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Strands of barbed wire on top of a wall, beginning to come apart.

Towards the horizon of abolition: A conversation with Mariame Kaba

Mariame Kaba

Mariame Kaba

Organizer, educator, and curator focusing on dismantling the prison industrial complex. more

John Duda

John Duda

Director of Communications at The Democracy Collaborative more

Race & Ethnicity Movement Strategy & History Democracy & Governance

John Duda: I wanted to start by asking you about what it means to work for prison abolition with Trump in the White House. It’s very clear that anybody fighting for anything good is facing a much much harder battle now—certainly this would be true for work around ending mass incarceration and police violence. At the same time—you’ve been organizing for years against a carceral apparatus that was built under the watch of many ostensibly liberal democrats—Chicago hasn’t had a republican mayor since the New Deal. What are your thoughts about what’s changed and what will stay the same for the kind of organizing to abolish prisons and police you are engaged in?

Mariame Kaba: I think that one thing that remains constant for me is that the system—the prison industrial complex—isn’t broken. The system of mass criminalization we have isn’t the result of failure. Thinking in this way allows me to look at what’s going on right now in a clear-eyed way. I understand that white supremacy is maintained and reproduced through the criminal punishment apparatus. That hasn’t changed with Trump coming to power. Sessions is recycling ‘law & order’ rhetoric and some policies. The Feds can set a tone but most of the substantive criminal punishment policy happens at the state and county level.  That means that we have some potential openings. We’re seeing this currently in the re-invigorated struggle to end cash bail and pre-trial detention, for example. 

I don’t see what is currently happening as outside of the norm. It’s part of a continuum. I see it as another stop in the ongoing US white supremacist nation building project; and while we’re going to have different kinds of things to contend with, we’re still going to have to strategize, we’re still going to have to mobilize, we’re still going to have to organize, we’re still going to have to figure out how we win. That hasn’t changed. Those are still the things we have to do. Our context has shifted a little. We’ll have some different types of actors to deal with as we make our demands and as we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to push towards whatever the goal is for people. For some people the end goal is going to be reform, for some people it’s going to be abolition, others will have other kinds of goals.

The system of mass criminalization we have isn’t the result of failure.

Frankly, I really didn’t think that Donald Trump would win. I was sure that white people would vote for him, but I thought that the votes of people of color would offset this so that he wouldn’t actually be President. But I’m not surprised that white people voted for him across the board. I expected that. I just underestimated the numbers of votes by people of color which I believed would offset that the fact that white people wanted to elect him President.

This election also destabilized some ideas I had about politics and electoral organizing because I did believe that mobilization would lose to organization. We’d been led to believe by the Democratic party that they had all these offices on the ground, all these volunteers, that they had the data analytics to identify who their voters were, and that they could turn them out. I understood, through my study and participation at some points in my life in electoral organizing, that organization trumps mobilization—and I thought the Dems had that down frankly, and they did not clearly. There were other things at play too that I didn’t perceive.

I’m still trying to figure out what all of this means for anti-criminalization organizing. Some people are lamenting the fact that the DOJ is going to revert back to what it was before the Obama administration. I have actually been very upset over the past few years about the impulse people have to rely on law enforcement to police the police—also people saying they want to prosecute “killer cops,” all this stuff: the demand is always that the DOJ step in. I’ve always felt that was futile. The cops won’t police themselves and I’ve thought that the strategy of turning to the DOJ acted like a cooling saucer. It demobilizes action. Every time someone is murdered by police: “let the DOJ handle it, let the DOJ handle it!” It’s not an effective strategy and it sucks up so much activist energy.

Now that people can’t say “let the DOJ handle it,” I wonder what openings there are for people to consider other things.

John Duda: How do you see helping people hold on to the idea that we need to be fighting for systemic change rather than just pushing back against whatever egregious outrages the Trump administration is bringing this week?

Mariame Kaba: Yes. Yes. Yes. So important, in fact one of my Facebook friends Kali Akuno posted something after the election that I thought was right on point and really spoke to this: he was basically telling everybody “listen, we’ve got to buckle up.” The moment that we have right now is one where we need to make cogent, expansive arguments—not arguments merely or simply about the Republican party and Donald Trump. He was saying: let’s not limit our focus. In order to intervene in this current moment his point was that we need to focus our resistance against the system, the entire system, the entire capitalist system. You know—against the settler colonial, patriarchal, and racist system that we have and not just against Donald Trump and the Republican party. Very difficult to do given the daily outrages and assaults by this administration but so important to do.

John Duda: And this means that the answer isn’t just more and better liberalism?

Mariame Kaba: He also made that point—the point that liberals and the liberal consensus actually had been enabling all different kinds of forms of human exploitation and oppression—and then that now that same apparatus is quickly telling people to join in for national unity and reconciliation with the forces that are basically hell bent on destroying millions of people.

That is really something we can’t do. We have to really focus on mounting a resistance that develops and then fights for transformational demands. We can’t allow people to become solely fixated on Trump. We can’t get seduced by the idea that if only we just rebuild the DNC we’ll be fine. We really have to jump in now to shape the narrative. The starting point—and this is the gift that abolition as an ideology and a practice has given me—is the idea that the system isn’t actually broken. Right? Because then I’m not preoccupied with trying to fix it. That’s not my goal. All I want to do is abolish and end it, therefore the imperatives of what I’m trying to do—the training, the questions, the analysis—all have to be geared towards that, and then this doesn’t force me to run around in circles plugging my fingers in the dyke everywhere as the water is just threatening to overwhelm all of us. Also, this allows me to think of how we can crowd out the current system by building the things that we want to see in the world, that will promote our well-being.

That’s a grounding thing—to have this understanding about the system—and to really be propelled by it. I also want to say that something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’ve always been committed to political education both for myself and with others, and I’m even more committed to it now. It’s clear to me that a huge part of what we need right now is to sit with lots and lots of people to hash out, over a long period of time, our analysis around what is happening to us and why, and how we’re going to be able to overcome those things.

John Duda: It seems to me that a part of this is that we can’t ignore the connection between the growth of the carceral state on the one hand and the withering of democracy on the other…

Mariame Kaba: I read an article in the Miami Herald that said 23% of Florida’s voting age black men were barred from voting due to felony convictions. Obviously the numbers [nationwide] are like over 6 million people are disenfranchised from voting in elections due to felony convictions. When the people who say their main interest and focus and commitment to civic engagement is about voting, seem to have no answer for that, when these people haven’t activated and organized around that in any significant way, this is a microcosm for me of the problems that we’re facing, right? It’s that even those people who hold dear the idea that voting is the primary mechanism for social change and social justice don’t have an expansive view of how then to insure that every possible person votes, right?

That tells you a lot. The VRA is gutted, people seem to be completely ineffectual in terms of how to address that. There’s voter suppression all over the place and yet what you find are the elites and the non-elites, people who say they believe in voting above all— yelling at third party voters. Third party voters are not your problem. Disengaged voters are. What’s your plan for engaging those folks?

Over 6 million people are disenfranchised from voting in elections due to felony convictions.

Again—what an incredibly shrunken set of ideas and analysis about the thing you say you care the most about, right? I’ve been thinking a lot about that, you can extrapolate that to other things, but that’s been really interesting to me.

I don’t really see the U.S. as a democracy. I see it as something that is “so-called democracy,” as Malcolm X would say. The electoral college, voter suppression, the duopoly that has us choosing lesser evils, gerrymandering, the fact that you have to raise millions to run, etc.. etc… these are all constraints on democratic participation. PIC abolition also has something to teach us about democracy. It allows us to say and mean that if one of us is caged, then all of us are. That no one is free if some of us aren’t. Folks need to focus on this to achieve actual democracy.

John Duda: That kind of shrunken imagination seems to really hold back a lot of people from thinking about a world without prisons. The modern prison—it’s a historically just not that old of a phenomenon, maybe a couple of hundred years, maximum. Mass incarceration on the scale that we know it now—is just a couple of decades old. Yet people seem to be unable to imagine or even think about a world without prisons. Do you have a sense of why? What’s the source of this blockage? 

Mariame Kaba: I heard Patrisse Cullors from the Black Lives Matter Global Network say a while ago that somebody had to actually first imagine prisons and the police themselves in order to create them. Everything you see in the world—somebody thought of it first. I think that’s true and I think that’s right. I also think that once things are actualized into the world and exist, you can’t imagine how the world functioned before it.

It’s like we develop amnesia. You just assume things have always been as they are. I see this in myself—in just my lifetime where I went to college at a time when there were no computers—this is in the late 80’s. I brought a typewriter with me to college. That’s how I typed all my papers and did all my work. I struggle to remember how I did that now—and again that was just in the late 80’s-early 90’s. I can’t imagine it—I don’t even know how I operated in the world without a computer and the internet, right? It feels naturalized in that way even for somebody who in her own adult lifetime didn’t actually have it. That I can’t imagine a world without the technology I’m currently living with, says a lot. I can talk about it—but I don’t think I have a strong memory of that time.

We abolitionists often say that—and it’s true—that prisons are relatively new inventions, they really are, worldwide even. But think of how normalized so many other technologies are in our lives—and they are so very recent compared to prisons.

Once things are actualized into the world and exist, you can’t imagine how the world functioned before it.

The other thing about prisons and police is how they make people— the vast majority of people—feel secure. I don’t mean safe, I mean secure. Secure means that the scary, awful, monster people are kept at bay by those institutions. That is the story that gets told and reinforced by media, by our parents, by our culture, that is our story. That’s our narrative.

My comrade Paula Rojas has written that the cops are in our heads and hearts—that’s the same exact thing. The prison and the police are in our heads and hearts, therefore this system is naturalized in a way that makes it almost impossible for folks to step back and think that it wasn’t always like this. How did people manage before? How might we look into the future and imagine something different? Nothing is really permanent, right? Things are going to transform and change. We see that just in our own life span. But, again, as I mentioned, I think we can’t underestimate the fact that we think these institutions keep us secure.

Security and safety aren’t the same thing. Security is a function of the weaponized state that is using guns, weapons, fear and other things to “make us secure,” right? All the horrible things are supposed to be kept at bay by these tools, even though we know that horrible things continue to happen all the time with these things in place—and that these very tools and the corresponding institutions are reproducing the violence and horror they are supposed to contain.

All of these things are pretty clear to a whole bunch of people—we just, I think, don’t want to have to think hard about what else might be possible.

John Duda: How do we break through that? Obviously at an intellectual level, I can read all about prisons, and their genesis in the 18th century, and I can think about alternative systems at an abstract level. But I’m curious: you’ve done so much work with very grounded community level activism—what have been the kind of concrete practices or dialogues and conversations that have really convinced people—not just in their heads, but also, as you’ve said, in their hearts—that there is a world beyond prison?

Mariame Kaba: I don’t know how I want to answer that question; I think I want to maybe shift a little bit before coming back to it. First, I want to think about how the prison-industrial complex [PIC] actually provides us with the best opportunity for broad based movement building in this era—and tie that to this notion of what you do in your community. Because the PIC encompasses and is enabled by multiple “isms,” it means that the movement that we build and our resistance are going to need to be really, truly intersectional if we’re going to be successful in abolishing the PIC.

Security and safety aren’t the same thing.

The work of abolition insists that we foreground the people who are behind the walls—that we listen to them, that we take their ideas seriously. It insists that we address things like the surveillance state and economic and environmental justice. That we have to transform the relationships that we have with each other so we can really create new forms of safety and justice in our communities. Mainly it insists that it is necessary that we change everything. It necessitates asking questions of everybody involved about what can we do instead of prisons and police.

In that way, a big part of the abolitionist project that I’ve been involved in now for over a decade and a half at least, is unleashing people’s imaginations while getting concrete—so that we have to imagine while we build, always both.

For me that’s looked sitting in a church with community members, hashing out a situation that occurred with a group of young men in the community, who had been responsible for mugging, terrorizing really in some ways, an older white man in the neighborhood—a man who was now incredibly fearful as a result of what had happened to him. Figuring out: why would you do that? What led to this? What might we imagine other than turning to the cops in this instance? How do we resolve both the fear that you’ve now introduced in this person’s life and the pain and dispossession that you’ve been experiencing in your own?

The work of abolition insists that we foreground the people who are behind the walls—that we listen to them, that we take their ideas seriously.

I guess that answer won’t satisfy people who want you to provide them with a solution, with the solution. Who immediately want to know: “how are we going to deal with the rapists and the murderers?” This is the question that always gets thrown at anybody who identifies as abolitionist—and my question back is “what are you doing right now about the rapists and the murderers?” That’s the first thing: Is what’s happening right now working for you? Are you feeling safer? Has the current approach ended rape and murder? The vast majority of rapists never see the inside of a courtroom, let alone get convicted and end up in prison. In fact, they end up becoming President. So the system you feel so attached to and that you seem invested in preserving is not delivering what you say you want, which is presumably safety and an end to violence. Worse than that it is causing inordinate additional harm. The logics of policing and prisons are not actually addressing the systemic causes and roots of violence.

Really, I want to trouble this question. The question is posed as though the current system is operating to do the things people say they want—and it’s not. That’s number one.

Number two is that I always say: the answer to the question is a collective project. Your question is a good one in the sense that you’re thinking about how we might address harm (which is not the same as crime incidentally)—and so let’s figure out together, across our communities, what would be a just system for adjudicating and evaluating harm. That’s a very different posture to take. It’s a question that invites people in, that invites people to offer their ideas. It invites us to argue with each other, to say “this will work better” and “no, this is the best way,” rather than accepting as permanent and always necessary the current oppressive institutions that we have.

Our current punishment apparatus are sites of terrible and incredible violence. The sites of policing and imprisonment and containment—Dean Spade says this correctly, he says the prison is a serial killer and a rapist. So you have to be confronted with your own acceptance that the current model (a) is either the best we can do and the best we can expect or (b) is doing exactly what you say you want in the world—providing safety—when it is not, based on every empirical measure.

The logics of policing and prisons are not actually addressing the systemic causes and roots of violence.

Let’s work together to think through something different: that’s what I would say about what the conversations should be in our communities. These are the conversations I’ve tried over the years to foster in my own community, in the communities that I inhabit.

I say this with no sense of feeling defensive, right? I won’t defend the current punishment system. It’s horrible. I’m also not invested in evangelizing abolition. I just know that, for myself, abolition is incredibly helpful in thinking about how to move in the world and it’s really important to me in my daily practice. It helps me navigate the world and it helps me to prefigure the world in which I want to live. Abolition is something that I and everyone really, practice daily.

John Duda: So what’s important, then, is that people are having these conversations and are beginning to think about ways that the world might be different—but if they don’t proclaim themselves to be abolishing the PIC, that’s okay, as long as these conversations are happening?

Mariame Kaba: Absolutely. I am okay with that. In fact, I’m not alone in this. Other abolitionists—people who subscribe to or have embodied or have cared about abolition as political ideology, goal, horizon and practice—have had conversations over the last year about what it means that many new organizers and activists are adopting an “abolitionist identity”—using that term. What do they mean when they identify as “abolitionist”?

I would much prefer people wrestle with questions, some I’ve mentioned here, without necessarily adopting the identity as an abolitionist if they’re not willing to actually do what abolition demands of you. Somebody wrote an article a couple of years ago saying there is no contradiction being an abolitionist and calling for the prosecution and more importantly the imprisonment of killer cops. That’s bonkers. I went off on a rant a few months ago when several people were making statements like “I’m an abolitionist, I’m not anti-cop, anti-police.”

What does that mean? And please know that I’m not saying this as judgment, not at all. We all come to consciousness in different ways. We all get radicalized at our own pace in our own time. We come to understanding ideas in formal and informal settings. I have complete and utter respect for people learning, growing, developing. I’m just wondering, for those of us who’ve been thinking about, practicing, writing about abolition, what’s our responsibility is in this moment? [I think we need] to help people understand that there are, in fact, some things that are just not PIC abolition.

Can you say that without being perceived by people as a gatekeeper? That is not the point though. The point is: words have meaning. Words correspond to concepts, everything is not everything, right? Because if everything was everything then nothing is anything. I think we have to push back over like “well, I can have my opinion of that.” And that all opinions are valid. No, there are some fundamental things you’ve got to subscribe to if you’re going to adopt or embrace an ideology and a practice. You don’t just get to change those things randomly because you don’t like them or because you personally decide they don’t make sense. Again this is a collective project built over decades. You also better do some reading so you have actual knowledge.

I am concerned—but that concern doesn’t mean me then putting the onus on people who are learning, to figure everything out on their own through osmosis. I think it’s much more productive for me to put out things that affirmatively express what I believe abolition to be based on my study, thinking, and practice, rather than spend my time chastising other people for not getting it right. That’s what I’m trying to do more of this year.

John Duda: I think that kind of long term clarity about what it is that this work is ultimately about is really important. I think about the history here: Scholars like Naomi Murakawa and Elizabeth Hinton have built off of the work of Angela Davis, tracing out the history of how people who thought they were making the prisons more fair or making sentencing less biased, really just super-charged the apparatus of mass incarceration. As more and more people become aware that there is a problem with prisons, are you worried about a similar kind of effect in the long term?

Mariame Kaba: Absolutely. It contributes to my insomnia. It is my constant preoccupation. Davis helps us to understand that the PIC itself is a product of various reforms over time, that [even] the prison itself was a reform. I reinforce to people all the time: We cannot reform police. We cannot reform prisons. We cannot.

Telling people this can foster to a sense of despair; it can demobilize people in real ways. It can make people feel like everything is inevitably [going to remain this way]: this is where we’re at, this is where things are going to be. There’s that angle to this.

It’s much more productive for me to put out things that affirmatively express what I believe abolition to be based on my study, thinking, and practice, rather than spend my time chastising other people for not getting it right.

There’s also the angle that when you say things can’t be reformed, the question becomes how do you handle people who are in immediate need for relief, right? How are you going to make life livable for people living in unlivable circumstances?

Somehow what people think is that either you’re interested in reform or you’re an abolitionist—that you have to choose to be in one camp or the other.  I don’t think that way. For some people, reform is the main focus and end goal and for some people, abolition is the horizon. But I don’t know anybody who is an abolitionist—who I know personally, and I don’t know every abolitionist, obviously, because there are so many people in the world who practice and think and who use abolition in various ways— I don’t know a single a one who doesn’t support some reforms.

Mainly if those reforms are, to use the term coined by Andre Gorz & popularized by Ruthie Gilmore here in the U.S., non-reformist-reforms. How do we think about reforms that don’t make it harder for us to dismantle the systems we are trying to abolish? That don’t make it harder to create new things? What are the reforms that are “non-reformist” that will help us keep moving towards the horizon of abolition? Sometimes people who you love dearly want you to fight for their reformist reform—they want you to fight for something they think will benefit a small tiny sliver of the people [harmed by] this behemoth monster without consideration for how it would then entrench other things that would make life harder for other types of people.

That’s the case when you think about the conversation around non-violent, non-sexual-offending prisoners, and that our attention needs to be focused there. We focus a bunch of attention on getting those people out—but [in doing so] we make it impossible for people who have used violence—the majority of the state prison population by the way—to ever get out.

What are the reforms that are “non-reformist” that will help us keep moving towards the horizon of abolition?

Or there’s this fight that’s been ongoing over life without parole sentencing; that the way to abolish the death penalty is to commute everybody to life without parole. And I just can’t get behind that. That’s still physical, social and civic death, right? “But at least they’re alive…” That to me is an absolute perfect example of a reformist reform, which actually makes it less likely that we’re going to get people out of jail and prisons.

Some reforms end up reproducing the system in another form. I was listening to a talk that Robin D.G. Kelley gave a couple weeks ago, and he mentioned that you put out some kind of a reform, and then that reform becomes institutionalized, but worse than the institutionalization of the reform usually is that it actually creates a new form of consciousness and a new form of common sense. That reform itself becomes the new common sense and that’s so dangerous on so many levels. That’s a hard thing for people to navigate and for you to organize around because then it feels like we can’t do anything until we overthrow the state … [but] come on. No. That’s not the answer. That’s not the answer either. I don’t think any abolitionist will say that.

John Duda: I really like the blog post you did in 2014 that was composed of a list of very simple, very straightforward questions about this question—it’s like a test you can use to tell if something is a reform you should support, with questions like “Does it rely on technology?” or “Does it give the police more money?” Are there any other “reformist reforms” that you’d add to your original list if you were updating it?

Mariame Kaba:  Well, the first thing I’ll say is how that post came about. I wrote it so quickly—I was asked some questions by several young organizers who identify as abolitionists who were struggling mightily when all these proposals around body cameras and stuff were coming out. These organizers wanted to support something, but didn’t know what and didn’t think they knew how to figure that out on their own. I wrote that piece very fast and put it out on my blog. It went viral—somebody emailed me from London to say that they’re using it there. I was like my God, that’s really amazing and great for something to be helpful to a lot of people.

Are the proposed reforms allocating more money to the police? If yes, then you should oppose them.

Are the proposed reforms advocating for MORE police and policing (under euphemistic terms like ‘community policing’ run out of regular police districts)? If yes, then you should oppose them.

Are the proposed reforms primarily technology-focused? If yes, then you should oppose them because….

—from “Police ‘Reforms’ You Should Always Oppose”

I’ve been rethinking—or really not rethinking because I’ve always thought about this— what we mean by community control of police, which is something I’m deeply ambivalent about, particularly about what we mean by “community oversight boards.” I have always been hesitant.  I want to believe that all we need to do around community accountability is find some way that people can oversee the police, at least as an interim step on the way towards abolition. I want to believe that.

But here’s where I’m stuck: what is different about community members being elected to be on boards—we have elected officials in other places, right? We still internalize particular ideologies about policing, we still have the police in our heads and our hearts. Is it the oversight body itself that makes the difference? Why wouldn’t those oversight bodies just adopt the existing ideology that is already in circulation? Wouldn’t they become exactly like all of the other oversight bodies that we have for any number of things?

Rachel Herzing (one of the founders of Critical Resistance) and I ended up writing a very short piece about our concerns around community oversight boards and community control of police, for some young folks who had asked us questions in Chicago when the whole oversight board stuff happened with [Rahm Emmanuel]. They wanted suggestions about what language to use, how to think about this, how to respond.

We wrote something up and then we shared it afterwards with a bunch of abolitionists who we know, and we got a range of responses.  On the one hand, we had people saying this is ridiculous, these bodies are just going to reproduce what we currently have and what we currently have has no power to oversee the police. By the very nature of policing, it’s just not possible.

But then there were people who thought that maybe what we need to do is to mobilize the community outside of those structures so they don’t get fooled into thinking these structures are actually going to be able to do anything. And some people thought that if you had a body that had the ability to hire and fire and the ability to control resources, then in that case it’s possible that this could be an interim way to begin to erode the power of the police. In that case it would be part of the long evolution on your way to abolition. You’re taking away power from the institution of policing.

I’m conflicted, I go back and forth all the time. Is this possible? Aren’t the police and policing itself an institution that is too strong to allow any civilian body to control it? Don’t they have unions that are so so powerful, so so powerful, that they almost always cow civilian leadership? How then would this oversight body survive that?

I’m thinking about that right now because there’s a historical demand from black communities, since the Panthers, if not before, to have community control of the police. My question is, can this be possible? Can the community have power over the institution of policing? Is that possible for us? We don’t have power over our military, how do we propose to have power over the police, over the whole surveillance apparatus? I don’t know. So that’s what I continue to think about these days.

John Duda: So if community control over the police is not going to be a step that necessarily we want to bet everything on—what do we do instead? I know there’s a lot of alternatives that are really promising around reconciliation, around restorative justice, around ways of addressing and reducing harm through dialog, but what about alternatives for the function that the police, theoretically, have—to help people escape situations in which they might be harmed? Obviously they don’t serve this function perfectly, by any stretch from the imagination—but are there alternative practices around that that you can point to that you think are more promising than the police in this regard?

Mariame Kaba: I will say this: I think community accountability and [work in] our communities [is a key to this]—we have to do that and continue to do that and do that more and expand existing projects. I think that we have to get serious about doing that work and reaching towards each other, if our relationships are transformed over time we’ll be able to think more clearly about more ways to reduce harm. At that point—maybe our society won’t need armed people to come to our houses to do wellness checks. Maybe the very fact that we have created a different society for ourselves—have established a different way of relating to one another—answers the question for us eventually.

Can the community have power over the institution of policing? Is that possible for us?

I believe that living in the way we live makes it difficult for most people to seriously consider the end of policing. The idea of security, the idea that cops equal security, is difficult to dislodge. To transform this mindset, where cops equal security, means we have to actually transform our relationships to each other enough so that we can see that we can keep each other safe and ourselves safe, right? Safety means something else, because you cannot have safety without strong, empathic relationships with others. You can have security without relationships but you cannot have safety—actual safety—without healthy relationships. Without getting to really know your neighbor, figuring out when you should be intervening when you hear and see things, feeling safe enough within your community that you feel like, yeah my neighbor’s punching [their partner], I’m going to knock on the door, right? I’m not going to think that that person’s going to pull a gun on me and shoot me in the head. I don’t believe that because I know that person. I know them. I built that relationship with them and even though they’re upset and mad I’m taking the chance of going over there and being like you need to stop this now, what are you doing? Part of what this necessitates is that we have to work with members of our communities to make violence unacceptable. What my friend Andy Smith has said is that this is a problem of political organizing and not one of punishment. How can we organize to make interpersonal violence unthinkable?

That necessitates a whole transformation on so many levels for many people. But It doesn’t necessitate it, actually, for some other groups, who have never had the option of calling the police, they just haven’t—and they’ve been managing to take care of each other and themselves outside of that option.

What is very puzzling to me is like sometimes our questions answer themselves, if we look right at the thing that is happening in front of our nose. People ask me all the time [what abolition looks like] and I’m always like, you know, there are groups of people who are living a type of abolition now. I want you to think of [affluent, white] neighborhoods in the Chicago area like Naperville where there are no cops to be found … anywhere. You actually have to call them to show up. They’re not posted outside anything. Their kid’s schools? No cops, no metal detectors. They have what they need. They have resources they need. The people are working. Talk about full employment!  People have houses that are worth millions, they’re not struggling for healthcare. They’ve got housing, healthcare, jobs: all the things that we say we want in a society that would be transformed enough to make it so people won’t feel we need needing police, prisons, and surveillance. There are some communities already living that today.

You can have security without relationships but you cannot have safety—actual safety—without healthy relationships.

The question is why for them and not for all of us or the rest of us? I think to some degree imagination is necessary … yes. But we don’t have to imagine that far into the future. It’s here. Right this minute. Right now. We should not act as though it’s some sort of fairy tale or some sort of impossibility. It is actually not impossible.

When Johnny who lives in Naperville gets into trouble, they do restorative justice. Johnny is sat down and talked to and even if he gets in front of the judge, the judge is like “Johnny, your parents really love you, gotta do better, boy. We’re not putting you in jail for this, get treatment!” Or sometimes not even treatment. “Do better. Here’s your third chance, Johnny!.” It’s not like we don’t know how to do this and it’s not like some populations don’t already benefit from not being criminalized when they cause harm.

I think we have to stop making things so complicated and seeming so fantastic around abolition. “Oh my gosh, that doesn’t make sense! How would we ever do that?” I’m like: you’re doing it right now. There are ways in which certain people’s race and [status] protect them, and that protection needs to be possible for everybody. It just needs to be the default way we work in the world. That’s what I’m thinking.

John Duda: I think that’s really incredibly helpful. It points towards where the PIC comes from, how it has sustained itself and what its relation is to capitalism…

Mariame Kaba: Yes.

John Duda: To a system that is basically premised on economic inequality as a driver of the economy.

Mariame Kaba: So important! We’re not going to abolish the police, if we don’t abolish capitalism, by the way! It ain’t going to happen. And the people who are doing the most interesting thinking about economics, class, race, or gender—are the people who are doing anti-prison work. You mentioned Elizabeth Hinton, who helps us consider how the war on poverty and the war on crime were interrelated and almost two sides of the same coin, where liberals, particularly in the ‘60’s, were locating the sources of the pathologies that they saw with young black men. They were locating [the source of social problems] in the individual, and their solution was, yes, to provide people with resources and expand the welfare state to take care of the needs of people in order to “reduce crime,” but they still insisted on the need to strengthen the apparatus for law enforcement, too. [And so the PIC grew], in part because of this fallacy in the way they thought about the individual as a source of pathology, but also because they were trying to appease the Republicans.

What the Republicans always do is to take what the liberals offer them as candy—they take the carrot and turn it into a stick and knock them over the head with it. So they defund the welfare state and keep the expanded law enforcement. [But they share with] liberals [an] analysis of where the sources of problems were. For both sides, black people are still the source of the problem. Anti-blackness was still at the root at the social policies that were developed. I think that’s so important for us to understand. [It helps us make sense of what comes later:] the increasing state violence and repression, and connected to it, the economic divestment from certain communities and the politics of austerity, of being broke on purpose—none of this can be dissociated from this increasing criminalization of certain populations. This is the final blow to the welfare state.

We’re not going to abolish the police, if we don’t abolish capitalism, by the way!

I don’t know anyone doing anti-prison work who is not focused on economics and economics justice and capitalism, who you would consider an abolitionist. You’ve got to. These things reinforce each other and are co-constitutive. If you want to think about the current radical movements that we need to be engaged in and sustaining, we have to challenge the prison system—it’s a really important starting point, it’s a symptom of the capitalist state’s interest in consolidating wealth and power. Again, it’s a vestige on a long line of this white supremacist national project. White supremacy is maintained and reproduced through the criminal punishment apparatus. It’s part of this long long lineage of slavery and genocide and colonialism.

If you’re interested in abolishing capitalism you have to work to end the PIC. You just do. It’s not separate. It’s the same fight.

John Duda: I think that’s super, super helpful. I wonder about the way this thinking can inform work people are trying to engage with at the community level, building not just opposition to what’s there, but starting to build the kind of structures that we would want. What kind of advice would you have for somebody whose thinking about ways to build an anti-capitalist alternative? How do we rebuild new ways of surviving, of thriving, of feeding ourselves, housing ourselves, doing so in a way that operate like non-reformist reforms, rather than reinforcing the system?

Mariame Kaba: This is I think going to be difficult but not impossible. I’ve been wondering if we even are asking the right questions or operating from a similar frame when we’re talking about abolishing capitalism. I’m not talking now about like, the left in general, but my political home. I’m not sure that some of the people that I organize with want an end to capitalism. I’m not sure. I need to do more thinking about this. I think a lot about PIC abolition but am not as well versed around abolishing capitalism. There are only so many hours in the day.

Sometimes I think that people act as though we’re not all always implicated in capitalism. You know what I mean? Sometimes it’s so invisible that people think they’re acting outside of it, as if that’s possible to do in this country or in the world. I don’t see us as ever operating outside of capitalism. Ever. It’s in our heads, it’s in our hearts, it’s in our spirit. We are always in its grasp. If we know that to be true, then I guess that means we have to acknowledge that no one can ever be pure and the best we might be able to hope for is to see and understand how capitalism is working in our day to day lives and then figure out ways to act together on the way towards abolishing it.

If you’re interested in abolishing capitalism you have to work to end the PIC. You just do. It’s not separate. It’s the same fight.

I don’t know. I get so tired of “so and so is getting funded by this group and so they’re definitely corrupt.” It’s like—I guess so, but who is giving out money that is free from corruption? Who is not corrupted by this system? I don’t know. I struggle a lot because then that really conditions what we can do as alternatives, right? If every system within capitalism is corrupt and we’re not going to be able to generate the actual resources we need—because we need resources to live, and because we can’t generate those if everybody who does so is apparently impure and that impurity then means you’re corrupt and have to be thrown away; you’re disposable.

I guess this is a long winded way to tell you that I’ve been struggling for a long time with how that actually works. Sometimes these critiques are coming from people—and I say this trying to be compassionate—coming from people who somehow have independent wealth that’s still tied to capitalism. They seem to be the most contemptuous, particularly of people of color who are poor and working class, who yes, care a lot about being to pay their bills and care a lot about getting paid because they need it to live. But also want to consume the things that people with resources consume too. So yes. I don’t know how we’re going to bridge those things. Do we create co-ops to have housing that is affordable? I don’t know how we build that housing outside of capitalism. People are probably already trying to figure this out. I think that people who know much more than this, are thinking these things through. I look to them and am eager to think alongside them.

John Duda: I was reading about some of the alternative practices that have developed in Chicago They are amazing and inspiring—but they are also incredible amounts of hard work, for instance, the mothers who were setting up on a street corner everyday with hot dogs, hundreds and hundreds of hot dogs, to reduce violence in their neighborhood.

Mariame Kaba: Yep. Exactly.

By the way, those mothers were kicked out from in front of a building that was vacant by the landlord of that building. Making it so they can’t be on a corner outside an empty vacant building because the landlord doesn’t want them there. Eventually they worked it out, but that was something that was a lesson to me. [They were just] sitting out in space, [but] that’s owned by somebody and they have a right to then tell you that you can’t be there, even though it’s a place where you live next door.

 

John Duda: I’m wondering how these practices become the norm. We want people doing this all over the place. But the people who are going to be most affected by these things are going to be the least well-resourced to do these things.

Mariame Kaba: Yes.

John Duda: If you’re working three jobs and then you have to go and spend 8 hours, 10 hours, 30 hours doing this work to keep your community safe and to bring your community together, where is the resource stream that supports this? And is there a danger, if this support comes from the state or a large non-profit, of this kind of work becoming something that reinforces rather than challenges the PIC?

Mariame Kaba: Something again that’s a big part of what I’m trying to make sense of. My organization itself, Project NIA, was started to feed and to create and to develop these alternatives. We’ve done that with various levels of success and failure. Actually, I don’t even want to use those terms. I think that binary [of success and failure] is troubling, because Mia Mingus wrote this really powerful blog piece called “Small Seeds” about her years, years, years of doing transformative justice work around childhood sexual violence and abuse and really asked us to reframe what we’re talking about when we talk about success and failures. So I’m trying to hold back on using that kind of terminology. Our language traps us in so many ways. We have to be willing to “fail” but to keep on pressing forward. Again, I turn to Andy who says that we can’t let failures delegitimize our larger project.

To the question of how do you keep these projects going: most of which are projects that are undertaken by regular folks. Just people on their blocks in their communities—a lot of this stuff is not even documented. There are no books about them because people are just handling the situations as they are coming up in their neighborhoods and responding to needs.

So then can these kind of practices be sustained if we don’t get funders to fund them? When funders fund something you’re really at their mercy. You’re in the position where you’re dependent on the foundation funding or a small grant or whatever for service delivery. It’s never enough money. You are always running to try and sustain that funding. You don’t have [enough] paid staff, it’s run by volunteers overwhelmingly. You end up having this level of real burnout that happens amongst so many people who are taking on these projects. That’s real.

I guess that’s to say that I don’t really have an answer to whether or not it makes sense to take foundation money or other money to do this work. I think people should get paid for their labor. I do. I do. But paid doesn’t necessarily mean money … maybe it’s got to be free housing, maybe it’s got to be free food from the community farm. Maybe that’s what’s going to happen to us once we get postcapitalism, I don’t know. People’s labor needs to be acknowledged, rewarded in some way, because it is time, it is effort, it is energy.

For me, we’ve taken the position at Project NIA to never take state dollars. We refused state dollars, we refused government grants, we never took those. We always relied on foundations and individual donations.

Foundations are not perfect of course, they’re also part of maintaining the status quo, therefore the handmaidens of capitalism in their own right. What does it mean for a rich person to extract money that should be going to the tax base of the whole entire country and put it aside and then decide for themselves how to donate it to the public again, when it’s really our money? When they aren’t accountable to the public? All those questions are valid. I was a member of Incite Women & Trans People of Color Against Violence —the conversation about the Prison Industrial Complex, the non-profit industrial complex, the revolution not being funded … all those things come, in part, out of Incite’s work.

So I get all of that, but at the same time those mothers on the street everyday need to be able to get resources to do the work that they are doing. It’s not like they’ve got people throwing money at them. People aren’t. They need it. They need money, they need people, they need resources, they need all that stuff. I think in the end everybody is going to have to do what they think is ethical for themselves. People have to make decisions for themselves. What are our politics? How do we think that outside resources are going to shape what we’re trying to do? Are we prepared for that? Do we want that?

I think that’s a big issue in terms of thinking about how these things get sustained over time. I do think the important thing to make people understand is that they are happening. There are a bunch of emerging organizations working on transformative justice based alternatives—but I also want to be clear to acknowledge there are so many people in need, and that we don’t have that much capacity. We don’t have the capacity to take on hundreds of people if they come to us right now for alternatives. We just don’t have it.

John Duda: I want to make sure to ask about the connection between gender and violence, and how the prison and policing system we have now, in addition to all its other massive failures, is also a system for reproducing gender-based violence. And what can a gender lens tell us about the design of what we want to see instead?

Mariame Kaba: Yes. I became an abolitionist through my work in domestic violence and sexual assault organizations and in the “field.” It was really seeing how so many survivors were—I don’t want to say failed, because it’s by design—were targeted, not supported, and not helped through the criminal punishment system that we have. So many survivors also just did not want the involvement of this system—they were begging to not involve the cops, for so many reasons. The ones who did reach out [often] then turned out to be criminalized by the same systems that were supposed to be helping them.

I think that we have to recognize the fact that the PIC itself is not just gendered but also enforces gender binaries, right? The project of the prison is in part to instill and maintain rigid boundaries for people. You see this in the history of men’s prisons and women’s prisons: cells in women’s prisons are described as cottages, where [the incarcerated] had to call the people who work there mom and dad instead of warden. There is a history of trying to make those sites [of incarceration] into “homes”. All of that is part of the national project around refining and maintaining white supremacy and enforcing gender norms. It’s always been about a racialized gendered classed heteronormative project.

John Duda: And what can a gender lens tell us about the design of what we want to see instead?

Mariame Kaba: One of the solutions people are talking about [is meant to address how] transgender people are suffering inordinately, being targeted by the PIC and then when they are incarcerated or in the system, being treated horrifically and suffering even more violence. The solution that’s offered is we should have trans jails and prisons. [But] there is no way for us to really get outside the ways these systems just cause massive violence to people on a regular basis.

I’ve been working over the years with survivors of violence who are criminalized for self-defense and survival. I think I see in that nexus all of the issues that we’ve talked about. You see the way that the immigration detention centers function as prisons and jails for undocumented people, particularly women and their children. You see the way that gender violence that happens interpersonally begets the gender violence of the PIC. The cycles that a lot of survivors experience when they go to prison and jail, it’s a cycle they know from the violence they have usually experienced prior to getting incarcerated. We know that clearly about over 80%, sometimes people say 90%, of women and gender nonconforming people who are in prisons and jails have been survivors and victims of domestic and sexual violence before they entered the prison or the jail.

John Duda: That’s a horrifying statistic.

Mariame Kaba: Yes. The ACLU put out that number recently. If you look at some other studies it’s anywhere from 60% to 75% that they find in just prisons. You see that people who are going in are people who are already survivors of violence. Then they [have to deal] with the additional horror of trying to maintain survival when they’re locked up. Part of prison is to break people—so you have this situation where they are subjected on the inside to cavity searches, having to strip, or having to take showers in front of CO’s who are all men, for example: all this stuff that replicates and reproduces the harm they experienced prior to getting inside.

I always say this, part of why I’m an abolitionist is because I’m a feminist. Prisons are not feminist. I cannot be somebody who is an anti-rape advocate and pro-prison. It’s simply impossible. To me it’s just, again as Dean Spade has said, the prison is a rapist itself. Often what we’re doing when we sentence people to prison is sentencing them to judicial rape because we know that when they get into prison there is a high, high likelihood they will be assaulted and raped no matter what it is that they did before they went in there.

Prisons are not feminist. I cannot be somebody who is an anti-rape advocate and pro-prison. It’s simply impossible.

How can I then support such a system that is antithetical to my values about wanting to end rape and sexual assault and violence? It’s not possible, it doesn’t compute. You can try to rationalize it, [to talk your way around it], whatever. But to me it just doesn’t make any sense.

John Duda: If we’re going to change all of this, how do you see us really building, not just a couple of people who can inspire us or tell us what to do, but really building a movement that’s full of leaders and that is really empowered through education, through creativity, and through imagination. Are those strategies that you think that are particularly important we need to really be focusing on?

Mariame Kaba: I would say that we’re already doing it. It’s happening. I moved to Chicago in 1995. I spent 21 years there. When I moved to Chicago, no one I met was talking about PIC abolition. There was hardly any prison reform work [happening]. There was the John Howard Association, maybe the Juvenile Justice Initiative, the Uptown People’s Law Center, there were of course people working to free political prisoners but anti-prison work wasn’t widespread. And I have to tell you, in a short time in the span of human development, 20 years, 21 years, I’m amazed at the young folks that I had the privilege to work with, to support, to learn from over the years. To see them taking on and starting their own anti-criminalization projects—it’s amazing to me.

It is true that people have sometimes said to me ‘you were such an important mentor to me’— half the time I didn’t’ know that they viewed me as a mentor, but I realized that what it is is I have always believed that what I learn and what I know, I should share. I should find ways to do that. I can’t count the number of teachings that I’ve organized in Chicago. I built the Chicago PIC teaching collective as a way to have people come in and learn about the PIC, then we’d create materials together and then teach that into the world. Go out into the community, go to churches, go to places … to facilitate workshops and conversations. We put that material online and now that has multiplied into people using that curriculum around the world. Doing that kind of work, on the one hand, yes—and also being present for a young person who says ‘Can I talk to you? I’m trying to figure stuff out. How do I, how do I, how do I?’. Being present and an ear. Always being willing to listen.

I’m going to go back to what I said before which is that political education is so, so important. Very important. Not in a way that you can can just put it to the side, as something we add on. It is at the core of how we’re going to grow our movement, of how we are going to have people who come to your thing over and over again who then they go out into the world and they build these things you can even hardly imagine. I also think that if you’re a veteran organizer it is your duty, I believe, to come into spaces with an open heart and an open ear and not to go in there with your arms crossed, ready to pounce, on how these young folks are doing everything wrong all the time. That is not productive, it isn’t helpful.

I needed to make mistakes. And I did. It was important actually that I did because I learned something from them that edified me and allowed me to be able to do better in the future.

I realize that part of what happened over the years is that for some veteran organizers they do feel slighted. I think this is particularly true of people who came up in organizing in the ‘80’s and in the ‘90’s. These are folks who are now middle-aged and over, my age and over. I was talking to a friend of mine and I was mentioning that the age group of folks who are 45 and older is absolutely decimated in terms of who remains in organizing. [These were people] who started young, who started doing organizing in the ‘80’s. The reason that happened is there were real forces that depleted our ranks. Those forces were Regan. Those forces were Clinton. Those forces were the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a lot of people that I know passed away through that. Those forces were a drug epidemic.

Those forces were real things that decimated what was already a small cohort. There’s a lack of people right now in that age group with lot of experience around organizing for younger people, for millennials and others, to turn to. I think people get upset when they’re not called upon, sometimes, if they’re veteran organizers to offer their suggestions and everything, but I always tell people that the most important thing is just to build relationships with young folks.

The first thing to do is not to worry about you needing to have the appropriate respect and be deferred to, but rather be in the places where they’re at. Engage with them. Create spaces and containers where they can develop and grow and build leadership skills and have a soft place to land when they fail. Build those places. That’s my entire adult life basically, building multiple containers always with an intention to support young people’s leadership development. We got to do it, that’s our work.

John Duda: I think that’s a great great note to end on. Thank you so much for taking the time for this.

Mariame Kaba: No problem.

 

Mariame Kaba

Mariame Kaba

Organizer, educator, and curator focusing on dismantling the prison industrial complex. more

John Duda

John Duda

Director of Communications at The Democracy Collaborative more

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