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Talking with prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba
by Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times
2016-05-11

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To anyone who knows her, prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba is a force of nature. On any given day, she might be in court in the morning, supporting a teenager facing incarceration, then leading a community discussion on the history of Black radical organizing, and then giving a presentation on young women and the juvenile justice system in the evening.

Kaba is also a prominent social media presence, mostly on Twitter where her sly, snarky and often pointed critiques of social policy around incarceration have earned her a massive following. All this has happened with very few pictures of her: She loathes being photographed, and does not part easily with photos of herself.

One night, as I prepared to drop exhausted into my own bed, I tweeted her, asking how she did it all. "Insomnia" was the answer.

Mariame Kaba moved to Chicago from her beloved native city of New York in 1995. After 21 years, and having become a fixture in the city's social justice and prison abolition movements, Kaba is now moving back to New York, leaving behind large cadres of activists actively mourning her departure. Even casual conversations with her friends and co-organisers indicate a real, palpable sense of loss.

It is easy to lionize Kaba, whose energy and dedication to the cause of prison abolition has mobilized and sustained several organizations like Project NIA, which she founded, and Chicago Freedom School, which she was instrumental in forming. She has also been involved with groups like Young Women's Empowerment Project, and several of the activists in Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project, and Assata's Daughters, all key players in the recent overthrow of Anita Alavarez, originally began working with her when they were teenagers. Her reach and influence is long-standing and extends to many seemingly disparate parts of the city. She has also frequently served as advisor to groups like Gender JUST ( with which I am involved ), helping them to find resources and become and stay sustainable. Her list of accomplishments and awards is long.

But to simply focus on Kaba as an individual is to miss the larger and very queer context in which her work has come about and, in very specific ways, made possible.

When Kaba first came here, the term "prison abolition" was barely heard or even understood as a point of discussion on either the local or the national level. Today, phrases like "prison industrial complex" ( PIC ) and "incarceration" are used by mainstream presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Even Republican candidates have begun to call for reform of the incarceration system.

But reform is not what Kaba or her fellow activists are after. What they want is full-scale abolition, the end of the prison system and the establishment of practices that take community needs into account. In practical terms: Where the conventional system might throw everyone into prison, usually for long periods or even forever, systems like Transformative and Restorative Justice ( TJ and RJ ) call for both perpetrators and victims to receive support as they work towards establishing a different set of priorities to achieve "justice," including forms of personal restitution.

TJ and RJ are only beginning to gain attention and while there is a lot of calling for reform, abolition itself might still be a long way away. But in the years since 1995, Chicago has become the national epicenter of a movement of resistance to the PIC and police brutality.

The Laquan McDonald shooting was only one of many flashpoints in a contentious election between then incumbent cook county state's attorney Anita Alvarez and challenger Kim Foxx. In the month leading up to the election, Alvarez was clearly slated to win. But a coalition of queer and mostly Black activists from groups like Assata's Daughters, Black Youth Project, and Black Lives Matter coordinated a stunning effort across the city. They distributed hundreds of flyers with the hashtag #ByeAnita everywhere, and achieved banner drops to drive home the point. Versions of the banner included one with the words, "Blood on the ballot."

The current push to end the PIC among mostly queer radicals did not come out of the blue.

Speaking with Windy City Times about her activist work, Kaba spoke about her early experiences in the domestic violence sector. In New York, she had been volunteering for rape crisis centers and domestic violence organizations like Sanctuary for Families. Once in Chicago, she looked for similar opportunities, and found work at Friends of Battered Women and Children ( now renamed Between Friends ).

"I initially thought I wanted to end gender-based violence," she said, and continued, "I felt interpersonal violence was what I wanted to work against." But as she continued her work, it dawned on her that the domestic violence sector was "mostly in the business of managing. The point was not to eradicate but manage the problem. There was no cause analysis."

As an example, she pointed to her experience in New York City: "I was the coordinator of an emergency shelters in Brooklyn. Even the rules put in place—about the time they could come in for their curfew, for instance—were all about taking away their ability to be agents of their own lives, even as we were giving people safety for the short term. But we were turning our wheels, we were very individualistic," without looking more closely at systemic problems.

Kaba's increasing discomfort and eventual resistance to such a system meant that she felt more alienated and was, as she put it with a laugh, eventually "exiled out of the traditional domestic violence/sexual assault" field.

The year 2000 saw the founding of INCITE!, an anti-PIC group out of California. INCITE!'s second conference was in Chicago, in 2002, and here Kaba became a key organizer, alongside colleagues and local activists like Kristin Millikan and Prudence Browne. The event included critiques of the PIC and the domestic violence industry.

In Chicago, Kaba continued working on these issues with an expanding group of activists like Shira Hassan, Lewis Wallace, Sabrina Hampton, and Megan Selby. Black and Pink, an abolitionist group which works directly with LGBTQ prisoners, founded a chapter in the city.

Kaba was also constantly organizing teaching collectives, where people would gather to read and understand the history of Black radical organizing, the kind of work done mostly by Black women and which remains relatively unacknowledged ( many of the resources can be found on her blog Prison Culture ). Page May, who would go on to become a leading figure in the #ByeAnita campaign and a co-founder of Assata's Daughters, first met Kaba during one such collective.

Windy City Times asked Kaba what might have attracted so many queer people to her work. She pointed out that such work had already been happening, with groups like Queer to the Left, Women and Girls Collective, and Gender JUST. All these critiqued the expansion of the PIC in different ways, even if not under the rubric of prison abolition. But, she added, "Queerness is also a way in which you are marginalized and have to reshape your identity," and the work around prison abolition calls forth people who understand the damage the PIC does to individuals and groups.

There's also a historical connection, in terms of direct action, something that queers engaged in relentlessly during the height of the AIDS crisis. Kaba pointed out that, "Direct action is more accepted in this generation; blockades and banner drops make sense to them."

Those who have worked with Kaba attest to her ability to not just organize but create extensive and effective networks of support. Hannah Baptiste, a member of Assata's Daughters recalled meeting Kaba four years ago, after moving here from Washingon D.C: "I had the impression that organizing in radical communities was about creating Community with a capital C, that everyone had to be friends with each other to make anything happen. But here in Chicago, with Mariame at the helm, organizing was based in being accountable to each other in terms of the lenses of the issues, rather than friendship. It was important to see a black woman who was undoubtedly leading so much of the organizing force but not through a cult of personality, which often looks like vying for attention."

As for why so many queers were attracted to the work, Baptiste said that "Mariame laid this amazing groundwork that allowed folks to come into their own, with queer or radical politics, in a way that helps other folks deepen and broaden their analysis. Organizing around prison abolition and queer organizing work are rooted in the same creative impetus to radically reimagine a different way of doing things. It's a world with queer radical sensibilities, and Mariame made space for everyone, wherever they're at."

Ann Russo, associate professor in women and gender studies at DePaul concurred on the matter of Kaba's ability to bring a range of people into organizing. The two first met in 2004, in the context of domestic violence and sexual assault organizing, around the time both were becoming disillusioned about the nature of that work.

"Ever since I've known her, Mariame's always been there doing that work with organizations like Broadway Youth Center and Young Women's Action Team, and has always been actively engaged in supporting and collaborating with youth around these issues. So it's not surprising that she has helped create a large cadre of people who are now doing so much radical work: she's deep rooted in their organizations. In terms of queer folks she is always someone who didn't care what people thought, and was always challenging homophobia and transphobia."

Given her key role in Chicago organizing, what happens when Kaba finally moves away in mid-May? Russo says that the work will continue precisely because her model has been to demonstrate how to organize for maximum impact: "She doesn't take over what she asks you to do, she just expects you to do it. She's always challenging the idea that 'no one is doing it.' Instead, she just asks, how do we do this; it's about the creation of resources and a focus on strategies."

Baptiste is similarly optimistic: "I think that the place that Chicago is in right now, is one with very strong robust networks, because Mariame has been in chicago for 20-30 years and she has set those networks in motion. We will be just fine, if a little sadder."


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