Some Lessons from Mariame Kaba’s “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us”

Micah Herskind
9 min readMar 1, 2021

We can and must collectively build a world without policing, prisons, surveillance, punishment, and capitalism––a world in which all are equipped with the tools to prevent and transform harm, one in which everyone has what they need to thrive in community with others.

This is the through line of Mariame Kaba’s powerful new book, an expansive and instructive collection of essays and interviews drawn from Kaba’s decades of work building toward abolition — work that has focused particularly on the experiences of Black women and girls and criminalized survivors of sexual violence.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice is seamlessly accessible yet deeply demanding. Accessible, in that it shows how incisive theory and revelatory history can be communicated without the need for a thesaurus; yet demanding, in that it requires something of its reader. And the something it requires is action. Kaba’s work makes clear that the transformation we desire will only manifest to the extent that we join in collective action to remake the world. It demonstrates that hope is a discipline we practice every time we choose to fight for the world we deserve.

This book makes the task in front of us ever-more urgent but ever-more doable. It reveals abolition to be something we must practice and build together, and something that many are already doing. Kaba points not to any single solution but rather offers on ramps to a thousand new experiments in liberation and care, experiments that learn from past failures and chart new terrains of freedom.

What follows are some lessons and takeaways from We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, a small slice of the wisdom the book offers the world. As Naomi Murakawa puts it in her foreword to the book, “Kaba’s abolitionist vision burns so bright precisely because she refuses to be the single star, dazzling alone. Why be a star when you can make a constellation?” If some of these points sound familiar, it is likely because Kaba and her collaborators, as stars in the constellation of abolitionists organizing and educating tirelessly over the past several decades, have worked so hard to popularize, concretize, and practice them:

  • Abolition is rooted in imagination and experimentation. We must transform our imaginations to envision and build our way out of oppressive systems. Our work should “create the conditions for dismantling prisons, police, and surveillance” (110).
  • Abolition is an all-encompassing project of eliminating systems of death and destruction — most prominently, the prison industrial complex — while building new ways of living premised on collective care.
  • The prison industrial complex (PIC) meets violence with violence. Abolition meets violence with restoration and transformation.
  • The problem of policing is not lack of trust or relationships between the police and the policed. The problem of policing is that the police’s basic job description is to uphold anti-Blackness by managing inequality and suppressing dissent.
  • The PIC is not broken. When the PIC causes death and destruction, it is working at peak efficiency. Calling the PIC “broken” reaffirms the misguided possibility of reform and acts as a counterinsurgent force against abolition.
  • The police have always undergone “reform” yet police violence has never stopped, because violence is inherent to — rather than an unfortunate byproduct of — policing. Give up on reform.
  • “Cages confine people, not the conditions that facilitated their harms or the mentalities that perpetuate violence” (24). Prisons cannot, will not, and are not designed to prevent harm or provide healing.
  • You don’t need to have an answer to every question posed to abolitionists — i.e. “what about someone who did fill in the blank” — to work toward the demolition of the PIC. We create safety in community with each other; we work out answers to these questions in the same way.
  • The work of abolition doesn’t start or end with any one person. Do your work where you are and with the people around you. There is “a difference between the question of asking what I can do personally versus what we can do. When I think of what I can do as an individual person, it feels more overwhelming” (43).
  • “The doctrine of preemptive killing and preventative captivity finds expression in the daily lives of all Black people in the United States” (32). Black people can never be seen as innocent in a system that has marked them as dangerous and permanently not-innocent.
  • There are no perfect victims, and our goal shouldn’t be to create them. Forcing perfect victim narratives on individuals strips them of their humanity and complexity, and throws under the bus those who will rarely, if ever, be seen as perfect victims — most prominently, Black women survivors of sexual violence who have “long been judged as having ‘no selves to defend’” (50).
  • The experiences of sexual violence survivors who are criminalized for self-defense against their attackers offer a particularly clear window into the inability of the system to offer true safety, as well as the system’s insistence on compounding violence with more violence.
  • Accountability must be chosen by someone who has caused harm, not imposed. There is no such thing as making someone be accountable. Instead, there is creating a culture of accountability, holding space for people to practice accountability, and transforming the incentives that currently discourage accountability (especially the PIC, which disincentivizes accountability because admitting guilt for harm caused results in a cage, and consequently also discourages repair for harm.)
  • The PIC, the courts, the state — none of these will ever be a source of true justice. On rare occasions, they may eat one of their own: a killer cop, a rich and powerful white male abuser, a perpetrator of immense financial harm. But more often, the harms committed by each of these groups (cops, abusers, corporations) are excused behaviors, many of which are legal and routine features of our system. It’s not wrong to feel what you feel — relief, or even happiness — when the system snaps up the powerful, but the only way to achieve real justice is to build it ourselves, outside of the system.
  • “When you say, ‘What would we do without prisons?’ what you are really saying is: ‘What would we do without civil death, exploitation, and state-sanctioned violence?’” (62).
  • The logics and practice of racialized punishment extend beyond the prison itself. Punishment creeps into and defines every other governing institution — government assistance, immigration, education, social work, health care, and more— thus drawing more people into the prison, and extending the captivity of the prison into more people’s lives.
  • Precision around what exactly we are opposing is key. Objecting primarily to police “militarization” can implicitly condone and normalize “regular” — yet routinely and supremely deadly — policing. When we draw one’s focus to the exceptional, we rationalize the normal. But the normal is lethal. We must aim to slash through the system as a whole, not trim at its perceived edges. Though tanks and military gear must of course be opposed, “old-fashioned, non-high-tech tools of surveillance are already destructive and devastating” (90).
  • “Our charge is to make imagining liberation under oppression completely thinkable, to really push ourselves to think beyond the normal in order for us to be able to address the root causes of people’s suffering” (90).
  • Prisons make people feel secure, but do not make people safe. That feeling of security derives from the myth that prisons are where “the monsters” are held. Safety comes from strong community ties and relationships, having basic needs met, and creating a culture of accountability. We must grapple with the difference between security and safety.
  • People are already doing the work of abolition. We can look to concrete examples: reparations campaigns in support of survivors of police violence and torture, participatory defense campaigns, people working to end cash bail and pretrial detention, those supporting individuals through parole hearings, groups doing court watching, those working on mass commutation campaigns, and organizations working for laws that offer pathways toward release (among many others).
  • Participatory defense campaigns, or campaigns to free individuals from prison, are a key abolitionist practice. They are most effective when operating from an abolitionist framework which insists that all people must be freed, rather than holding up one individual as innocent and therefore not deserving of the suffering faced by the guilty. Participatory defense campaigns create containers for mass action in support of criminalized individuals through tactics including letter writing, direct financial support, prisons visits, and other forms of coordinated care.
  • “Often when we engage in campaigns, we lose. But any organizer worth their salt knows that it’s much more complex than a simple win-loss calculus” (127). A strict win/lose binary when assessing campaigns does little to prepare us for the next iteration of the struggle. Instead, consider: how did we mobilize new people? How did we build solidarity and raise political consciousness? How did we resist the status quo and make a new way of living feel more possible? What lessons did we learn for the next fight?
  • “Abolitionism is not a politics mediated by emotional responses” (133). Advocating for someone’s incarceration, no matter who they are or how much you hate them, is not abolitionist. And you don’t have to be an abolitionist, but if you are, a key element of an abolitionist politic is opposing policing, prisons, and surveillance in every and any iteration.
  • Prisons don’t do what many people think they do. The prison is positioned as the remedy to sexual violence, “but the power dynamics that create the conditions that fuel sexual violence go unaddressed and are even maintained by criminal legal proceedings” (135). Prisons offer no remedy to survivors of harm nor prevent similar harm from happening in the future. Criminal proceedings often re-traumatize survivors. And prisons, supposedly an answer to sexual violence, are themselves sites of sexual violence. Our system sentences people to sexual assault in the name of combatting sexual assault.
  • Our response to harm does not need to be either a cage or doing nothing at all, though these are generally the only options on offer from the state. Punishment, consequences, and accountability are distinct categories. Abolitionists are against punishment (the “infliction of cruelty and suffering on people” [146]), but firmly believe in consequences (requirements for and demands made of those who have caused harm, determined “in direct relationship to the harm done” and involving those impacted by the harm [137]) and accountability (taking responsibility for harm caused and working toward repair and changed behavior).
  • Restorative justice focuses on relationships, the need for repair when relationships are broken or violated, and the question of who within the community is responsible for meeting “the obligations and needs that are created through violation” (148).
  • Transformative justice seeks to “create responses to violence that do what criminal punishment systems fail to do: build support and more safety for the person harmed, figure out how the broader context was set up for this harm to happen, and how that context can be changed so that this harm is less likely to happen again” (59). Transformative justice asks how we can respond to harm without creating more harm and transform the conditions that led to harm. A transformative justice framework rejects the victim-perpetrator binary in recognition that we all experience and cause harm.
  • Harm is different from crime. What the PIC labels “violent” is rooted in our system’s political and moral judgments. Many of our system’s defining features cause immense harm, yet are written into law as legal rather than criminal. Polluters don’t go to the prison; they go to the penthouse.
  • Abolition is about building and experimenting. We have to try things, knowing that many experiments will fail. We can build containers for collective action, and trust in the collective to figure it out and learn important lessons as we go. We’re not trying to find the solution, but rather a constellation of solutions.
  • “Organizing is both science and art. It is thinking through a vision, a strategy, and then figuring out who your targets are. It requires being focused on power, and figuring out how to build power to push your issue, in order to get the target to actually move in the way that you want to” (181).
  • No one gets free alone, and as long as anyone is unfree, everyone is unfree. “We can’t do anything alone that’s worth it. Everything that is worthwhile is done with other people” (178).

Read this book.

Side-by-side images of the cover of We Do This ’Til We Free Us, by Mariame Kaba.