Hope Is a Discipline: Mariame Kaba on Dismantling the Carceral State

Organizer Mariame Kaba talks about her new book “We Do This ’Til We Free Us.”

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept

Jury selection for the murder trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin continues after the city announced a $27 million settlement with George Floyd’s family. This week on Intercepted: Organizer and educator Mariame Kaba talks to lead producer Jack D’Isidoro about the case, efforts born out of the uprisings of this past summer, and the role hope plays in building a long-term abolitionist movement. Whether she’s breaking down the historical foundations of the carceral state or laying out a framework for mutual aid, Kaba works tirelessly to reimagine and create a system not rooted in punishment and oppression. They also discuss her new book, “We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice.”



Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

Hey everyone, it’s Jeremy. I know that some of you may have been wondering where I’ve been, or why I haven’t been hosting this show on a regular basis. You know, when we first started the Intercepted Podcast, the idea was to spend four years covering the rise and reign of Donald Trump. We produced more than 140 episodes, as well as a range of specials, series, and live events. I’m very proud of the work that our team produced over these four years. 

And right now we’re in the process of working on a relaunch of this program, with a focus on how we can use this space to do journalism that has an impact, and to feature stories and voices that expose injustice and elevate our understanding of the world in which we live. I want to thank our listeners for their patience, and to assure you that this program will be back in the near future — but it will definitely be a different kind of show. We have some exciting ideas that we’re discussing for a new launch of Intercepted, and we look forward to returning to a consistent spot in your podcast feed very soon.

[Musical interlude.]

JS: Today we’re going to hear from longtime organizer and abolitionist Mariame Kaba. You might know her from this program, you may know her from her Twitter handle @prisonculture. Mariame is the director and founder of Project NIA, an abolitionist organization that has a long-term vision of ending youth incarceration, through community-based safety strategies rooted in restorative and transformative justice. She’s also the co-founder of Survived & Punished, an organization that addresses the criminalization of domestic and sexual violence survivors.

A lot has changed since we last spoke to Mariame in March of 2020. At the time, Mariame was at the center of coordinating a mutual aid redistribution, that provided aid to people who were putting themselves at risk on the front lines of the virus. Since then, more than 535,000 Americans have died from Covid-19; millions more have been pushed into poverty and despair under a negligent response to the crisis from the U.S. government. This summer, we also witnessed the largest protest movement in American history, when millions of people in this country took to the streets in the name of George Floyd, protesting the systemic police violence that has overwhelmingly targeted Black people for centuries.

Protestors: [chanting] No justice! No peace! No justice! No peace! No justice! No peace! No justice! No peace! No justice! No peace! [overlapping] Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd! [Chants fading out.]

JS: Mariame has a new book out. It’s called “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice.” It’s a collection of Mariame’s essays and interviews over the years — including an interview from this very program — that provide a clear vision for the kinds of transformations required in the struggle for collective liberation. Our lead producer Jack D’Isidoro spoke to Mariame Kaba this week.

Jack D’Isidoro: I’ve noticed online recently, on Twitter, a lot of people organizing reading groups around “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us.” And even other people like buying and giving away copies to people. As someone whose work is centered so much on collectivity, how does it make you feel to see these sort of things happening around your book?

Mariame Kaba: It’s exactly what I hoped for. Last year, during the uprisings, I could see that a lot of folks were getting newly introduced to the concept of PIC (prison industrial complex) abolition, and they were consistently asking for resources, things to read, et cetera. And people would share some of my stuff from multiple other sources. I really wanted this book to be useful to people — to be of use in people’s actual political education, to be of use in people’s organizing. And so when people come together to read together, that’s like, for me, the best part of doing any of this.

In our movements, we need resources and tools to help us think together. And also to help us kind of develop our own ideas about what it is that we’re trying to do, distilling very complex ideas, and doing that in a way that allows people to hear those ideas, and then try to make them their own. And, so, because of that, that’s why I’ve made all these different kinds of curriculum tools, and resources, and zines, and things that people can use to educate themselves with their communities. 

Judge Peter Cahill: All right. Good morning everyone. First of all, can you all hear me? Give me a thumbs up if you can hear me. 

Well, my name is Pete Cahill, and I am one of the judges of the district court. You have been summoned as potential jurors in the case of State of Minnesota v. Derek Chauvin, which is a criminal case related to the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. A person charged with a crime has a right to a fair trial before an impartial judge, and an impartial jury.

JD: I’ve also seen on the internet right now that news networks are live-streaming the jury selection for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd last summer. There’s already a lot of expectation on this particular trial. But, as you know, prosecutors failed to even indict the police who killed Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, including hundreds of people who are shot and killed by the police each year. How do you approach the question of what justice means for George Floyd? 

MK: I don’t presume to define for the loved ones of George Floyd what justice should mean for them. Like, that’s their prerogative. It’s the difference between an individual notion of justice and a societal and collective notion of justice, right? So for me, in terms of a societal collective notion of justice, the criminal punishment system isn’t it and cannot be it.

While an individual police officer might be brought to trial, and even less likely might end up being incarcerated, this really does nothing at all to shift, change, uproot the systems and structures that are actually responsible for the killings, and the harassment, and the injury done to particular populations by the institution of policing. We devolve to the individual so often because the structural and systemic feels so daunting, and how are we going to actually shift and change that? Also, because it feels so good to enact vengeance on people who’ve harmed us. Part of the conversation we don’t have is just how much liminal pleasure people get out of vengeance, which is a big part of why it’s so hard to uproot that feeling and that desire within us as human beings.

I have a chapter in the book that I wrote during the time when there was a demand to indict Darren Wilson for Mike Brown’s murder in 2014. 

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch: After their exhaustive review of the evidence, the grand jury deliberated over two days, making their final decision. They determined that no probable cause exists to file any charge against Officer Wilson and returned a no true bill on each of the five indictments. The physical and scientific evidence examined by the grand jury [fades out] …

MK: And it was an attempt to just be honest with people at the time, this was before the decision was announced, I was like, “I don’t think he’s actually going to get indicted.” And here are the reasons why: you know, because cops are actually basically allowed to act with impunity. They have the weight of both formal and informal law behind them to be able to act like that. They have a unique discretion to use violence. Let’s say he did get indicted and that was successful; then we have this situation where everybody’s like “justice was served” and everybody could kind of return to their seductive slumber and complacency. 

But the next Mike Brown and the next Michelle Brown are still going to be out there. And the proof is in the pudding, right? The cops are still killing people now! George Floyd is dead, and so are many other people. And the killing hasn’t stopped. The harassment hasn’t stopped. The injuries haven’t stopped. And yeah, sure, Derek Chauvin, maybe he’s convicted, maybe he’s not. But we’re still gonna see 1,000 people killed every single year. That just should tell you something about the futility of these responses. 

And just how I get it, like individual people might want individual — what they call accountability — and what I call really what people want, which is punishment. But you know, that’s not going to actually solve anything, policing is derivative of a broader social injustice. So it’s really impossible for non-oppressive policing to exist in a fundamentally oppressive and unjust society. 

The consequences could be that you fire this person, and that you take away their pension, and that you make sure they never can work as a cop or security person, and that you take away their ability to have a gun. And that you — I mean, the list of things that could be consequences are a lot. Other consequences are defunding the cops, and defunding their units, and putting those resources in things that will actually make people safe. Like there are many consequences that can be offered that aren’t the criminal punishment lane. 

So I don’t buy the concept of, like: if we don’t do this, we don’t have anything. No, of course, that’s not true! What people don’t want to acknowledge when they say that is they want punishment, right? It doesn’t feel sufficient to fire that person, take their gun, and take their money. Like it doesn’t feel enough, right? There has to be more punishment; they have to suffer. That’s part of this. And so don’t say that what you’re looking for is accountability. What you’re looking for is really punishment, because nothing else that people offer — that can be a spectrum of things — you feel is sufficient for what’s happened. And to me, I think defunding police is a sufficient response. Getting rid of the harmful institution is a really effective response, you know?

Speaker Nancy Pelosi: The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act fundamentally transforms the culture of policing with strong, unprecedented reforms. This legislation will not erase centuries of systemic racism and excessive policing in America. It will not bring back George Floyd, Breonna Taylor — say her name, Breonna Taylor — Ahmaud Arbery, or the countless other men and women who died or were senselessly injured. But it will make a tremendous [fades out] … 

JD: What are your thoughts on these reform efforts, and others like it? How impactful are these policy changes in your view?

MK: What that George Floyd Justice [in Policing] Act says that it’s going to do is to ban racial profiling, supposedly overhaul qualified immunity for the cops, to ban no-knock raids, to ban the use of chokeholds. And these are procedural reforms, and they’re more than insufficient, right? Chokeholds were banned in New York City when police officers choked Eric Garner to death on video. The New York Police department had spent $35 million training their cops to stop using chokeholds and they still choked him to death.

Was George Floyd killed because he was choked to death? No! There are 1,000 ways that the cops can kill people. Like there’s just 1,000 — how are you going to procedurally intervene to stop all that? Right? 

What’s needed is to actually reduce the contact that cops have with people. That’s the only way to reduce the violence of policing. It’s you should actually want as little policing as possible in any form. It really is a cruel irony to name a police reform bill after someone killed by police and to include procedural reforms that would not actually have prevented that person’s death.

Can we just take a moment and sit with that reality? They named an act against the man who was murdered on video as we watched almost for nine minutes him pleading for his mother. Was George Floyd racially profiled? Was qualified immunity involved? Was there a no-knock raid? Was there a chokehold? No! To the answer of all of those things. Right? That’s not what happened in that case! So they named a bill after a man who would not be protected by a single thing within that bill.

They also made sure to include $750 million to investigate the deadly use of force by law enforcement. Why would you do this? They already know how we die. It’s policing!

President Joseph Biden: They’ve already labeled us as being “defund the police.” Anything we put forward in terms of the organizational structure to change policing — which I promise you will occur, promise you — just think to yourself and give me advice whether we should do that before January 5, because that’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable.

JD: Since last summer, 20 major cities have reduced their police budgets in some way, and approximately $870 million dollars has been divested from police budgets. What role do you see electoral politics playing in your abolitionist work? And how do we see these efforts to defund the police? Are these stepping stones? How do we assess those?

MK: For me, defunding the police — it’s a demand, and it is a strategy that is part of the how. So it’s: we’re currently here, we’re trying to get closer to a horizon, how do we do that? And defund is just one demand and one strategy for me. It’s defund to abolish, right? So it’s not, in and of itself an end. 

Defund is more than just taking money away. It’s also shrinking the legitimacy — shrinking the ideological footprint — of policing within our communities. It’s really about taking power away as much as anything from these institutions. 

So I believe in the use of every possible tool in our toolbox. And for me, I know that that’s just one aspect, a sliver of what is needed in order to bring about the world that we want. If there’s a way to influence people so that they start talking about our issues on platforms that are more large-scale, public platforms. If they bring the idea, as Cori Bush has, for example, who was recently elected to Congress. 

Representative Cori Bush: You have a super-aggressive police department, and they don’t get to continue to just kill Black folks in my community and I not say anything. So yes, defund your butts! Defund! You take that money that we’re using for MRAPs, the money that we’re using for tear gas, and stockpiling SWAT gear, we’re going to take that money and put it into substance-use programs. We’re going to put it into education and mental health resources, we’re going to take it and use it for our unhoused population. We are reallocating funds. 

I’m not trying to hurt anybody’s district, anybody from keeping their seats. I’m not looking at feelings, though. I’m looking at life. 

MK: You know, Cori Bush is articulating a defunding strategy idea, and is putting that out there for many people who cannot hear me, and refuse to hear me, and would not even ever want to hear me, and those folks hear that message from her and that moves them, then we’re moving closer.

My politics is centered at the source of people suffering. I want a politics that grows from there, you know? A bottom-up politic that does that, and that actually tries to address the material needs that people have. It’s why I’m a proponent of mutual aid work as part of our organizing; always have been, always engaged in that myself. You know, because we have to actually help people survive if we’re going to then get to the point where we can be fighting together for the things we want to create the world that we want to live in.

JD: You know, the last time you were on this podcast was pretty much a year ago and, at the time, Covid was surging across the country. And you laid out some clear, practical ways in which listeners could involve themselves or create mutual aid projects in their own communities. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from Covid; many have been pushed into poverty. How has the past year made you think about the practice of mutual aid?

MK: I’m more committed than ever to that project. Because I know for a fact that this is what kept many people alive in our communities. It was people, on the one hand, offering aid, and then folks learning to know each other, building with their neighbors, people being awakened through those actions to the broader systemic reasons for why we were in the positions that we were in. 

We can’t underestimate what experiences we have will lead to later on. And I see that people are really open to many more radical solutions for things. The era of climate change, and pandemics, and just stuff that we need to address around violence in our communities, we have to be prepared. I think there’s probably a whole generation of people who have gone through this year who are just thinking differently about community, and thinking differently about what is government supposed to do, right? 

Like government is supposed to cut your checks back to you when there’s a crisis going on. And even when there’s not a crisis going on, right? Government shouldn’t be putting all its resources in bombing other countries and declaring war on certain populations domestically; it should be actually doing the things like 20 times more than what it’s been doing. It should cut monthly survival checks and allow people to stay home during a pandemic; it should provide people with food if they need it; it should provide people with free health care and free housing. These are the things! Why have a government if that’s not what the government is doing?

And that the money that the government is using is public money. It’s our money. We are to do with it what we want for ourselves for the well-being of our communities and our family and the world. That’s what I’m seeing! I’m seeing people allowing themselves to think differently, and to think radically about the world in which we want to live and trying to prefigure that world now.

JD: There’s a few quotes that I hear you say every now and again, but there’s one that is: “Everything worthwhile is done with others.” And I understand that’s something that your father said. Tell me about him, and what those words mean to you, and how did his views contribute to your own political formation?

MK: My dad was an extraordinary person, you know? And I’m sure a lot of people think that about their parents. This happens to be true about my dad. When he was a young person involved in anti-colonial struggle in his place of birth, which is Guinea, after they won independence.

Newscaster: Après le référendum, la Guinée française est devenue la République de Guinée, avec à sa tête Monsieur Sékou Touré, l’ancien président du Conseil de gouvernement du territoire. [After the referendum, French Guinea has now become the Republic of Guinea, with, at its head, Mr. Sékou Touré, the former president of the Government Council.]

MK: My dad was sent to the United States to study with the notion that he would come back to the country and contribute. They were interested in finances and how to figure out a socialist economy for Guinea. 

Anyway, there were a lot of unfortunate things that happened after the revolution. And I think [he] was deeply, deeply disillusioned for many years, because of all the hopes they had for what that revolution would do for the people of the country, and for the country as a whole, and that that didn’t materialize was incredibly dispiriting to him. And he very rarely talked with me directly about his time, and what he did, and what his work was. I always got more about that from family members and people around him.

He had a very determined ethic about how you treat other people. And I know that came from his experience of deep, deep disappointment in people who had been his comrades and really his brothers. And he always emphasized to me the importance of action, that what you ought to be judged by is less of what is kind of your implicit values, but actually the actions you take in the world are really important, and that you have a responsibility to act, right? Especially, mostly, when you see things that are unjust, you know? It’s not enough to just be focused on like, the analysis of the thing. 

He would always say, “What are you going to do? What are you going to do about it?” And I would be like: “Dad, I just want to just vent, I just want to talk about this. I don’t want to do anything about it.” “So why are you telling me about it, then? Like what, you know, like, what’s the point? [Laughs.] I don’t understand!” And this would be so frustrating to me. And I just remember that, yeah, everything worthwhile is done with others. He would say a version of it, it wasn’t exactly that translation, but he would say it in Malinké French. 

But he would just be like you, as an individual person by yourself, you’re not gonna be able to do much. You have to find other people who will work with you to get to whatever the goal is that you’re trying to pursue. And more than that, not all those people are going to be people you agree with on everything. Like, in fact, most likely, you’re going to have lots of political disagreement. But you can still come together around something that you want to work on together. And that nothing that we do in the world is actually just about us as individual people. He really — yeah, I loved him a great deal. I still love him. And he was just really extraordinary.

JD: What were some of the things that you witnessed, you know, as an adolescent in New York City. I understood you grew up in the Lower East Side. What are some of the things that motivated you to get involved?

MK: I went to my first protest on my own when I was 14, here in New York City when Michael Stewart was killed. 

Newscaster: On September 15, 25-year-old Michael Stewart was arrested for scrawling on the wall of a subway station at 3:00 in the morning; 30 minutes later, Stewart lay in a deep coma at Bellevue Hospital’s emergency room. What happened in those 30 minutes is the subject of an ongoing controversy. Stewart never regained consciousness; 13 days after his arrest, Michael Stewart was dead.

Protestors: Don’t protect these transit police killers!

Protestor: And what we are charging is that he was beaten to death — that he was beaten to death the same way Arthur Miller was strangled to death; Luis Baez was shot 21 times; Ricky Bodden, 11 years old, was killed; Clifford Glover, 10 years old, was killed; Claude Reese, 14 years old, was killed; Jay Park, a 15-year-old honors student was killed. And guess who killed them? Not some thugs or gangsters, but the people we pay to protect us.

MK: I think for most people, it was a coming to consciousness over time. I didn’t know why things were unjust; I just felt they were. And then, a couple of years later, through my work with other young people in the city, I started to get a language for racism, anti-Black racism. It stopped being just the way things are, and it started being: Why are things like this? That was really what got my eyes open. 

And then I had a couple of traumatic personal experiences with violence, which also radicalized me in a different way. It was a continuum. It was a continuum.

JD: There’s another phrase that I think you’re fairly well-known for, and it is: “Hope is a discipline.” What is hope and what is its purpose?

MK: I went to a talk many years ago, and there was a nun, I really cannot remember her name, and that really bothers me. But it was a talk about having a commitment to social justice, a lifelong commitment to social justice. And they were talking about what sustains them in their work. And I’m not even sure if the quote was exactly this, but I remember her saying something like, “And what keeps me going is that hope is a discipline.”

And I heard that, and, I just, like, I perked up right away — and it stuck with me. Then I continued to work and do all this other kind of stuff. And it would keep coming back to me, this idea of hope being a discipline. And I was like, hope as a discipline; I’m like, what does that mean for me?

And that became a mantra for me in terms of when I would feel unmoored. Or when I would feel overwhelmed by what was going on in the world, I would just say to myself: “Hope is a discipline.” It’s less about “how you feel,” and more about the practice of making a decision every day, that you’re still gonna put one foot in front of the other, that you’re still going to get up in the morning. And you’re still going to struggle, that that was what I took away from it.

It’s work to be hopeful. It’s not like a fuzzy feeling. Like, you have to actually put in energy, time, and you have to be clear-eyed, and you have to hold fast to having a vision. It’s a hard thing to maintain. But it matters to have it, to believe that it’s possible, to change the world. You know, that we don’t live in a predetermined, predestined world where like nothing we do has an impact. No, no, that’s not true! Change is, in fact, constant, right? Octavia Butler teaches us. We’re constantly changing. We’re constantly transforming. It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily good or bad. It just is. That’s always the case. And so, because that’s true, we have an opportunity at every moment to push in a direction that we think is actually a direction towards more justice.

People are doing work all the time and consistently and constantly. And I don’t know where that’s going to go. I don’t know what the end result is going to look like. But it’s part of a long legacy, what we call la longue durée. This is a long term arc of work and I’m not a progress-narrative person, so I think everything happens at the same time. So we’re resisting and we’re being crushed at the same time always, like they’re parallel tracks happening. Let’s just do what we can where we are within our capacity to the best of our abilities. Like, that’s really the best we can be hoping for. And let’s learn from the mistakes we make. Let’s study together so that we get sharper and develop better questions — not come up with all the answers, but just develop better questions so we can build off of those over time and keep growing and keep moving in a direction that we feel is the right direction to have, as we think we know it in the moment that we know right now.

I learned from my father that you may have big dreams and big visions. And, you know, you have to prepare for the day after the revolution. And even when you do that, it’s not guaranteed that things are going to go as you had hoped. So what’s the next best thing you can do from where you are? For you, in this moment, in this possibility space that you have, what’s the next best thing? And it’s such a grounding question. Because it doesn’t tell you: What’s the next 17 things that you need to do to get from where you are to where you need to go? It’s: What’s the next best step to take?

And that just is what I think we do. We don’t know. But we’ll try. We’ll make lots of experiments. We’ll work with lots of different kinds of people. We’ll build movements, not clubs. This is what we’re going to try, and we’ll do our best.

JD: Thank you Mariame. 

MK: Thank you.

[Credits theme.]

JS: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Mariame Kaba’s book, “We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice” is out now. You can find a link to it in our show notes. 

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.


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