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  • Writer's pictureTracie Guy-Decker

Response to *We Do This 'Til We Free Us*

Note: This essay was originally published on the blog of

I picked up We Do This ‘Til We Free Us because I wanted to better understand the principles of the Abolitionist movement (and because the good folks at Anti-Racism Daily recommended it!). The prison abolition movement, as envisioned and articulated by Mariame Kaba in this collection of essays and interviews, is as radical as it is beautiful. When I say “radical” I don’t mean “irrational” or “impossible.” I mean “profound,” “paradigm-shifting,” “mind-blowing.” (Have a listen to my conversation with April when I was processing the mind-blowing-ness of Kaba’s words in episodes 47 (7/29) and 48 (to be released 8/5) of Jews Talk Racial Justice.)

At the same time, the depth and weight of the harm--and the cycle of harm--that the abolitionist movement is looking to interrupt and ultimately repair or heal (in society if not in individuals), is so great, I sometimes became overwhelmed by it as I read. Though the essays included are all really well-written and all relatively short, I found I had to take long breaks from reading. It took me weeks to finish reading what is a relatively thin volume. In those moments of overwhelm, I found myself thrown back into my early days of this racial-justice-learning-journey and the sense of my own smallness in the face of the enormity of the world’s brokenness. In particular, when Kaba writes of the “abuse-to-prison” pipeline, I had to set down the book for a while. (“Multiple studies indicate that between 71 and 95 percent of incarcerated women have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner. In addition, many have experienced multiple forms of physical and sexual abuse in childhood and as adults” (51 emphasis added).)

Luckily for me, I’ve had a lot of practice in returning to the source of discomfort and countering the isolation that overwhelm engenders. I kept coming back to We Do This ‘Til We Free Us after the days or weeks of taking a break from it. Mariame Kaba and my own experience reminded me: my feeling overwhelmed as an individual happens when I lose sight of the fundamental truth that “Everything that is worthwhile is done with other people” (178). Kaba puts it in even starker relief when talking about our move toward collective liberation. She derides those who would insist on a complete solution from a single thinker noting, it is not “as if the onus to create a safer society falls on the shoulders of single individuals rather than being a collective project decided together by community” (61). That reminder is one I still sometimes need: a safer, more just society is the creative work of all of us. Individualism (dare I say saviorism?) is a trap Kaba seems to see with clarity and vision, and that I still regularly move toward if I’m not careful.

I’ll do my best to briefly convey the wisdom and profundity I found in this volume. Kaba’s clarity about the situation she and the rest of the movement face is part of her genius. In one of the early essays in the volume she writes:

When people, especially white people, consider a world without the police, they envision a society as violent as our current one, merely without law enforcement--and they shudder. As a society, 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.

People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food, and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests [in the summer of 2020] show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice. (17)

Later in that same chapter she writes, “a system that never addresses the why behind a harm never actually contains the harm itself. Cages confine people, not the conditions that facilitated their harms or the mentalities that perpetrate violence.” (24 emphasis in original)

Many people in my circles hear the term “abolition” and think or say exactly what Kaba described as quoted above. More than that, I believe there is an idea that undergirds much of our collective understanding of the world that suggests that there are some people who are “criminals.” There are those “undesirables” in society who are inherently bad. They must be removed from us “good” people and punished for their badness. As I read this book, it invited me to examine the focus on punishment in the American imagination. We have, in general, conflated the idea of consequences with the idea of punishment. Kaba says it this way: “Punishment feels like a necessary ingredient toward being able to get back to right relationship in some way” (150). But, punishment doesn’t work. In part because of another either/or that Kaba debunks--that of victims and perpetrators. Kaba quotes Danielle Sered as saying “no one enters violence for the first time by committing it.” (146). (And we’re back to the abuse-to-prison pipeline).

Please don’t misunderstand. Kaba is not saying there should be no consequences for causing harm. Rather, she is making a distinction between consequences and punishment: “Punishment means inflicting cruelty and suffering on people. When you are expecting consequences, those can be unpleasant and uncomfortable. But they are not suffering and inflicting pain on people and you want them to suffer as a result. That is different. And what I mean by that is, for example, powerful people stepping down from their jobs are consequences, not punishments. Why? Because we should have boundaries.... But if we were punishing you, we would make it so you could never make a living again in any context, at any point. That’s inflicting cruelty., suffering, and making it so people cannot actually live a life.” (146-147).

Much of the writing in this volume is, at heart, the debunking of a false binary or an either/or. From the either/or of “prison or nothing” that dominates so much of our thinking about the criminal justice punishment system to the false binary of victims and perpetrators to the either/or of pursuing reform or pursuing abolition. In exploring the latter, by calling out an either/or, she beautifully shows what I tried to tell readers when I wrote in defense of incrementalism a little less than a year ago. In the essay entitled “Toward the Horizon of Abolition” Kaba writes, “People think that either you’re interested in reform or you’re an abolitionist--that you have to choose to be in one camp or the other. I don’t think that way. For some people, reform is the main focus and end goal and for some people, abolition is the horizon. But I don’t know anybody who is an abolitionist who doesn’t support some reforms.” (96 emphasis in original) Kaba goes on to talk about the kinds of reforms she doesn’t support: “There’s this fight that the way to abolish the death penalty is to commute everybody to life without parole. And I just can’t get behind that. That’s still physical, social, and civic death. ‘But at least they’re alive…’ That to me is an absolute perfect example of a reformist reform, which actually makes it less likely that we’re going to get people out of jail and prisons.” (96)

“Reformist reform” is her language for the kind of incrementalism that is a moral failing; the work for incremental change that stops once the first small change is accomplished. “Short-term strategies need to be placed within a longer-term vision for justice rather than as a substitute for that vision.” (116) Recognizing that there are those (like me--and you?) who do not have the clarity of vision that she has, Kaba created a “simple guide for evaluating any suggested reforms of US policing in this historic moment.” I highly recommend reviewing it.

Among the most profound of the either/ors that Kaba undoes in this volume has to be “healing or painful.” In writing about Transformative Justice and some of the work she has done with victims and perpetrators of harm, Kaba writes that she realized over time that the work of transformative justice often didn’t feel healing to those involved. “Because healed is not a destination. You’re just always in process.” (145) I underlined that sentence several times. “Healed is not a destination.” I’m not sure I realized just how much of an either/or I was holding around healing until I read those words. There have been moments in my life where I got frustrated with myself for not being “over it” yet. (“It” was different things at different times.) I thought healed was a destination that I would reach and never have to look back nor feel that particular pain again. But healed is not a destination.

There are so many gems in this collection, so many sentences and whole paragraphs I’ve underlined, so many notes in the margins. So, am I an abolitionist now? I’m not sure, yet. Will reading this make you an abolitionist? Maybe, maybe not. (“One may advocate for radical reform of surveillance, policing, sentencing, and imprisonment without defining oneself as a prison abolitionist. … not everyone who organizes for radical reforms is a PIC abolitionist. That’s more than okay. In any movement for change, there will be multiple theories and visions.” (134).) What it will do is help you better understand both the what and the why of prison abolition. And, if you’re anything like me, it just might unmask paradigms and assumptions you’ve taken for granted your whole life.

Mariame Kaba illuminates a vision for the future that is driven by a radical imagination, and I am convinced radical imagination is the way we will accelerate our healing process. Even if healing is not a destination.

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