We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice

By Mariame Kaba. Haymarket Books, 2021. 240 pages. $45/hardcover; $16.95/paperback or eBook.

This collection of essays and interviews was not particularly written for White Friends. It is a vital window into the world of Black people, especially young Black people in the United States today, and therefore is important reading for White Quakers. Mariame Kaba is an organizer and educator, active in the prison-industrial-complex abolition movement.

Kaba describes the pipelines that sustain the prison industry, especially the abuse-survivor and school pipelines. She notes that wealthy White suburbs have very few police, while areas of poverty with underemployment and inadequate social services and resources are thickly infested with a system of police that use legal (or even illegal) surveillance, harassment, violence, and incarceration to keep oppressive gender and racial hierarchies in place. If these words sound too strong, you may need to learn more about daily life in Black or Indigenous areas.

Since the murder of George Floyd, the White world has become aware of the call to abolish police and prisons, but there is a lot of misinformation about what this might entail. Kaba is very clear: first, about the systemic evils of the current system that cannot be tweaked by any reforms, and second, that the system needs to be replaced by community-based accountability that centers healing for those harmed, and accountability, consequences, and transformation for those doing the harm. Her response to nearly every issue is “Organize!” She insists there is no one size that fits all. She encourages a million experiments, many of which will fail but nevertheless provide lessons for ongoing experimentation.

Our current criminal punishment system is based on vengeance with no care for those who are hurt. Perpetrators are encouraged to deny their actions so their confessions won’t be held against them in court. Therefore there is no place for accountability, which asks the person who did the harm to acknowledge what was done and the impact it had on those who were hurt. Kaba wants to create a system based in community in which those harmed can be healed and those who harm can be held accountable and accept consequences, with the “system” not inflicting additional harm on either. Each of us has both harmed and been harmed, and we need to examine our complicity in forms of violence that we “may not even personally be perpetrating in an intentional way.” 

Is there a place for White Friends in the organizing and activist work described by Kaba? There are supportive roles White people can offer, such as in participatory defense campaigns. But there is a deeper connection for White people as Quakers who profess to believe in the power of love which Kaba finds is “a requirement of principled struggle, both self-love and love of others.” It is within the community, the collective, where care and love for one another create the world in which we long to live. Let Friends start by creating that love and caring and accountability for all within our own meetings—and then extend it outward as together we wait expectantly to be Guided. 

Marty Grundy is a member of Wellesley (Mass.) Meeting, New England Yearly Meeting.

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