Content Warning: discussions of rape and abuse.
In “What Is Accountability Without Punishment?,” one of the more challenging chapters of We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, Mariame Kaba’s powerful primer on prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition, she explores the loneliness of being what seemed like one of the few voices not celebrating – in 2019 immediately after Surviving R. Kelly had just aired and the #metoo movement was still making headlines – the news of Kelly’s impending jail time. Because, as she and others argued, jailing Kelly was not actually justice.
For over a year, we’ve heard repeated calls to fire and/or jail the officers who killed Breonna Taylor. Some were fired, actually. One of the officers had his book deal put in limbo. And Taylor’s family got $12 million. Was this justice?
More recently, Derek Chauvin’s trial for killing George Floyd ended in a rare murder conviction. Justice?
Today, Kaba – and a growing group of many other abolitionists – remains lonely, if not actively derided, on the Internet for not celebrating Chauvin’s conviction. But firings, taxpayer-funded payouts, a canceled book deal, or a murder conviction are not justice. Kaba makes it plain in the title of another chapter: “We Want More Justice For Breonna Taylor Than The System That Killed Her Can Deliver.”
We Do This ‘Til We Free Us is a collection of writings that aim at answering an elusive question from dozens of angles: what is justice? It contains essays, many previously published at Kaba’s blog Prison Culture and some published in major publications, as well as a few transcribed interviews. Some of it is practical, with specific goals and suggestions for systems-level policy. Some of it is thoughtful and meandering and visionary – and one chapter is even a short, fictional story. But all of it attempts to get at the truth: can the prison industrial complex provide justice? And if not, what can?
At the core of the abolitionist mindset, in my opinion, is the truth that we can’t justifiably or reliably classify other humans as strictly good or evil, as worthy of or beyond redemption, as deserving a lifetime of torture – or death – in a cage or that basic human right: freedom. It’s not our job to do so and it’s beyond our capabilities. As such, we cannot in good conscience support the prison industrial complex and do not believe it can provide justice. Because who hasn’t caused another human being harm? We might think that our harms are small, and “bad” peoples’ harms are large. But where do you draw the line?
The above point was made exceedingly clear to me when I first listened to Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” about a serial child murderer and rapist. “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him,” Stevens softly croons. “Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” The good/evil, victim/perpetrator, survivor/abuser binary is yet another binary that needs to be dismantled.
Kaba is also perfectly content drawing inspiration from unlikely places. “Moving Past Punishment,” another of the excellent pieces in this collection, is also filled with wisdom, clarity, and challenge – and she aptly quotes Nicole Kidman’s character in the 2005 film The Interpreter: “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.” Vengeance is not justice. And, as we discover through reading this collection, neither is punishment.
So how do we define justice when harm has occurred? When it’s minor and, especially, when it’s major? How do we reconcile our conception of justice with the truth that all of us have caused harm? When, as Kaba attributes to Danielle Sered in “The Practices We Need: #MeToo And Transformative Justice,” “No one enters violence for the first time by committing it?”
We’ve all known, for decades, centuries even, that “hurt people hurt people.” Something must be done about the hurt that people experience that goads them to hurt others. Punishment does not do this; it instead increases the amount of hurt in the world. Beyond the ethical, moral, and spiritual considerations of punishment, the other central truth of the abolitionist project is that punishment cannot prevent, reconcile, or provide justice for harm – and instead frequently exacerbates it. The promise of transformative justice, the hope of community accountability, the vision of prison industrial complex abolition, is that there’s a better way. A way that acknowledges the aforementioned truths. A way that can genuinely heal and prevent harm.
Maybe we’ve never seen another vision of justice. Maybe we can’t even imagine it. But Kaba’s book is chock-full of wisdom from thinkers, visionaries, and experimenters who are doing their best to figure out exactly what that something is. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they succeed. Always they learn.
We must create a society in which policing, prisons, and surveillance are unnecessary because people’s needs are met and healing is accessible and reconciliation and transformation are possible. Abolition is not a goal but an “organizing principle.” When we’re hurt, we often want vengeance, but vengeance is lazy. It feels good – but, as Kaba makes plain, “abolition is not about your fucking feelings.” Believing that punishment is the only appropriate way to reconcile harm is a “failure of imagination.”
If you’ve ever grasped at these kinds of questions, and the truths that accompany them – that the carceral, punishment based “justice” that our system tells us is the only option for responding to harm is woefully inadequate to do so, frequently punishes the wrong people, is biased toward the privileged, usually makes the problem worse, and that punishment simply does not work and is not justice – this is the book for you.
“What about the rapists?” is a common refrain for critics of abolition. But, as Kaba and all available evidence makes clear, “the criminal legal system does not even purport to care about whether survivors of sexual violence heal.” Kaba addresses this and many other critiques of abolition – but is also an equal opportunity critic. The collection is viscerally challenging, no matter your politics.
In “Accountability Is Not Punishment,” she makes the titular point – but also challenges advocates who, like myself, too often use abolition and transformative justice interchangeably and who posit TJ as an alternative to imprisonment. This “demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of the concept,” Kaba admonishes.
She also challenges those of us who, again like me, believe that TJ can provide healing. This is rarely true, she argues, and isn’t the point. A community accountability process is not a healing process – in fact, it’s usually profoundly unsettling and disturbing and difficult. Like everything else about abolition and transformative justice. Punishment feels good. Justice frequently does not. Accountability is often a prerequisite to healing and creates space for it that punishment does not, but it isn’t healing itself.
As most of Kaba’s writing and public speeches are, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us is very accessible. It helps if you’re familiar with the concepts, if you know about the police violence cases she discusses, if you’re familiar with some of the statistics she cites, if you’ve read other books exploring these concepts and already have a critique of the prison industrial complex and are looking to go deeper. But it’s also a pretty good primer. It’s a decent place to get you started.
If you’ve ever dismissed abolition or transformative justice, believing abolitionists “think abusers and murderers should just have no consequences,” it’s a good book to challenge your thinking and expand your understandings of what’s possible. Because of course they don’t. But we’ve been taught – through our childhoods, our schooling, and throughout our lives, that punishment is the only way to respond to harm. That it’s a deterrent, that it’s fair, that it works. All evidence points to this not being true. And, it’s important to note, consequences and punishment are not the same thing.
This book is full of theorizing and visioning and wondering and experimentation. But it’s also full of lessons learned and clear guidelines, many of them especially important for the present moment. “Police ‘Reforms’ You Should Always Oppose” is short, to the point, provocative, and necessary, as the President and police departments across the country attempt to enact incremental reforms that may do little of significance to transform anti-Black policing in the United States and as many in LGBTQ+ communities continue to push for “reforms,” like hate crime laws, that typically do more harm than good. In “The System Isn’t Broken,” she provides 10 concrete “reform” steps that move us forward toward the “horizon of abolition” rather than further entrench us in its clutches.
Imagining what true justice would look like is difficult and strange and convoluted and there aren’t easy answers. Kaba, along with countless other writers, thinkers, and revolutionaries, has spent decades doing so anyway – and has given us this book as a gift as we attempt to do the same.