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Abolishing the police and prisons is a lot more practical than critics claim

Mariame Kaba's new book “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us” is a pragmatic playbook for a world without walls.
A participant holding a Defund The Police sign at the
Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Brooklyn in a massive march to demand justice for George Floyd in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 2, 2020.Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images file

Skeptics often argue that abolishing the police and our prison system is impractical. How will you stop people from murdering if there aren’t any police? How will you punish sexual offenders or robbers if there’s no prison? Abolition, at least until recently in the public conversation, has generally been treated as a movement for utopian fantasists, rather than for serious policy wonks concerned with hammering out the gritty iron realities of justice.

Abolition, at least until recently in the public conversation, has generally been treated as a movement for utopian fantasists.

Mariame Kaba’s new book “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice” refutes this caricature. Flipping such criticism on its head, she writes that prison and police abolitionists are the realists here, and their critics are the ones wandering around with their heads in strategically placed clouds.

Kaba is an organizer and educator who founded Project NIA to work against youth incarceration. She’s been doing abolitionist work for more than two decades in Chicago and New York. Her hatred of the spotlight means she’s not a household name. But she’s inspired a generation and more of Black activism. Her new volume collects interviews, essays and blog posts she wrote alone or with her numerous collaborators between 2014 — the year of the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri — and today.

Abolitionists are accused of imagining a world without conflict, or in which no one does anything wrong. Reading Kaba’s book, though, it’s clear that she is very aware of brutality and inequity — more so than her critics. Her opposition to police and prison starts with the experiences of marginalized people, who have to deal with police and carceral violence every day. “Abolition is rooted in the experiences of incarcerated people and criminalized people who were some of the first people who called for the end of these systems,” Kaba told me by phone. “And they call for the end of these systems because they're in them and directly impacted by them and understand their harms.”

Reformers, or people who defend current police systems, tend to talk as if most police work is beneficial. Officers in this view are friendly, as in the police fictionalized in the comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” or are at least engaged in vital work, as portrayed dramatically in “Law & Order.” But Kaba doesn’t get her view of policing from television. She gets it from talking to Black people and people of color — especially youth, queer people and sex workers — who deal with the police every day.

Among the most devastating essays in the collection is one of the first; a short 2015 piece titled “The System Isn’t Broken.” Here Kaba details what she calls Chicago’s “urban summer criminalization merry-go-round — a kind of demented child’s play.” Every summer, Kaba says, she watches police stop, frisk, harass, bully, intimidate and arrest young people she knows and cares about over and over again. Black people, 32 percent of the population in Chicago, account for 72 percent of police stops, according to ACLU of Illinois data.

Kaba emphasizes that the police violence that makes the news — the Black people choked to death, or shot in the back, or killed when police invade the wrong home by mistake — are “just the tip of the spear.” Police killings can capture national attention, and rightly so. But, she told me, “it's the routine and mundane violence that shapes our lives on a real systemic basis, and a structural basis.” Abolitionists believe the current system is so thoroughly intolerable that it can’t be tweaked into tolerability. Institutions that are built, day to day, on terrorizing and harming Black people can’t be reformed. They have to be abolished.

Police and prisons are so entrenched that it can seem unrealistic or impossible to change them. But again, Kaba provides practical perspective and pragmatic advice. The current prison system, she notes, is a historical artifact. It was itself the result of reforms. Quakers in the 1600s and 1700s advocated to replace capital punishment or physical punishment with penitentiaries, which they believed were more humane. “People built these systems, you know,” she told me. “They came from somewhere.” And what people can build, they can also unbuild.

The process of unbuilding is difficult, but Kaba provides a good deal of concrete guidance on how to proceed. In a 2014 piece titled “Police ‘Reforms’ You Should Always Oppose” she provides a brief, simple, insightful rubric for determining whether proposed policies are beneficial or not.

Giving more money to the police, or expanding the number of police, should be opposed, she says, because such actions allow police to harass and incarcerate marginalized people with greater efficiency. Instead, she suggests advocating for reparations for victims of police violence (Kaba was involved in a successful campaign for reparations in Chicago). She also recommends moving resources from police to social programs — mental health resources, schools, health care. Arguments like these helped inspire demands for defunding the police that were a major feature of the protests over the police killing of George Floyd this summer.

Body cameras are a popular reform with politicians. But Kaba argues that from an abolitionist perspective, body cameras are worse than useless.

As an example of how these principles work in action, Kaba pointed to body cameras. Body cameras are a popular reform with politicians because they seem like a technological fix. But Kaba argues that from an abolitionist perspective, body cameras are worse than useless. Paying for body cameras, she says, “is giving money into the very system you want to actually shrink. The cameras are turned on you, the citizen, not on the cop. The cops will have control over all the footage.” If you assume cops are basically good and just need help doing their job better, then body cameras make sense. But if you have a realistic view of how police actually treat marginalized people, giving the cops the ability to do more sophisticated surveillance is just going to give them more tools to harass people.

Of course, there is a utopian aspect to abolitionist thinking. Kaba includes one speculative fiction piece in the book that imagines a world without police or prisons, in which justice means care for victims and the society has systems that encourage perpetrators to acknowledge harm. But even this vision is tentative. “I see abolition as a process and a practice more than I do a destination,” Kaba told me.

Part of that process is acknowledging that police are in our heads as well as in our streets. What we think is realistic is limited by what we’re allowed to say or debate. “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us” is dedicated to a dream of a world without walls. But it takes the very pragmatic position that you can’t get out of a cage until you teach yourself to see the bars.