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“We Do This ’Til We Free Us”: Mariame Kaba on Abolishing Police, Prisons & Moving Toward Justice

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Outrage over police brutality and the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people has generated calls to defund and abolish the police. Longtime organizer Mariame Kaba’s new book, titled “We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice,” brings together collected essays, interviews and other writings that she and numerous collaborators produced between 2014 — the year of the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of Michael Brown — and today. Kaba says the book grapples with “the fact that so many people around the country recognize the complete and utter failures and limits of so-called reform” to systems of injustice. “People are impatient with incrementalism and are impatient with solutions that don’t actually address the root causes of violence.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. If you’d like to sign up for our daily digest, go to democracynow.org.

This week, the House passed the police reform measure known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, sending it to the Senate just as former police officer Derek Chauvin is set to go on trial Monday in Minneapolis for his role in the police killing of George Floyd. But outrage over police killings and harassment and the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people and immigrants has also generated calls to go beyond reform, to defund and abolish the police.

This is the focus of our next guest. Mariame Kaba’s new book, titled We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, has just hit number nine on The New York Times best-seller list. Kaba collected essays, interviews and other writings that she and numerous collaborators wrote between 2014 — the year of the uprisings over the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson — and today. This week, the book made, as I said, The New York Times best-seller list. It’s been called a pragmatic playbook. It also comes with a discussion guide. Mariame Kaba is a longtime organizer, abolitionist, educator and founder of the grassroots organization Project NIA, which works to end the incarceration of children and young adults.

Mariame, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Congratulations on the book and on hitting The New York Times best-seller list out of the gate. Clearly, you have hit a chord. We Do This ’Til We Free Us. Talk about what you’re calling for.

MARIAME KABA: Wonderful. Thank you so much for having me, Amy, again.

Yeah. So, 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.

And so, the book speaks, in part, to that, with some writings that I’ve made over the years, myself and with others, with some talks and speeches. It helps people understand what we mean when we talk about defunding policing and what we mean by abolishing the prison-industrial complex.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you explain what you mean? And also, what’s really important about your work is the grassroots nature of it. And if you can talk about the grassroots actions that are taking place around the country right now —

MARIAME KABA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — along the issue of challenging police brutality?

MARIAME KABA: Yes. Thank you so much. I will say this: 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.

In terms of the people on the ground, I do want to point out — you had a conversation earlier with Congressman Jones about the George Floyd Justice Act. And I think if you talk to people who have been on the streets all last year, basically, half the year, and continue to be struggling now in their communities, they would tell you that that bill, which is really just a set of procedural reforms, is woefully, woefully insufficient. And 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. And I really recommend that people take a look at Derecka Purnell’s yesterday great column that she wrote about this very issue.

So, in terms of the grassroots, organizers, since May of 2020, since George Floyd’s killing, have actually worked to secure divestment of nearly a billion dollars from police departments around the country. And they’ve secured investments of at least almost $200 million in communities, towards the things I mentioned are life-affirming and life-giving institutions. They have done things like over 25 cities canceled contracts with local police departments who are operating in schools, which also has saved an additional almost $40 million to be invested in student, family and community supports and restorative justice.

So, people aren’t sitting back and doing nothing. In fact, this past week, a new website just launched called DefundPolice.org. And I’d like to really point people who are interested in the idea of defunding the police to go to that website and find a map of all the different places around the country that are organizing still, because the demand is still defund, to abolish. So, I think that people really should pay attention to that and see that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mariame Kaba, I want to thank you so much for being with us, longtime organizer and abolitionist. The new book, We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice. In 10 seconds, why you chose that title, Mariame?

MARIAME KABA: 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.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you so much. That does it for our broadcast. Wearing a mask is an act of love. Wearing two is even better. Thanks for joining us.

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