Abolition Is a Collective Vision: An Interview With Mariame Kaba

Abolition Is a Collective Vision: An Interview With Mariame Kaba

Abolition Is a Collective Vision: An Interview With Mariame Kaba

A conversation about how the pandemic has raised the stakes for the abolition movement, collective care, and a world without prisons.


Long before becoming a published writer, Mariame Kaba had already left an imprint on contemporary prison abolitionist thought. Raised in New York by a father who was a former Guinean independence fighter and a mother who took part in what some might now call mutual aid, Kaba moved to Chicago to pursue an education and stayed to organize with sexual violence survivors, young people, and formerly incarcerated people. As the founder of Project NIA, which works to end young people’s incarceration, and as an organizer of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials reparations campaign, Kaba helped make Chicago a hub for abolitionist organizing.

In the past decade or so, Kaba has also become increasingly well-known as a writer. On her blog, Prison Culture, in articles published in venues like The New York Times, and through interviews with abolitionist thinkers, Kaba has argued that prisons do not end violence; they simply concentrate it among the most marginalized members of society. As a result, both survivors of interpersonal harm and state harm concerned with ending violence ought to support prison abolition, the ongoing movement to end surveillance, police, and prisons and to produce alternative modes of providing justice.

Her new book, We Do This ’Til We Free Us, collects a number of her essays, interviews, and more. The pieces were published from the Obama era through the Trump presidency, but her vision of abolition has remained resilient, regardless of the political conditions around her. I spoke with Kaba last month about collective care, her influences, and more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Elias Rodriques

Elias Rodriques: Many people know you as one of our foremost abolitionist thinkers, but you’ve also been a staunch critic of the government’s response to Covid-19. How has the pandemic shifted your understanding of abolition?

Mariame Kaba: My understanding of prison industrial complex abolition is that it’s a vision of a restructured society where we have everything that we need to live dignified lives. What this pandemic shows is the limits of “personal responsibility” and the importance of a systemic response that enables people to take the actions that are needed to have community safety and wellness. If the government had acted appropriately by paying people to stay home and by ensuring that folks have everything they need, then we would have been through this pandemic a lot quicker. We wouldn’t have lost so many people. The pandemic’s a window on the need to restructure society and to have a government that responds to people’s needs and a politics focused on the sources of people’s suffering. The pandemic hasn’t changed anything that I’ve thought; it’s reinforced what I think.

ER: Throughout your book, you note that organizers still try to make things work even through government failure. Sometimes you call this collective care, but care looks different now; we can’t be in the same room. How do people participate in collective care now?

MK: One thing that became clearer to more people through this particular pandemic is how we’re interconnected and interrelated: The things that happen to other people impact us. All of a sudden, more people were interested in mutual aid, even though people have been engaged in mutual aid projects forever. More people were interested in the concepts that Mia Mingus and the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collaborative popularized a few years ago: pods and pod-mapping. What Mia had been saying for years was, “We need to prepare. You need these skills and this tool because disasters happen—because harm occurs—and we’re going to need to find responses that aren’t emergency reactions.” People had been saying what needed to be in place to weather pandemics, disasters, and harms, and suddenly people were hungry to learn. I hope this gives everybody a push to skill up.

We all need to figure out how to make it through together. We all need to engage in reciprocal mutual aid work and projects—not charity, but practicing new social relationships. And we all need to do the ongoing political education and action to transform our conditions. Collective care got dramatized in a way that hadn’t happened before in the United States. People inhabited the concept to a greater degree than they had ever before, at least that I can remember in my lifetime.

ER: This is reminding me of that preface that you wrote to [Zoé Samudzi and William C. Anderson’s] As Black as Resistance, where you describe abolition as an alternative mode of governance and sociality. What other skills do you think people should develop to build a world without prisons?

MK: We need to skill up on de-escalation, mediation, and resolving conflicts. We need to be able to do medic work. The folks that created CPR models were onto something. They realized that sometimes there are no doctors around, and we need to be able to know how to help somebody who is choking not choke, because we’re not going to have time to call 911. Capitalism has deskilled us from things that we should know how to do and that we should not be outsourcing. It’s going to take a lot to change that. This is why I’ve always struggled alongside and respected my anarchist friends. I wonder how we’re going to do things without a government, however that government gets reconstituted. How are we going to be able to distribute resources en masse or do things in common like build roads? I don’t know. We as individuals can do a lot, and we also need spaces where we do things collectively toward survival. We have to do both, and then some more. I’m open to alternate configurations.

ER: The anarchist example is interesting because you note that when people talk about abolition, listeners often say they can’t imagine a world without prisons. Imagining things without the state is not dissimilar. When you find that you can’t imagine something, how do you push through?

MK: I’m a constant student. Just because I, Mariame Kaba, can’t imagine something doesn’t mean that thing isn’t valuable or that thing can’t be undone or done. It’s possible to think about statelessness, so I look to others who have spent the time doing the intellectual and practical work that it’s going to take to do something different. It really doesn’t matter if I, as an individual, can’t imagine a thing. It matters that there are people imagining that thing.

ER: Not “What can I imagine?” but “What can we imagine?”

MK: What can we imagine and what can we do together? We have to collectively imagine. PIC abolition is a collective project. My personal desires and views are interesting to me, but abolition isn’t Mariame Kaba’s vision of the world. I want to engage with other people, to learn from their ideas to refine my own and to change my mind, which I think more people should be open to. I look forward to doing that: Trying to think together as we work together to bring into fruition the world in which we want to live. Prefiguring that world.

ER: As someone who read your short story [“Justice”] about a post-abolition world, I feel like you’re not giving enough credit to yourself.

MK: That piece is the one that I get the most e-mails about from high school students. High school teachers across the country have assigned it to their students, who contact me and say, “Thank you for this story. I wonder if you have thought about this?” People needed a different way to access the ideas that I’ve been trying to talk about with others for years.

ER: It sounds like part of what you’re saying is that writing becomes collective because you have all these readers who say, “Here’s what I imagine.”

MK: That’s the difference between just talking about something in a sound-bite and then writing a piece that people engage with.

ER: So why did you publish this book now?

MK: I’ve always said no to publishers for years because I hate writing and because I like being behind the scenes, strategizing. That’s what I feel like I do best. But social media pushed me into a more public role. People were paying attention to things I’ve always talked about. Then this summer, Julie [Fain, the cofounder of Haymarket Books] asked, “Are you ready to put something together now?” At the time, I was working with mostly younger people around defund, and more people were interested in PIC abolition. Julie said that they could collect things that I’ve already written to make a book that could be useful to people on the ground. That’s how I got convinced. It was important that this book could offer a door to people who were new to these ideas, since I’m always making resources to share: curricula, zines, things like that. And it was important that I could see this book as a collective project because the people featured in the book are my co-thinkers and co-organizers. And I thought this book might be useful to the movement and to organizers.

ER: For someone who hates writing, you certainly write a lot about writing being important.

MK: I don’t want to be a “do as I say, not as I do” person. That’s why I write. I constantly tell younger organizers that they should document their work, not for others, but for themselves. Outsiders can provide insight that you may not be able to see, but they can’t convey what you were thinking, how you felt, what you feared, what conflicts you were dealing with. Even if they interview you, that’s still different than you telling your own story in a way that allows you to learn because writing gives you time to reflect and because writing helps you figure out when you’ve changed your mind. My writing has always been about this. I was encouraged and taught how to make a blog in 2009 or 2010 by a young person who was in conflict with the law. But I didn’t think it would have an audience. I was just like, “I’m going to write about my work and use it as my open diary.”

ER: And it wasn’t just you on the blog.

MK: That’s why I like collaborating with other people in writing. They teach me new things and we get to argue about our ideas together and I’m better for it.

ER: And you get to co-imagine.

MK: Exactly.

ER: Since so many of the people you co-imagine with are in the book, who are some of the people you don’t personally know who you read and imagine with?

MK: I read a lot. Erik McDuffie’s writing about Black left feminisms. C.L.R. James. I still go back to his essay “Every Cook Can Govern,” a study of democracy in ancient Greece, published in the mid-1950s. A friend just reminded me of James’s notes that he made about Karl Marx’s Capital; they’re published now in You Don’t Play With Revolution, [edited] by Dave Austin. Gerald Horne’s many books—his writing on Du Bois, his book on William Patterson, who is understudied in the pantheon of the 20th-century Black freedom movement. I think with Louise Thompson Patterson, his wife, and the piece she wrote in 1936, “Toward a Brighter Dawn,” which prefigures Claudia Jones’s triple exploitation. I think about Cheikh Anta Diop. And I think with a lot of Black women radical thinkers in terms of their work. Fran Beal. Barbara Smith.

ER: Ida B. Wells, of course.

MK: Ida B. Wells is a huge touchstone of mine. I think with poets and writers who aren’t writing nonfiction and art of all different kinds. I often share poetry and art on Twitter and in my workshops because I think we should be activated by everything in our surroundings.

ER: I hate to ask you about all the people that you’ve ever read, but as you were describing this book as a doorway, I figured it might be helpful to hear who your doorways were.

MK: Angela Davis is a huge doorway for me. George Jackson is a huge doorway for me. Camara Laye was a huge doorway for me. Malcolm X was a huge doorway for me. Later I was influenced by the writing of Amílcar Cabral, Assata [Shakur], Robin Kelley, Charles Payne, Grace Lee Boggs, Maryse Condé, Mariama Bâ, Audre Lorde, and so many more. They taught me that this isn’t just how the world is. This is constructed. You can deconstruct it and build something different. Encountering Marx was really formative for me. It took two times of reading [his work] in groups for me to understand he was giving us a theory of the world and not just a theory of economics.

ER: I always think about that Cedric Robinson line in Black Marxism: “to Black radicals of the twentieth century, one of the most compelling features of Marxism was its apparent universalism.”

MK: Marx gave me an opening. And frankly, I didn’t have a gender analysis until I went to college. I saw myself as a Black person, and maybe a little bit genderless. I’m not sure. Going to college and being exposed to bell hooks, June Jordan, and Alice Walker opened up for me that not only am I a woman, I’m a Black woman. It opened the door. You’re not guaranteed to walk through it, but in my case, when the door opened, I felt pushed out. I was propelled. All my ideas were changed by reading and by meeting people who pushed me to actualize my ideas. The push-pull of that has served me well.

ER: I’m primed here by your writing about John Conroy’s book on Chicago torture. You write that change is slow but the history that organizers remember is long. Where do you think history will bear out the visions of abolitionists today?

MK: I don’t know. I can’t know. But we can try our best to have a vision for liberation that’s a North Star and try to get closer to it. The only way I know how to do that is by doing it. We make our way through walking. You just have to keep putting yourself in a position to keep doing what you can how you can within the constraints that exist to push for that vision to come to fruition. As abolitionists, we ask ourselves, Are we growing or shrinking the prison industrial complex? Are we really building new social relations with each other? Are we exploding the binaries between “person who caused harm” and “person who was harmed”? Do we truly believe that people can change? You have to ask those questions to figure out if you’re moving in the right direction, but you have no control over what will happen in the future, and you shouldn’t obsess over that. Just do the best you can, holding true to your principles and working to shrink the gap between your values and your action. That’s the best possible way of living, in my opinion, without losing yourself in a spiral of constant anxiety and worry and maybe even despair. I don’t know what other people are going to do, but I’m always going to make an invitation to more people to join. I don’t want to be part of a club. I want to be part of a movement.

ER: What misconceptions do people have about that movement?

MK: People think PIC abolition is one thing, but in reality, people have multiple political visions. There are anarchists, socialists, and communists who are abolitionists. There are abolitionists who believe in the use of violence to stop violence. My PIC abolition is rooted in transformative justice. I don’t believe you can use violence to end violence in the long run, though it might work temporarily. Because my PIC abolition is rooted in transformative justice, there are some things that I disagree with other people about, and I welcome that. That means that there’s a lot more room. But we’re tied together in that we all want to eliminate prisons, policing, and surveillance, and we want to create true safety, health, and well-being instead.

ER: What should people know about that movement?

MK: PIC abolition is necessarily anti-racist and anti-oppressive. Dismantling capitalism is central to PIC abolition. I hope people don’t sleep on that. PIC abolition has to be anti-imperialist, internationalist, and global, in a reciprocal way—not the US looking out at the world, but the world commenting upon the US too. PIC abolition has to be feminist. And PIC abolitionists are concerned with ending sources of all violence. Prisons don’t solve violence. They’re the most concentrated violence that exists. They’re designed to facilitate premature death. You can’t be anti-violence and pro-prison. It’s really that simple and that difficult. I love what Ruthie Gilmore says: PIC abolition is work people already do. There’s an abolitionist horizon, but every single day abolitionists are practicing PIC abolition in multiple places, in multiple ways, chipping away at the prison industrial complex and building new things in its place. That’s just happening. PIC abolition is a vision of a restructured society and world.

ER: Once I stayed at this Zen temple and we had just eaten lunch and this monk said, “Life is kind of like doing the dishes. You do all these dishes and it’s clean and then in three hours, we’re going to make a mess again and you have to do the dishes again.” And I was like, “Damn. You just have to keep doing dishes.”

MK: That’s the situation. Some people think the abolitionist horizon is a destination that we reach, where human beings, if they continue to exist as human beings, don’t do harm. I don’t believe that. I think that humans, as long as we’re still humans, are going to harm each other. The difference is we will have other ways of addressing harm that are not prisons, policing, and surveillance. So in that “other place,” which I don’t think is an actual destination that we arrive at but rather a new iteration of the world, that’s going to bring up its new issues and new problems we’re going to have to solve in that world that we don’t even know yet what they will be. We’re probably going to still have to wash dishes.

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