Mariame Kaba: Interview
“I believe we’re going to need to have steps between where we are and where I’d like to get to, an abolitionist future.”
I did a project with some women years ago that started as the Rogers Park Young Women’s Action Team.
It came out of a neighborhood gathering that myself and several other people pulled together that was supposed to be a response to street violence. This was in 2001. We wanted to pull together young people to figure out if there was a way we as adults could support young people who could bring these issues to the table. We had an initial meeting at Sullivan High School. We anticipated that gang violence would be the big issue.
My group was overwhelmingly filled with young black women, and the issue they wanted to talk about was street harassment. That was the number one thing. They were talking about how they had to walk a long way to get home, they had to take a longer route, they had to ask their male friends to walk with them, because they literally couldn’t walk down the street without being harassed. At seven in the morning, walking down to the L to get to school and being completely harassed by mostly older men, and being afraid. This came up in story after story.
At the time, it wasn’t really my area of focus. It wasn’t our issue.
A few weeks later, I was at Target, and one of the women who was in my group came up to me and said, Miss Kaba, hi! I recognized her face but didn’t remember her name, but did what I do, which is say, Hiiiiiii…! She said, I’m Joyce, I was in your group. I said, Yes, of course, is everything better now?
A dumb question.
I don’t know why I said it. And she looked at me strangely and said, No, it’s worse. And I didn’t know what to do. So I said, Would you be willing to come to lunch with me at Leona’s and bring some of your friends, and let’s talk and figure out what we can do together.
She came and brought two of her friends a couple weekends later. And we just talked. They looked at me and said, There’s nothing we can do. If you’re a girl, and you walk down the street, this is what it’s like. You should expect to be harassed.
At the time, I was in graduate school at Northwestern. I said: What if I could get you guys money to do a research project about if other girls in the community feel the same way. That was the first thing that came to mind of how I could support these young women I didn’t really know. And that’s how I ended up with a group of eight young black women over the summer of 2003, teaching them research skills and working with them to do a participatory research project on street harassment.
That led to nine years of working with these young women, and other young women who came in over those years, creating an organization that focused on addressing violence of various kinds in young women’s lives.
That was the thing: Moving off of my initial thought that this violence issue would be the typical things in the press, or that I thought would be the things based on my observations, and shifting to their issue, which was street harassment. And figuring out how I could support them in a way that would be constructive and useful.
Through that process, over the years, I went through pregnancies with them, that were unplanned, that we had to address. I went through some of them that had to leave home, and they had to stay with me for some period of time. I had a situation where boyfriends and partners were abusive and we had to figure out resources to address that.
The work with these young women around these organizing tenets, doing research and running campaigns—their lives were happening at the same time. When I met the first crew, they were almost all freshmen or sophomores in high school. A lot of them now are married with children, a couple have graduate degrees, one has a masters in counseling, or a PhD program. They’re grown people. In the work with them over ten years, it was mutual aid and mutual support. These campaigns we were trying to win—like changing the lights in some key neighborhood streets, which took eight years but happened—were completely dependent on all these other issues that were coming up for them.
When I came to Chicago, very few people were working around [prison] abolition.
I don’t know anyone who was working on that. At the time, the main criminal justice group, the John Howard Association, was mainly doing visits to various prisons in the state. There was not a lot of work around criminal punishment issues that I saw, or felt like I could plug into.
When I came here I was working around violence against women and girls, and around criminalization around that. When I came here I was able to connect with Beth Richie at UIC. She’s written a couple of books on the criminalization of survivors of violence. She wrote a seminal article I read about black battered women.
In terms of people who mirrored my interests and work, Beth was somebody that I had been looking up to before I moved to the city. Beth was somebody who helped me begin to think about the work I wanted to do, and became one of the cofounders of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. That was in 2000.
INCITE! was a home for me here in Chicago. I always felt out of place in the prison reform world, and the anti-gender-based-violence world. INCITE! allowed me to have a bridge between those worlds, and help me understand why I was uncomfortable with each.
In anti-prison work, people don’t talk about gender violence, and in anti-gender violence work, people don’t talk about criminalization. That was the case. When I came in the mid-nineties, that was definitely the case. I needed a home, and INCITE! provided that analysis and people for me to connect with, learn, and build.
And then over time it became the case that people who were interested in these issues, and interested in abolition, would reach out to me. Particularly younger people. I slowly built a new community of people in the city who wanted to think about these issues together—abolition, criminalization, and gender-based-violence work. And that’s how I came to do what I do now.
I take issue with the idea of a generational divide.
I think it’s much more focused on ideological divides. Most of the time I’ve worked in Chicago in close collaboration with young people, sometimes as young as middle school. That’s always the way I’ve organized. When I was a young person myself, I was interested in intergenerational collaboration. I wanted adult costrugglers who wanted to work with me and not take over for me, and when I became a grown person myself, I wanted to make sure I didn’t do that to young people.
I think I’m more radical than many young people I know. There are reactionary young people and reactionary old people. We sometimes fall into the trap of fetishizing youth, as if it’s the youth part that makes the difference. When in fact it’s what your analysis and politics are, at whatever age.
I don’t understand what people mean when they say “community policing.”
I’m going to say something that’s a little bit controversial, but is, in my opinion, true.
I think because cops are so in our heads and in our hearts in so many ways, that asking quote unquote “the community” how to solve police violence may produce terrible results.
Here’s what I mean by that: We cannot live outside the structures we live under without hard work from imagination and decolonization. I’ve been to so many community meetings, CAPS meetings, or meetings where we ask people what they think would address police violence, people always point to community policing. And what they mean by that is if the cops knew us better, if they had a stake in the community, if they lived by us, they would be kinder and gentler. They would put a check on their violence against us.
I think that idea is born out of an honest place. Yes, if you build relationships with people, they’re less likely to harm you. That’s just true.
What is not, I think, understood is that you can’t have a relationship with the state. And what the cops are, for us, is gatekeepers for the state. They’re people, yes, but their interests are with the state, and protecting whatever the state values. And for the most part, the state does not value its most marginalized members. The state oppresses its most marginalized members. So the police cannot be in relationship to us the way we are to each other.
I know that sounds to some people super defeatist. I don’t think it’s defeatist, I just think it means that we have to abolish the police. I don’t think we can massage the police into something that doesn’t kill us. I haven’t seen any proof or example where it is, especially when cops carry guns that can easily blow us away. Maybe in situations where cops don’t carry weapons, you can hope to think about that relationship. But weapons make it impossible for us to be able to relate to each other as human beings would.
I don’t see how a bunch of police officers sitting in a peace circle with some young people from the neighborhood is going to fundamentally shift the dynamics. They still have power over them, they’re still trying to assert the interests of the state. It doesn’t make sense to me that we could solve the problem by community policing, which the community understands as kinder, gentler policing because the cops know us. You have to get rid of that institution for it to be a possibility to end that violence.
I don’t know if it would be different [if I lived on the South or West Sides instead of Rogers Park].
I assume there would be different things I’d focus on, or I would have learned different things. I’ve had an interesting experience because I’ve also worked on the West Side, in North Lawndale. I learned about all the different organizing groups and had to interact with them. We were doing a lot of convening for conversations around juvenile justice issues. And clearly the way things play out in Lawndale is very different than Rogers Park in terms of the kinds of organizations that are there and how they interact.
On the West Side, there’s a lot of religious organizations doing this work. In Rogers Park, it’s much more secular. Just by that virtue, I’d have to work very differently. Obviously the racial dynamics are different here. But the basics of how I do my work would be the same, because that’s informed by my own values, my analysis and politics.
In a lot of the religious-based organizing, people get left out. Rarely do you have conversations about sexuality in some of the organizing groups that are church-affiliated. But that’s part of people’s politics, and not just their identity. It asks you to think about the world from a different lens than if you didn’t have to take into account people’s sexual orientation, or gender, or race. All those things makes up the whole nature of our thoughts and abilities and ideology and experiences.
People have to sometimes compartmentalize themselves when they work in church-based organizing. In secular spaces, it may also be a problem, but it’s a different kind of animal.
I don’t believe that voting is going to free anybody.
I’ve always voted. I’ve voted since I could vote. There are many reasons for that. One is that I am very much interested in history. I just don’t think, as a black person born and raised in this country, that I can ignore the history—not of oh, all these people died to give blacks the right to vote—but that it took so much struggle for people like me to have an opportunity to exercise their franchise. To be able to weigh in on how to be governed. And so I feel a duty to in some way recognize that struggle, and in an emotional way that keeps me voting.
The second angle is harm reduction. You can try to prevent more harm happening to people who are already harmed by the system.
In the specific case of the State’s Attorney race, I have to be honest, I have personal antipathy for Anita Alvarez based on my experiences interacting with her over the years, so I feel personally invested in making sure she’s gone.
I believe we’re going to need to have steps between where we are and where I’d like to get to, an abolitionist future. Focusing on decarceration as a strategy of reform makes sense on the way to abolition. And in the case of the state’s attorney and chief prosecutor of Cook County, she has so much influence on the levers of mass incarceration. She has so much discretion on the cases she’s going to prosecute.
Right now she’s such a block to any effort to dramatically reduce the number of people in Cook County Jail. I’ve been in meetings with her, Tom Dart, Preckwinkle, and others, and Anita’s office has been like a brick wall in almost any potential policy change that could get more people out of jail. To any form of monetary bond reform.
It’s very clear, I hope, with my pressing on the #ByeAnita and #AlvarezMustGo campaigns, that we are explicitly not telling people to vote for Donna More or Kim Foxx. I say that because I know for a fact that we’re going to be protesting them the next day. It’s the role. This person is the chief incarcerator. Ideally, in an abolitionist future, we have no prosecutors. No matter how much of a reformer Kim Foxx says she is or is, that’s not going to matter. But what will matter is we’re going to have some room to do a few more things that we haven’t had room to do because Anita Alvarez has been such a block.
We have a shot at monetary bond reform. We have a shot at shifting who gets targeted in terms of various crimes and offenses. We’ll have a few more restorative justice options.
I know people who are in prison. I have friends who are locked up. I have young people I’ve worked with for years in prison. I know what that place is like. It is hell. I want to get people out of prison and jail. Any opportunities I could have to get people free, I’m going to try to take on. I’ve gotten so actively involved in the state’s attorney race for those reasons.
Each of these individual small things that we win don’t matter in and of themselves. But they do matter in terms of a few things. They do matter in terms of teaching us lessons we can learn, in helping us discover what our courage is and our capacity, they do matter in helping us build trust with one another, and in how we get to bring more people to the fight, in how we are able to learn how to fight and win again.
All those things are important, and I have gotten in knock-down, drag-out fights with people I love and respect a great deal who say, I just want to be out of the whole system.
And I say, but how? Tell me how you’re going to get to the world you want to see. Tell me how that’s going to happen. How are you going to mobilize people? What are people coming together for? What are you winning concretely to ameliorate the lives of people who are living miserably?
You have to engage in some forms of organizing to allow that possibility. You need to give people vehicles through which they can actualize and operationalize these things. People need to feel as though the things they’re doing in the world are bearing some fruit, however miniscule that might be, whatever small portion, little window it opens—people need to feel as though their labor is leading to something that is positive.