'More Justice and Some Peace': Mariame Kaba on Ending America's Violence
We talked to the community organizer about her decades-long work to transform the conditions that lead to police brutality and gendered violence in Chicago, where she lived for 20 years, and New York, where she grew up.
Photos courtesy of the subject
Mariame Kaba is a life-long activist, educator, and curator who never seems to run out energy. Born in New York City, she moved to Chicago in 1995, where she lived for 20 years and co-founded the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Young Women and founded Project NIA, a group that educates young people of color about the pervasive effects of mass incarceration, among other community initiatives, including a successful campaign to fire the state's attorney who was accused of covering up police murders of people of color.
Last year, she moved back to New York, where she has continued her work of ending violence in its myriad forms. To her, that means ending prisons, ending white supremacy, ending gender-based violence, ending economic inequality, and ultimately ending capitalism. It is, of course, a tall order. Over the phone, Kaba says she simply tries to fill it piece by piece, with as many people as possible fighting alongside her. She currently organizes with Survived and Punished, bringing attention to victims of domestic violence who have been incarcerated for fighting back against their attackers.
"I don't think you can make change as a lone ranger. That's why you see myself and others building so many organizations. And when those organizations and containers are no longer needed, you end those and then you do something else." she said. "You need organization because people need containers for the work and we need each other's backs. Ella Baker used to always say, 'Martin didn't make the movement. The movement made Martin.' [Individuals] actually transform things with a base of people who are working their asses off. That's how it works."
Most recently, she invigorated the push for "Medicare for All" by starting a campaign to get both state legislatures and congressional representatives to support single-payer health care. It is at once a concrete demand and way of envisioning a positive future. In the face of the Affordable Care Act being dismantled by Donald Trump and the Republicans, Medicare for All goes beyond simply defending existing benefits and asserts that everyone has a right to health and life. Indeed, all of Kaba's efforts consciously intersect and try to build a world with, as she often tweets, "more justice and some peace."
If you find yourself wondering what to do next as Donald Trump's horrible presidency only gets worse, Kaba's organizing is instructive: Engage on a local level, find ways to support your community, build new institutions, and think about what you are working toward—not just resisting. I talked with Kaba about how she does just that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
BROADLY: When did you first become an activist?
Mariame Kaba: I started organizing when I was a teenager, here in New York. I got radicalized as a teenager mainly for several reasons. One was my family. I learned from my father, who struggled around the independence movement of the 1950s in West Africa. He was born in Guinea, West Africa, and he fought to make sure that Guinea became independent from the French. The book that began my consciousness-raising around being black in America was the Autobiography of Malcolm X. That was my dad's book. I read that when I was 11 or 12.
And then I grew up in New York City. I remember clearly when Michael Stewart was killed [in 1983]. That was also the beginning of my trying to understand what it meant to live as a black person in this country—having been born here, but also having ties to Africa and being Muslim. I started seeing issues around race early on. Growing up in the city, I saw my friends come into conflict with the law and get arrested or go to juvenile detention. But I didn't really understand incarceration as a dynamic or as a structure until my mid-teens, when I was 15 and 16. I began to be able to articulate that it was uniquely because they were black that they were targeted.
I didn't have language for that until I was around that age, but I always felt a sense of anger at unfairness; I had that even before I was a teenager. I felt like it was unfair that some kids had a lot of resources and others didn't. I'm lucky that I had a father who helped me understand the world in a specific way: [He taught me that] you are not the person at fault. This is beyond you in so many ways.
Can you talk about your work on violence against women?
I worked at domestic violence organizations for ten years, and before that I had done some work around sexual violence and sexual assault based on my own experiences. I felt like I was in exile by the end of that time; I was just really despondent because it seemed like we were trying to manage violence instead of focusing on eradicating it. I was really dissatisfied with the prosecution focus when, for a lot of the survivors I was working with, that usually wasn't their first interest. A lot of times, all they wanted was for the violence to end. They didn't want their partners prosecuted. A lot of times their partners were helping them financially and they were dependent on that in various ways. Taking that away from them put them into even more precarious situations with their families. Sometimes, for women of color and undocumented women, it was a matter of not trusting the cops. There were just so many times when [the police] weren't wanted as the intervention, or it wasn't enough. They had other issues and problems that needed to be addressed, and we couldn't really offer much besides telling them to take their case to the police or to get an order of protection. I was frustrated by what I saw, and by what I later understood was a form of carceral feminism that told women, "You have to collude with the state, and if you don't, we really don't have that much to say to you."
Since the early 2000s, I started to create my own spaces, my own communities, where we could very much still address gendered violence—because it matters to me when women and girls, trans and non-trans, are uniquely targeted by violence. But as a broader, global issue, I think we have to end it. And I don't think the use of prisons and policing and surveillance does that. That's when I started to get into issues around community accountability and transformative justice in a more formalized way.
I don't tell survivors of violence not to call the police. I'm not an evangelist. If people feel like the police are the answer for them, I say do what you feel is best for you. I'm not trying to tell you that you shouldn't ever call the police. But I know a hell of a lot of people who don't want to call the police and never do. They still need to have issues attended to. They still need accountability for the harm that was caused to them. So I work to address racialized, gendered violence in ways that don't depend on a system that I see as completely violent, corrupt, and unable to actually provide "justice" for us.
What do you mean when you say transformative justice?
A transformative justice approach understands that you need to address these interpersonal issues and those interpersonal harms, but acknowledges that those harms are beyond the individual and beyond even the community. So you would look at social structures and the ways those have an impact on individual behaviors and the individual actions that people take against each other. You would also make sure that you were not just focusing on restoring [life] to what happened right before, [which is what would happen in a restorative justice approach], because what happened right before is likely one of the reasons why the harm happened in the first place. You want to transform those conditions.
I work to address racialized, gendered violence in ways that don't depend on a system that I see as completely violent, corrupt, and unable to actually provide "justice" for us.
I want to talk to you about your perspective on Trump's policing executive orders, which happen to be the opposite of what you just described. It was very disturbing to watch how he discussed crime in Chicago in his most recent press conference, in the context of introducing these executive orders. During the presser, he actually described the material conditions of wealth inequality and racism, pointing out that "there's one Chicago that's incredible, luxurious, and safe" and "there's another Chicago that's worse than almost any of the places in the Middle East that you talk about, every night on the newscasts." But he couldn't put together that the violence and crime stem from this very divide. In his mind, crime is committed by bad, black people who for some reason can't make nice, "luxurious" communities, so they need to be policed and eradicated.
I have a hard time focusing on [Trump] in particular. Trump really does not care about Chicago. Chicago is not a real place for him. Chicago is a metaphor for him that he's able to use in his fevered, racist project. Addressing what he has to say about Chicago just feels like falling into a trap. He doesn't see people who live in the city as people. They're just abstractions to be weaponized to maintain white supremacy. There's just no question about how that is playing itself out in all ways. You're seeing it as a through-line in all his policies.
Chicago is a city that is ground zero of the neoliberal experiment led by Democrats over a long period of time. They were trying to figure out and test out their policies of privatization in multiple ways. They closed dozens and dozens of schools over a 20-year period. They defunded public services like public mental health clinics. That is itself violence, and to expect that that is not going to lead to interpersonal violence in those communities is nuts. They just want to point their finger at an individual young person and raise the penalties against that young person. For years in Chicago, the mayor has had an obsession with increasing the mandatory minimums for gun possession. Empirical data has said that that is not the way forward, but they still want to do it. When I was in Chicago we spent four years in a row fighting against that mandatory minimum gun bill. It will probably pass this year because people are so whipped up into frenzy about crime. The same failed policies from the past get repeated as though they are brand new. And the public doesn't have the energy to follow it closely enough. They're scared. They don't have the energy. They're taken by the fear-mongering. People have some legitimate, real concerns as well. Some young people are being put into harm's way by other people with guns. They want people to feel safe. That's all understandable. Nobody wants their neighborhood to be a shooting gallery, but we just have to be smart about how we respond to these things. And people aren't.
I don't think it's an accident that politicians repeat the same policies that fail people; I think the state has a vested interest in forgetting the past. Do you view looking at history as a way to enact change going forward?
I think that looking at history can be very instructive. Eric Foner, a historian I admire a lot, says that the study of history does not give us a blueprint for the future, and I agree with that. I don't think the study of history tells us what's going to happen in the future, but I do think it helps ground us in what is going on in the present, and it helps us understand that some things we're dealing with now have happened—differently—in the past.
Trump really does not care about Chicago... Chicago is a metaphor for him that he's able to use in his fevered, racist project.
Your campaign We Charge Genocide was based on a 1951 initiative of the same name by black activists who wanted the UN to recognize how the US is killing black people. It seems like a good example of how tactics from former struggles can be useful now.
I proposed the idea of We Charge Genocide, a delegation of young people from Chicago going to the UN to talk about the torture and violence of the Chicago police and its impact on young people of color, for three reasons. One was this young man Damo who was killed. His friends were really reeling from his death. So it was a container for trying to heal. It was also a way to get out of the city and take the case to an international level, to force Chicago to see itself from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. It was also an attempt to get some things that we needed. We wanted them to acknowledge the reparations law that we were trying to pass. We wanted to make a statement about the Chicago police department's uniquely violent ways and their use of tasers, which is what killed Damo. So those are all those kinds of ways to impact and make change that are at our disposal. As black people in the US, we have a history of being internationalist. You can see that in the original 1951 petition, advanced by William Patterson, Claudia Jones, and W.E.B Du Bois—names that if you understand black history are very significant. A lot of young people who I was working with at that time had no idea about that history. So this was a way to also teach that history, to say that this has been going on for a long time and that there were people who came before us. Let's look toward them and see what we can make now—something that follows in that history, but adapted to our current environment.
You're so tireless, which I admire so much. Do you get tired? Do you have a self-care regimen, or think about resting in a formalized way?
I kind of cringe when I hear the term self-care, for lots of reasons: the way that it's been commodified, the way it's a form of compulsory action. People do a lot of "are you doing self-care?" and it becomes, like, it's own work. People have made self-care a labor. To me that's really not useful, and for some people it's actually oppressive. It becomes it's own job. I'm interested in collectivizing our care. I'm interested in community care. We should take care of each other and help each other out. It's not an individual pursuit. Everything in this county is so fucking individualistic and so rooted in capitalism I can't stand it. Like, do I have hobbies? Yes. I knit. I watch dumb movies. I go out to dinner with people I love. I love to do lots of different kinds of things, and I don't see it as some special time that I'm carving out. I just see it as my life. Just like organizing is my life, and part of the rent that I pay to live on this planet.
I understand, though. I hear a lot of conversations around self-care and healing. I'm so happy that they pay attention to those things and try to center them in their own lives. On the one hand, I'm grateful to them for making sure they pay attention to that. In my generation this was not something that people focused on doing. But I have to admit to being super concerned by a lot of the language and how people are trying to operationalize and actualize self-care within capitalism. I also worry that it is going to become a new labor for people to undertake. So when you are in a position where you can't "self-care" the anxiety of not being able to do it becomes its own thing. I just think it shouldn't be that. I also think that struggle and organizing are also joys. It's not taxing labor all the time, and if it is you're probably doing it wrong.