Honoring Community without Penalizing Blackness: An Essential Primer on Prison Abolition

Mariame Kaba harnesses her expertise in abolition to challenge the US's system of mass incarceration and suggest alternative forms of justice.

By Leslie T. Grover

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, by Mariame Kaba, foreword by Naomi Murakawa; ed. by Tamara K. Nopper. Haymarket Books, 2021. 206p index, 9781642594287 $45.00, 9781642595253 $16.95, 9781642595260 $16.95

Ed. Note: Choice considers racial justice a cornerstone of its mandate to support academic study. Accordingly, Choice is highlighting select racial justice titles through the creation of long-form reviews such as the one featured here. Though the scope of these reviews is broader than those applied to our standard 190-word reviews, many of the guidelines regarding what to focus on will remain the same, with additional consideration for how the text under review sheds light on racist systems and racial inequities or proposes means of dismantling them. Our intent is to feature important works on racial justice that will be of use to undergraduates and faculty researching racism and racial inequalities from new perspectives.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice book cover

With police brutality, prison reform, and high-profile sexual abuse cases being a mainstay of social conditions for the past few years, Kaba’s We Do This ‘Til We Free Us is an essential text on abolishing the prison-industrial complex (PIC). Kaba is a community organizer and the founder and director of Project NIA, an advocacy group that aims to end juvenile incarceration through community-based alternatives. This book is a collection of her interviews, essays, public opinion pieces, and podcast appearances. Penned during some of the most controversial and turbulent times for the US, Kaba’s work is nothing short of a primer-cum-manifesto for organizers, scholars, and novices alike.

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us is divided into seven sections, each of which expertly covers a different theme relating to justice: i.e., restorative justice, transformative justice, victimization, organizing theory, accountability, reform, and abolition. This book is a brave curation of pieces, but not just because it provides strong arguments for abolishing the current justice system and replacing it with community-based justice programming, though it surely does that. This is a brave collection because, in many of the pieces, Kaba calls for collective decision-making and creativity. Even with all of her experience and training, she not only makes the case for asking for help in creating alternatives, she also provides a candid look into her thought processes as an organizer and professional. Her volume compels readers to comply with a sense of community that can only come from centering “us” rather than “I” in notions of crime and punishment.

Kaba is successful in teaching and demonstrating cases that define the major terms those new to the abolitionist movement need to know. She also excellently provides strong counterarguments to those who question the feasibility of or flat out oppose the abolition of any part of the PIC. Where she shines the most, however, is in articulating exactly how a world without a PIC would look. In the essay “Justice: A Short Story,” for instance, Kaba paints a vivid portrait of justice that honors community and does not penalize Blackness, womanhood, or queerness. Kaba’s voice is so strong, in fact, that based on this piece alone readers would be hard-pressed not to imagine a more just and restorative justice system. Moreover, Kaba adds to the extant literature on this topic by going beyond a simple recounting of cases or scholarship. Instead, she grounds the PIC, racism, and justice as bedfellows of a flawed, cruel system that confuses consequences and punishment. She reminds readers that the US’s current system of punishment can never be made just because it is rooted in the legacies of enslavement, genocide, and ongoing white supremacy, and it constantly reflects these origins.

Even hardline law-and-order readers will find themselves admitting that Kaba’s efforts cannot be discounted because of one undeniable fact, which the text underscores: many places are already doing the work of abolition and are realizing gains from a collective approach to justice.

Not surprisingly, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us has been well received. The book makes a promise to readers about the exploration of abolition, and it delivers. Those who are familiar with Kaba’s long history of community organizing and nonprofit work will immediately be drawn to the pieces included here that chronicle her impressive accomplishments. Those who are not familiar with her work or with the abolitionist movement will still be convinced by this richly sourced and candid look at the true meaning of justice. Even hardline law-and-order readers will find themselves admitting that Kaba’s efforts cannot be discounted because of one undeniable fact, which the text underscores: many places are already doing the work of abolition and are realizing gains from a collective approach to justice.

Kaba’s collection most definitely deserves a place in academic libraries and on the reading lists of everyday practitioners. The author’s strength as a community organizer is a unifying undercurrent that makes this volume accessible and understandable. It has broad appeal for many audiences, regardless of training, higher education experience, or knowledge of social justice. For instructors, this broad appeal will definitely make the book a staple on reading lists and a required text for relevant courses.

Summing Up: Essential. All levels.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Law & Society, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences

Leslie T. Grover is associate professor of public administration and public policy at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She received her Ph.D. from Clemson University.