Mariame Kaba is a longtime organizer around issues of prisons, policing and criminalization. She is the founder and director of Project NIA, which has as its goal the ending of youth incarceration.
Sarah Jaffe: The project that you have launched in the wake of Donald Trump’s election is around healthcare. Why are you focusing on this right now?
Mariame Kaba: I am organizing, along with other volunteers, a “Medicare for All” virtual day of action that is slated for Inauguration Day, January 20. I have been listening to a lot of the conversations that have been happening around the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with a mix of dread and frustration. Dread, mainly because I get my healthcare through the exchange, through the Affordable Care Act. So it is directly impacting me. And frustration, because I always thought that it was really important for the message to be not about just “don’t repeal the ACA,” which is filled with a lot of problems and is based on a model, in my opinion, that is flawed to begin with, a market-based healthcare system. I wanted to insert in the conversation more loudly the idea that we need to be pushing for a “Medicare for All” system, a single-payer system that takes profit out of health and healthcare. That is the intervention that I am making in the moment as a way to give people a sense of what might be possible in terms of organizing along the horizon. That we might be able to draw people across difference to build something together around an issue that has such an impact and crosses so many different kinds of spaces and impacts so many different kinds of people all across the country.
SJ: Can you talk a little bit more about that?
MK: First and foremost, on a fundamental level, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have your life. It is a life and death issue for many people. I have chronic illnesses. I absolutely depend on being able to have insurance in order to be able to access care. If I couldn’t have insurance, then it is very, very possible that I would end up dead much sooner than if I had it. That kind of life and death issue, that is a visceral kind of issue for people that is really important.
The other thing is that it is an economic issue. If you cannot access proper healthcare, it impacts your ability to work, but also if you get sick, God forbid, you end up in a position where you might just be bankrupt in the end. It is also an economic issue because, in our country, the forces of capitalism rule supreme and healthcare is basically a great way to talk to people about the forces of capitalism and capital and the way it rations things that we need, the way that it makes things incredibly expensive that should actually be cheap, the way that it alienates us from ourselves.
Everybody in this country wants to be able to access care. Healthcare should be a right. It is a human right. Even if the ACA wasn’t under attack, this is an issue that we should be raising. Also, strategically, if we fight along the lines of a single-payer system, “Medicare for All,” we are going to push the Democratic Party left, too, in the process. It really does need to be pushed left, for those people who want to continue to struggle within the arena of electoral organizing. This is a great opportunity to rally a lot of people together to fight together to win.
SJ: Can you talk about how this could work as a state-by-state strategy?
MK: Absolutely, and also a local strategy. We are going to have to figure out ways to create community-based free clinics, things that are going to be on the side of the defend and protect side of this equation while we are fighting on the expansion side. That is really important. That is where a lot of the most important organizing has already been taking place, and will continue to take place, on the state level. People in Washington state are pushing for a ballot initiative for single-payer. People have tried to do it in Vermont. People have tried to push a Colorado ballot initiative for single-payer, which lost huge. That gives us an opportunity to think about, “What was it in the messaging, what was it in the lack of political education, what was it in the organizing strategy that made people reject it in an 80/20 split?” Learning from those individual state ballot initiatives will help us to build a stronger set of campaigns in individual states around the country. I think that is a great opportunity for us as the federal government space is going to be foreclosed to many different kinds of demands in the moment. We are going to have to be more strategic about how we operate at the local and state levels. That connects, eventually, to talking about the carceral state and prisons. Anti-prison organizing, as well, is mostly a state issue.
SJ: The Black Panthers created a free ambulance service in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They connected the work of mutual aid around healthcare and the fight against criminalization.
MK: I was listening to a talk that Dean Spade gave a couple of weeks back in New York. He was really emphasizing the importance of mutual aid and mutual support, something that I have always thought is critical and important in organizing work, but will be even more so as we move forward. I think we have an opportunity to be creative in ways that we haven’t actually explored in the past, because we rely so much on the same way of doing things over time that sometimes we have gotten stuck in a rut. This is going to force us to be more creative than ever, to be in some ways hyper-local. Sometimes people see that as a negative. For me, it is not. This is a huge country. There are so many different kinds of communities and those communities have very specific needs. We have to be open to people innovating and trying to figure out how to best meet the needs of their individual communities. I think that we are in a moment where we have to unleash, as Jeff Chang says, mass creativity all over the place. This is going to be in all aspects of the work that we do, but especially in our organizing. I think that we are in a moment where we can do a lot and we have a good foundation for the work that we need to do going forward.
SJ: Part of the wave that elected Donald Trump, to whatever extent it was a wave, involved this Blue Lives Matter framing and backlash from the police and their supporters. Talk about the way the movement for Black lives and against prisons and policing changes and the way it continues to be central to resisting Trump.
MK: I jumped pretty quickly into doing “Medicare for All” and the day of action, so I haven’t thought as deeply about what the role of the movement for Black lives is now. I know that stoking fear around murder rising to exponential degrees was critical to the sales pitch that Trump was doing, his “I am going to be this law and order tough guy and protect you from these thugs,” that was a huge part of the narrative that he was knitting together. That resonated for a lot of people.
This is going to be a gut check moment for a lot of people who call themselves anti-prison organizers and have been very focused on reforms and have fought, inexplicably, mainly at the federal level when criminal punishment is really hugely a state and a county issue. It is a city and township and a municipality issue when you are talking about policing, but when you are talking about incarceration and detention and all of that, that is at the county and at the state level. We already are seeing this uneven set of decreases in numbers of people who are incarcerated across the country. In some states there have been precipitous drops of numbers of people and in other states, there have been increases. You are very much seeing a whole bunch of different kinds of things happening in different kinds of places.
I think this is a moment where people are going to be forced to actually do the work that needs to be done at our state and local levels in order for it to be successful. It is also really an important moment for reframing what the new narrative has become. A lot of the push has been on what we need to do to get what Marie Gottschalk calls the “non-non-nons” which are the non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders. That has been the focus of who we need to de-carcerate. The low hanging fruit. The drug war unfair convictions. You had a joint and you ended up with a 20-year sentence. That is an exaggeration and that is not the norm at all, but the conversation that we have is that we really need to focus on making sure that we de-carcerate non-violent offenders and non-violent offenses. I think we need to reframe that conversation. We are not going end mass incarceration that way. We have to address how people are being sentenced for violent crimes.
It feels counter-intuitive to talk about the fact that in the Trump era that we are going to have to address the issue of violent crimes, but I always think one of the most important things you can do in any moment, particularly in moments where it appears that you don’t have that much leverage, is to actually do a lot of narrative building and to fight on the ground that you actually want to fight on rather than be fighting on the ground that you think is most amenable to your audiences at various levels.
SJ: It seems like the questions around violence are going to be core to the next four years, whether we are talking about an increase in racist violence or questions of strategies for fighting back—the narratives that are going around about how you respond to racist violence, to hate attacks and how to think about solutions that aren't calling police.
MK: The kind of liberal embrace of the concept of hate crimes—Kay Whitlock and others have been writing about for a very long time. A lot of queer theorists have written about the fact that, in fact, we shouldn’t be trying to up-crime various kinds of behaviors and various kinds of harms. It actually gets turned back against the most marginalized when we use those kinds of frames. After all, what is a hate crime? What does that mean? You are trying to look at people’s motivation and then you are tacking on extra sentencing time? It just doesn’t make any sense. We really are going to have to figure out, even more now, ways to solve problems within our communities without relying on the state because it is already the case, that the police are unleashed on our communities, already. Can you imagine now with Jeff Sessions, for example, as the attorney general, who is at his hearing basically saying “The cops have nothing to be reproached about. They are absolutely blameless. In fact, I don’t believe in consent decrees?” Even the minimal kinds of mechanisms and tools that the federal government has at its disposal to try, in some way, to intervene with rogue departments are gone.
If you thought before that the police were your friends, you are definitely not going to think that now when they are going to basically be given carte blanche to act with impunity. We are just going to have to figure out “What are the community accountability models that we can build at the local level to solve our problems, to address harm, to figure out how we are going to be able to have better interactions with each other, have stronger relationships with each other?” We need that more than ever in this moment. I think everything, basically, is up for transformation. Everything is up for being reconsidered in this moment. That is both daunting, but also incredibly freeing in a way—people haven’t gotten to that point yet to see that aspect of it, but I hope we get there soon.
SJ: You are not in Chicago anymore, but you spent quite a long time in Chicago, which has an incredibly well-organized left, and has the distinct honor of being the one city where Donald Trump actually cancelled a rally because there were so many protestors. What can people in other cities learn from the way movements in Chicago have worked together?
MK: I think there is something about Chicago being ground zero for neoliberal Democratic rule that has built up the muscles that people need, in that particular city, to resist. The mass closure of public schools, which basically has helped to radicalize the teacher's union in Chicago, and created a different kind of social justice teacher’s union, basically. The closure, in large part, of most of the public mental health clinics over just the last six to seven, eight years. This is the timeframe within which this stuff is going on, accelerating. It is ground zero for re-thinking, and also then, fighting in a different way around the austerity agenda. You have people like the Grassroots Collaborative giving us the intellectual scaffolding of Chicago being broke on purpose. That there is money available. That the financial sector is actually benefitting disproportionately and grossly in a way that is actually seizing and taking resources away from various people. It is the city of Jon Burge and torture, of real police torture. People have had to fight on the policing front for decades. So, when there are opportunities and windows and moments, people are already organized and poised to actually fly through the openings to be able to win some stuff around that. It is the place where [Saul] Alinsky organizing was born and so people have this experience of neighborhood-based, community-based organizing that is in the lifeblood of the city. It is the place where the Nation of Islam is centered and built, so the concept of self-determination and Black liberation of a certain type has its roots there. It is a city that was fighting around issues of Garveyism, that has a big amount of its roots in the Chicago area and the Midwest. It is the soup of all of those things, that make it so the people who are there who are veteran organizers always, in some ways, have been multi-issue people, have not just been in individual silos. The city is small enough—it isn’t New York-sized—that you get to know people in different ways. A lot of the anti-eviction organizing, the direct action around literally putting your body on the line, that has been going on for decades in Chicago. I think there are lots of reasons, but those are some.
SJ: To wrap up, obviously, racism was central to Donald Trump’s appeals and attacks. I would love to have you talk about what anti-racist organizing looks like when you have this explicitly racist force that just won a big victory.
MK: I am not interested in organizing with racists. I am not explicitly going out trying to do that. But, here is what I think is important, at least for me, is that this is a racist country. We are organizing with racists, so to speak. That is just part of the soup. That is the air that we breathe. What I think is important in this moment is that we find issues around which broad scopes of people could unite enough, strategically, to be able to win a few things that we want. That doesn’t mean that everybody has to work with everybody. It doesn’t mean that we have to have some false sense of unity.
I think that some of that organizing is going to be done by intermediaries. I am thinking, particularly, white people who left rural areas, now is a good time to go and find out who else is doing interesting organizing in your old town and connect with those people and see whether or not there are issues that folks that you know in your particular place want to organize around and want to link up.
What we should be doing is operationalizing specific kinds of opportunities, campaigns, concrete things that we could do with other people. Again, make sure that there are intermediaries who can be dispatched to do work with the people they should do work with. I am not going to be organizing white working class people. There is no reason for me to be the person who is organizing that particular group, but it would be good if other white working class people would organize with each other and find a way to be able to connect more broadly.
We should be less concerned about these thinkpiece ideas of the generic white working class, which is getting an incredibly terrible bad rap because the people who supported Trump are not overwhelmingly white working class, since most white working class people, most poor people of any race, don’t actually engage in elections. They don’t vote in big numbers in terms of percentage of their population. This idea that everybody is blaming—including, frankly, other white people—are blaming the white working class, when in fact, it is middle class and rich folks who went big for Trump. They are getting off scot free, while the scapegoats are being made of white working class people. That is a problem in and of itself.
We have to shake things up and focus less on a lot of pontification, analysis, right now. Focus less on that and focus more on instrumental ways for us to act. Find ways to act and find ways to act with numbers and together. What actions can we take?
SJ: On that note, where can people find more information about your “Medicare for All” day of action, broader organizing and other work that you are doing?
MK: People can go to www.fight4medicare.com. People can also go to our Facebook and Twitter pages to find out about the day of action. We will be keeping up that site and putting more information for where people can actually connect with state-based coalitions that are doing single-payer work. Healthcare-Now! is doing excellent rapid response and ongoing single-payer organizing. On this Sunday, Our First Stand, Bernie Sanders and some of the Democrats are encouraging people to have rallies around the country to tell the Republicans not to repeal ACA, not to cut Medicare, not to cut Medicaid. Those are all places where people can connect with that work. If people are interested in my work around criminalization, they can go to my blog, www.usprisonculture.com.
This interview first appeared at In These Times.