The Collective Work of Abolition

Organizer and educator Mariame Kaba discusses transformative justice, refusing a politics of revenge, and her new book, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us.

Claire Schwartz
February 25, 2021
March against police brutality in Philadelphia, June 6th, 2020. Photo: Joe Piette via Flickr

Since last summer’s uprisings against anti-Black racism, the demands to abolish prisons and the police have become increasingly popular rallying cries. But, as often happens when a concept is rapidly amplified, the idea of abolition has been mobilized in unclear and contradictory ways as use has outpaced study. We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, the new book by organizer and educator Mariame Kaba, lays out with invaluable clarity the tenets of prison industrial complex [PIC] abolitionism—which imagines a world without policing, imprisonment, or surveillance—bringing Kaba’s insights from over three decades of movement work to bear on today’s struggles. 

Centering the experiences of criminalized survivors of violence—especially the experiences of Black women, girls, and gender nonconforming people—Kaba reveals that there is no justice to be found in the criminal punishment system. She looks instead to the horizon of PIC abolition—a world not only freed from policing but where, as she writes, “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”—and offers concrete organizing strategies for bringing us closer to that vision. The book’s focus on collaboration, reflected not only its ideas but also in its very form (many of the pieces it collects are conversations or co-written essays) enacts the guiding refrain Kaba inherited from her father, Moussa Kaba: that “everything worthwhile is done with others.” The pedagogy of abolitionist living, this book makes evident, is not a set of instructions received from on high, but something we create together.

While Kaba is a dedicated internationalist, making her ideas widely available via
Twitter and on her blog, Prison Culture, her work has long been grounded in local organizing, especially in Chicago and New York. She is the founder of Project NIA, which advocates for an end to youth incarceration, as well as the co-organizer of the Free Marissa Alexander, Reparations Now!, and We Charge Genocide campaigns, and the co-founder of the Chicago Freedom School and Survived and Punished

I spoke with Kaba about grief, storytelling, transformative justice, and the future of abolitionist organizing. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Claire Schwartz: Your book orbits around two central concepts: transformative justice and abolitionism. What is the relationship between the two?

Mariame Kaba: Abolitionists come from a variety of political traditions, from anarchism to socialism. Abolition is about a restructured world, so there is no single route there. My own work toward PIC abolition is rooted in a vision of transformative justice, which says you can’t end violence with more violence. I see cycles of violence repeating themselves, and ask: How are we going to break that? I was doing anti-violence work before I was officially introduced to the concept of abolition. Coming from that background, the notion of abolition immediately made sense to me—if I’m anti-rape, I can’t support prison, because we know that people are often sexually assaulted inside prisons. 

A lot of PIC abolitionists, particularly women and gender nonconforming people of color, adopt transformative justice as a political vision. We know that carceral systems aren’t meant to serve us, so we have to come up with a different way of preventing, intervening in, and transforming harm.

CS: In an essay entitled “Transforming Punishment,” you and your co-author, Rachel Herzing, write: “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.” What’s the role of personal experience in movement-building?

MK: Some people act like your feelings should become the basis of policy for everyone. This is how we come up with reactionary laws named after one person, or ways of “resolving issues” in the world that are essentially based on vengeance. I refuse that. Of course, you can—you should—have feelings. It’s totally fair, for example, to have feelings about having been raped, to want to kill your rapist. But that’s different from creating a policy based on those feelings that says we must execute all rapists. 

I’ve worked for years with young people in conflict with the law, and young folks I’ve loved have been shot and killed. I can feel enormous anger at the person who did that. But should the state—the very entity that is already inherently racist and classist—then be entrusted with killing somebody on my behalf? Absolutely not. 

CS: Are there ways that you’re thinking about the social meanings of feelings right now?

MK: I’m thinking a lot about grief—about how, when people who experience great harm are not given the support to grieve, sometimes they end up stuck in this strange, frozen state. Maybe that feeling is being replicated in the current moment. In almost every culture I can think of, gathering in person is central to beginning a journey of healing from loss. The rituals of grieving involve eating together, hugging each other, crying together. As the pandemic forces people to gather virtually, they may end up feeling arrested in their mourning process. Even as so many people are sick and dying, in some ways our grief has nowhere to go, and trapped in that nowhere-to-go-ness, we are struggling to find our way.

CS: In an interview in your book with the poet and sociologist Eve Ewing, you say, “I’m so uninterested in narratives.” What did you mean by that? 

MK: Organizers get put through all these reductive trainings about narrative-building. You have to create narratives, and supposedly that’s what’s going to convince people to support your campaign. To me, these trainings are always about building instrumental relationships—not even relationships, really, because it feels so extractive, so disconnected from the desire to actually know people. That’s what I was thinking about when I was being dismissive around narrative. 

CS: Elsewhere in the book, you quote the poet and feminist scholar Aurora Levins Morales: “The stories we tell about our suffering define what we can imagine doing about it.” What do you see as the difference between narratives and stories?

MK: I’m very aware that storytelling is often collective work. We tell our own stories and then—even though stories are completely subjective and based on situational context and all sorts of other things—we can work together to build a new kind of story that can serve our liberation struggle. I think stories are critical. But we have to be in authentic relationship with each other. 

CS: Is there a campaign that comes to mind when you think of how stories have shifted people’s understanding of their own role with respect to political possibilities?

MK: Over a series of years in Chicago, people told the stories of those who were tortured by police, in particular by Jon Burge and the “Midnight Crew.” Over time, these stories galvanized more people to join the struggle to find some modicum of justice for the people who were harmed.

One particular person, Darrell Cannon, has been telling his story for decades. I remember him talking about what happened to him when he was arrested—how the cops played Russian roulette; how when they pulled the trigger on the gun and no bullet came out, he could actually feel his hair standing on edge. Why would I remember a detail like that unless it was connecting to the other stories I had heard? Those connections made it clear that it wasn’t just one rogue person who did this; it was one person backed by a system.

Lawyers and journalists also added to the story—particularly John Conroy, who reported on the torture when nobody else would. Even if they weren't directly impacted, people felt like they could tell the stories. And once folks knew the stories, they were much more likely to join the campaign—they, too, wanted to figure out what justice might look like.

CS: How do you think about the uses of history in movement work?

MK: History doesn’t provide me with a blueprint for the future. It gives me an opportunity to refine my questions. Situating myself within that long arc of time gets me out of feeling like I'm the center of everything when, in fact, I’m the center of my own tiny thing. It reminds me that we need so many people in order to do anything significant.

History feels fungible for me. I go to the moments that I want to pay attention to. If I didn’t know that prisons, in the way we know them, are a relatively recent invention, I would be seduced by the attempts to naturalize these institutions, to make them appear as though they’ve always existed, and therefore you should expect them to always exist. But knowing history enables me to say: It’s not in any way “natural” that prisons exist. They are not inevitable. If they’re so recent, and if they were created by somebody, then surely they can be destroyed, and we can build other things in their place. 

CS: As I was reading your book, a conversation was taking shape about Poetry Magazine’s February issue, a special issue on incarceration, with contributions from poets who are currently or formerly incarcerated, or who have incarcerated family members. The inclusion of one particular poet prompted a lot of blowback, because he has committed sexual violence against children, and because, by some accounts, he has continued to cause harm following his incarceration. What were your impressions of the situation? What can this teach us about the difficult work we need to do, as you write, “on the way to abolition”?

MK: We know that not everyone in prison is there because they’ve been wrongfully convicted or are nonviolent offenders. There are people who are locked up who’ve done incredibly harmful things, things that are hard for us to consider and process. If you’re going to interact with incarceration as an issue, you have to accept that you’ll be working with people who have hurt people, sometimes grievously. At the same time, those people have often experienced great harm prior to incarceration, and then are harmed all the way through their incarceration. You have to be able to hold multiple truths.

The editors made the right decision not to ask people who submitted their work why they had been incarcerated. That’s a bedrock of an abolitionist politic. But the editors and the magazine should have clearly articulated their editorial stance from the beginning. They could have taken the opportunity to say, “We didn’t agree to background checks because background checks don’t actually keep anyone safe. They identify people who’ve already been caught, and those people are disproportionately already marginalized people.” Even in the case of sexual violence, we know that a tiny fraction of people who cause those forms of harm are convicted. So what you're telling me [when you say you want background checks before you can submit art] is that you only care about the people who have been caught. Otherwise, why wouldn't you investigate the backgrounds of everyone who submits to Poetry? Is this going to become a uniform demand for every art journal or exhibition in the future? Where does this lead us?

In my book, I make clear that I think it’s okay to deplatform people you discover have caused great harm—particularly people who continue to cause harm after they’ve had opportunities to go through processes of accountability. But if some critics argue that by publishing a sexual predator, the Poetry Foundation [which publishes Poetry] has caused structural harm, why isn’t the demand that the Poetry Foundation funnel their enormous resources into movements to end gender and sexual violence instead of simply deplatforming this particular person? Why isn’t the demand, “Fund feminist poetry workshops in all the high schools in Chicago”? Why isn’t it, “Pay for poets-in-residence in sexual assault organizations”?

CS: Trump’s presidency made the unbearableness of American violence evident to a lot of people who had previously refused to acknowledge it. We saw mass mobilizations, and abolition as a concept entered broader conversations. How do you think public possibilities will shift with a new administration? 

MK: I don’t know. But I believe that when lots of people get activated about something, they can’t easily go back to what they were doing before. I don’t think that people who have been introduced to the idea of defunding the police because millions of people took to the streets this summer can comfortably go back to their lives exactly as they were before. Yes, they may choose to willfully unsee what they’ve seen and unhear what they’ve heard, like the kid who sticks their fingers in their ears and goes, “La, la, la. I can’t hear you.” But it’s harder now. 

We also have this new generation of young people who are growing up with the knowledge that it’s possible to demand a world without these death-making institutions. It’s incalculable what that’s going to do. I grew up without the idea that that would be possible; abolition hadn’t made its way into the culture in the same way. I’m lucky to be in community with younger people through organizing, so I see the things they are taking for granted. When I talked about these ideas 20 years ago, I was begging people to listen to me, and now high school students are writing papers arguing for PIC abolition and contacting me. Even though I’ve seen the evolution, and I’ve been part of that evolution, I can’t believe it. It’s amazing to me.

Claire Schwartz is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection Civil Service (Graywolf Press, 2022) and the poetry editor of Jewish Currents.