Book Reviews

Mariame Kaba. We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Press, 2021. 240p. Paper, $16.95 (ISBN: 164259525X).

Book cover for We do this

“Prisons haven’t always existed. They came into being…”

“I don’t believe in self-care: I believe in collective care…”

“…hope is a discipline and…we have to practice it every single day.”

These three sentiments continuously repeat in my mind, over and over again, since reading Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice. Filled to the brim with thoughtful, liberating, and radical essays and interviews on the prison industrial complex, prison abolition, and all that lies in between, Kaba manages to create an accessible tome for collective abolition activism while never becoming reductive.

Calls to defund the police and for the abolition of the many layered carceral systems prevalent in the United States reached mainstream ears during the protests of the summer of 2020. Amid national mourning over the unending disregard for black life, Kaba’s book came at a time, one could argue, when we need it most. Every instance of police brutality, unjust incarceration, and the myriad traumas that come from the White Supremacy–laden institution of policing and the justice system contributes to the messages we hear repeating on a loop: countless calls for “reforms” that only further bolster the prison industrial complex’s pockets with our money. We are told by our politicians that their “thoughts and prayers” are with us and that these issues are but consequences of a “few bad apples.” It becomes easy, as someone who wishes for change, to fall into a cycle of petition signing, social media posting, and, eventually, sitting in a sense of demoralization as the powers that be once again show us that they are wholly uninterested in the material change we deeply need.

We Do This ’Til We Free Us is a break in this cycle of demoralization. Kaba gracefully distills the complexity of our justice system to the most clearcut issue: harm. So much of how we view crime and punishment is through the lens of harming the harmer as a form of restitution. However, as Kaba states in her essay “Transforming Punishment: What Is Accountability without Punishment?” “the power dynamics that create the conditions that fuel sexual violence go unaddressed and are even maintained by criminal legal proceedings.” More than once, she reminds us that accountability cannot be forced upon those who cause harm to others and that our cycle of submitting people to the “physical, social, and civic death” of imprisonment only feeds our overcrowded prisons.

Kaba continuously reminds us that we can look beyond our “failure of imagination” where it is either “prison or nothing” when speaking to folks about abolition. However, none of this work can be done alone. This idea is at the heart of her abolitionist message, at the heart of redressing harm, at the heart of caring for victims, and at the heart of activism as a whole. And what makes these notions of community-centered activism so powerful is Kaba’s ability to move easily between high-level histories to hands-on, feet-on-the-ground organizing, to personal reflections on her own role in the activist community and what she learns from being embedded in activist communities.

In Kaba’s interview with Damon Williams and Daniel Kisslinger, she offers a beautiful moment of self-reflection. Kaba addresses her natural instinct to “always remind everybody of everything else and everybody else” and the moment of accountability it took for her to begin placing her name on the things she was creating. Collective action is the only way to change the structures of our society, and a part of collective work is acknowledging the work of others and the work you yourself have created. And not only to receive and share praise but—more importantly—to create transparent dialogue between organizers. These introspective moments Kaba brings to these essays and interviews ultimately make Kaba’s book a deeply accessible and usable reference for years to come as we collectively imagine a transformed and more caring world.

The timeliness and timelessness of Kaba’s subject fits the needs of librarians and other LIS practitioners and the positions we find ourselves in as stewards of information today. As library workers, we should absorb books like We Do This ’Til We Free Us not only because Mariame Kaba herself is pursuing a degree in Library and Information Science. The students, faculty, and multitude of patrons we serve are paying attention to these issues. These issues affect our patrons personally and materially; and, if there is anything we can learn from Kaba, it is that what affects one in a community touches us all. Collective community care work should be at the center of what LIS professionals do. As Kaba says in her writing, there is no single way to perform activist work. The role of those of us in the LIS profession has historically been in flux, but in principle, our work and our impact extend beyond the walls of our institutions. How we work toward freedom in our libraries follows our patrons as they embark into the world we share.—Shawne West, University of California, Los Angeles

Copyright Shawne West

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