“This year was my 30th anniversary of my first anti-violence police protest in New York City,” activist and organizer Mariame Kaba told me. Three decades is a long time, but Kaba seems tireless. She moved to Chicago twenty years ago, and if there is a movement or organization devoted to justice and making black peoples’ lives matter in her adopted city, chances are Kaba is involved. She is the founder and director of Project NIA, a grassroots organization aimed at ending youth incarceration. She was also heavily involved in the We Charge Genocide project, which documented police brutality and violence in Chicago and sent youth organizers to Geneva, Switzerland to present their report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. And she’s been working to get the Chicago City Council to pass a reparations ordinance providing restitution to the victims of Jon Burge, a police commander who tortured more than 200 criminal suspects, most of them black men, from the 1970s through the early 1990s.
Kaba started doing anti-racism work as a teenager in New York. “My friends in the community were consistently harassed by police,” she told me, “I saw that particularly in the case of my brothers, always targeted by cops in my neighborhood.” But, she said, ” I didn’t think of it as anything to organize around. It was just what was going on, and it was kind of like the weather.” After college, though, while teaching, she had a student who was arrested, and who the authorities wanted to try as an adult, and she began to see the criminal justice system itself as something to organize against.
“Policing has always been very immediate,” Kaba says. “Still to this day I work a lot with young people, and when I ask them to describe something that’s unfair that they’ve experienced, almost all of them narrate a police experience as their direct experience of injustice and violence.” Following the protests surrounding Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths, Kaba’s activism seems even more relevant. I spoke to her by phone about her work against police and prisons, and her hope, as she often says on twitter, “that tomorrow will bring us more justice, and some peace.”
The following interview was edited.
I know you’ve been involved in Ferguson and #Blacklivesmatter programs in Chicago. Have those movements helped create more momentum for the organizing you’re doing around the city council police torture reparations ordinance, and the We Charge Genocide project?
Sure. The We Charge Genocide project started before Mike Brown was killed. So, back in May when Dominique Franklin Jr. was killed through the use of a taser — he was accused of shoplifting some liquor from Walgreens, and was tasered by the CPD a couple of times. He fell and hit his head, and was in a coma from which he never awoke. So after Damo—as he was known to his friends—was killed, that was when I put out the call for people to think about a reaction and a response to support many of the young people who were friends of his, who we also knew, since many of them were involved in programs that I had an involvement in. And so, we kicked off We Charge Genocide in early June with our first meeting. It was two months later that Mike Brown was killed, in August.
I think what’s important to point out is that Ferguson helped to catalyze a broad national conversation, and also to support uprisings that were national in scope. But I think you’ll see that in the spaces where the actions and uprisings and protests are more sustained are the places where people have been doing work for a long time already.
So there exists an infrastructure that can absorb the new energy and the passions of new people who are really activated to these issues of state violence. It’s really hard to organize in places where there is no infrastructure and there is no previous work to build on. In Chicago the very fact that there’s been 30 years of organizing around the police torture cases actually made it possible for the actions to be linked to concrete demands for reforms that people have proposed. It’s built on a foundation that already exists.
In reference to the organizing around the Jon Burge police torture. I know people are hoping for the city council to pass this reparations ordinance. How would passing that ordinance change the relationship between police and communities in Chicago
The reason that the police torture cases and the police reparations ordinance matters in this moment is because the police reparations ordinance is itself an abolitionist [that is, prison abolition] document.
There’s a lot of conversation about abolition of police and abolition of prisons and abolition of surveillance. And people can either try to think that through or can think it’s completely looney tunes, and that it never will happen. But at least for myself as an abolitionist, when I talk about abolition, it’s not mainly a project of dismantling, though that’s critically important. It’s actually a project of building. It’s a positive project that is intended to show what we believe justice really looks like. And a lot of the conversation around justice, as it relates to police torture and violence and death, is to posit the very same criminal punishment system that already is harming and creating death in so many different ways. So you’re going to indict and then you’re going to convict killer cops, and do the same for any number of actors in the state system who you want to punish. What this reparations ordinance is saying is, “Okay, if that’s something people want, that’s fine, but there are other ways to imagine and think about justice too.”
Those can involve financial compensation; they can involve helping to make sure that people who you harmed are healed. In our case, putting a community center that focuses on mental health, vocational and other counseling for survivors of torture and their families. You can insist that the episode that happened be taught in your schools, so people actually know what happened and can develop an analysis around it, and make sure they don’t do it again. There’s a component which is a formal apology by the state for what it has done to people; that’s incredibly important when you think about restitution. It’s not about forgiveness; it’s people taking accountability for what has happened and saying they did it, and apologizing for what happened. That makes a difference for people who have been harmed. And then also the provision for making sure survivors get free education.
So it’s an expansive potential vision of what justice could look like when people are harmed, and that’s really important to fight for. It’s really important to put that out there as an option of what we might consider justice to look like. So that’s one reason why passing this ordinance would be incredibly important, because it sets a precedent for other people to think about justice too in different and expansive ways.
And the other reason is that Joy James made the point that for black lives to matter, we have to make them matter. And that making itself, the fight, the struggle of that is an important piece of the context of what making black lives matter really is. So the fight for this is part of making black lives matter. And that’s another reason why it’s critical, and why it’s a way to be involved in transformation and change.
You talked about abolition of police and prisons as your ultimate goal. How would you see Chicago functioning without police?
I think the premise of the question poses the problem. For me, abolition involves how we are going to organize ourselves to be safe. And right now we devolve the authority for keeping us safe to the state. If you were to begin a conversation around abolition, the question is, “How would we, as communities, as autonomous spaces, decide what we would do when harm occurs?” We would have to think those things through together. And that’s a collective project.
The funniest thing that I always run across is people who, when you inform them that you’re an abolitionist, cross their arms immediately and tell you, “Well how are you…?” And the question is not how am I going to do this. This is not my individual problem. The fact that the cops are killing people with impunity; this is a collective problem. Everybody — especially certain groups are hyper-likely to be targeted, and are more likely to see this as an urgent problem, but ultimately it’s everybody’s decision together about what we create instead of this. And so I’m in for the conversations around that, I’m in for testing out models within my own communities about how we do that, and that’s part of why I’ve started Project NIA and have helped to launch autonomous spaces where people are working that stuff out in community.
So yeah, I don’t know. How did we operate before prisons? There was a time when there were no prisons. I would say that the thing that is in this moment has not always been. We don’t have to accept this current structure of how the world operates and is. And do I have ideas? I certainly do. But I’m not going to let people off the hook for thinking that through themselves. Are you happy with how things are currently? Is this what you see as a way to be safe? Are you feeling safe? Do you think that people who you love are? If not, then let’s have a larger community/city/country conversation about how we resolve those issues.
A lot of the national conversation around police brutality focuses on men — on black men and men of color. So where do women fit into that? What kind of violence do they face? And do you see feminism as working against this kind of violence?
Everybody now throws out the statistic that women are the fastest growing prison population in terms of the rate of incarceration. So I think that’s penetrating some aspect of popular imagination, with Orange Is the New Black. So I think people think about it in that broad way.
The trajectory that leads women into prison is different than men, overwhelmingly. The experience of being in prison and what it does to families is different when a woman is incarcerated vs. when a man is incarcerated. Recently I co-organized an event in Chicago at the end of January that was focused on how to talk to children about incarceration. We had a panel of formerly incarcerated mothers who were discussing their trajectory into prison and then the really long-term negative impact that had on their children. We know that having a father behind bars is a bad thing. And we know that potentially if that father was supporting the children, taking that economic support out of that family has a devastating impact for the family. We still live in a culture where women are the primary caregivers of children. And so when you take a mother and you lock her up, the impact on the family is immeasurable. It’s just huge on her children.
When I say “about the trajectory,” also, a lot of domestic violence survivors are criminalized, and find themselves locked up for basically defending themselves and trying to live and survive. Feminism used to have a lot to say about prisons. Certain feminists have always been anti-prison organizers and activists. So feminism has a lot to say about prison, or should have. It’s not the case right now. That’s not true for this particular crop of liberal feminism. But socialist feminists still talk a lot about prison today, but they’re a small minority within the larger group. Black feminism speaks to incarceration, whether you look at Ruth Gilmore, Angela Davis, Beth Richie, or some of the indigenous scholars like Julia Sudbury.
When I say “feminism” I’m saying feminism trademarked, feminism incorporated. They have not gotten on board. And I think we saw that very clearly with Marissa Alexander [a Florida woman convicted of aggravated assault after firing a gun in the air to try to drive off her abusive ex-husband.] Lots of domestic violence organizations and sexual assault organizations sat that out. And NOW had a sporadic — one time somebody made a comment and that was it. They didn’t put their institutional power behind Marissa’s case, they didn’t fundraise for her case, I don’t think they made a donation from the national groups.
But it’s not shocking to me actually that domestic violence organizations were MIA, because they’re so tied to prosecutors and to state attorney generals. They work so closely with domestic violence prosecutions with those entities of the state, when that group is prosecuting and punishing a woman, particularly a black woman, they have to be silent because they are afraid to ruin their relationship with the police and the state’s attorneys. So they’re kind of in a box because they’re working hand in hand with those institutions.