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‘A jailbreak of the imagination’

A review of “We do this ’til we free us”

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

by Mariame Kaba

Haymarket Books, 2021

The conviction of police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd would have been unimaginable without the nationwide anti-racist uprising last summer. The lesson should be clear: rebellion works. Far from a sign that the U.S. legal system is capable of delivering justice to its Black victims, the conviction of Chauvin represents an attempt to preserve the system against a crisis of legitimacy. As the trial progressed, police continued to kill, including 42-year-old Andrew Brown, Jr in North Carolina, 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, MN, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, OH, and 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago. Despite being only 13 percent of the population, Black people made up 28 percent of those killed by police in 2020. These deaths underscore why more people than ever have concluded that police cannot be reformed and why they are turning to the work of abolitionists for strategies to win a world where Black lives matter. Haley Pessin, Héctor Rivera, and P.B. Richter discuss why Mariame Kaba’s new book is being embraced as a guiding light for the new abolitionist movement.

Seldom does a book arrive when it is needed most, but this is the case with We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice by Mariame Kaba. This is the book of the moment, and indeed the book of a movement. It can truly be called “a jailbreak of the imagination.” Conceived in the afterglow of the uprising sparked by the murder of George Floyd, this work has emerged as a vessel to bring onboard a new generation of abolitionists.

Kaba brings together interviews, speeches, essays, and articles—some co-authored with other abolitionists—that have much to offer to both new activists and seasoned organizers. Through these writings, several themes emerge. Abolition does not mean waiting for some distant future, it requires experimenting with alternatives to policing in the present, and this experimentation often involves failure. Collective organizing is the key to building new institutions and alternatives to the carceral system. The process of organizing to transform society is also the process of transforming ourselves and our relations with each other.

The fact that a book about police and prison abolition has become a New York Times best-seller reveals the opening for radical politics created by the largest anti-racist uprising in U.S. history. But, while the development of a mass audience for abolition is new, as Kaba notes, “These things are dialectical…[T]he thing that can make those moments of real change is the ongoing organizing that has been happening all along” (165). In this sense, Kaba defines abolition not as a destination, but as “a political vision, a structural analysis of oppression, and a practical organizing strategy.” Furthermore, abolition of the prison industrial complex “…is a vision of a restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water, and more things that are foundational to our personal and community safety” (2). For socialists, the relevance of this project—a radically restructured society in which human need is centered—should be obvious.

While abolitionist approaches may have once appeared marginal, Kaba convincingly argues that alternative practices and mentalities must be organized. “There will be no magical day of liberation that we do not make,” as Rachel Herzing and Kaba put it. Thus, the conditions in which abolitionist solutions will be most effective and widespread must be fought for, nurtured, and defended (137-38).

These insights are drawn from Kaba’s organizing experience addressing the intersections of incarceration and policing perpetrated against Black women, queer people, young people, and survivors of sexual violence in Chicago and New York City. They also come from her experience in coordinating processes of restorative and transformative justice between individuals who have been harmed and caused harm, without relying on the legal system. As she explains, the purpose of restorative and transformative justice is to connect individual acts to the broader systems that condition harm, with the understanding that interpersonal violence does not occur in a vacuum: “The criminal legal system…focuses on punishing or disempowering individual ‘offenders’ who have done harm. [prison] abolitionists, however, consider the larger social, economic, and political context in which harm occurs” (134-5).

Abolitionists reject the mainstream narrative that the function of police and prisons is safety, and that there are no other ways to make communities safe: “In truth, the prison system did not see its most massive population surge until the 1980s, when deindustrialization created the need for dungeon economies to replace lost jobs, and a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and other social gains by Black people propelled heightened efforts at social control” (21). Prisons and punishment are not natural responses to social problems, instead they are relatively recent phenomena. When we accept incarceration and policing as normal, this prevents us from asking why violence is such a pervasive feature of our society, or developing solutions that actually address the causes of violence.

The book cover being displayed as a poster at a recent Defund SFPD Now demonstration

Through all of the many arguments, case studies, and manifestos within the book, Kaba maintains a feminist lens. She outlined processes to repair harm and seek accountability that are designed chiefly “for survivors to reclaim agency” (142). Mass criminalization is a gendered phenomenon (113), and a focus on the violence experienced by Black women and girls necessitates a comprehensive analysis: “We have to consider sexual assaults by police (inside prisons and in the streets). We have to include how women who are victims of interpersonal violence are criminalized by the state for defending their lives” (124). Abolitionist focus on validating acts of self-defense—part of validating the rights to bodily autonomy of women and gender nonconforming people—is not only a feminist necessity, it has yielded valuable strategic insight that can strengthen movements.

In response to the question, what should be done with the rapists?, Kaba challenges the assumption that the existing criminal legal system addresses sexual violence. When Black women and queer victims of domestic violence seek redress from the system, they often find themselves criminalized, treated, in Kaba’s words, as having “no selves to defend” (46). She contends that prisons do not address the reality that interpersonal violence is rooted in larger systems, including capitalism: “Cages confine people, not the conditions that facilitated their harms or the mentalities that perpetuate violence” (24). Addressing harm as a problem of individual supposed monsters denies the humanity of those accused of causing harm. It discourages them from taking accountability for the harms they have caused without actually making sexual violence in society “unthinkable” (56). If anything, prisons reproduce sexual violence by subjecting people to additional harm within the prison system.

The book is most demanding in its reframing of justice and accountability since it challenges common impulse in the mainstream and on the Left to demand the jailing of killer cops. What if this aim is just as short-sighted as attempts to merely reform the police or the prisons? Kaba cites several reasons why this can be the case. Carceral solutions are very rarely successful in punishing agents of the carceral system. “The system will never indict itself and … when we demand more prosecutions and punishment this only serves to reinforce a system that must itself be dismantled” (114).

She argues that campaigns to use one aspect of the prison industrial complex against another can become a “cooling saucer” demobilizing action (94) and leading to a “seductive slumber and to complacency” (54) among organizers. Relying on carceral solutions has not brought us closer to justice, nor has it built the kinds of lasting relationships needed to overthrow and replace the behemoth of mass incarceration (64-65). “I am not against indicting killer cops,” Kaba writes, “I just know that indictments won’t and can’t end oppressive policing, which is rooted in anti-Blackness, social control, and containment” (55).

Attempts to jail killer cops or to seek imprisonment as a solution to myriad social harms and traumas seem less like the approach of the left-wing realist, and more like a Sisyphean task. Abolitionist organizing steps back with a critical eye and asks: is a militant insistence on non-carceral approaches utopian? Or is it a starting point for a way to begin to break free from the limitations of existing approaches through continual experiment and practice?

Abolitionist approaches show some of their greatest strengths on the practical level. In fact, the chapters in this book stress the messy, experimental nature of accountability processes. Nevertheless, these experiments yield valuable lessons that guide our strategies for creating an alternative to capitalism and expand our capacity to imagine them. Every step of abolitionist practice gets us closer to self-reliant alternatives to capitalist states. Under conditions of oppression, liberation is best made thinkable by practical experience and the transformation of our relationships to one another, not logical discourse and theoretical elaboration (92, 98).

Kaba’s emphasis on deepening relationships indicates a powerful theory of social change. Not calling the cops in a dangerous situation “demands that we feel for the edge of our imaginations to stop relying on the police. It takes practice to do this” (56). Effective legal and social defense campaigns “connect people in a heartfelt, direct way that teaches specific lessons about the brutality of prisons.” This can “change minds and hearts,” facilitating the development of “more radical politics” (111). The consistent practice of abolitionist organizing from day to day lays the groundwork for meeting and expanding the moments of protest and uprising (165). The point is not to live better under conditions of capitalism and harm, but to rid ourselves of these conditions forever.

Some socialists may wonder: Do these practices amount to peace circles, inattentive to the power relations that structure racial capitalism? Abolition and restorative and transformative justice are practices outside of capitalist states, but they are also practices against capitalist states that are developed among a community of the willing. To be held accountable, one must want to be held accountable. “You can’t force somebody into being accountable for things they do. That is not possible,” Kaba writes (44). It is inevitable that many abusers will flee accountability to a community. But in a capitalist society, there will always be oppressors who defy accountability, not just out of a sense of self-preservation, but because of a political commitment to the projects of misogyny, racism, and class rule. Although abolition is built among a community, that does not mean there are no enemies. Instead of veiled pacifism, the abolitionist ethic presented in the book expresses a militant opposition to oppression “knowing full well that there could not have been the abolition of slavery without the Civil War” (184).

Despite the book’s many insights, its weakest arguments appear in an essay titled Itemizing Atrocity, co-written with Tamara K. Nopper. Here, the authors suggest that, because “references to globalization, militarization, and the war on terror are often treated as markers of non-Blackness,” comparing the police repression of Black protesters to the violence of U.S. imperialism implies that the suffering of Black people can only be articulated with reference to non-Black people outside the U.S. Moreover, they argue that Black people are expected to “tether” their suffering to that of non-Black people abroad in order to be heard “without any expectation that this solidarity will be reciprocated.” However, their assertion that these displays of international solidarity diminish empathy and understandings of the particular suffering of Black people has proven false, given the positive international response to the anti-racist uprising last year. Solidarity is not a scarce resource. If anything, international solidarity has undermined the notion that militarized violence is only acceptable when it is deployed against non-U.S. citizens, while exposing that Black citizens are regularly subject to similar violence.

Kaba’s unwavering commitment to abolitionist politics is refreshing in an era of opinion poll-driven opportunism, and a model to bridge the gap between the demands of revolutionary theory and the messy reality of daily practice. The book challenges new and seasoned organizers to re-think and re-commit to the struggle for abolition. Even for critics of police and prisons as institutions that maintain and perpetuate racist criminalization, it can be difficult to imagine what truly safe social conditions would be like. We may know that changes are necessary, but making them possible is another story. The charge of abolitionists, according to Kaba, is “to make liberation under oppression completely thinkable” (92). Far from an abstract call to change our ideas, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us provides a guide to abolition as praxis—one that could not be more timely or necessary.

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Haley Pessin, Héctor Rivera, and P.B. Richter View All

Haley Pessin is a socialist activist based in New York. She is a member of the DSA Afrosocialist Caucus and of the Tempest Collective. P.B. Richter is a socialist living in Chicago. Héctor A. Rivera is a queer, Mexican-American, socialist educator. He writes about geography, history and contemporary politics in Latin America. He lives in Los Ángeles, Califaztlán.