Mariame Kaba, director and founder of Project Nia, co-founder of Instructing Criminalization, member of Survived and Punished, and author of We Do This ‘Til We Free Us spoke with Feminist Book Club about the relationship between feminism and abolition, and about abolition in a capitalistic state. Here are just some of the highlights from what was an incredible conversation.
How did you come to feminism?
It was in college that I came to embrace a feminist self. Prior to that, I did not really see myself as gendered as a woman or girl. A lot of the organizing I was doing as a teenager was in very masculine settings. When we talked about police violence, I only saw young black men as the main people who were getting harassed and harmed by the cops, though it turned out, actually, that, you know, young black women were hugely targeted by the cops on a regular basis.
I didn’t have the language to understand what was going on in front of me or in the world in which I was living. I didn’t have the language for a lot of things. But it was a professor in college, Professor Peta Tancred, who passed away a few years ago… she was the first person I took a feminism class with at McGill University and she introduced me to bell hooks’s writing and Alice Walker’s writing and June Jordan’s writing alongside all the other typical white feminist theorists you would have read at the time. We read Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, we read all these different feminists, but it was the black feminists who resonated most with me for lots of reasons.
And also, I ended up volunteering at the women’s center on campus where I would answer calls. The hotline work that I did is really what radicalized me to embrace a feminist politic. Having to talk to people who were calling to talk about sexual violence or intimate partner violence and having to really address that with people at the age of 18 really transformed everything I thought about feminism and anti-violence work and all of those things. It kind of put me on a path that I ended up being on from then on.
Over time, I became really hungry for reading and understanding more feminist theorists internationally. … So that’s how I came into Feminism™, as I like to call it. I never vibed with the womanist concept of Alice Walker for lots of reasons. I’ve always called myself a feminist.
When I came to abolition in the late ’90s, I began to move away from calling myself just a feminist. I would say I’m an abolitionist and a feminist. … But I realized over time that abolition had to be feminist and feminism had to be abolitionist. Those things went together for me and that’s where I’ve been for the last 25 years.
Why do you think Americans have such punitive justice?
It’s set in colonialism and racism. The first people who were on this land did not have guns and as soon as the Europeans came with their guns and traded guns to those peoples, that was the beginning of a set of dominations that we are dealing with to this day.
What the colonists also did was trample on the systems of reparative justice that indigenous peoples had already created on this land and imposed a eurocentric form of “justice-making” that we are living with to this day.
There are so many reasons why we are as punitive as we are today. We are set in a colonial slave nation and in order to enslave 4 million people, you have to be hugely punishing. People have to have the threat of violence over their heads at all times to keep them in check. When that is the DNA of the country, and it is, when you add to that the deeply misogynistic control of women and gender non-conforming people throughout the history of the states, it makes total sense that we’re where we are and that the very same people who were from the beginning subjugated remain the subjugated today.
Abolitionism is also about dismantling capitalism. If we dismantle capitalism, is there a different thing we put into place?
I’m a commie-socialist, so I would say a socialist society gives us the best chance at being able to have all the things we need in order to make abolition possible. We need a complete restructuring of our society and capitalism can’t do that. Capitalism thrives on the extraction of labor, on the exploitation of individuals, and on inherent inequality. The law of supply and demand says that if certain things are a certain kind of way, people have to have less for certain people to have as much.
Also, cops exist in that capitalist society to protect property and not people. … We can’t get to an abolitionist world under capitalism. That’s not possible.
What young activist and abolitionist do you see doing work that inspires you? What gives you hope?
I feel good about this new generation! They come up with stuff where I am like, ‘Yes!’ That gives me deep, deep hope. Not as a thing I have, but as a thing I do. Hope is not an emotion. Hope is actually a practice you engage in on a daily basis… reminding yourself that everything is uncertain and, because everything is uncertain, everything is possible. The reason I don’t subscribe to optimism or pessimism is because both sides are too certain about the outcome. I live in uncertainty and because I live in uncertainty, I live in possibility and, because I live in possibility, I am deeply, profoundly, hopeful and it’s a practice I engage in daily.
But that’s what keeps me going. Those young folks doing it and just the reality that I come out of the Black radical tradition and the Black radical tradition is rooted in hopefulness because the people that I know were brought here in chains believed that they would be free one day and they won their freedom by their own labor and their own struggle and their own fight.
Want More Mariame Kaba?
For those craving more after reading We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, Kaba has a new book coming out at the end of the month. No More Police, a love letter to organizers, is “a sustained argument from beginning to end about what abolition is and isn’t and what it means for us to try.”