Mariame Kaba is an American activist, grassroots organizer, and educator who advocates for the abolition of the prison industrial complex, including all police. She is the author of We Do This 'Til We Free Us (2021). The Mariame Kaba Papers are held by the Chicago Public Library Special Collections.
- Black Americans are residents of a settler colony, not truly citizens of the United States. Despite a constitution laden with European Enlightenment values and a document of independence declaring certain inalienable rights, Black existence was legally that of private property until postbellum emancipation. The Black American condition today is an evolved condition directly connected to this history of slavery, and that will continue to be the case as long as the United States remains as an ongoing settler project. Nothing short of a complete dismantling of the American state as it presently exists can or will disrupt this.
- I think one of the most important parts about mutual aid has to do with changing the social relationships that we have amongst each other, in order to be able to fight beyond this current moment, beyond the current crisis, beyond the current form of a disaster that we’re trying to overcome. And so, one of the beautiful aspects is that you really don’t know where the connections are going to take you. You’re going to make and build new relationships that will kind of lead to new projects and will lead to new understandings, that will shape the potential future of, you know, your community and beyond.
- Interview with Democracy Now (2020)
We Do This 'Til We Free Us (2021)
- I was struck again by the importance of language and of words that need to be spoken. Our best teachers, including Audre Lorde among others, have imparted this truth. In the last few months, weeks, and days, I have found myself saying #BlackLivesMatter out loud at various times. It's not that I don't already know that they do. I think that I am trying to speak the words into existence. These words should be taken for granted. They are not. I've revised my previous belief that the words should remain unspoken. "Who are they trying to convince?" I'd previously confided to a friend. It turns out that I owe a debt of gratitude to Opal, Patrisse, and Alicia for reminding me of the power of language and the spoken word.
- I have so many touchstones. I believe in touchstones, people you go back to in particular moments when you need something. I turn to Baldwin a lot. I read him when I'm feeling a sense of despair over the world that I'm in. I find a sentence that he wrote and it's like, "Ooh, yes." I think about so many of the Black communist and socialist women of the first part of the century. If they could go through what they went through, if Marvel Cooke could survive the Red Scare and being fired by the Amsterdam News-she was the first woman working there ever-if she can endure that in the 1930s, what am I doing? You know what I mean? Now I have so much more at my disposal. I'm so much less oppressed. I love Ida B. Wells-Barnett. I love reading her journal where she's lamenting that she can't stop spending money, like, "Why did I buy that scarf? My God. Why am I spending this money?" And it's beautiful, because it shows you this woman who fearlessly went to the South by herself to literally take down people's testimony after a lynching, just sitting around saying, "Why can't I fucking stop shopping? Why did I buy this super expensive scarf that I cannot afford?" It makes me so happy to go back to that and read that passage and be like, "Yes, Ida!"...Angela Davis is a huge touchstone for me. Ruthie Wilson Gilmore is a touchstone for me. Beth Richie is a touchstone for me. A lot of Black feminist women who I've been able to be in space with in real life. Some who've given me a way of being in the world.
- June Jordan, who has been a touchstone of mine, really, since I first read her work in college, which was many, many years ago. So I really can't believe that I'm here today, and I'm really grateful to be here with all of you to celebrate her legacy and her life. June Jordan loved Black people, and so do I. She was an educator, and so am I. She was an activist; so am I. She was an internationalist, and so am I. She was a brilliant writer, and I am not-at all...She insisted that by organizing, we have the power to overcome oppression. I too believe this to be true.
"So You're Thinking about Becoming an Abolitionist" (October 2020)
- Some people may ask, "Does this mean that I can never call the cops if my life is in serious danger?" Abolition does not center that question. Instead, abolition challenges us to ask "Why do we have no other well-resourced options?" and pushes us to creatively consider how we can grow, build, and try other avenues to reduce harm. Repeated attempts to improve the sole option offered by the state, despite how consistently corrupt and injurious it has proven itself, will neither reduce nor address the harm that actually required the call. We need more and effective options for the greatest number of people.
- Let's begin our abolitionist journey not with the question "What do we have now, and how can we make it better?" Instead, let's ask, "What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?" If we do that, then boundless possibilities of a more just world await us.
"The Practices We Need: #MeToo and Transformative Justice" (Interview by Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown, November 2018)
- I have been thinking a lot about #MeToo and thinking, What if we look at it as something that is not done to "bad people?" What if it is actually a way to understand the ways that various forms of violence actually shape our lives? If we could see it as a way to understand how deeply enmeshed we are in the very systems that we're organizing to transform, then I feel like it's a movement that will allow us to move a step toward transformation and more justice.
- The fact that sexual violence is so incredibly pervasive should tell us that it's not a story of individual monsters. We have got to think about this in a more complex way if we're really going to uproot forms of sexual violence.
- Remember, the systems live within us (referring to the words of Morgan Bassichis). The punishment mindset is very hard to get out of. And it's normal and healthy often to want vengeance against people for causing you great harm. That's not going to get addressed in an accountability process. If you are the one who is rushing after that and that's really what you're seeking, an accountability process really would not help. You're always going to be feeling as though it's "not working" because it's not doing the thing that you really would like.
- Failure and mistakes are part of a process.
- going into processes, if you go into it with an idea that the person you're working with is a fragile China doll who is going to crack under any pressure, you can't make a mistake-well, then you're already set up for failure, in the sense of potential catastrophic hurt. Start off with the notion that our process allows for survivors to reclaim agency. That's what you're working toward. The binary of success/failure, get rid of that. That's important, number one.
- with punishment at the center of everything we haven't been able to really address the other stuff that needs to happen. Because people fucking need to-they need to take accountability when they harm people.
- I think, really, the reason why the book has been resonating is because of the uprisings and the struggle in the streets, the fact that so many people around the country recognize the complete and utter failures and limits of so-called reform to actually do what people want, which is to have some little modicum of justice. So, I think people are impatient with incrementalism and are impatient with solutions that don’t actually address the root causes of violence. And part of that is the fact that, you know, policing is inherently violent and that the starting point has to be to actually reduce people’s contact with the police altogether. And I always tell people, if you care about the violence of policing, then you should want as little policing as possible in any form.
- I always tell people that when we talk about prison-industrial complex abolition, we’re talking about a dual project. We’re talking about, on the one hand, a project that is about dismantling death-making institutions, like policing and prisons and surveillance, and creating life-affirming ones, putting resources and investing in the things we know do keep people safe — housing, healthcare, schooling, all kinds of other things, you know, living wages. You just talked with Reverend Barber earlier. Those types of investments are what really actually keep people safe. So, that’s what PIC abolition is really about at its core.
- I also keep thinking about the cruel irony of naming a bill after — a police reform, supposedly, bill, after someone who was killed by the police, and then to include a whole set of so-called procedural reforms that would not have prevented that person’s death. So, you know, this particular offering that they’re making, supposedly, in Congress wouldn’t have kept George Floyd alive. And I think that’s just cruel irony.
- That’s a chant that has been ringing out in the streets ever since 2014 in Ferguson and in New York and all around the country. I’ve seen and heard, when I was in the streets with young people at protests, young people in Chicago screaming that chant.
- "The new book, We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, why you chose that title?"
In Who reads poetry (2017)
University of Chicago Press, 2017.
- Poetry helps me to imagine freedom.
- How do we mourn? How can we grieve? I think poetry opens a door. Poetry helps us to resist.
- Poetry can help lift the ceiling from our brains so that we can imagine liberation.
- Often, the home is a practice ground often for the violence that then becomes public violence. We really do take—you know, tend to minimize private violence and focus on the spectacular examples of public violence. But if we don’t address that private violence, then we are going to continue to see public violence in the ways that we have.
- I think part of what we have to talk about is the fact that one of the main tricks, I think, of white supremacy is that it invisiblizes both kind of structures of violence and tries to focus mostly on individual forms of violence, right? So that when we see a situation where, for the most part, the people who are doing these mass killings are mostly young white men, the story gets told that that is a form of violence that’s kind of an acceptable, normal form of violence. When people of color and others commit forms of violence, we are told and taught to see that as somehow outside of the norm of general kinds of violence, and we tend to catastrophize that. And then that also leads to certain kinds of policy responses that are intended to actually continue to oppress the groups that are very much already targeted and oppressed. So, I think that that is a big aspect of this that we have to look at, that you can’t look at these mass shootings without understanding also the ways in which violence is the glue that holds forms of oppression in place. And one of those forms of oppression is white supremacist kinds of forms of violence and oppression.
- I think we’re going to have to be much more creative in the way that we address issues. I tend to be skeptical of gun control, in general. I see it often as a way to criminalize communities of color further.
Quotes about Mariame Kaba
- one of my teachers around this is a writer and a thinker named Mariame Kaba, and she’s an exquisite human being, exquisite thinker. And one of the things that she often reminds me of — because I think what would be so comforting to us is if we could be like, We’re going to end the prison system and automatically move to a very well-organized, centralized system where instead of everyone going to prison, you just go straight to a mediator and it’s all handled. And she’s like, It won’t be a huge, overarching, centralized system. Transformative justice will be a lot of us learning the skills to hold conflict within our communities, within our families, within our schools and institutions. We’re learning, ourselves, to hold it in different ways.
- Mariame Kaba has given incredible talks about this, that we've had 250 years of this well-funded prison system experiment. And it hasn't stopped rape. It hasn't stopped robberies. It hasn't stopped drugs. It hasn't stopped anything at all. All of those things that we think of as harm, they continue without the responses they need...One of the other things that Mariame points out—what would it look like if the experiment of transformative justice was as well funded as the experiment of prison? We have no idea what things could look like at scale because we've never actually had the resources to even experiment at any kind of scale. We’ve had to argue over every penny.
- why has Mariame written so much if she detests writing? And when it's often but not always done solo? In addition to writing that advances organizations and writing to support campaigns, Mariame is practicing what she preaches to fellow organizers: document your work and write your self into the record. Mariame encourages organizers to do so, despite any attention given to them by journalists, pundits, and academics, as many from the outside might not get it right. In doing so, Mariame has joined a publishing history of Black women organizers and activists who wrote themselves into the archives, including Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
- Tamara K. Nopper, We Do This 'Til We Free Us (2021)
- In now famous words, prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba tells us that "hope is a discipline."
- Rebecca Solnit Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility (2023)
- some of the leading abolitionists in the United States and around the world today are people like Mariame Kaba and Andrea Smith and Kelly Gillespie and others, who came out of work against domestic violence — i.e. it was in doing work to try to fight against violence and harm, that they realized abolition was the only way to resolve the problems that were not being resolved by having better, faster, more swift and sure punishment when somebody harmed somebody else.