Skeptics often argue that abolishing the police and our prison system is impractical. How are you going to stop people from murdering if there is no police? How will you punish sex offenders or thieves if there is no prison? Abolition, at least until recently in public conversation, has generally been treated as a movement for utopian fantasies, rather than serious political lunatics concerned with hammering out the iron and iron realities of justice.
Abolition, at least until recently in public conversation, has generally been treated as a movement for utopian fantasies.
Mariame Kaba’s new book “We Do This Until We Break Free: Abolitionists Organize and Transform Justice” refutes this caricature. Reversing such critiques, she writes that prison and police abolitionists are the realists here, and their critics are the ones roaming their heads in strategically placed clouds.
Kaba is an organizer and educator who founded the NIA project to fight against youth incarceration. She has been doing abolitionist work for more than two decades in Chicago and New York. Her hatred of the spotlight means she’s not a household name. But she inspired a generation and more of black activism. Her new volume brings together interviews, essays and blog posts that she wrote alone or with her many collaborators between 2014 – the year of the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri – and today.
Abolitionists are accused of imagining a world without conflict, or in which no one does anything wrong. Reading Kaba’s book, however, it’s clear that she’s very aware of brutality and iniquity – more than her critics. His opposition to the police and prison begins with the experiences of marginalized people, who have to deal with police and prison violence on a daily basis. “Abolition is rooted in the experiences of incarcerated and criminalized people who were among the first to call for an end to these systems,” Kaba told me over the phone. “And they are calling for an end to these systems because they are in them and directly affected by them and they understand their wrongdoing.”
Reformers, or people who defend current policing systems, tend to speak as if most of the work of policing is beneficial. Officers from this point of view are friendly, as in the police fictionalized in the comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” or at least engaged in essential work, as dramatically described in “Law & Order”. But Kaba does not get his vision from the police on television. She gets it by talking to blacks and people of color – especially young people, gays and sex workers – who deal with the police on a daily basis.
One of the most devastating essays in the collection is one of the first; a short article from 2015 titled “The System Isn’t Broken.” Here, Kaba details what she calls “Chicago’s urban summer criminalization merry-go-round – kind of insane child’s play.” Every summer, Kaba says, she watches the police arrest, search, harass, intimidate, intimidate and arrest young people she knows and loves again and again. Blacks, 32% of Chicago’s population, account for 72% of police stops, according to data from the Illinois ACLU.
Kaba points out that the police violence that makes the news – blacks suffocated to death, shot in the back or killed when the police invade the wrong house by mistake – are “just the tip of the spear”. Police killings can capture national attention, and with good reason. But, she told me, “it is the routine and mundane violence that shapes our lives on a real and structural systemic basis.” Abolitionists believe that the current system is so intolerable that it cannot be changed for tolerability. The institutions that are built, day by day, to terrorize and harm black people cannot be reformed. They must be abolished.
Police and prisons are so entrenched that it may seem unrealistic or impossible to change them. But again, Kaba provides a practical perspective and pragmatic advice. The current prison system, she notes, is a historical artefact. It was itself the result of reforms. Quakers of the 1600s and 1700s advocated replacing capital punishment or physical punishment with penitentiaries, which they believed to be more humane. “People built these systems, you know,” she told me. “They came from somewhere. And what people can build, they can also deconstruct.
The decommissioning process is difficult, but Kaba provides a lot of concrete guidance on how to proceed. In a 2014 article titled “The Police ‘Reforms’ You Should Always Oppose,” she provides a short, straightforward, and insightful column on whether or not the proposed policies are beneficial.
Giving more money to the police, or increasing the number of police officers, should be opposed, she said, because such actions allow the police to harass and incarcerate marginalized people more effectively. Instead, she suggests advocating for reparations for victims of police violence (Kaba was involved in a successful campaign for reparations in Chicago). She also recommends shifting resources from the police to social programs – mental health resources, schools, health care. Arguments like these helped spark police dismantling demands that were a major feature of the protests against the police murder of George Floyd this summer.
Body cameras are a popular reform with politicians. But Kaba argues that from an abolitionist perspective, body cameras are worse than useless.
To illustrate how these principles work in action, Kaba cited body cameras. Body cameras are a popular reform with politicians because they appear to be a technological fix. But Kaba argues that from an abolitionist perspective, body cameras are worse than useless. Paying for body cameras, she says, “is putting money into the very system that you really want to cut. The cameras are on you, the citizen, not the cop. The cops will have control over all the footage. “If you think cops are basically good and just need help doing their job better, then body cameras make sense. But if you have a realistic view of how the police actually treat marginalized people, giving cops the ability to do more sophisticated surveillance is just going to give them more tools to harass people.
Of course, abolitionist thought has a utopian aspect. Kaba includes speculative fiction in the book that imagines a world without police and prisons, where justice means caring for victims, and society has systems that encourage perpetrators to recognize harm. But even this vision is provisional. “I see abolition as a process and a practice rather than a destination,” Kaba told me.
Part of this process is recognizing that the police are in our heads as well as in our streets. What we think is realistic is limited by what we are allowed to say or debate. “We Do This’ Til We Free Us” is dedicated to the dream of a world without walls. But it takes the very pragmatic position that you can’t get out of a cage until you teach yourself to see the bars.