Abolitionist organizer, educator, and activist Mariame Kaba delivered a rousing virtual keynote address on Wednesday to kick off Northwestern’s 2021 MLK Dream Week, an annual event series surrounding the national holiday honoring the legendary civil rights leader.
Raised in New York City by two Black immigrant parents, Kaba has said she’s had passion for transforming systems of justice ever since she was a young child. From an early age, she engaged with collectivist and Black nationalist thought, ideological frameworks that have continued to influence her decades-long career as a prison industrial complex (PIC) abolitionist—that is, an activist dedicated to eradicating imprisonment, policing and state surveillance in favor of non-punishment-based rehabilitation. Throughout her activist career, Kaba has founded a number of organizations and projects, perhaps most notably Project NIA, an organization that provides community-based support to young people caught up in the criminal justice system and whose ultimate goal is to end juvenile incarceration.
The police, Kaba said, are not guardians of public safety but rather violent enforcers of economic, gender and racial hierarchies. As a Black civil rights leader who had been jailed 29 times in his life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this well, she said, and were he alive today, he too would be fighting to dismantle the prison industrial complex.
Kaba went on to say that communities must empower themselves to provide not just for their own safety, but also for their own housing, food, healthcare, and transportation. Systems of mutual aid—wherein members of a community take responsibility in caring for one another’s needs—do just that.
“Mutual aid in its most simple conceptualization is cooperation for the sake of the common good,” Kaba said. “That’s something that all of us understand, and because we are human and know that we are interdependent with each other, we understand that our survival is tied to other people’s survival. Everything I am and do and consume has something to do with somebody else somewhere, even if it’s somebody I’d never met.”
She cited the Montgomery Bus Boycott, of which Dr. King was a primary organizer, as an example of mutual aid in practice. Boycotters arranged an elaborate system of carpools, lending themselves or their vehicles to help transport the 17,000 Black passengers in Montgomery who typically rode the public bus twice a day. There’s a salient connection, Kaba said, between that alternative transit system in the 1950s and the volunteers of today who have taken it upon themselves to serve others during the Covid-19 pandemic, whether by delivering groceries to the elderly and medically vulnerable, raising funds to help others pay rent, or distributing PPE at no cost to their communities. In essence, the abolition movement is not only about eliminating systems that do harm, but also constructing a new way of living based on solidarity and communal self-determination.
Photo: U.S. National Archives
Kaba’s abolition-centered address comes at a unique political moment both at Northwestern specifically and in the United States as a whole. Over the course of the past several months, student abolitionist group NU Community Not Cops issued a petition calling for the dissolution of the Northwestern University Police Department and investment in supportive structures for Black students, held multiple meetings with university administration officers, and organized a series of protests in the Evanston area.
At the same time, there has been a national reawakening to the viscerally violent reality of systemic racism, spurred on by last summer’s police killings of Geoge Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among other Black Americans. In more recent news, the Jan. 6 insurrection at The Capitol by a largely white crowd of armed Trump supporters, who faced little resistance or retribution from law enforcement, has made the inherent racism of American policing even clearer.
None of this context was lost on Kaba, who praised NUCNC’s efforts, describing their activism as a continuation of Dr. King’s struggle for Black liberation.
“For those currently organizing on campus under the banner of NU Community Not Cops, you are doing the essential work of this time,” Kaba said. “Those of you who haven’t joined the struggle, what the hell are you waiting for? We can take our lessons from [former Black Panther] Assata Shakur, who wrote that the only way to live on this planet with any human dignity… is to struggle. Keep struggling. You are on the right side of history.”
Finally, Kaba spent a large portion of her speech calling attention to concrete ways for people to get involved in the day to day work of abolition, from educating themselves on the prison industrial complex to making donations to bail funds to participating in prison letter-writing programs.
“PIC abolitionists engage in both mutual aid and organizing in a consistent way,” Kaba said. “We do this through forming and sustaining relationships with incarcerated people, their families, and their communities, and our communities.”
Here’s a list of links to some of the abolitionist resources Kaba highlighted and mentioned during her speech:
- 9 Solidarity Commitments to/with Incarcerated People for 2021
- Project NIA “Defund Police” Video
- Big Door Brigade
- Abolition University
- Don’t Call The Police
- Abolitionist Futures
- Study and Struggle
- Critical Resistance
A full recording of Kaba’s speech will be made publicly available soon on Northwestern’s MLK Commemoration site.