Ep. 239 The Purpose of a System Is What It Does with Mariame Kaba – Transcript

Today we welcome Mariame Kaba – activist and author of the book We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, and her latest, No More Police: A Case for Abolition, which she cowrote with Andrea J. Ritchie. In discussing her lifelong devotion to anti-violence, we learn why Mariame doesn’t center herself in the work toward abolition, and why she does not consider herself a writer. She also explains the difference between punishment and consequences and shares some incredible book recommendations.

The Stacks Book Club selection for November is Prison By Any Other Name by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law. We will discuss the book on November 30th with Mariame Kaba.


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Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas, and I am beyond honored today to be speaking with Mariame Kaba, a New York born activist, grassroots organizer and educator who focuses on the dismantling of the prison industrial complex. She is the author of many books, including we do this totally free us and her latest no more police. Kaba argues for the total abolishment of all prison and policing and her work has provided tools and blueprints for many social justice organizations over the years. Kaba is the founder of Project NIA, which provides young people affected with violence with community based alternatives to legal proceedings and an effort to end juvenile incarceration. Today we talk about her work, her love of books and about the ways we can all be thinking about abolition. Mariame will be back on November 30. For our book club discussion of prison by any other name the harmful consequences of popular reforms by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on today’s episode of the stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. Listen, if you love the show, and you want more of it, head to patreon.com/thestacks and join the stacks pack. The Stacks is an independent podcast, which means I rely on listeners like you to make the show possible every single week. In addition to your support you earn perks like our monthly virtual book club, bonus episodes, and access to our Discord community and a lot more. If you’d like to be a part of this wonderful bookish community. Please head to patreon.com/thestacks and join us. Thank you to some of our newest members Melissa Rodriguez Jacqueline for debt. DeAndre Martinez Rummikub Bingham, Russia, Alessia Vitaly and Madeline Moy. Thank you all so much. And thank you, of course to the entire statspack for your support. All right now it is time for my conversation with the Mariame Kaba.

All right, everybody, I’m really excited today. I don’t want to overhype too much, but I have a living legend. Okay, I have someone who is like a thought leader on one of the topics that I am the most curious about in this point in my life. I have the one and only author activist, organizer, student currently, I have Mariame Kaba! Mariame, welcome to The Stacks.

Mariame Kaba 2:28
So, so happy to be here, Traci. Thanks for having me. I’m so honored.

Traci Thomas 2:33
I have to let everyone know just so you guys know. Mariame is a member of The Stacks Pack. She’s a supporter of the show. She is a friend of the pod. It’s just so great. I gave you like a quick you know, super all hype intro. Do you want to tell folks a little bit about yourself?

Mariame Kaba 2:51
Sure. I’m happy to do so. My name is Mariame Kaba, and I use she/her pronouns. I am coming today from New York City. I live in Manhattan and I was born and raised here. I am. So good question right now what’s going on with my life right this minute. I’m in school. Back in school full time after over 25 years of being out of school and studying for and Ms. Li s so a master’s in library and information science. I am I run a few couple of organizations. One is called Project NIA, which is an organization that I founded in 2009. When I was living in Chicago, I lived in Chicago for over 20 years. I moved back home to New York City in 2016. I run another organization with my friend and comrade Andrea Ritchie, which is called interrupting criminalization. We started that in 2018. I co founded and have confounded many different formations groups organizations, over the years since I was 15 years old. So most of my adult life I’ve been helping to build organizations for collective action, I think is what I like to tell people. Yeah, so those are just a few of the things that are on my plate. I’m currently working really hard on a deadline of getting a manuscript in that I’m writing with my friend, Kelly Hayes, which is going to come out sometime next year. And that’s due to our editor next week. So I’m dealing with a lot.

Traci Thomas 4:40
Thank you for giving me so much time this week. Oh my gosh, yeah. I have like a billion questions for you. But I feel like the only a follow up question to that is how do you rest? How do you tap into your creativity? How do you how do you find a way to be so active and still take care of you?

Mariame Kaba 4:59
It’s a great question. I have to say that I’m not good. I’m not a good person to ask the question.

Traci Thomas 5:05
I’m one of those people. How do you balance? I’m like, I don’t I fuck up constantly. And then I have to like, take a day off, because I’m so tired.

Mariame Kaba 5:14
It’s really and I’m also an insomniac, which I know all the time. I’ve been an insomniac since I was a teenager. So this is a long standing thing for me. So I always say when, particularly when I talked to younger organizers, and they asked me, Well, how do you do all this stuff? And I’m like, Well, I have at least probably eight more hours in the day than you do. Like, and that tells you a lot about what’s possible in a lot of extended time. But that’s not necessarily I would not, I would absolutely not recommend that other people. Be insomniacs like, please get your sleep. Please rest. I’m 100% Throw that so. Yeah. So I’m not really good at being able to tell people how to manage those things. I do enjoy my life. I’m very content in it. I, you know, do things that I love to do that are fun, and being in relationship and community with other people I love so. So I’m not it’s not a complaint. It’s just how I live.

Traci Thomas 6:11
Yeah. You’re a full grown adult, and you went back to school, I die. Why was that important to you?

Mariame Kaba 6:17
It’s a great question. I am asking myself that right now as I’m finals are coming. This is my last semester. Thank God, I cannot tell you, I’m relieved and happy to almost be done. I have my first job out of college was working at the county Collin library in Harlem as an information specialists at a library. And I have always loved libraries I grew up in libraries, my mother was 20 or 20 years old when she had me are 21 and newly arrived to the United States and not speak English. And we both spent all our time at the local library, my mom for English ESL classes me for Story Hour and fun times. And I grew up basically as a latchkey child, you know, I’m a real Gen XOR. And we spent so many after school times at the library, like the librarians were our second mothers, and parents and friends. And so I’ve always loved libraries, like in a visceral way, that’s about kind of human connection and possibility. And as I got older, I recognized like the library as a third space in our culture, where you can spend your entire day and not spend a dime is such an anti capitalist space possibility, even though they are trying to overrun it under the capitalist logics, but I want to maintain the space for public libraries, the publicness of them, is what makes them magical and possible, and offers us inordinate opportunities for building the world that we want to build. So I love libraries for that reason, so and I love books. I love reading, this has been a lifelong thing for me. And I just thought to myself, always, in my back of my mind, I was like, Well, I’m, I’m totally gonna go to library school at some point. And then in my 40s, I was like, um, if I’m gonna do it, at some point, I better do it. And, yeah, and as my 50th year was approaching, I’m like, I’m just going to jump in. So that’s how I that’s how

Traci Thomas 8:35
you would think that you’ll want to actually work as a librarian? Or is it just like a set of skills that you wanted to have?

Mariame Kaba 8:41
Yeah, it’s a great question. I feel like I, I don’t want to work as a librarian. I’m interested in archives and archiving. And so I went back to gain specific skills that I am going to apply to my own collections. So I’ve been a collector for a very long time of books, and ephemera and movement materials, and documents. And I have been wanting to figure out how to make sense of it, how to also activate my own collections so that they can be kind of publicly accessible documents to many other kinds of people so they can use it in their organizing and in their work. So those are the things that motivated me from wanting to go ahead. It turns out that I probably did not have to go to school to learn things. I probably I probably could have taken a few workshops, you know, like, Society for American archivist or you some other place but I did not know I don’t think I knew that when I signed up for this, right? Oh, well, I don’t regret anything.

Traci Thomas 9:46
That’s how I feel about my college experience going to college for acting. I think if I wanted to be an act, I probably could have taken classes. Fine, but you know, whatever. I know everyone told me like when are we going to get to abolition Don’t worry people We’re gonna get there, we got a lot of time, I’m really curious about you the person because I feel like one of the things that I discovered in my research and my reading of you is that for a long time, you the person didn’t really exist publicly, you sort of existed as like this idea. And this like thinker, and some of your work was there, but it wasn’t always attributed to you on purpose. And you don’t take pictures publicly. And I’m just like I’m so people who see on the social media, you won’t see Americans face and the picture on the Stax Instagram page. So I’m sort of curious, like, I know that and we do this till they free us, you talk about it a little bit. I just kind of want to hear you talk about why you felt like it was important to remove yourself sort of from the story and, and why also, you sometimes do put yourself back out like I was so worried you were gonna say no to this request, because I was like, I don’t know. It’s sort of like a Merriam show. So talk to me about it.

Mariame Kaba 10:54
It’s a really I have, I’ve struggled over the years in part with the question of visibility. And I’ll say that I grew into becoming an activist and an organizer from a young age, mentored by people who always drove home the the concept that it was organizers in the back leaders in the front, and you basically organized with an alongside people, and you were not the person who was upfront, and I really internalize that I internalized it to the point where I used to, and I still do write a lot of curricula, zines, other things like that, that I never attributed to myself, I never put my name on those materials. And then I would see many years later, those materials being used by other people. And I knew I had made those things. But it didn’t matter because my concept of thought around information and knowledge is that it is collectively produced to be used by the collective. And so I didn’t have a sense of like ownership over those ideas. Because I know for sure that I have learned because other people have taught me or other people have made things that sparked a question or thought in my own mind. So I was very big on the concept of kind of free information. And information activism from the perspective of just like, you make things you share things, people use it, we build off of each other over time. So those two things kind of were part of my DNA growing up and became part of like, my worlds, you know, and it wasn’t until I was in my 30s. Honestly, when and this is a story that always occurs, I think for all of us, a friend of mine, we were working on a project together. And I was like, well, we don’t we don’t need to find, you know, we could just kind of put it out there. Like it’s not a big deal. We don’t have to like, put our names on it. And she was like, Hmm, interesting. She’s like Miriam, and she was a white person. So this is an important point. She said, it’s interesting to me, that for someone who is so committed to black folks, to the histories of black people, particularly black women, who has done all this work, trying to excavate the stories of black women throughout history, that you would erase yourself from history. Like, what’s that about? And I have to say, it hit me in the solar plexus I, I literally gasped. I mean, I was it’s not dramatic to say that I was like, because it had never occurred to me before, to think about lineage in that kind of way. Right? To think about what I might have been teaching inadvertently, to other young black women, that I that my my political view and my values around the importance of collective knowledge, the fact that you didn’t have to be above anybody else, did not necessarily mean that I shouldn’t attribute my own work. Right. But I didn’t that everything I had done within the labor, that I had poured a lot into those things that and why? And how would people trace lineage if they didn’t know who wrote things? Right? How would that even be? How would I? How would I also be able to be held to account for my ideas if nobody knew that I had written them? So those things really started me on a different journey. And I would say this to end on it. Because it’s a long evolved thing that didn’t just happen overnight. I was working with a young person as I have for many years who had been in conflict with the law, and he had been in and out of prison for a long time, and he was out at this time, and he had learned through some sort of process about blogging when he was on the inside the last time. And we were just in a conversation we were arguing on a political front, you know, it’s like disagreeing with him on something vehemently. He said, You know what, Miss Kaba he’s like, You need to write your you need a blog, you need to, like, get your all your ideas out to the public, right? Like, you need ideas, you should write them out. And I was like, I’m a Luddite. So it’s, like I saw I have a flip phone. I’m like, you know, like, I’m on one year. Like, I’m not whatever. So. So I was like a blog. I don’t even know what I don’t even know how to make a blog, how would I do that? Right, which him who set me up with a blog through WordPress. And we were deciding, and he said, call it, you don’t have to put your name on it. I was like, I don’t want to put my name on, you know, like a blog. Like, it’s so weird. And this was in, he started talking to me about it in 2009. And in 2010, I put out prison culture, my blog, that was not obviously attributed to me by name, you know, I didn’t have to put my photo on there. But I could just want and then he was the person who linked that blog to Twitter. So that’s how I got on Twitter was to initially just like links to my blog getting on Twitter. So that’s so that happened. And that was another moment where I put myself more out there publicly, but not I still didn’t name myself, you know, officially. So although all that to say that it’s been a process for me over time, to become more comfortable with being more presence, in a public way, for all the reasons I mentioned, which is that I owe it to other people to do that in some way, particularly as a black woman, and a Muslim black woman, and all the other parts of my identity, where people can maybe see something reflected, that gives them a little bit more courage to take a step forward. So that’s how I started thinking about it more and got out of my own way. But I still hold all those same like my public, you know, my private life is my private life. I don’t talk about that in public. I’m not like, you know, those are the kinds of things I still holds. I still am uncomfortable with, you know, photos, videos, things like that, you know, whatever. So it’s just a process.

Traci Thomas 17:32
Yeah, I find it really interesting, just like from where you started about, you know, organizers in the back and leaders in the front, because I think that that’s really shift did a little bit like, and I just when you were saying that I was thinking like, so many organizers like of the civil rights movement, who were in the back who we’ve since learned about were women and queer people. And I just think about like, yeah, of course, when organizers in the back because that’s what the ladies and the gays go, you know, and then it’s like, but the leaders there in the front. And I just think about how now so many leaders, at least people that I look to are black women are queer folks, and like an eye, and I distrust a leader who’s not sometimes you know, like, I’m like, I don’t know why guy like, i Who are you with? Like, who are your people? So I feel like, I’m glad that you made that shift, because I do think that it’s the shift that feels right, for a lot of this work is like, I want to know who’s organizing, I actually care less about who’s leaving, I want to know who’s making it happen? who’s pushing the thinking. And so I don’t know if that’s like a generational thing. Or like, if that’s just like, I don’t know exactly what the shift is, but it definitely think about like Bayard Rustin. And I’m like, yeah, they didn’t want people to know about him. Yeah, he was organizing.

Mariame Kaba 18:52
Yeah, absolutely. So many cases about that. And so many organizers I respect from the past who did believe that exact thing, which was, you know, Ella Baker is the kind of most visible now person that that people can point to around that. But she was, you know, strong. People don’t need strong leaders with the notion that, you know, you can make your way in the world using your own power and connecting that power to other people. And that collective action is what will free us ultimately, it is that’s what’s liberatory and so therefore, she was she’s just a quote of hers where she says I did never did. I hardly ever did interviews, I did not put myself out in that way. But you know, what we’ve lost from that is a whole archive of Ella Baker’s thinking and her thoughts and the interviews that we would have been able to glean new knowledge from, you know, she wrote very little, and I think a lot of her, you know, when Barbara rands we did to me one of my favorite books of recent decade is um, You know, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. And, you know, in order for Barbara to do that work, Barbara had to dig on so many levels in the archives to be able to really bring Mrs. Baker’s voice to the forefront. People did not know, for example that she’d been she was married for years, right, like you never saw and didn’t hear about her husband for a second. Right? So that it might I think it is a generational shift in many kinds of ways. But that was those are a lot of the people that taught me were people who were like, Nah, you don’t do that. Like you don’t put your you don’t make yourself the story.

Traci Thomas 20:37
Yeah, I’m glad things are changing. You and I have something in common? You more than me, but we are not writers. Yes, you are not a writer. And I am not a writer. I write once a month, and it is the bane of my existence. You write books and things like, I would argue that maybe you are right. But I love this about you. Can you please as a person who has published books and has a blog? And does right, explain why you are not a writer?

Mariame Kaba 21:05
Thank you for asking that question. I, I am not a writer, I don’t I don’t obsess over writing as a craft. I’m not spending all my time like laboring over the beauty and the, you know, the pros of the pros. And that is not, that’s I don’t find that to be for me, like exciting, or, like I don’t get like particular satisfaction out of that. The reason I’m I always say this, I’m an organizer who sometimes writes, I write for a very utilitarian reason, which is that I’m trying for myself to make sense of what I think. So writing helps me to make sense of what I’m doing in the moment. So it’s a selfish reason. It’s why I’ve been journaling since I was a child, you know, I like to, when I write stuff down, I reread it. And it explains to me where I’m at what’s going on what I’m doing. The second thing is that I constantly preach to younger organizers, that it’s really important to document your practice, that it is important for you to have something to say about what you’re doing in the times that you’re living in. And that doesn’t have to be a publicly available set of pieces of writing or thinking but you should do it and if if that documentation is just you talking into a type of tape recorder on a regular basis, totally fine. That’s a perfectly valid form of quote writing and my opinion, right? And so that’s why I don’t it’s not a craft that I feel like I am actually again devoted to it isn’t anything part of my identity. I I just do it. I’m like the how do you call you know what the the whistle as you work little people that like walk in like the dude like, like, exactly like making the widgets kind of thing. That’s how I see the writing that I do is like widget making basic

Traci Thomas 23:08
Got it. Got it. So it’s just a tool for you.

Mariame Kaba 23:11
It’s a tool. It’s a way it’s a clarifying personal thing for me. It allows me to get clear on what it is I’m doing why I’m doing it. And I also see it as a way to communicate with other people about what I’m doing and what I hope they’ll also join in doing with

Traci Thomas 23:30
Yeah, yeah, okay, we’re gonna get to abolition now people I know you’ve been waiting. So one of the things that I feel like speaking of like, evolution of thought, I don’t really think of this podcast is like a documentation. But obviously, it is like when I think about it, and in the last five years, which is basically how old the show is almost. I’ve started to like, learn about abolition, and like thinking about it. And you know, there was an episode in 2019 I think that we did on the cadaver king in the country dentist. And in that episode, I was talking to my guests and I was like, I don’t think I’m an abolitionist, but like, I don’t really believe in like prison or like, I like listed all the things that I was like, These things should go and like, but then I was like, you know, I don’t know. And since then, you know, I’ve talked to people like Derek Harper. Now we’ve done blood in the water on the show, like, we keep like kind of dipping our toes into abolition. And when I was reading we do this till we free us. Also, I should say you have a new book out called No More police and sort of bury the lead on that with Andrea Richie. It’s out in the world now people and it’s really, really good. And we’ll get to that too. But there’s there’s not just one book that you talk about abolition sort of as like, frame, it’s like this A becoming like something that we do something that we do until we free ourselves, right? And like for me, that was the most empowering thing between that and then also my conversation with Erica where she was like, it’s about imagination like You got to create it, you got to make it up. And like those two ideas, I felt like have allowed me personally, to step into this space of like, I don’t actually know. But like, we’re gonna work toward it. Yeah. And so with all of that being said, first of all, thank you. But like, with all that being said, the one question that I continue to have, and I struggle with this in my personal life with my children, and I struggle with it big picture, when I think about like, the people who have done the most harm, like mass murderers or something like that, right? What is the difference between punishment and consequence? Because I’m not clear on it when it comes to tiny things with my kids. Yeah. So how can I be clear on it when it comes to someone who kills children in a school? Yeah, you know, like, so could you talk about that? This is really just a personal question for me.

Mariame Kaba 25:49
Yeah. No, thank you for asking the question. I, we talk about it briefly in no more police actually. And I use some of the kind of wisdom of my friend Daniel Sarat, who helps us to think through kind of more granularly the difference between punishment and consequences. And I’m just gonna, I’m just going to read a little bit of facts. Okay, so you just have a little sense of it. So it says here, it’s page 259 of no more police. Danielle Sarah, founder of common justice and author of until we, until we reckon, breaks down the differences between accountability and punishment in the chart reproduced below. For accountability she has accountability is something you choose to do. Accountability recognizes and requires your power, including your power to enact repair. Accountability is fundamentally active, it requires you to address suffering you cause by seeking to transform yourself and to mend and rebuild for others. It also deepens relationship and connection, and it fosters healing and restoration. However, punishment is imposed by others with power over you. It aims to diminish or contain your power, which is, which it presumes can only be harmful is largely passive. This is incredibly important. So it requires you to address suffering you cause simply by suffering yourself, with no path to provide anything to others. It severs relationship and connection, and it fosters shame and isolation. So let me say this punishment is, to me the most easy thing we can do. It’s why we do so much of it. The reason for punishment is you don’t have to, it’s completely the person who’s doing the punishing, that is active in that work. Whether that person is the Punisher, the state is the Punisher, you kind of just do the thing. You don’t need consent from the person you’re punishing. You don’t have to engage them in any sort of way, you can lock them in a cage forever. There’s no work on your part to punish. Right? Right. So that’s why it’s seductive. It isn’t just deducted because you don’t have to do any work. It’s also deducted because it feels good. Now, this is the part where people go all ballistic on me, is to be like, when you say, I don’t feel good. When I punish people. Yes, you do. Often times you feel a sense of either relief, cuz you got that person. Because vengeance sometimes feels good, so good. We are human beings, it feels so good. Somebody harmed you, and you get a chance to harm them back. Let me tell you, we cannot ignore that. And I don’t think as abolitionists, I tell people this all the time. You can’t. You can’t talk about an abolitionist future or an abolitionist vision. without addressing how kind of liminal visceral pleasure people get vengeance, which is why we keep doing it over and over again. So say all that is one thing. But the person who’s punished is completely passive. And they choose whether or not they are going to, quote unquote, take accountability in an active way for what they did. They don’t have to give you anything. They don’t have to give you an apology. They don’t have to do repair, you try to punish them, and you force them to do repair, and they don’t do it. Right. These are all the things that happen along those lines. So if you’re thinking of your child, and I made a toolkit a few a couple of years ago called against punishment, and it’s to work with children and young people in particular around punishment and punishment issues. When you tell your kids but they are punished and you send them up to a room and you tell them go and stay there like you know and write in 10 times I will not do this again. Do they do the thing again? Yes. Yeah, absolutely. Do the thing again. And then you’re based on trying to escalate your punishment, right to try to figure out what is going to stop the behavior. You haven’t even tried to address what the root cause of why that misbehavior is happening in the first place. You haven’t done hard work of figuring out with that person. So let’s talk about what’s going on here. Why don’t you do that? I don’t know. No, I don’t think you don’t know. Were you angry? Did you want my attention? Was I doing something that didn’t make you feel good? Did you have a bad day at school and you came home, you don’t want to really talk about it. So you’re acting out? What is the root cause of what the hell’s going on here? Let’s address that. And most likely, you won’t be doing this thing again. Or if you do it again, you’ll realize that you did it again. And you’ll self regulate yourself to make sure you don’t, you know, keep making those mistakes over and over again. So those so that’s the kind of accountability as we talk about it and transformative justice and punishment as we talk about it and transformative justice. There’s another layer and you ask that question, you’re like, well, what’s the consequence? Yeah, you cannot determine a consequence on your own. You have to have the conversation, not just have the conversation, but other people have to be involved. Because guess what, most of the times that harms occur, harms don’t just occur between individual people. They occur within context of our communities. And they also occur when other bystanders are around. Part of the reason we can’t end rate cultures, because it’s a culture. That one rapists and one provide, right, right. It’s a culture, other people enable the harms to happen, those folks have to be brought in, in some way around consequences, decisions. Because what is going on here? So you, you mentioned your husband, and you and your children, when something goes wrong, in the ideal sense, you and your husband have conferred on what kind of consequences you think are reasonable for your children. Because you both have a stake in that. And you don’t talk about it. That’s the friggin problem. Because it’s not a given that you both agree that the violation was this, and that it deserved this level of punishment if that’s what you were using. So think about that in a broader societal sense. We don’t all agree about what is the harm for you, that phobia might be the worst possible harm that can happen. And for me, I may roll my eyes and be like, That ain’t a big deal at all. Because it doesn’t matter to me, and it doesn’t impact me. But our hands aren’t really up there relative to according to where we think the thing is the most serious. So you mentioned mass murder. Okay, horrible. What are you feeling exercise by Exxon killing millions of people in different kinds of ways? Like, why is the systemic violence that institutions are responsible for? Why does Why do those not elicit similar outrage of mass murderers prison in Rikers has killed 17 people so far this year? That’s not in the press as a mass murderer? Is it? Right? It is? Murder. Right? If one guy down the street killed 17 people, I promise you that show would be on any and on TV and a law and order episode and whatever. And one five podcasts? Yeah, right. Our mind, institutional violence does not exercise us in the same way. Because it gets obscured. And interpersonal violence gets uplifted to like the worst possible thing ever. And I get why that is. But we should be thinking about consequences that are right sized for the situation, we should be asking ourselves if the consequences we’re putting in are causing more harm than good. We should ask ourselves if we think we can end violence with violence. Like right, can we is it is that the wet like you think about worldwide, we do a bunch of wars, we kill people by the, you know, by the 1000s. In our big. What has happened as a result of that has that right now, we have been super helpful. we’ve drained the resources of the country. 1000s of people on our end are killed. Millions of people on other people’s ends are killed. And the cycle continues on and on and on. We haven’t ended war. Right? Right. So all those are things to think about. Now, when somebody tells me what about the serial killers? And what about the rapist? I invite that question. In the same way as I invite every other question that happens and I want to ask people, yes. What about the rapist? Explain to me how the current system is ending rape. Right? I really want you to, like our most rapists locked up right now? That’s a question. They are not, of course not right? Like 2% of people actually who are accused of rape and go through the system ended up locked up behind bars. That means 98% of rapists are not locked up behind bars today. Tell me the fear that you have that says, I’m like, what? You’re leaving that now? Right? If we try something else, why this is not working? Right?

Traci Thomas 35:21
So So I hear you say this and it just reminded me that I heard you on Mark Lamont Hills podcast last year. Yeah, two years ago. And he he asked you, I think about the same question. And I think what you said, which is similar to what you’re saying right now, which was a huge shift for me was that it was like, Well, what’s your solution? And you’re like, Well, what we’re doing right now isn’t working, right. Like we can agree on that, like, prison is not working. It’s not stopping crime. It’s not stopping harm. It’s not stopping violence. It’s not helping people who are sick. It’s not helping people who are homeless. And that just that thing of like, oh, the system that we have right now is not working was enough for me to be like, Okay, I’m ready to step into this. And actually, like, think about this seriously, because I’ve sort of been playing with the idea of like, I don’t like the police. But like, what, what’s the solution? And like thinking in this, like very devil’s advocate a way of like, well, they don’t have a solution. They’re telling me just to imagine. And then when you said that, I was like, Oh, my God. Of course, I know. Police don’t work. I know, prisons are harmful. I know, the death penalty is the worst. To me. That is the worst armor on the face. To me. That’s the worst. death, the death penalty is the one that I’m just like, that is where I entered the thinking of abolition before I ever knew that. I was like, Look, I know that if someone killed my brother, I might feel like I want them dead. But I’m not the government. I’m not the representative of Miriam, of listener, a of my mom of your dad, I’m my representative for my family and my brother. And if you hurt my family, yes, I want you dead. And maybe I’ll try to kill Yes. But I don’t want the government to like that, for me made a lot of sense. But everything else was really hard. And when you said, what we’re doing now isn’t working. I feel like that unlocked so much for me. Like that was the key to being like, okay, let’s think about it. And I want to talk more about this, like one to one thing when we talk about the book, yeah. Prison by by any other name. Because there, there’s a whole section on that. And I think like we have a lot to dig into. So I’m gonna slightly skip over that for today. But what you’re saying about like, Now-

Mariame Kaba 37:37
I want to say something about, you know, at least not working. Because I think what I mean by that, if I’m saying the word working, is that the system is not serving those who are most harmed.

Traci Thomas 37:49
Yeah, I don’t think you use the word work. Yeah. Because I think what you probably said is the system is working as designed. But it’s not helping. It’s not it isn’t. It’s, yeah, it’s not reducing harm. It’s not reducing violence. It’s not helping the people who need assistance. It’s not making life easy. That’s what you said. Yeah, yeah. I don’t want to put work because you, you definitely were like the system is working as it’s supposed to be working. But it’s not helping us. It’s not changing.

Mariame Kaba 38:14
The system is recklessly and ruthlessly efficient at targeting the people it wants to target. Do you see we are not I love this, this kind of political and philosophical theorist, guy named Stanford, Stanford beer. And he says, the purpose of a system is what it does. The purpose of a system is what it does. Well, what does that mean, right? It’s not the purpose of the system is not what it says it’s intended to do. What it claims, it can’t do. It is what he does. So if you stop thinking of all the things that are currently happening, right, where people say, well, policing, we could just make it work differently and better. I’m like, but what is the purpose of policing? The purpose of policing is what it does, what does it do? And if you stop there, and you ask, what does it do put it on the table? If you say, well, it prevents, it responds to the most serious egregious harms? Well, no, the New York Times just put it out there recently that policing takes up that 4% of the time that police spent on is on violent crimes 4% of their time, what are they doing for the others are they doing for us to ask that question? And if you can’t figure out what the answers are to that, your it’s your imperative to figure that shit up? Yeah, what are they doing? If we’re being told that we’re spending $100 billion a year on cops, and that that is keeping us safe? And everybody keeps saying to me, the reason we can’t get rid of cops is because of violence. And I say to you, well, they only respond to violence 4% of the time to violent crime, then what the hell are they doing for the other 90. So if you want to, let’s begin, right? I’d say a bite saying, Okay, well, then if the only responding to that time 4% of the time, then they can definitely be defunded. And we can use those resources in other places. And let’s see what happens.

Traci Thomas 40:23
Let’s take 96% of their funding. Let’s start there. Maybe we won’t abolish the police. Let’s just start with 96% defund.

Mariame Kaba 40:32
Let’s start with 50! Which is what we have on the table in my, you know, a New York Times op op op ed and a couple of years ago, I was like, Okay, you are yelling at me about all this time, I’m saying let’s take 50% of their resources away from them. And let’s put those in other things I’m saying are salutory and then you give me 25 to 100 years of that kind of spending? And then let’s see what our society looks different. I promise you it will. It will.

Traci Thomas 41:04
Okay, we have to take a quick break and then we’ll be right back. Okay, we’re back. We’re we’re shifting to books I promise you everyone next week or at the end of the month when we do prism any other name we’re gonna get to a lot more questions we’re going through all sorts of reform all you reformist got ready. We’re coming for you. Okay, me I am is bringing the heat. We’re coming for reformist. But we’re gonna do ask the sacks which is where someone writes in, they asked for a book recommendation. This is from Dakota Dakota said I was wondering if you could give me a handful of recommendations of some nonfiction books. For nonfiction books, I really like to read about historical events that tie into the world that we are living in today. Similar to blood in the water and kill anything that moves. I’m not really interested in ones that discuss how great crotchety old white guys formed this country, which I’m sure I don’t really have to worry about from you. But I just wanted to put that out there. Okay, Dakota, I’ll go first, I’ll give you three. And then Mariame can give you one or two or three, whatever you want. So the first one is a book that just came out this year that I was very, not wanting to read, and then I read it and I thought it was very good, which is His name is George Floyd by Robert Samuels and Toluse over ranepa. I didn’t want to read it because I thought it was like some publicity grab, it was going to be icky. I thought it was going to be just like, I don’t know, gross. Then I started reading it. It’s fantastic. They treat George Floyd like a US President. They do his entire history, they find his family that was enslaved, they find out about the people that owned his family who those who those white people were, they go through his whole life, the people that loved him, it’s like over 400 interviews, I just thought it was really beautifully rendered. And I think that giving the giving the Presidential treatment, if you will, to people who have impacted the nation in such a way is only fair, especially given that his impact also cost him his life. So that’s my first one. My second one is one that I love so much that I haven’t recommended in a while because I’m trying not to only push one book, but it’s called 1000 lives by Julia shear. It’s about Jonestown. It is incredible. Similarly, this book focuses a lot on the on the women, the black women who were the backbone of the people’s Temple, which was people folk focus on Jim Jones. This book really focuses on the people that were part of his community. And then the last one, which is sort of in the same vein is going clear by Lawrence, right, which is a deep dive into Scientology, and I just love that book so much. So those are my three, Mariame, what do you have for us?

Mariame Kaba 43:38
That’s a great question. I can’t even tell you how many books I have running through my head right now that I’d love to recommend you can imagine. I’m kind of trying to get rid of books in my house, I have 1000s, I would say one that you might really enjoy is called at the dark end of the street. By Danielle McGuire, I could not I really cannot recommend this book any more. This book is the book that broke open for people be activism of Rosa Parks in the 1940s when she was supporting rape victims, when she was a NAACP investigator. And she supported a woman named Reesie Taylor, who was raped by a gang of white men. It may sound like this kind of like overly dire book, it’s written in a way that helps you to understand that the civil rights movement was essentially from its beginning, the Black Freedom Movement. That’s the modern period of time that we’re thinking about really started before the 60s before the 50s, you know, in the 40s and the 30s. But that bodily autonomy of black women was a motivating factor for people fighting back against Jim Crow and segregation. We didn’t I mean, it blew my mind even though I can’t wait to read. Oh my god. This is a book when you You read it, you’re gonna, you’re gonna be like, ma’am, you were 100%, right?

Traci Thomas 45:03
I’m gonna order it as soon as we’re done today.

Mariame Kaba 45:04
It shifts every perspective you’ve had on the Black Freedom Movement of the, of the mid century. The other book I would recommend to you is a book called, I got the light of freedom. I’ve got the light of freedom is a book by Charles Payne, who is the professor of long standing, and it was a mentor of mine at Northwestern University. Charles uses this book to explain to us what was going on, basically, in Alabama, and in Mississippi, during the Black Freedom Movement. And I, the reason I keep bringing up this period is because this period has such an impact on us today, right? We you wanted a nonfiction book that would relate and you read, I’ve got the light of freedom, you will feel so much hope, because it’s a book about organizing an organizer is not really in a way that it’s like a manual or how to, but through stories and storytelling, you really see how things are going with people. I think the last book I would recommend is something totally different. It is called spectacle. It’s The Astonishing Life of order Banga. And it’s a book by Pamela Newkirk, and it is this incredibly amazing story of an African man who was used as a human zoo exhibit in the US, and it tells a story of race and racism from a perspective that I think a lot of people don’t think about. He was from Congo. He was quote, unquote, a pygmy. He comes from Central Africa. He is exhibited at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904. And it is just, it’s a story about colonialism. It’s a story about the deep roots of anti blackness in the United States in the world. And it is you will, it will stay with you. It will stay with you after you’ve read it. And you will just first of all, if you’ve never heard of the human zoo exhibits, that will really it’s a tragic life that he ended up in a very short life, you which is not surprising, based on the trauma that he experienced. But I think you would just you’re going to be moved by. Yeah.

Traci Thomas 47:17
Oh my gosh, those are such good recommendations. If you read them, you have to tell us what you think. Yeah. And everyone else if you want a book recommendation on the show, email, ask the stacks at the stacks. podcast.com. Okay, now we get to your books. Okay. Two books you love one book you hate?

Mariame Kaba 47:34
Oh, two books I love Well, I mean, I’ve already shared a few of them in the recommendations. But I think I come back to Assad is biography. autobiography, all the time. It’s a book I love. I give out all the time to other people. I make recommendations other people. And I love. I was thinking about SR outsider by Audrey Lorde. It’s a book that I have on my desk now. And it’s just sits there i i pick it up from time to time. I’m constantly thinking about it. Yeah, but I love I love Laura’s poetry. I love Lord’s essays. So those are two books I love a lot. But that’s not they’re not my like, they’re not the favorite books of all time, but they’re the ones I love. And I come back to. And then one book I hate. I’ll say hate but I don’t. Now I’ve come to appreciate the book, but it’s capital Volume One by Karl Marx. I read that book four times before I finally got it. I read it once for school, in a class that I was taking as an undergrad didn’t get it at all. Read it in graduate school with other people didn’t get it at all. Read it again in another graduate school setting did not get it and then read it the fourth time in organizer setting. And finally it clicked. So it’s a book i i love to hate.

Traci Thomas 48:59
What are you reading right now? Anything I’m reading time to read?

Mariame Kaba 49:03
I read all the time. I read the bad public four books right now sitting that I’m thinking about. One is called a new book by Melanie Newport called This Is My jail. And it’s a history of Cook County Jail. And it’s just I don’t know if it’s even out yet. But I just got it. I pre ordered it. And I started reading it as soon as I got it a couple of days ago. So I love that book I’m reading who have Benjamin’s viral justice. How is it? Is it amazing? I’m obsessed with her. It’s really very good. And I really appreciate what she’s trying to do with the book. It’s a mix between story of her own life and how her own life ties to this kind of concept of connectedness, the ability to transform our conditions. It’s really an interesting, I didn’t I’m surprised by what I’m finding in the book so so that okay, I’m definitely looking at that. And then I’m also reading a book I’ve been wanting to read, and it just came out, and I’m thrilled. And it’s called the most absolute abolition. And it’s a book by a guy named historian named Jesse Osofsky. And it’s about the vigilance committees during the Underground Railroad period of time. And how enslaved people, black people, basically, it’s a story of how we freed ourselves, and kind of explodes people’s notions of what the Underground Railroad was and was not. I’m enjoying that greatly.

Traci Thomas 50:32
How do you decide what you’re going to read next? Are you reading book reviews? Are you going to friends is that people that reach out to you asking you to read their stuff? Like how do you? How do you decide what to actually pick up all of it?

Mariame Kaba 50:43
I get books. People send me a lot of books. People ask me to blurb books all the time. And so I get to read that way I listen to new books or radio. It’s like a podcast of new books and authors talking about their new books. That’s a way I find out a lot so many books that I never would have heard of before. I get lots of recommendations from friends who are like this is a book I loved and I’m reading I put that on my list I have an ongoing running list of books I want and then I have all the books I haven’t read that I’ve just ordered and that are now hundreds sitting there I need to get through some time in my lifetime. So those are all ways I do that. I don’t tend to read book reviews. Like I don’t find I’m not interested so much in like reviewers in a traditional sense critic kind of stuff. I’m more I’m more likely to pick things up according to what I hear it if it’s like interesting to me, what gets sent to me and then new books podcast.

Traci Thomas 51:41
I love that. I like to read reviews only after I’ve read the book. Yeah, that’s my favorite. I like to be like, Oh, you’re you’re an idiot. Like, oh, what a genius review. Are you agree with me about everything? You talked about nonfiction? Do you read fiction? Are you a fiction person?

Mariame Kaba 51:57

Traci Thomas 51:57

Mariame Kaba 51:57
I do nonfiction and poetry.

Traci Thomas 52:00
Okay, got it. And do you ever do audiobooks? Very rarely do I listen to audiobooks?

Mariame Kaba 52:07
I think my audiobooks are my podcasts. Yeah.

Traci Thomas 52:12
And what is your ideal reading setup, location, time of day snacks or beverage temperature? Where are you what’s going on?

Mariame Kaba 52:19
I read everywhere. I read in my bedroom a lot. I read in my living room and I leave in my office space. I’m reading on the train. I’m reading on the bus. I’m reading all the time. I love to read I think that it is revolutionary. The book itself as the technology is such a beautiful thing and boy of human creation. I don’t know what we’ve made technology wise that equals and rivals a book. A book is more Yeah, a book is much more revolutionary than a smartphone. Yeah.

Traci Thomas 53:02
Do you have a favorite bookstore?

Mariame Kaba 53:04
I have so many. I love women and children first in Chicago, one of my favorite bookstores out there. I’m a huge fan of red Emma’s and Baltimore. I love what they do. I’m a huge fan here in New York city of Blue Stockings, which is in lower Manhattan love their green, they have a delicious tea situation they had their beverages are so good. We partnered my organization project, NIA has partnered with them to create a free store where we we offer items that are mostly hygiene, you know, small numbers of like things that people can eat that are houseless. We also because our partnership is to create the free store for people who are just recently released from prisons and jails. Because they can go over there, they can get toothbrushes, you know, all that. And they work with the community in that. Wow. That’s so it’s a really Community Center, even more so than just a quote bookstore.

Traci Thomas 54:01
Right. Right. And they also, if you’re just there browsing, I love the like subject title, like the titles like the classifications where they organize their books, it’s like really specific. And it’s like, they made space for a lot of books that aren’t in other bookstores back, which is so enjoyable as I’m sure. Someone who reads a lot. Yeah, like, I’m tired of seeing the same seven books everywhere. And then it’s like you get in there nonfiction section and it’s like, black motherhood and I’m like this is a dream.

Mariame Kaba 54:32
They, they I was so honored that they named a section of their, of their children’s book area after me the little plaque over there. I mean, Oh,

Traci Thomas 54:44
that’s right. It’s so lovely. It’s so yeah, yeah, I love that store. Okay, this is sort of our rapid fire around. What’s the last book you purchased? I think you just told us

Mariame Kaba 54:53
oh my gosh, I mean, the last I purchased literally, I purchased the book yesterday. What did I put which is yesterday? That’s a great question. Oh, yes. I purchased the book that is from a guy named Ruben Ruben Alvis, who was a theologian. And I needed to, it’s called the poet the warrior in the Prophet. I purchased that yesterday. Cool. What’s the last book that made you laugh? Laugh like an actual belly laugh rather than like, like, you could laugh in any way that made you laugh. If it made you laugh, like, what is this? Or like? Hilarious. I don’t read many books that make me laugh. I should. Yeah, even though I love to laugh I have I can’t remember. Yeah. What about a book that made you cry? Wow. Probably solitary. By Woodfox. It’s literally right above my head. Right? It is that is one of the best books of the last 10 years. Okay, it’s, it’s, I might start that. Oh, my God. It is. And you know, he recently passed, he just passed. And I mean, seriously, Tracy, I just, I don’t even know how to excel. I read it cried my eyes out. But was so friggin hopeful. It was so weird. But yeah,

Traci Thomas 56:22
I’m inserting a question that’s not normally on the questionnaire for you. Because I feel like maybe you’ll know. So I read a lot of like, prison memoir. I think that’s maybe what you call it like solitary. And I read a lot of it with this hope that I’m going to really like one one day. Yeah. But I find that a lot of them are ended up being like, pro prison. Yeah. Like, are there any that you can think of that you really love that don’t feel pro prison as like, there’s so many where it’s like, all this horrible stuff happened to me. And then I went to prison. And I found Jesus and I was on good behavior. And I left and now I’m a good person. And I met Joe Biden and like, I, I hate it so much. Because it’s like the first half of the book. I’ll be like, Yes, let’s go like, come on you. You deserve this story. Like, I want to hear it. And then it’s like, then I joined the women’s group in the prison. And now I believe the prisons are great. And I’m like, no, no,

Mariame Kaba 57:19
yeah, it’s not. It’s hard, because those are the books that publishers want to see. Right. And those are not the books that I want to see. Because I think that’s real. No, and you know, what won’t be that book is is solitary does not do that at all. And okay, I think about Yeah, I think about that. I also think, I don’t know if you’ve ever read Soledad brothers?

Traci Thomas 57:45
I haven’t. But I have, I think actually bought that at Bluestocking. Yeah, had kept wanting it. And I finally purchased it.

Mariame Kaba 57:51
It’s not a memoir, but it is a book written by an incarcerated person that is deeply well thought through. And you know, frankly, the autobiography of Malcolm X is a yes. Yeah, no, but that doesn’t do that. Same with rebuild. So yeah, so those are some that I can think of, but I, I’m really curious to see what you think about solitary.

Traci Thomas 58:13
I’m gonna Start that, yeah, I have to read two books in the next few days. And then I think that I get I get free time reading. Oh, like, Oh, I’m almost done reading for the show for the year. I like to build in that, like I finished the show. So that December, I can just do what I want. Okay, what about the law? I bet you have a lot of these. What about the last book that made you angry?

Mariame Kaba 58:33
There’s so many. I can’t even I mean, I’m reading this as my jail right now. And that that’s infuriating me to know, and and I feel like the books that make me so angry are not the typical books about like, how, you know, you mentioned blood in the water. And like that, that kind of book is just like, general corruption. Like, you know what I mean? Like, just straight up corruption by the state. Like, I expect that like, I read it, that’s kind of like the CNN, you know what I mean? Like, yeah. But, but this is my chill makes me angry, because it’s the it’s the constant, reformer, bullshit. Like, it’s like, this person is going to come in and do this thing. And it’s like, they’re not going to do this thing. The Cook County Jail is a hellhole, and it’s 2008 You know, it’s 2022. And you’re riding a bike. 1968 Like, it’s just, it exhausts me. It exhausts me, and I think maybe less angry than it is just like, deep, profound frustration. Yeah, yeah. Those are the kinds of books that really just I can’t, you know,

Traci Thomas 59:41
what is a book- What’s your problematic favorite book?

Mariame Kaba 59:45
I read a lot of Jane Austen, which I love. That’s where my fiction goes. I love Austin, and there’s so much that’s problematic about her and I love her. I read, you know, when I’m trying to like not think I read romance novels from like, Harlequinn. You know, like, it’s the same reason I watched like, you know, Christmas movies on Hallmark, you know, like, I’m not trying to think, there’s no plot. I don’t have to do character development. Just nothing but like reading and not even thinking as I’m reading.

Traci Thomas 1:00:22
So yeah, that’s my Grey’s Anatomy and bachelor bachelor show. That’s for me, we all need it. We all need it, for sure. Especially when you read a lot of like, heavier stuff like to where you have to think and it like has real consequences. Yeah. People like you watch The Bachelor. I’m like, Yeah, I have to. I have to.

Mariame Kaba 1:00:43
It’s entertaining. I’m sure. I don’t watch The Bachelor.

Traci Thomas 1:00:46
It is bad, though. Like they tried to like dabble in race. And I was like, Can you not?

Mariame Kaba 1:00:51
Oh my god, I am so with you! I don’t want black people on Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. People are like, Maryam stop doing that. I’m like, I like the anthropological whiteness of those shows. Like, I don’t want to think about quote, real life in the movie.

Traci Thomas 1:01:08
White mess! I’m here for white mess. And when your white mess gets on black people, then I have to start thinking about the implications for the Black woman! Um, okay. Oh, I’m very, very curious about this. What’s the book you would assign only one to high school students?

Mariame Kaba 1:01:29
Wow. The book that there are two books. One is the autobiography of Malcolm X, which radicalized me as a child as a young that was assigned to me in high school, and I didn’t read Oh, my God, I read it and call it I call it I’m telling you, I would assign that book to any young person and tell them to immediately read it. And I know they will be transformed because I really that book just stuck with me in such a real way. And the other book that I might assign, it’s a good question. I’m trying to think of off the top of my head by a sign. Probably the Jun Jordan’s columns. Collected Works. I probably would want I would want them to read that.

Traci Thomas 1:02:17
Okay. Last one for today. If you could require the current president of the United States, Joseph, Robinette Biden to read one book, what would it be? That’s such an interesting question. Yeah, well, this questions really changed since I started doing the show. It used to be Trump and yeah, to be like, much more flip. You know, it’d be like a how to read book. Yeah, yeah. But now I like that it’s a president that people have to actually consider. Yeah, seriously. And Joe has a lot of things to consider what they want.

Mariame Kaba 1:02:52
There’s a there’s a book that I really appreciated last year or early this year that I it’s hard all the time with pandemic prime is just one thing is a book that was written by Spencer Ackerman, which is called Reign of Terror, which I have thought to Yeah, which hit just for him. I think because imperialism in the current moment is so on. Kind of we’re not we don’t have a robust anti war movement. We’re not in, in a space as a country where we really focus on international implications of what we do domestically. I feel like that book really explodes the what could have happened at 911. And after, in a way that I don’t think more some of the kind of more didactic books that are out there. Don’t do the book is riveting. It is infuriating. If you want to talk about getting angry, you will be furious. But you will also just be like, what a friggin waste? What a waste. What could what could we have done. We talked about abolition as a possibility, based vision as a vision of emancipation and abundance. And we constantly think about, like, what could we have done with all those resources, all those people that were unnecessarily harmed and killed all of us? Or we have not even evaluated how we changed as a people. Like what happened to us as people through that time. We haven’t been able to even have a reckoning over that yet. And it’s, what 20 years ago now, you know, yeah, I would, I would suggest that book.

Traci Thomas 1:04:40
Oh, my gosh, okay. We’re gonna let you go today. But you’ll be back on November 30, to talk about prison by any other name. Miriame, thank you so much. This was such a delight.

Mariame Kaba 1:04:51
Such a wonderful time. I’m thrilled. I mean, to be able to talk about books for an hour. It’s like a joy.

Traci Thomas 1:04:58
I agree. Everyone else we will see you in The Stacks.

Alright, that does it for us today. Thank you all so much for listening. And of course, thank you to Mariame Kaba for being our guest. Remember to listen to our November 30 book club discussion of prison by any other name the harmful consequences of popular reforms by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law, Mariame will be back for that conversation. If you love the show and what insight access to it head to patreon.com/thestacks and join The Stacks Pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you’re listening through Apple podcasts, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stocks follow us on social media at the stocks pod on Instagram and at the stocks pod underscore on Twitter and check out our website the stocks podcast.com This episode of The Stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistants from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin McCreight. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.

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