Solana Rice sat down with Mariame Kaba, the abolitionist organizer, educator, and writer who recently published We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transformative Justice with Haymarket Books. They talked about how Kaba’s work has changed over the last year, why she writes, and how she keeps visioning at the forefront of her organizing practice.  This interview has been edited and condensed. 


I know that when Haymarket approached you about a book, it wasn't your top priority. When you sat down to say, okay, this is the time to do We Do This 'Til We Free Us, what was calling to you?

I've been asked by Haymarket for a few years, and I've been asked on and off by other publishers to write a book. I write all the time. I hate it. I don't enjoy it. I don't want to do it, but I'm writing all the time in some way. I'm writing curriculum units, but also, I'm a self-publisher. I have been a zine maker since I was a teenager. I self-published a workbook on community accountability in 2019. I self-published a children's book called Missing Daddy in 2018. We'd already sold like 2,500 copies of the book, a self-published children's book, before Haymarket picked it up to publish it and distribute it that way.

I've always made books in different kinds of ways but to sit down and make a book through a publisher, all that stuff, has not appealed to me. I like having control over what I'm doing; not control in this kind of megalomaniac sense, but I like to decide what I want to share. But as you mentioned, when the uprisings started happening, Julie Fain reached back out to me. I think it must have been towards the end of June or something, and Julie was like, "Okay, so I would love to do something with you. How about if we take pieces you've written over the years and put it together into a volume, and if you have anything new that you want to shove in there too, we'll take that, but you don't have to write anything brand new." And the thing that put me over the edge was they mentioned that Tamara Nopper would edit. I really have a lot of respect for Tamara and her intellect and her political commitments.

I agreed to do it mainly because I keep getting asked, particularly by younger organizers, for resources they can read about PIC [prison industrial complex] abolition, and I give them tons of reading lists. I'm a reading list machine because I'm reading all the time. Then I thought, well, a small book that could be a door for younger people to walk through if they want could be useful. That's the mindset I had, and that's the audience I had in mind. I thought, all these young people are now thinking about defunding police, which is a step towards ending policing, and this might be useful. I had no expectations whatsoever beyond just like a few organizers that I know. To have it get on the New York Times best-seller list was ridiculous. It just is bonkers. It doesn't make any sense to me. It turned out be something that people really are responding to.


The Forge is a journal by and for organizers, and we're trying to facilitate a practice for organizers writing about organizing. You mentioned you hate writing.

I do. I absolutely despise it. Yes.


I'm curious about what advice you have for folks that are like, I'm on that same train. How do you get over those hurdles, and why do you think it's important for organizers to, as you say, write themselves into the record?

I always say I'm not a writer. I'm an organizer who sometimes writes or an educator who sometimes writes. And the reason I do it is to be accountable because I tell younger organizers in my life that they should write. Not even that they should write publicly but that they should document their work because I never really know what I think about something until I see it written down. When I say I hate to write, I mean I hate public writing. I'm always journaling, jotting things down, writing down snippets. I'm always doing that because that's how I know what I think about an issue or a thing or a feeling or whatever. I always wanted to make sure that young organizers that I was in community with would document their practice, both because it's easy to lose track of what you're doing and to lose track of why you're doing it. In the work, when you're just door knocking and working on an intensive campaign and all the things that go into the daily work of creating organization, it's very hard to see yourself in that and to reflect. We almost never have reflection time, so writing can provide some reflection and an opportunity for you to see what you think about what's going on. That's one of the main reasons.

Then, the second is that often it's not the people who are engaged in the actual work that get to tell the story of it. No matter how terrific a writer from the outside looking in or a historian who looks back later on, they're not going to ever know what you were feeling or thinking in that moment. Even if they interview you ten years later, it won't be the same as what you wrote as it was happening. It will be very useful to have your voice centered in that. Organizers want to be organizers in the back, leaders in the front. I get it. But I think just being able to say, "Yeah, it turns out that I was so stressed out during that time. I didn't even realize how stressed out I really was," or, "Gosh, we made this decision instead of this decision and it made all the difference," or, "It didn't make all the difference." It also helps people coming after you to have something to hold onto.


What do you personally do to get over the hurdle that you have about writing?

I don't like it, so I'm not hard on myself for procrastinating. If I don't get anything done that day, then I just didn't get it done that day. Almost everything that has been significant, I turn down first. I don't really have time, or I don't really want to. One of the reasons I like collaborating and writing with people is because it lets me be accountable to another person and it also lets me have another person to throw ideas off of. I like that. I like the process of being with other people and thinking together. Writing can be an excuse to get your comrades together and to think together when you don't usually have time to think. 


You write in one of your essays that abolition is an organizing practice. Tell me more about what you mean by that.

It's an organizing practice and strategy in the sense that the questions that abolition asks of you are excellent questions for applying to organizing in general. So, first of all, I see abolition as a process, not a destination. That means that you're always in motion and you're always trying to figure out what the next best step is. That's just a part of an abolitionist organizing practice. I always say the most important thing you can do is to improve your questions and stop trying to find the answer. There is no the answer ever, for anything. There are multiple responses, so the questions that you ask are very, very important because they'll lead you to some response that will be better than a response that a bad question might enable.

I wrote a piece during the height of the 2014-2015 mobilizations after Mike Brown was killed. I was very frustrated with the conversations and the demands that people were making at that time, which were decidedly not abolitionist demands. People were talking about body cameras all the time and more training, as usual. I jotted down in like ten minutes this thing titled, “Police Reforms You Should Always Oppose,” and posted it on my blog, Prison Culture, and it went viral. People were like, oh, someone is giving a set of steps to consider, to decide whether or not we should be supporting these ideas. Like, thank you for just giving very short framing that gives us ammunition as we're trying to push back on various things by saying, does it give more money to the system, is it doing this, is it doing that. That's part of what I mean by abolition being an organizing practice: you are always doing that kind of assessing. You're always trying to figure out what the questions are that will help you get better responses.


You also write that abolition doesn't care about your feelings. How do we maintain rigor in the principles that are critical to abolition while still recognizing that we have our feelings?

I mean, it's purposefully provocative, that point. Rachel and I were going back and forth, and I said, "I want to write a piece saying abolition's not about your fucking feelings.” I'm always so concerned when everything becomes individualized, and then, individualized in order to generalize. What I mean by that is, it is not actually the case that your personal feelings about everything should become what we use to determine policy. That's just dangerous and reactionary. Of course, I care about people's feelings. But at the level at which we're going to organize together and try to figure out how to make a change in the world, we have to be mindful to not focus on our feelings to the detriment of everybody else's feelings and everybody else's ideas. That's part of it.

Melissa Harris-Perry said something many years ago, which I still use all the time, which is that personal experience is a great place to generate hypotheses, but it's a lousy place to test them. I really think the thing that suggests is that your personal feelings about something are valid, but it doesn't mean that the interpretations that you make are necessarily valid. Your individual feelings are not enough to hold all the things that we need as a society and certainly the things we ask the state to do in our names. Your personal opinion can't be the controlling thing just like my personal vision of the world means nothing because abolition is a collective project. We're going to have to fight it out amongst each other and figure out where we want to go together.


You wrote in the New York Times last summer that "we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people, that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm." We've had imagination capture. How do you keep your vision for safety clear?

I'm always practicing, so I'm always, always, always, working with other people on creating more safety for all of us. That means sometimes I'm facilitating community accountability processes within my communities, and by that I mean somebody's caused somebody else grievous harm. We work together and figure out what is going to support the people in that situation to get on a path towards their own healing. 

That is one of the most important sites of practic[ing] imagination because you need to think about creative ways to resolve problems. If you're not going to rely on the police, then you have to constantly be thinking about, what are people's wants, what are people's needs, what can actually be offered, what won't be offered. It's all a negotiation. You're always trying to figure that kind of stuff out, so you can't just be stagnant, and you have to always be thinking: what else can we do? What will people accept? That's one way.

Then, the second way is that I am really committed to reading and thinking with others. By that, I mean, political education keeps me grounded. I co-founded a formation called Survived and Punished New York, and one of the things we do at every general meeting is political education. Either we bring somebody in or somebody from our group facilitates conversation or whatever. We just do it as a normal practice monthly. 

Then finally, I'm a big fan of art of all different kinds. I love poetry, I love visual arts, I'm so interested in film, I'm so interested in music; I'm really steeped in all those things. Alice Walker told us years ago that "oppression puts a ceiling on our brain," and I have changed that to: oppression puts a ceiling on our imagination, and I believe that art can help lift that ceiling off our imagination. That's why I'm engaged in it, and that's why I have a lot of respect for artists because they really help us to imagine differently. 


What's being said about abolition but remains unheard? 

People have a lot of ideas about abolition but don't actually engage abolition as an idea in any sort of rigorous way. I don't think most people have read much about PIC abolition beyond a couple of articles here or there, if that. I'm always so interested when somebody will throw something out as though that's not something that PIC abolition addresses. Whatever you think is not happening, is actually happening somewhere, almost always. Almost always. The conversations are happening, the scholarship is happening, the thought process is happening. 

PIC abolitionists have different politics. You can be a PIC abolitionist and be an anarchist. You can be a PIC abolitionist and a communist or socialist or even a democratic socialist. There's arguments over the role of the state, how we engage the state. Maybe people don't know that PIC abolitionists are thinking constantly about how we actually deal with capitalism because PIC abolitionism is inherently anti-capitalist. A lot of people are trying to figure out the relationship between PIC abolition and environmental justice. 

We have lots of disagreements, and I think that's okay. There are lots of people arguing around community control of police right now. Is that an abolitionist demand? That's our work. Our work is to ask those questions and talk to each other about it. And we may not come to one answer, but at least we'll be raising the question.


Read the entire issue.


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