— ALISA BIERRIA, cofounder and co-organizer of Survived and Punished

“Mariame Kaba’s living example continuously teaches me that accountability and abolition are daily internal and external practices. We Do This ’Til We Free Us is both timely and timeless. This compelling collection is an offering of Kaba’s thoughtful experiential perspectives and insights about the strenuous, compassionate, and rewarding work to not harm in response to witnessing and/or experiencing harm. Kaba’s words are a sacred road map for an embodied praxis that invites all of us to imagine, envision, and work collectively to co-create a society without violence.” —AISHAH SHAHIDAH SIMMONS, creator, NO! The Rape Documentary and author, Love WITH Accountability

“We Do This ’Til We Free Us has so much wisdom to offer, particularly at this unprecedented moment. Kaba not only challenges the corrosive notions that only policing and prisons keep us safe but also invites us to see abolition not as a faraway goal but an everyday adventure that we can embark upon in our daily lives. Mariame Kaba is a galactic treasure. Her passion, dedication, and commitment to abolition, safety, and accountability are unparalleled. Read this book.” —VICTORIA LAW, author, Prison by Any Other Name

“Mariame Kaba is one of the foremost grassroots intellectuals of our time. She is a strategic, brilliant, and practical genius whose intellectual and on-the-ground-work is foundational to the past twenty years of transformative justice and abolitionist theory and practice. She’s someone whose work I urge anyone to read who is curious about exactly why and how we are going to dismantle prisons and build the different future we need. I am so happy to have this book in the world, collecting so many of my favorite pieces, to give to new and old comrades alike.” —LEAH LAKSHMI PIEPZNA-SAMARASINHA, author, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice

“The miracle is Mariame’s collaborative, accountable, future-facing, legacy-bearing presence in our movements and her intentional practice of evaluating how she can contribute to our collective future. This book, which documents some of Kaba’s most important interventions, crucial conversations and paradigm shifting ideas makes this ongoing miracle shareable, teachable, and available for study in community. We Do This ’Til We Free Us is a necessary offering towards the possibility of our intentional participation in the actions that will create a more loving and liveable world. Read this book, hold this archive, share this journey, to nurture your own presence, practice and collaborations towards the freedom we already deserve.” —ALEXIS PAULINE GUMBS, author, Dub: Finding Ceremony

“Beautiful and timely, We Do This ’Til We Free Us is more than a book. It is a gathering: a conversation, a coming together, a call to be not only our best selves but also together in struggle. It is a how-to gift for all who believe in freedom from violence. In a wide-ranging series of essays, interviews, and speeches, inveterate organizer Mariame Kaba shares strategic wisdom from the abolitionist front lines. Read it, pass it on, and get to work!” —DAN BERGER, author, Rethinking the American Prison Movement





The Abolitionist Papers Series

Edited by Naomi Murakawa


Also in this series:


Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition

Ruth Wilson Gilmore


Abolition. Feminism. Now.

Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Beth Richie, and Erica Meiners





© 2021 Mariame Kaba

Foreword © Naomi Murakawa

Editor’s Introduction © Tamara K. Nopper

Rights to select articles noted on page 199–202

Published in 2021 by

Haymarket Books

P.O. Box 180165

Chicago, IL 60618

773-583-7884

www.haymarketbooks.org

info@haymarketbooks.org

ISBN: 978-1-64259-526-0

Distributed to the trade in the US through Consortium Book Sales and Distribution (www.cbsd.com) and internationally through Ingram Publisher Services International (www.ingramcontent.com).

This book was published with the generous support of Lannan Foundation and Wallace Action Fund.

Special discounts are available for bulk purchases by organizations and institutions. Please email info@haymarketbooks.org for more information.

Cover artwork by Monica Trinidad.

Cover design by Eric Kerl.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is available.





To my father, Moussa Kaba, who taught me that failures are always lessons and that everything worthwhile is done with others





Contents

Foreword

Naomi Murakawa

Editor’s Introduction

Tamara K. Nopper

Part I: So You’re Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist

So You’re Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist

The System Isn’t Broken

Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police

A Jailbreak of the Imagination: Seeing Prisons for What They Are and Demanding Transformation

with Kelly Hayes

Hope Is a Discipline

Interview by Kim Wilson and Brian Sonenstein

Part II: There Are No Perfect Victims

Free Marissa and All Black People

Not a Cardboard Cutout: Cyntoia Brown and the Framing of a Victim

with Brit Schulte

From “Me Too” to “All of Us”: Organizing to End Sexual Violence without Prisons

Interview by Sarah Jaffe with Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan

Black Women Punished for Self-Defense Must Be Freed from Their Cages

Part III: The State Can’t Give Us Transformative Justice

Whether Darren Wilson Is Indicted or Not, the Entire System Is Guilty

The Sentencing of Larry Nassar Was Not “Transformative Justice.” Here’s Why.

with Kelly Hayes

We Want More Justice for Breonna Taylor than the System That Killed Her Can Deliver

with Andrea J. Ritchie

Part IV: Making Demands: Reforms for and against Abolition

Police “Reforms” You Should Always Oppose

A People’s History of Prisons in the United States

Interview by Jeremy Scahill

Arresting the Carceral State

with Erica R. Meiners

Itemizing Atrocity

with Tamara K. Nopper

“I Live in a Place Where Everybody Watches You Everywhere You Go”

Toward the Horizon of Abolition

Interview by John Duda

Part V: We Must Practice and Experiment: Abolitionist Organizing and Theory

Police Torture, Reparations, and Lessons in Struggle and Justice from Chicago

Free Us All: Participatory Defense Campaigns as Abolitionist Organizing

Rekia Boyd and #FireDanteServin: An Abolitionist Campaign in Chicago

A Love Letter to the #NoCopAcademy Organizers from Those of Us on the Freedom Side

Part VI: Accountability Is Not Punishment: Transforming How We Deal with Harm and Violence

Transforming Punishment: What Is Accountability without Punishment?

with Rachel Herzing

The Practices We Need: #MeToo and Transformative Justice

Interview by Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown

Moving Past Punishment

Interview by Ayana Young

Justice: A Short Story

Part VII: Show Up and Don’t Travel Alone: We Need Each Other

“Community Matters. Collectivity Matters.”

Interview by Damon Williams and Daniel Kisslinger

Everything Worthwhile Is Done with Other People

Interview by Eve L. Ewing

Resisting Police Violence against Black Women and Women of Color

Join the Abolitionist Movement

Interview by Rebel Steps

“I Must Become a Menace to My Enemies”: The Living Legacy of June Jordan

Acknowledgments

Sources and Permissions

Index





Foreword

Naomi Murakawa

January 2021

When Donald Trump incited his supporters to sack the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, the world saw rioters overtake the citadel of global power. With on-duty police taking selfies and off-duty police among the rioters, the insurrectionists easily breached the security perimeter and broke into the Capitol building, waving the Confederate flag and wearing neo-Nazi T-shirts. Shocked commentators wondered: How is it possible that a nation that spends $1 trillion a year on security—military, police, and prisons, domestic and global surveillance—met thousands of white-supremacist rioters with a police response that ranged from the casually ill-prepared to the openly welcoming?

The question is misguided. White supremacy does not thrive in spite of the menacing infrastructure of US criminalization and militarism—it thrives because of it. The anti-Blackness of policing is not necessarily a point of shame but just a simple fact, an expectation summed up in the indignation of one pro-Trump rioter: “They’re supposed to shoot BLM [Black Lives Matter], but they’re shooting the patriots.”

Police push millions of people into the criminal punishment system, where anti-Black death-dealing rises through each circle of hell. Black people comprise 13 percent of the US population but roughly 30 percent of the arrested, 35 percent of the imprisoned, 42 percent of those on death row, and 56 percent of those serving life sentences. Inside the largest prison system on the planet, the Covid-19 death rate is five times that of the general population. The roughly eight hundred US military bases the world over—like the nation’s birth in native dispossession and slavery—reinforce the lessons that Trump’s band of white brothers know all too well: take by force and invent the racial enemy. We live in the age of human sacrifice, says Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and our prison and military machinery normalizes industrialized killing.

We must abolish the prison-industrial complex—this is the opening premise of the Haymarket Books series the Abolitionist Papers. Beyond all that we must dismantle, abolition is a vision for all that we must build—and this makes it wonderfully fitting to inaugurate the series with the inspiring abolitionist builder Mariame Kaba.

Kaba’s abolitionist vision burns so bright precisely because she refuses to be the single star, dazzling alone. Why be a star when you can make a constellation? And that’s what we see in this book—the brilliance that shines from Kaba and an entire constellation of co-organizers, cofounders, and coconspirators, together in an abolitionist practice of refusal, care, and collectivity. Refusal: because we cannot collaborate with the prison-industrial complex, as “only evil will collaborate with evil” (June Jordan). Care: because “care is the antidote to violence” (Saidiya Hartman). Collectivity: because “everything worthwhile is done with others” (Moussa Kaba).

In Kaba’s words, abolition envisions a world where we address harm without relying on the violent systems that increase it, a world where “we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water, and more things that are foundational to our personal and community safety.” Critics charge that abolitionists are naive about violence. But Kaba demonstrates that abolitionist analysis witnesses connections through every layer of violence—interpersonal violence, the state violence of criminalization and incarceration, and everywhere the structuring violence of anti-Blackness, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.

Complex structures of violence become disturbingly clear when we center Black women and girls, as Kaba encourages us to do. For Bresha Meadows, Marissa Alexander, and thousands of Black women and girls who survived domestic and sexual violence by defending themselves, the criminal punishment system brings no relief, only more violence. Rather than neutralizing or countering interpersonal violence, state violence enables and reinforces the same oppression of racialized gender terror. After reading Kaba’s analysis, it is clear that the criminal punishment system, not abolition, depends on a superficial view of violence, a facile view of good and evil based on the victim-perpetrator binary. Simple stories of the perfect victim and the monstrous perpetrator bend reality to fit the pretexts for state violence, helping us to pretend that the physical, emotional, social, and civic injuries of prison are somehow justice.

To readers who finish this book saying, “Yes, I understand, but now what?” Kaba’s work is a portal connecting us to living currents of abolitionist organizing. If you nod in agreement while reading “Yes, We Literally Mean Abolish the Police,” then let that spark lead you to the #DefundPolice Toolkit, created by Kaba, Woods Ervin, and Andrea Ritchie.* If you are a youth organizer, teacher, or parent, Kaba and collaborators have created Defund Police: An Animated Video with a companion discussion guide.† After reading “Free Us All: Participatory Defense Campaigns as Abolitionist Organizing,” consider hosting a letter-writing event to support criminalized survivors.‡

Kaba has created and curated essential toolkits, artwork, and resource lists, but I highlight them not as magic formulas or shortcuts. There are no life hacks to revolution. As Robin D. G. Kelley reminds us, “Making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.” Abolition requires dismantling the oppressive systems that live out there—and within us. Police not only protect private property and saturate Black, brown, and working-class neighborhoods. They also station themselves in our hearts and minds. Joining an organization, educating yourself about the prison-industrial complex, donating to a criminalized survivor’s defense campaign: these are seemingly small doings to begin a process that can transform us. As Kaba tells us, start where you are. Connect with others already doing the work. Experiment.

This book gives us glimpses of Kaba becoming abolitionist, cultivating ways to reduce violence, to hold pain, to support and care. Becoming is a funny word, Imani Perry observes, because it means beautiful and a process of change. Not just a vision to behold, but a doing to arrive at a new state of being.

When asked what exactly a world without police and prisons would look like, Kaba returns the question to us, saying, “We’ll figure it out by working to get there.” Instead of certainty, she gives us as invitation to our future world—one where everyone has their needs met, where Black women are free, and therefore everyone is free, and where human disposability is unimaginable.

Mariame Kaba shows us that abolition is becoming. It is beautiful. And it is what we do ’til we free us.





*#DefundPolice: Concrete Steps Toward Divestment from Policing and Investment in Community Safety, created by Interrupting Criminalization: Research in Action (see interruptingcriminalization.com).

†Defund Police: An Animated Video, script by Mallory Hanora and Mariame Kaba, created by Project Nia and Blue Seat Studios (see project-nia.org).

‡Ideas and Tips for Organizing Letterwriting Events (see survivedandpunished.org).





Editor’s Introduction

Tamara K. Nopper

December 2020

If you follow Mariame Kaba on social media, or even know a little bit about her resolute political work, it probably will not surprise you to learn that she was initially reticent about this book. Characteristically, Mariame wasn’t sure an entire project should be solely developed around her. Over the years, Mariame has declined previous requests from Haymarket Books to publish a collection of her writings. As summer 2020 approached, Haymarket asked again.

As someone committed to building things, Mariame already had numerous projects lined up for the summer. From her home base in New York City, Mariame was running Project Nia, the organization she founded in 2009 to “end the arrest, detention, and incarceration of children and young adults by promoting restorative and transformative justice practices.” She was also working with Andrea Ritchie and Woods Ervin on Interrupting Criminalization, an initiative of the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s Social Justice Institute, which she cofounded with Ritchie in 2018. Along with running organizations, Mariame is always building or co-building campaigns.

Mariame was also managing increased requests for her time from the mainstream media. No doubt some of these inquiries directed her way stemmed from the growing public debate during the spring and summer of 2020 about defunding the police and abolition circulating on social media, in mainstream publications like Good Housekeeping, and on shows like Good Morning America. While the contemporary abolitionist movement is decades old, calls to defund the police rapidly gained traction in the United States during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. As public health expert Kenyon Farrow has noted, the US federal government’s mendacious response to the Covid-19 crisis is nothing short of genocide.

In the midst of quarantine life and a deepening socioeconomic and emotional depression gripping the nation, many in the United States— and all over the world—courageously put their lives on the line and took to the streets to express their rage and sorrow at the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers, and the hunting and murder of Ahmaud Arbery by white vigilantes. Protests occurred in cities all across the United States. In many cities cop cars were burned or flipped over, buildings set on fire, windows smashed, and stores looted. And in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin while other officers watched, a police precinct was torched. Some elected officials sought to quell the insurgency with symbolic gestures, such as painting the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on streets.

While satisfactory to some, many organizers and protesters made it clear that symbolism is not enough. They resisted such overtures in many ways, echoing the sentiment of Black freedom movement organizer Fannie Lou Hamer: “I’m sick of symbolic things. We are fighting for our lives.”

As calls for defunding the police accelerated, so did broader conversations about abolition. When a publication date for We Do This ’Til We Free Us was announced on social media, numerous people responded immediately and enthusiastically, noting Mariame’s power and influence as a political educator, and her direct impact on their thinking and activism. Many people have been waiting for this type of book from Mariame for a long time, and for good reason.

Hopefully, though, many readers will come to this book with no clue who Mariame Kaba is, or with little knowledge of her significance to the contemporary abolitionist movement. Simply, we want as many people as possible to learn more about abolition, and Mariame’s writings and interviews provide a compelling introduction.

Mariame helps us make sense of how criminalization, regardless of race or class, is grounded in anti-Blackness. As she emphasizes in “A People’s History of Prisons in the United States,” included here, “You can’t talk about criminalization in this country without understanding the history of Blackness and Black people in this country. Politicians have used us as the fuel to make things happen. We’re always the canaries in the coal mine.” In her discussions of #MeToo and #SayHerName, Mariame draws from her decades of organizing against gendered and sexual violence to raise provocative questions about supporting survivors and demands for accountability. Several pieces in We Do This Til We Free Us address how calls for carceral protection are used to criminalize women and girls, particularly those who are Black, engaging in self-defense, and detail Mariame’s organizing in support of criminalized survivors. Mariame underscores why centralizing Black women’s experiences with the criminal punishment system is urgent and necessary. This centering allows us to create conditions that support Black women’s safety and well-being, and it sharpens our understanding of state violence. Mariame also encourages us to distinguish between policing and safety, and to build a society where people experience real safety in terms of the climate, the economy, our schools, our neighborhoods, our housing, and with each other.

This book also has constructive criticism for seasoned critics of the carceral state, including those who identify as abolitionists. Mariame’s analysis is particularly relevant and instructive to those wishing to determine what accountability for harm and violence might look like if guided by abolitionist principles and values. As Mariame notes, “A big part of my life’s work has been to try to imagine new ways of trying to address accountability and get accountability for survivors of violence.” Addressing how “restorative justice” and “transformative justice” are often treated as interchangeable, Mariame observes how restorative justice initiatives are increasingly institutionalized in ways that differ from transformative justice.

Mariame also shares that she is grappling more with punishment and revenge as elements of carceral logic, even when enacted outside of the criminal legal system. One of Mariame’s “touchstones,” Angela Y. Davis, has said,

We know, for example, that we replicate the structures of retributive punishment in our own relations to one another … even those of us who are conscious of that are still subject to that ideological influence on our emotional life. The retributive impulses of the state, the retributive impulses of state punishment, are inscribed in our very individual emotional responses.

A critical examination of revenge is particularly useful and needed—including for readers who self-identify and organize as abolitionists. For example, in the interview “From ‘Me Too’ to All of Us’: Organizing to End Sexual Violence without Prisons,” included in this book, Mariame raises some very provocative points regarding the space politically available for grappling with tough and uncomfortable questions regarding supporting survivors. And in “Transforming Punishment: What Is Accountability without Punishment?” an essay about R. Kelly published for the first time here, Mariame and coauthor and Critical Resistance cofounder Rachel Herzing examine how the legal system deals with high-profile perpetrators of violence, as well as the public’s thirst for punishment. As Mariame and Rachel underscore, this drive for retribution is sometimes expressed by those who claim to be abolitionists, yet this urge goes against abolition, and conflates individual emotional responses with political outcomes. As they state, “Abolitionism is not a politics mediated by emotional responses. Or, as we initially wanted to title this piece, abolition is not about your fucking feelings.”

This book reveals Mariame to be a voracious reader, active listener, and courageous experimenter, and someone invested in serious thinking about her political work. Mariame also describes shifts in her thinking and approach. For example, Mariame shares how, as a teenager living in New York City, she came to abolitionist work via the police murders of Black men and boys—in the process, she did not always foreground gender justice. Mariame discusses how she learned to situate herself as a Black woman in her analysis, and how she began identifying as a feminist over time.

We also get more insight into Mariame’s philosophy regarding political change; her belief in the capacity for growth and evolution draws from many sources. In a 2019 interview with Chicago-based poet, writer, and scholar Eve L. Ewing, we are treated to a rare public exploration of Mariame’s family history, including her father’s involvement in Guinea’s independence movement and post-independence politics, and her mother’s mutual aid work. Mariame reflects on how her parents and upbringing inform her political philosophy, especially regarding the overlapping practices of relationship building, collective care, and abolition. As shared with Ewing, Mariame’s father impressed upon her, “Everything that is worthwhile is done with other people.” As Mariame notes, that “became the soundtrack in my head,” and is articulated in both her organizing work as well as her reflections on the current political moment as more people seek to understand abolition and hopefully get involved.

Her pithy tweets widely circulate and are often quoted, but as we see in We Do This ’Til We Free Us, they are informed by consistent study, reflection, and an interest in being moved as much as moving others. For example, Mariame is known for the aphorism “Hope is a discipline.” As Mariame reveals in an interview for the podcast Beyond Prisons, the four-word phrase articulates a philosophy she was introduced to by a nun that has since become “really helpful in my practice around organizing. I believe that there’s always a potential for transformation and for change.”

As Mariame shows time and time again, “a potential for transformation and for change” cannot just be the basis of positive rhetoric, but must be enacted—this involves risk. And in short, we must experiment. To this end, several pieces in this book seek to inform readers of how we can practice abolitionist organizing. Whether the battle and historic victory for reparations for survivors of police torture in Chicago, the campaign to hold Chicago Police Department officer Dante Servin accountable for the murder of Rekia Boyd, defense campaigns for criminalized and incarcerated survivors like Marissa Alexander, the #NoCopAcademy campaign in Chicago, and, in response to the murder of Breonna Taylor, a call for reparations and repair rather than the prosecution of officers—all are committed to abolitionist praxis.

In some of the interviews conducted during the summer of 2020, Mariame is asked about the co-optation of the abolitionist movement or performativity versus real politics. What we see in Mariame’s responses is her desire to bring as many people to the movement as possible. As Toni Cade Bambara wrote of emerging writers, Mariame expresses of people participating in abolitionist work: they “have to be given space to breathe and stumble. They have to be given time to develop and to reveal what they can do.... There are no soloists after all; this is group improvisation.”

For Mariame, group improvisation means working together, learning together, and failing together by “building a million different little experiments, just building and trying and taking risks and understanding we’re going to have tons of failure.” While Mariame encourages experimentation and being open to failure, she remains steadfast that abolitionist politics requires certain principles, such as seeking accountability for harm and violence without involving or expanding the prison-industrial complex. Mariame also notes that practicing abolition demands healthy ego checks in terms of not confusing our feelings for policy or politics.


Mariame Kaba, the writer

In her interview, Ewing asks Mariame about her increased visibility, as she is well known for not wanting her face to appear in photos or videos: “I saw a picture of you in The New York Times, and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ … I would love to hear your thoughts around why you generally choose to not be photographed, and some of your other choices around naming yourself, not centering yourself. And then ways in which that is changing, and why.” Mariame’s response reveals that she is pushing herself to take credit for her work. She tells a story, the details of which I won’t spoil here, that “began the shift in my life around putting my name on my stuff.”

When I read Mariame’s reply to Ewing, I remembered the first time I learned of Mariame’s resistance to putting her name on things. Years ago, when we still hadn’t met in person, I wanted to tag her and post something on Twitter from Prison Culture: How the PIC Structures Our World, the blog she has published since 2010 that explores “the many arms of the carceral state and how we might dismantle our current systems of punishment.” Because she did not have her name as part of her Twitter bio (and still doesn’t!), I messaged to ask if I should include her name. She was fine with the post being shared but preferred to not have her name included. As someone who prefers lower frequencies, I was intrigued but didn’t ask. Years later, when I first met Mariame in person, I would gain more insight into her citation practices. As we dined on Indian food, she told parts of the story she shares with Ewing.

As Ewing prefaces her interview, “It is no surprise that many of those struggling to believe in something in the face of despair have turned to the work of educator and organizer Mariame Kaba. Many (myself included) came to her first through Prison Culture.” Like Ewing, I first became familiar with Mariame as a writer through her blog.

That Mariame blogged regularly is significant for a few reasons. First, she is busy organizing and educating, sometimes teaching college classes, and constantly creating curricula, developing and facilitating workshops and trainings, and providing mentorship, particularly to younger organizers. Second, as Mariame frequently shares publicly, she does not like writing and makes herself do it. This might seem a pedestrian point as other writers, including those recognized as literary giants, express the same sentiment. Yet rarely in public profiles will you see Mariame describe herself as a writer. She is more likely to let you know she is a Hallmark Channel devotee.

Some of her writing circulates widely through social media and email, such as her articles, essays, tweets, and Facebook posts. Some are books, like Missing Daddy, written for children with fathers in prison and illustrated by bria royal, and her coauthored book with Essence McDowell, Lifting as They Climbed: Mapping a History of Black Women on Chicago’s South Side. Other writings include her blog, zines, organizing guides and toolkits, curriculum, research reports, and emails in which she responds to requests for guidance from those getting involved in political work for the first time or seasoned organizers reaching out to a comrade. With some of her writing, Mariame’s name does not appear. Nevertheless, she wrote it.

And there is a whole other body of Mariame’s writing—not included in this book—that appears in academic publications, produced while she was a sociology graduate student at Northwestern University. Her move to Chicago to attend graduate school brought Mariame to the city that would be her political home and the site of many of her abolitionist experiments for decades. Unsurprisingly, Chicago—and the relationships, organizations, and campaigns Mariame built in the city—are featured in much of her writing. It is here we see Mariame making connections between the international, the national, and the local while always being present in a particular way in the city in which she lives. After all, as Mariame notes, abolitionist practice involves getting to know your neighbors.

So why has Mariame written so much if she detests writing? And when it’s often—but not always—done solo? In addition to writing that advances organizations (such as Project Nia or Interrupting Criminalization) and writing to support campaigns, Mariame is practicing what she preaches to fellow organizers: document your work and write yourself into the record. Mariame encourages organizers to do so, despite any attention given to them by journalists, pundits, and academics, as many from the outside might not get it right. In doing so, Mariame has joined a publishing history of Black women organizers and activists who wrote themselves into the archives, including Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

As Mariame shares in her interview with Ewing, Wells-Barnett is a major touchstone. Like Wells-Barnett, Mariame spent many formative years in Chicago. Shamefully, Wells-Barnett was initially written out of the political historiography of anti-lynching organizing by contemporaries who knew better. But Mariame’s political work and writings have, at least recently, received considerable attention—partly aided by her adroit, lively presence on social media. And unlike those who sought to write autobiographies reviewing their lives, Mariame is writing herself into the record as a simultaneous exploration of organizing, archiving, and thinking through ideas and next steps.

Read this urgent and revelatory book, and see for yourself—Mariame Kaba is a serious organizer, thinker, and writer. She engages and produces ideas in the course of political organizing, building relationships, and waging campaigns. She thinks through her work. A lot. She studies. She reflects. She struggles. She experiments. She rethinks. She writes. She and her work are always “moving toward the horizon of abolition.” Read this book, and move toward the horizon with her.





PART I

So You’re Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist





So You’re Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist

LEVEL, October 2020

Today, more people are discussing and contemplating prison abolition than ever before. Decades of collective organizing have brought us to this moment: some are newly aware that prisons, policing, and the criminal punishment system in general are racist, oppressive, and ineffective.

However, some might be wondering, “Is abolition too drastic? Can we really get rid of prisons and policing all together?” The short answer: We can. We must. We are.

Prison-industrial complex abolition is a political vision, a structural analysis of oppression, and a practical organizing strategy. While some people might think of abolition as primarily a negative project—“Let’s tear everything down tomorrow and hope for the best”—PIC abolition is a vision of a restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water, and more things that are foundational to our personal and community safety.

Every vision is also a map. As freedom fighter Kwame Ture taught us, “When you see people call themselves revolutionary always talking about destroying, destroying, destroying but never talking about building or creating, they’re not revolutionary. They do not understand the first thing about revolution. It’s creating.” PIC abolition is a positive project that focuses, in part, on building a society where it is possible to address harm without relying on structural forms of oppression or the violent systems that increase it.

Some people may ask, “Does this mean that I can never call the cops if my life is in serious danger?” Abolition does not center that question. Instead, abolition challenges us to ask “Why do we have no other well-resourced options?” and pushes us to creatively consider how we can grow, build, and try other avenues to reduce harm. Repeated attempts to improve the sole option offered by the state, despite how consistently corrupt and injurious it has proven itself, will neither reduce nor address the harm that actually required the call. We need more and effective options for the greatest number of people.

Let’s begin our abolitionist journey not with the question “What do we have now, and how can we make it better?” Instead, let’s ask, “What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?” If we do that, then boundless possibilities of a more just world await us.

An abolitionist journey ignites other questions capable of meaningful and transformative pathways: What work do prisons and policing actually do? Most people assume that incarceration helps to reduce violence and crime, thinking, “The criminal punishment system might be racist, sexist, classist, ableist, and unfair, but it at least keeps me safe from violence and crime.”

Facts and history tell a different story: Increasing rates of incarceration have a minimal impact on crime rates. Research and common sense suggest that economic precarity is correlated with higher crime rates. Moreover, crime and harm are not synonymous. All that is criminalized isn’t harmful, and all harm isn’t necessarily criminalized. For example, wage theft by employers isn’t generally criminalized, but it is definitely harmful.

Even if the criminal punishment system were free of racism, classism, sexism, and other isms, it would not be capable of effectively addressing harm. For example, if we want to reduce (or end) sexual and gendered violence, putting a few perpetrators in prison does little to stop the many other perpetrators. It does nothing to change a culture that makes this harm imaginable, to hold the individual perpetrator accountable, to support their transformation, or to meet the needs of the survivors.

A transformative justice movement led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color survivors has emerged in the past two decades to offer a different vision for ending violence and transforming our communities.

A world without harm isn’t possible and isn’t what an abolitionist vision purports to achieve. Rather, abolitionist politics and practice contend that disposing of people by locking them away in jails and prisons does nothing significant to prevent, reduce, or transform harm in the aggregate. It rarely, if ever, encourages people to take accountability for their actions. Instead, our adversarial court system discourages people from ever acknowledging, let alone taking responsibility for, the harm they have caused. At the same time, it allows us to avoid our own responsibilities to hold each other accountable, instead delegating it to a third party—one that has been built to hide away social and political failures. An abolitionist imagination takes us along a different path than if we try to simply replace the PIC with similar structures.

None of us has all of the answers, or we would have ended oppression already. But if we keep building the world we want, trying new things, and learning from our mistakes, new possibilities emerge.

Here’s how to begin.

First, when we set about trying to transform society, we must remember that we ourselves will also need to transform. Our imagination of what a different world can be is limited. We are deeply entangled in the very systems we are organizing to change. White supremacy, misogyny, ableism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia exist everywhere. We have all so thoroughly internalized these logics of oppression that if oppression were to end tomorrow, we would be likely to reproduce previous structures. Being intentionally in relation to one another, a part of a collective, helps to not only imagine new worlds, but also to imagine ourselves differently. Join some of the many organizations, faith groups, and ad hoc collectives that are working to learn and unlearn, for example, what it feels like to actually be safe or those that are naming and challenging white supremacy and racial capitalism.

Second, we must imagine and experiment with new collective structures that enable us to take more principled action, such as embracing collective responsibility to resolve conflicts. We can learn lessons from revolutionary movements, like Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra), that have noted that when we create social structures that are less hierarchical and more transparent, we reduce violence and harms.

Third, we must simultaneously engage in strategies that reduce contact between people and the criminal legal system. Abolitionists regularly engage in organizing campaigns and mutual aid efforts that move us closer to our goals. We must remember that the goal is not to create a gentler prison and policing system because, as I have noted, a gentler prison and policing system cannot adequately address harm. Instead, we want to divest from these systems as we create the world in which we want to live.

Fourth, as scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore notes, building a different world requires that we not only change how we address harm but also that we change everything. The PIC is linked in its logics and operation with all other systems—from how students are pushed out of schools when they don’t perform as expected to how people with disabilities are excluded from our communities and the ways in which workers are treated as expendable in our capitalist system.

Changing everything might sound daunting, but it also means there are many places to start, infinite opportunities to collaborate, and endless imaginative interventions and experiments to create. Let’s begin our abolitionist journey not with the question “What do we have now, and how can we make it better?” Instead, let’s ask, “What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?” If we do that, then boundless possibilities of a more just world await us.





The System Isn’t Broken

The New Inquiry, June 2015

“Ms. K, they got me again.”

Six words set up the familiar routine. A car ride to the station. An unwanted and unwelcome conversation with the officer at the desk. Rudeness, contempt, and that awful perma-smirk. Waiting in anticipation; false alarms. A reprieve: an escape without ransom. More waiting. Finally, the bowed head and slumped shoulders of a young Black man walking toward me. No tears. Where are the tears? Another court date or maybe not. Another record to expunge, always. Then it starts all over again.

I dread summer. It’s the season of hypersurveillance and even more aggressive policing of young people of color in my neighborhood.

The urban summer criminalization merry-go-round—a kind of demented child’s play. Quotidian terrorism in the service of law and order. Low-intensity police riots against young Black people. My anecdotal observations are supported by empirical data. The ACLU of Illinois says that last summer, based on population, Chicago police made “far more street stops than New York City police did at the height of their use of stop-and-frisk. The CPD stopped more than 250,000 innocent people.” Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of those stops involved Black people who, while making up 32 percent of Chicago’s population, were 72 percent of the stops.

Some studies suggest a correlation between summer and a rise in “crime.” I can hear the justifications: “If crime increases in the summer, then more police aggression is justified.” This fails to take into account that “routine” interactions between police and young people in my community are fraught all year long. Summer exacerbates these oppressive contacts, because many more young people are out of school and usually without jobs, hanging out in public spaces.

Public spaces in urban and suburban towns are contested. Residents collude with law enforcement to police and enforce boundaries. Young people of color are criminalized not only by the police but also by community members.

Yesterday yet another video went viral on social media. It depicts police officers in McKinney, Texas, swarming a pool party filled with teenagers, and one particular officer manhandling a fourteen-year-old Black girl wearing a bikini. The young people are cursed at, have a gun pointed at them, and are taunted for being afraid of the cops. Fifteen-year-old Miles Jai Thomas explains what happened:

“So, a cop grabbed her arm and flipped her to the ground after she and him were arguing about him cursing at us,” Thomas said.

When two teens went toward the cop to help the girl, they were accused of sneaking up on the cop to attack.

“So, a cop yelled ‘get those motherfuckers’ and they chased [us] with guns out. That’s why in the video I started running,” Thomas said.

“I was scared because all I could think was, ‘Don’t shoot me,’” he said.

Watching the video, I was struck by how the young people were denied the right to be afraid. Their fear was illegitimate. And it makes sense; only human beings are allowed to be afraid. For the cops, these youth of color (mostly Black) are not human.

I dread summer.

I attended a conference recently about youth–police interactions. The familiar trope about the need for young people and the cops to get to know each other was bandied about, useless pablum offered as a solution for ending police violence, which relies on a faulty definition of the problem. As a young person once told me: “I know the cops here very well, and they know me. We know each other too well. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they harass me daily. If they’d stop that, we’d be fine.”

The young people in my community who come into contact with the police can recite their names and badge numbers. Those are unforgettable to them; the stuff of their nightmares. It’s unclear to me how more conversations will change the dynamics of such oppression. For most of the public, whether liberal or conservative, it’s the cops’ job to arrest people, and they are incentivized to do that work. Presumably, then, what would need to change to shift the dynamics are the job descriptions and the incentives.

A persistent and seemingly endemic feature of US society is the conflation of Blackness and criminality. William Patterson, a well-known Black communist, wrote in 1970, “A false brand of criminality is constantly stamped on the brow of Black youth by the courts and systematically kept there creating the fiction that blacks are a criminally minded people.” He added that “the lies against blacks are propped up ideologically.” I would suggest that they are also maintained and enforced through force and violence.

When Baltimore police dressed in riot gear turned their violence on high school students at the Mondawmin Mall a few weeks ago, some people were horrified. “These are children,” onlookers exclaimed on social media. I thought grimly of how the cops would see the situation. There are no children here; only targets and threats. Social science research suggests that cops see Black children as older and as less innocent than their white peers. The research confirms what most of us already know—Black children are considered to be disposable and dangerous mini-adults.

This is not new. I came across the story of thirteen-year-old Beverly Lee when I read the 1951 “We Charge Genocide” petition many years ago. Lee was shot in the back by a Detroit police officer on October 12, 1947. Here’s the item that piqued my interest as it appeared in “We Charge Genocide”:

Beverly Lee, 13-year-old youth, was shot to death by Policeman Louis Begin of Detroit, Michigan. Mrs. Francis Vonbatten of 1839 Pine testified that she saw Lee and another walking down the street, and saw the squad car approach. She heard, “Stop, you little so-and-so,” and then a shot. The officer was subsequently cleared by Coroner Lloyd K. Babcock.

I was particularly interested in the incident because I thought that Beverly was a girl, and police violence cases involving Black girls and young women have been overlooked. In fact, I haven’t found any historical incidents of police violence against Black women and girls that led to mass mobilization. Current campaigns, such as #SayHerName, point to the enduring erasure of state violence against Black girls and women. The incident in McKinney, Texas, featured physical violence against a Black girl, underscoring the fact that girls (cis and trans) are consistently at risk of law enforcement abuse. On further research, I learned that Beverly Lee was actually a boy. On the day after Beverly Lee was shot, the Detroit News reported on the incident:

Shot in the back as he tried to evade arrest, a seventh-grade schoolboy was killed by a Detroit patrolman late Sunday. The boy, Beverly Lee, 13, of 2637 Twelfth Street, was shot by Patrolman Louis Begin, of the Trumbull station, when he disregarded orders to halt. Begin and his partner, Patrolman William Owens, were called to Temple and Vermont avenues where Mrs. Mabel Gee, 1930 Temple, reported her purse stolen. Approaching the intersection, they saw Lee, ordered him to halt, and Owens fired a warning shot. Begin shot him as he continued to run away from the scout car. A watch belonging to Mrs. Gee and $18, the amount she said was in her purse, were found in the boy’s pockets. The purse was recovered nearby. Begin and Owens made statements to William D. Brusstar, assistant prosecutor. They said Mrs. Gee referred to her assailant as a man and, when they encountered him, they thought he was an adult [emphasis mine]. Lee was about five feet, six inches tall. Other victims of recent purse snatchings were being invited to view the body at the County Morgue. Lee attended Condon Intermediate School. His body was identified by his mother, Mrs. Leah Lee.

The discrepancy between these two accounts is unsurprising. As we have so often seen, there is usually a variance between initial press reports and official police accounts and community narratives. Notice that the cops and the alleged robbery victim said that they thought Lee was an adult. The adultification of Black children has long and deep roots that date back to chattel slavery. In fact, before the Civil War, half of all enslaved people were under sixteen years old. Enslaved children were property and were expected to work; children as young as six years old worked the fields.

Beverly Lee was the third Black boy killed by police that year in Detroit. Community members were furious and organized protests over Lee’s killing. Despite the uproar, only eight days after the shooting, the prosecutor closed the investigation into Lee’s death, calling it “justifiable homicide.” The Detroit NAACP met with the prosecutor and called for an inquest into the facts to the case. They presented him with signed statements of witnesses contradicting his findings. It appears that the community, led by the NAACP, continued to organize around Lee’s case without success; charges were not brought against Officer Begin. Police impunity has a long history in this country. In the end, a thirteen-year-old Black boy was shot in the back by police and died. To quote Ossie Davis, Black people understand that “we live with death and it is ours.”

Most often, it’s police shootings and killings that spark urban uprisings. However, the daily indignities and more invisible harms are ever-present and are the foundation of hostilities between young people of color and police. Routine state violence carried out by the police happens outside of public view, under the guise of addressing gun and other forms of violence. If past is prologue, my community can look forward to another summer of intense, relentless, and surely illegal police harassment of young people of color, and specifically of young Black men.

Young people riding their bikes on sidewalks, instead of being ticketed as prescribed by law, will be hauled into police lockups. They’ll be accused of resisting arrest and then funneled into Cook County Jail. Teenagers leaving summer programming will be followed by cop cars, and asked where they are heading. One cross word will lead to being roughly thrown on car hoods in front of the whole neighborhood. Walking through alleys as shortcuts to head home from work, young people will be hounded, provoked, and dragged to the station. But not before being beaten in the car, without any concern for health conditions like seizures. Trans and gender nonconforming youth will be bullied and verbally harassed for walking down the street. Young people will be picked up without cause and driven into rival gang territory to be dumped without wallets or phones—only to hear the cops announce for all to hear that they belong to the rival gang. Young women walking down the street minding their own business will be sexually harassed by those sworn to “protect and serve.”

I dread summer.

Besides stop-and-frisks and other violations, young people in my community are also subjected to warrantless searches of their homes. One young person I know narrated his experience in the 2014 We Charge Genocide report to the United Nations Committee against Torture:

We’re sitting in a house playing video games, and we hear a banging on the door. Before we know it, the door is kicked down and there’s five special-ops officers with their huge M16s drawn, pointed at us—three 15-year-olds playing video games. And they tell us get on the ground. They say if we move, they are gonna kill us; “Don’t look at me, we’ll fucking kill you in a second!” Pointing their guns at us. Then they don’t find anything. They let us all go, they laugh, try to joke with us, apologize, then leave out. And we’re sitting there like, “What just happened?” They tear up the house. They stole money.

Lest you think that this is an innovation of zero-tolerance militarized policing born out of the war on drugs, here’s an example from eighty years ago. When the people of Harlem rioted in 1935, it was once again an incident of police violence that lit the fuse. A rumor that Lino Rivera, a sixteen-year-old Black Puerto Rican young man, was killed by New York City Police led to nearly four thousand Harlemites taking to the streets. Seven hundred police officers were dispatched to the community. When all was said and done, three people had died, and more than $200 million in damages were sustained from the riot. In the aftermath, Mayor LaGuardia commissioned a report to understand the causes of the uprising. In a section titled “The Police in Harlem,” the report’s authors maintained that cops routinely entered the homes of Black Harlemites “without a warrant and searched them at will.” Instead of drugs, Harlem cops in the 1930s were searching for policy slips in efforts to crack down on illegal gambling. Reprinted in the report was a letter by a Harlem resident addressed to the mayor. Below are a few excerpts:

On Tuesday morning, April 16, 1935, between 10 and 11 o’clock, the superintendent of the house rapped at my door. Upon opening it, I was confronted with three men (men in civilian clothes) who the superintendent said were policemen. He explained that the men were searching the house, for what he did not know.

The men entered the room, and proceeded to search without showing shields or search warrant. I asked twice of two of the men what was the reason for such action. I received no answer from any of them.

My dresser drawers were thoroughly gone into, dresser cover even being raised. My bed came in for similar search, covers were dragged off and mattress overturned. Suitcase under my bed was brought up and searched. My overcoat hanging on the door was gone over and into. My china closet was opened and glassware examined. After this startling act the men left my room, still without saying a word.

These types of violations span centuries for Black people and are one reason for racial disconnects in discussions about privacy and civil liberties. Black people have always been under the gaze of the state, and we know that our rights are routinely violable. Civil liberties and individual rights have different meanings for different groups of people. They also have different priorities, depending on social contexts. A review of Black history suggests that considerations of civil liberties are always embedded within concepts of equality and social justice. In other words, by design or necessity, Black people have focused on our collective rights over our individual liberties. This makes sense in a society where we don’t just assume individual Black guilt and suspicion; we are all guilty and we are all suspicious (even if we may want to deny this reality). In that context, individual liberties and rights take a back seat to a collective struggle for emancipation and freedom. Additionally, as a people, we have always known that it is impossible for us to exercise our individual rights within a context of more generalized social, economic, and political oppression.

History offers evidence of the intractability of the problem of police violence. What should we do then? Quite simply, we must end the police. The hegemony of police is so complete that we often can’t begin to imagine a world without the institution. We are too reliant on the police. In fact, the police increase their legitimacy through all of the non-police-related work that they assume, including doing wellness and mental health checks. Why should armed people be deployed to do the work of community members and social workers? Why have we become so comfortable with ceding so much power to the police? Any discussion of reform must begin with the following questions: how will we decrease the numbers of police, and how will we defund the institution?

On the way to abolition, we can take a number of intermediate steps to shrink the police force and to restructure our relationships with each other. These include:

1)Organizing for dramatic decreases of police budgets and redirecting those funds to other social goods (defunding the police).

2)Ending cash bail.

3)Overturning police bills of rights.

4)Abolishing police unions.

5)Crowding out the police in our communities.

6)Disarming the police.

7)Creating abolitionist messages that penetrate the public consciousness to disrupt the idea that cops = safety.

8)Building community-based interventions that address harms without relying on police.

9)Evaluating any reforms based on these criteria.

10)Thinking through the end of the police and imagining alternatives.

Importantly, we must reject all talk about policing and the overall criminal punishment system being “broken” or “not working.” By rhetorically constructing the criminal punishment system as “broken,” reform is reaffirmed and abolition is painted as unrealistic and unworkable. Those of us who maintain that reform is actually impossible within the current context are positioned as unreasonable and naive. Ideological formations often operate invisibly to delineate and define what is acceptable discourse. Challenges to dominant ideological formations about “justice” are met with anger, ridicule, or are simply ignored. This is in the service of those who benefit from the current system and works to enforce white supremacy and anti-Blackness. The losers under this injustice system are the young people I know and love.

I really dread summer …





Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police

The New York Times, June 2020

Congressional Democrats want to make it easier to identify and prosecute police misconduct;Joe Biden wants to give police departments $300 million. But efforts to solve police violence through liberal reforms like these have failed for nearly a century.

Enough. We can’t reform the police. The only way to diminish police violence is to reduce contact between the public and the police.

There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against Black people. Policing in the South emerged from the slave patrols in the 1700s and 1800s that caught and returned runaway slaves. In the North, the first municipal police departments in the mid-1800s helped quash labor strikes and riots against the rich. Everywhere, police have suppressed marginalized populations to protect the status quo.

So, when you see a police officer pressing his knee into a Black man’s neck until he dies, that’s the logical result of policing in America. When a police officer brutalizes a Black person, he is doing what he sees as his job. Now two weeks of nationwide protests have led some to call for defunding the police, while others argue that doing so would make us less safe.

The first thing to point out is that police officers don’t do what you think they do. They spend most of their time responding to noise complaints, issuing parking and traffic citations, and dealing with other noncriminal issues. We’ve been taught to think they “catch the bad guys; they chase the bank robbers; they find the serial killers,” said Alex Vitale, the coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, in an interview with Jacobin. But this is “a big myth,” he said. “The vast majority of police officers make one felony arrest a year. If they make two, they’re cop of the month.”

We can’t simply change their job descriptions to focus on the worst of the worst criminals. That’s not what they are set up to do. Second, a safe world is not one in which the police keep Black and other marginalized people in check through threats of arrest, incarceration, violence, and death.

I’ve been advocating the abolition of the police for years. Regardless of your view on police power—whether you want to get rid of the police or simply to make them less violent—here’s an immediate demand we can all make: cut the number of police in half and cut their budget in half. Fewer police officers equals fewer opportunities for them to brutalize and kill people. The idea is gaining traction in Minneapolis, Dallas, Los Angeles, and other cities.

History is instructive, not because it offers us a blueprint for how to act in the present, but because it can help us ask better questions for the future.

The Lexow Committee undertook the first major investigation into police misconduct in New York City in 1894. At the time, the most common complaint against the police was about “clubbing”—“the routine bludgeoning of citizens by patrolmen armed with nightsticks or Blackjacks,” as the historian Marilynn Johnson has written.

The Wickersham Commission, convened to study the criminal justice system and examine the problem of Prohibition enforcement, offered a scathing indictment in 1931, including evidence of brutal interrogation strategies. It put the blame on a lack of professionalism among the police.

After the 1967 urban uprisings, the Kerner Commission found that “police actions were ‘final’ incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.” Its report listed a now-familiar set of recommendations, like working to build “community support for law enforcement” and reviewing police operations “in the ghetto, to ensure proper conduct by police officers.”

These commissions didn’t stop the violence; they just served as a kind of counterinsurgent function each time police violence led to protests. Calls for similar reforms were trotted out in response to the brutal police beating of Rodney King in 1991 and the rebellion that followed, and again after the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The Obama administration’s Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing resulted in procedural tweaks like implicit-bias training, police-community listening sessions, slight alterations of use-of-force policies, and systems to identify potentially problematic officers early on.

But even a member of the task force, Tracey Meares, noted in 2017, “Policing as we know it must be abolished before it can be transformed.”

The philosophy undergirding these reforms is that more rules will mean less violence. But police officers break rules all the time. Look what has happened over the past few weeks—police officers slashing tires, shoving old men on camera, and arresting and injuring journalists and protesters. These officers are not worried about repercussions any more than Daniel Pantaleo, the former New York City police officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death; he waved to a camera filming the incident. He knew that the police union would back him up, and he was right. He stayed on the job for five more years.

Minneapolis had instituted many of these “best practices” but failed to remove Derek Chauvin from the force despite seventeen misconduct complaints over nearly two decades, culminating in the entire world watching as he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Why on earth would we think the same reforms would work now? We need to change our demands. The surest way of reducing police violence is to reduce the power of the police, by cutting budgets and the number of officers.

But don’t get me wrong. We are not abandoning our communities to violence. We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.

We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education, and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.

We can build other ways of responding to harms in our society. Trained community care workers could do mental-health checks if someone needs help. Towns could use restorative justice models instead of throwing people in prison.

What about rape? The current approach hasn’t ended it. In fact, most rapists never see the inside of a courtroom. Two-thirds of people who experience sexual violence never report it to anyone. Those who file police reports are often dissatisfied with the response. Additionally, police officers themselves commit sexual assault alarmingly often. A study in 2010 found that sexual misconduct was the second most frequently reported form of police misconduct. In 2015, the Buffalo News found that an officer was caught for sexual misconduct every five days.

When people, especially white people, consider a world without the police, they envision a society as violent as our current one, merely without law enforcement—and they shudder. As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm.

People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food, and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.

When the streets calm and people suggest once again that we hire more Black police officers or create more civilian review boards, I hope that we remember all the times those efforts have failed.





A Jailbreak of the Imagination: Seeing Prisons for What They Are and Demanding Transformation

with Kelly Hayes

Truthout, May 2018

Our current historical moment demands a radical reimagining of how we address various harms. The levers of power are currently in the hands of an administration that is openly hostile to the most marginalized in our society (Black people, Native people, the poor, LGBTQ people, immigrant communities, and more). While we protect ourselves from their consistent and regular blows, we must also fight for a vision of the world we want to inhabit.

For us, that’s a world where people like Tiffany Rusher, who began a five-year sentence at Logan Correctional Center in Broadwell Township, Illinois, in 2013, are not tortured to death in the name of “safety.” Our vision insists on the abolition of the prison-industrial complex as a critical pillar of the creation of a new society.

Imprisoned on charges related to sex work, Tiffany Rusher was eventually placed in solitary confinement for getting into a physical struggle with one of her cellmates. During her time in solitary confinement, Rusher’s mental health began to deteriorate, initiating a cycle of self-harm. After a series of suicide attempts and periods of solitary confinement, Rusher was placed on “crisis watch” for a period of eight months.

According to Rusher’s lawyer, Alan Mills, being on crisis watch meant being stripped of all clothing and belongings, and placed in a bare cell with only a “suicide smock” (a single piece of thick woven nylon, too stiff to fold, with holes for one’s head and arms). During this time, Rusher was monitored through a plexiglass wall, with the lights on, twenty-four hours a day. Rather than receiving mental health care, Rusher was kept naked, except for her rigid smock, in an empty cell. She was given strict, dehumanizing instructions about how to wipe herself and manage her menstrual hygiene, which included a requirement that her hands be visible to the guard watching her at all times. In order to read, Rusher had to persuade a prison guard to hold an open book against the glass of her cell, and turn each page as she finished reading it.

As time wore on, Rusher asked her attorney: “Who in her situation wouldn’t want to kill themselves?”

At the end of her sentence, Rusher was finally transferred to a mental health facility. Rusher, who disclosed to her doctors that she had experienced childhood sexual abuse, had received dozens of diagnoses over the years, including schizoaffective disorder, but nonetheless made great strides while in treatment. Eight months into her in-patient care, however, Rusher got into altercation with another patient. Rather than treating the episode as a symptom of her mental health problems, she was sent back to jail, where the cycle of carceral violence continued.

After Rusher’s death, her mother, Kelli Andrews, said in a statement, “Tiffany was a beautiful soul with hopes for her future. She was looking forward to coming home to be with her family. We miss her every day.” Sangamon County jail returned Rusher to solitary confinement, where she remained for three months before being found unresponsive with a ripped piece of a towel around her neck. Rusher died twelve days later when the hospital removed her from life support. In the words of Mills, “First they tortured her, then they killed her.”

At the time of her death, Tiffany Rusher was twenty-seven years old.

Sadly, what Rusher endured was not exceptional. The US prison system is designed to crush people like Tiffany Rusher every day, with only a small section of society laboring to help prisoners save themselves from being ground under. In Rusher’s case, the attorneys and staff of Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago were her defenders, but, in the end, the wounds inflicted by the system were too deep, and the cycle of carceral violence was simply too entrenched to interrupt. Rusher, now a statistic to the world at large and a court filing to those her attorneys would hold accountable for her death, was refused any recognition of her humanity while incarcerated. But Rusher was not a number. She was a human being, and restoring our awareness of the humanity of prisoners is a crucial step toward undoing the harms of mass incarceration.

As prison abolitionists, grassroots organizers, and practitioners of transformative justice, our vision for 2018 is one of clear-eyed awareness and discussion of the horrors of the prison system—and the action that awareness demands. As a society, we have long turned away from any social concern that overwhelms us. Whether it’s war, climate change, or the prison-industrial complex, Americans have been conditioned to simply look away from profound harms. Years of this practice have now left us with endless wars, dying oceans, and millions of people in bondage and oppressively policed. It is time for a thorough, unflinching examination of what our society has wrought and what we have become. It is time to envision and create alternatives to the hellish conditions our society has brought into being.


The Illusion of a New Idea

Outspoken opponents of abolishing the prison-industrial complex typically portray abolitionists as politically inactive academics who spout impossible ideas. None of this could be further from the truth. Abolitionists come from all backgrounds, and most are politically active. From bail reform to strategic electoral interventions and mutual aid, prison abolitionists are steadily at work in our communities, employing tactics of harm reduction, lobbying for and against legislation, defending the rights of prisoners in solidarity with those organizing for themselves on the inside, and working to forward a vision of social transformation.

As a political framework, abolition has gained significant ground in recent years, with groups like the National Lawyers Guild adopting the philosophy in their work. A growing number of grassroots abolitionist organizers have co-organized nationally recognized campaigns such as the #ByeAnita effort in Chicago, which helped to successfully remove former state’s attorney Anita Alvarez from office. Abolitionist organizers also helped lead efforts to win reparations for survivors of torture that occurred under the now infamous police commander Jon Burge in Chicago—a city that has, over the past two decades, become a hub of abolitionist organizing. Abolition is a practical organizing strategy.

Like any enterprise that was born of a manufactured demand, prisons perpetuate themselves, and that requires the maintenance of conditions that foster crime. From 1978 to 2014, the US prison population rose 408 percent, largely filling its cages with those denied access to education, employment, and human services. About 70 percent of prisoners in California are former foster care youth. And given that the system is actually geared toward recidivism, there can be no argument that the prison system supports either public safety or the public good. Our failure to build a culture of care that nurtures human growth and potential, rather than incubating desperation, ensures that more “criminals” will be created and subsequently punished, to the great benefit of those who profit from industries associated with incarceration. Prison is simply a bad and ineffective way to address violence and crime.

Yet when we speak about the abolition of the prison-industrial complex, many react as though the idea is alien and unthinkable—as if, to them, prisons, policing and surveillance are part of a natural order that simply cannot be undone. In truth, the prison system did not see its most massive population surge until the 1980s, when deindustrialization created the need for dungeon economies to replace lost jobs, and a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and other social gains by Black people propelled heightened efforts at social control.

As a society, we have been taught to embrace social control, which is often enforced by people with guns, because we have been taught to fear each other, and to acquiesce to authority. We live in a culture that celebrates criminalization, cops, and prisons. Abusive, torturous police become sympathetic television characters whose harms the public can understand or even sympathize with. But when a civilian has committed an egregious harm, the national solace we are taught to seek is to see them suffer. They must be thrown in a cage, and, once they are, justice is considered to be done, and we can all move on with our lives without ever asking questions like: Why did this happen? Why does it keep happening? And is there something we could change that would make this tragedy unthinkable in the first place?


Clapping for Incarceration

Even those who acknowledge that mass incarceration in the US is nightmarish and unjust often feel compelled to applaud when the system ensnares someone whose harms disgust us. When Martin Shkreli, a former hedge fund manager, was sentenced to serve seven years for securities fraud, memes and laughter abounded. Shkreli, who famously engaged in pharmaceutical price-gauging, raising the price of the drug Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per pill, was once characterized as the “most hated man in America,” making him an ideal poster child for the carceral state. But like most ideas that allow us to avert our eyes and ignore the larger system, this notion is full of holes.

For one, Shkreli was not being punished for forcing AIDS patients to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for a lifesaving medication, because rich people simply are not punished for practicing capitalism in the United States. As long as their money changing kills according to the rules of the free market, they see no penalty. Shkreli was punished for securities fraud. In short, he played Monopoly with the filthy rich and broke the rules. Yet, because he also harmed everyday people, this moment is held up as one where the system worked, because someone we feel contempt for was punished. The system will occasionally offer such kernels, but they don’t add up to justice.

No reform is being forced upon the pharmaceutical industry in the wake of Shkreli’s harms, and the executives who are driving up prices on insulin and other lifesaving medications are not faced with jail time (if this is our marker of justice). Our society’s practice of “justice” is not concerned with creating just conditions, and our system of punishment does not penalize the powerful for crushing those with less power. The rich getting richer while others are ground under is part of the “just” order of our society. There are no solutions offered by the system, only the occasional display of suffering or civil death to satisfy the masses.

Given these conditions, we must understand that, by applauding carceral violence, we are also applauding an established and grotesque failure on the part of Western civilization.

Stories like Tiffany Rusher’s are buried under headlines about people like Shkreli and serial rapist Larry Nassar—stories that reassure the public that retribution is necessary and that sate a popular desire for vengeance in the face of tragedy and harm. American crime stories are not stories of good versus evil, because the system is not and has never been good or heroic, and criminal harms are usually much more complex than we would care to acknowledge. The crimes for which Tiffany Rusher was convicted involved sex with a minor, but why was Rusher in sexual proximity to a minor in the first place?

Prison is simply a bad and ineffective way to address violence and crime. Cases like Rusher’s call on us both to acknowledge the harms our system has inflicted and to create the kind of social and economic conditions in which a young woman would never be presented with the choices that Rusher faced. According to Rusher, she was doing survival sex work when she was solicited to provide sexual services at a party. As it turned out, the young man a relative wanted to purchase sexual favors for was underage. Rusher was twenty-one years old. When the young man’s mother learned about the party, she was incensed and filed a police report. And just like that, Rusher became a sex offender in the eyes of the law. However different her experiences may have been from those who are typically characterized as predators, Rusher was ensnared by a damning and unyielding brand of criminalization.


“Dangerous People”

When confronted with statistics about how unevenly criminal penalties are applied in the United States, or with historical evidence that policing and incarceration have always been grounded in anti-Blackness, Native erasure, and protection of property, most leftists will decry the system and agree that change is long overdue. But such admissions are usually followed by an insistence that we cannot simply uproot the system, because we don’t have polished, universalized, fully formed solutions to address the dangers some individuals, often characterized as predators, may pose to our communities.

But the idea of “predators” and “dangerous people” is complicated by the conditions our society enforces—social and economic conditions that we know generate crime and despair. Communities whose needs are met are not rife with crimes of desperation, whereas struggling communities are; and people from communities that are highly criminalized by our racist system are far more likely to be thrust into the carceral system.

Politicians routinely feign ignorance with regard to these dynamics, presenting “tough-on-crime” agendas that would enhance prison sentences and widen the school-to-prison pipeline as a solution to the harms society generates. Because if politicians acknowledged that most criminalized harms are rooted in social and economic inequities, they would be expected to address those inequities, which most refuse to do. In the United States, the political careers of elected officials are largely funded by those who directly benefit from the inequities of our society, and those funders would likely abandon their pet officials if they pursued anything resembling economic justice.

The carceral system has always used sensationalized cases and the specter of unthinkable harm to create new mechanisms of disposability. Those mechanisms are what feed bodies to hungry dungeon economies while we are distracted by our own fears of “bad people” and what they might do if they aren’t contained. Of course, a system that never addresses the why behind a harm never actually contains the harm itself. Cages confine people, not the conditions that facilitated their harms or the mentalities that perpetuate violence. Yet, for some reason, even people who are well versed in the dynamics of the system often believe Law and Order moments are possible, when, just for a moment, an instrument of state violence can be made good.

In their essay on “The University and the Undercommons,” writers and scholars Fred Moten and Stefano Harney underscore why abolition is important as a political framework and organizing strategy: “What is, so to speak, the object of abolition? Not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.” When we look past the sensationalism of major headlines, and examine the actual dynamics of mass incarceration, it becomes increasingly impossible to justify this perspective. While some offer calls for reform, such calls ignore the reality that an institution grounded in the commodification of human beings, through torture and the deprivation of their liberty, cannot be made good. The logic of using policing, punishment, and prison has not proven to address the systemic causes of violence. It is in this climate that we argue that abolition of the prison-industrial complex is the most moral political posture available to us. Because the deconstruction of the American system of mass incarceration is possible, and it is time.


What Does Transformation Look Like?

Our vision for 2018 is a state of unrestrained imagination. When dealing with oppressive systems, cynicism is a begrudging allegiance, extracted from people whose minds could otherwise open new doors, make new demands, and conjure visions of what a better world could look like. Questions like “What about the really dangerous people?” are not questions a prison abolitionist must answer in order to insist the prison-industrial complex must be undone.

These are questions we must collectively answer, even as we trouble the very notion of “dangerousness.” The inability to offer a neatly packaged and easily digestible solution does not preclude offering critique or analysis of the ills of our current system.

We live in a society that has been locked into a false sense of inevitability. It’s time to look hard at how this system came to be, who profits, how it functions, and why—and it’s time to imagine what it would look like to see justice done without relying on punishment and the barbarity of carceral systems. As writer and educator Erica Meiners suggests: “Liberation under oppression is unthinkable by design.” It’s time for a jailbreak of the imagination in order to make the impossible possible.





Hope Is a Discipline

Interview by Kim Wilson and Brian Sonenstein

Beyond Prisons, January 2018

Kim Wilson: I think someone retweeted something you posted the other day, and it just really resonated with me and has helped me tremendously.... It is something you wrote about hope being a discipline. I got to tell you, it made my day, if not my week, absolutely! Because it is easy to get down on everything that’s going on.

Mariame Kaba: Sure.

Wilson: It’s really easy to kind of look around and be like, “Oh my God, everything, set it all on fire and let’s just be done!” [laughs] Especially right now, and I think that plugging in with folks and reading things and listening to things that are affirming and uplifting and do allow you to focus on the hopeful side of things are part of abolition. I’d like you to say something about that, but I have another part to that question, which is about self-care for those of us doing this work. That’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about.

Kaba: I always tell people, for me, hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger or any other emotion that makes total sense. Hope isn’t an emotion, you know? Hope is not optimism.

I think that for me, understanding that is really helpful in my practice around organizing. I believe that there’s always a potential for transformation and for change. And that is in any direction, good or bad. The idea of hope being a discipline is something I heard from a nun many years ago who was talking about it in conjunction with making sure we were of the world and in the world. Living in the afterlife already in the present was kind of a form of escape, but it was really, really important for us to live in the world and be of the world. The hope that she was talking about was this grounded hope that was practiced every day, that people actually practiced all the time.

I bowed down to that. I heard that many years ago, and then I felt the sense of, “Oh my God. That speaks to me as a philosophy of living, that hope is a discipline and that we have to practice it every single day.” Because in the world we live in, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is all bad all the time, that nothing is going to change ever, that people are evil and bad at the bottom. It feels sometimes that it’s being proven in various different ways, so I really get that. I understand why people feel that way. I just choose differently. I choose to think a different way, and I choose to act in a different way. I choose to trust people until they prove themselves untrustworthy.

Jim Wallace, who people know as a liberal Evangelical, who thinks about faith a lot and talks about faith a lot, he always talks about the fact that hope is really believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change. And that, to me, makes total sense. I believe ultimately that we’re going to win, because I believe there are more people who want justice, real justice, than there are those who are working against that.

And I don’t take a short-term view. I take a long view, understanding full well that I’m just a tiny, little part of a story that already has a huge antecedent and has