Review: We Do This 'Til We Free Us

Chris McNutt
May 23, 2021
Mariame Kaba's collection of writings, We Do This 'Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice is a perfect encapsulation of understanding the carceral network, the importance of organizing, and counteracting inhumane systems.
We desperately need our schools and communities to become restorative and transformative spaces. - Mariame Kaba

Mariame Kaba's collection of writings, We Do This 'Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice is a perfect encapsulation of understanding the carceral network, the importance of organizing, and counteracting inhumane systems. Taking readers through a variety of topics centered on abolition, Kaba offers organizers advice on maintaining hope in spite of constant looming threats and setbacks. She pushes readers to join the movement and make change.

As an educator, this work provides two radically important narratives:

1) It frames an understanding of the criminal justice system in the United States so that educators can recognize and counteract dehumanizing practices within their classrooms, as well as join activists in demanding transformation in their communities.

2) It offers an understanding of abolitionism in policing and prisons that is equally as applicable to classroom practice. Educators must understand profound systemic and historic injustice to be effective teachers.

Kaba defines abolition as a community that counteracts harm without perpetuating violence — where we have our basic needs met that leads to community safety. By perpetuating systems of state violence, racialized oppression continually occurs, people of color continue to be targeted, and violence is not curbed. Solving this is accomplished through defunding the police, ending the carceral state, and a transformation of the criminal legal system.

Project NIA (Kaba's non-profit for ending juvenile incarceration) offers this YouTube video on what it means to defund the people.
Abolition requires dismantling the oppressive systems that live out there—and within us.

We Do This 'Til We Free Us presents a series of short articles on fighting back against systemic oppression, which is a calculated (yet needed) risk for educators to counteract carceral practices in their rooms and community. A convincing argument dictates why full abolition (the ending of prisons and policing) is needed; a restructuring of society centered on providing folks with necessities to reduce violence. This requires a reimagination of systems: instead of questioning how to make current systems better, we're thinking of new possibilities from square one. By reflecting on our biases and privilege (and learning the how and why of these biases), we can open ourselves to creating a better future.

Kaba calls for a simultaneous strategy to reduce the impact of the current criminal legal system while recognizing that the ultimate goal is complete abolition from any prison or policing. She pushes back against a narrative that the system "doesn't work":

Importantly, we must reject all talk about policing and the overall criminal punishment system being “broken” or “not working.” By rhetorically constructing the criminal punishment system as “broken,” reform is reaffirmed and abolition is painted as unrealistic and unworkable. Those of us who maintain that reform is actually impossible within the current context are positioned as unreasonable and naive. Ideological formations often operate invisibly to delineate and define what is acceptable discourse. Challenges to dominant ideological formations about “justice” are met with anger, ridicule, or are simply ignored. This is in the service of those who benefit from the current system and works to enforce white supremacy and anti-Blackness. The losers under this injustice system are the young people I know and love.

When examining the current carceral system at face value, it's hard to imagine that any improvements will make a substantial difference in the effectiveness of the "justice" system, especially when recognizing the decades and centuries of policing and prison reform in the United States. Simply stated, the way to build a loving, safe community is by transferring funding from the carceral network to community needs such as health care, education, and housing. As Kaba states, our goal is to make the police department obsolete, not abandon communities to violence.

Then the question becomes, what does it look like to have abolition? Is it possible to make that drastic of a change? Kaba addresses this:

When confronted with statistics about how unevenly criminal penalties are applied in the United States, or with historical evidence that policing and incarceration have always been grounded in anti-Blackness, Native erasure, and protection of property, most leftists will decry the system and agree that change is long overdue. But such admissions are usually followed by an insistence that we cannot simply uproot the system, because we don’t have polished, universalized, fully formed solutions to address the dangers some individuals, often characterized as predators, may pose to our communities.

In our current system, we mistakenly believe that the carceral network curbs behavior or somehow solves any problems of violence; yet we are constantly presented with the fact it doesn't work: prison recidivism rates are extraordinarily high, people who commit crimes with wealth and power routinely avoid any punishment, and additional rules, regulations, and police funding don't decrease community violence. Instead, we should be examining why the violence is occurring to begin with.

Obviously, this is an incredibly uphill battle to climb. Kaba spends many chapters speaking on hope as a discipline, and how this movement will require steadfast support:

I believe ultimately that we’re going to win, because I believe there are more people who want justice, real justice, than there are those who are working against that. And I don’t take a short-term view. I take a long view, understanding full well that I’m just a tiny, little part of a story that already has a huge antecedent and has something that is going to come after that. I’m definitely not going to be even close to around for seeing the end of it. That also puts me in the right frame of mind: that my little friggin’ thing I’m doing is actually pretty insignificant in world history, but if it’s significant to one or two people, I feel good about that.

Adding later,

When you understand that you’re really insignificant in the grand scheme of things, then it’s a freedom, in my opinion, to actually be able to do the work that’s necessary as you see it and to contribute in the ways that you see fit.

The book makes a convincing case that we need more activists working to make change in their local communities and at-scale. There's a need for a collective network of individuals so one doesn't reinvent the wheel, but that shouldn't deter activists from starting to demand change right away. As people continually strive toward transformation, they gain power to the point that there is a radical change in the status quo.

For educators, we see the need for social justice. We recognize that many students, predominately students of color, are pushed out of the schooling system to the criminal legal system. School handbook policies, student resource officers, and "discipline" usually mirror the same issues as prisons: behavior isn't curbed, people are less safe, and people are marginalized. Further, the academic practices of schools, such as high-stakes standardized testing, student tracking, biased special education labeling, and whitewashed curricula deter students of color from the best possible academic outcomes.

Kaba addresses why zero-tolerance policies and "accountability", leading to a surveillance network featuring cameras, guards, metal detectors (and with COVID, screen spies and lockdown browsers), dehumanize students. This is backed up by horrifying statistics on racial oppression and targeting of students of color, who overwhelming are the target of discipline and microaggressions.

Then, our obsession with high stakes testing promotes a drill culture that detracts from student interests (e.g. art, music, sports) toward controlling movement and beguiling "focus." Widely read books such as Teach Like a Champion encourage educators to set up controlling, "rigorous" classrooms: such as forcing students to sit up and follow their eyes on the teacher, making steps to "get compliance without conflict", subtly reminding students "you are looking", and cold calling. These techniques are often employed in "college and career ready", high-stakes, "highly-rated" (via standardized testing statistics) schools with predominately students of color.

The official Teach Like a Champion instructional video features a white teacher gaining compliance of a classroom of entirely Black students.
The popular Real Rap with Reynolds YouTube channel encourages compliance techniques in a "cool way" to overwhelming support.

Missing from these conversations is: what happens when students do not comply? Once a student is sent to the office, what happens to them? What if a student doesn't care about the classroom content? What if they don't have necessary supports in or outside of school? When we create classroom systems focused on compliance rather than engagement, we quickly turn our practice into making everyone do the same thing in the same fashion dictated by the instructor. If you aren't interested, want to do something different, or don't follow the cultural expectations of the (often white) teacher, then there's something wrong with you that needs to be adjusted.

The fundamental problems with compliance-based, high-stakes "accountability" classrooms are the same as the justice system. Despite efforts to stop students of color being disproportionately targeted by overly controlling educators, such as anti-bias training, the problems continue to exist. This is no different than the same reform measures on policing.

Kaba describes the issue with schools obsessed with competition, testing, and compliance:

In a landscape where market-based reforms have naturalized competition between students and across districts, where failure always results in sanctions, some struggling schools actively weed out students who do not meet the requirements of the test. In Florida, for example, schools have suspended low-performing students in order to improve their overall test results. Encouragingly, students, teachers, and parents have protested this practice of teaching to the test, with calls to treat them as “more than a score.” Additionally, attacks on workplace rights are tied to the carceral logic. Corporate-driven reforms that reshape schools as sites of temporary and unprotected labor constrain school personnel’s capacity to interrupt the STPP. We know that students benefit when teachers have workplace protections that foster speech, independent thinking, and advocacy. The push to de-professionalize and de-unionize school personnel—and reframe teachers as Peace Corps lightworkers—transforms teachers into precariously employed charity workers with few rights and meager compensation.

Therefore, teachers must push to make classrooms a liberatory, transformative, and restorative space. This can be done in two ways:

1) Educating oneself on discriminatory and controlling systems in schools, demanding change within one's space, such as promoting restorative justice, gradeless learning, and decolonizing the curriculum. Further, we must push back against increasingly mainstream practices of surveillance, compliance culture, and other classroom policing techniques; as well as attacks on "decisive concepts" and critical race theory.

2) Promoting and engaging in advocacy work outside of the classroom that promote increased funding of schools, equitable funding of communities, and ensuring access to quality community resources for young people and their families. After all, changing the education system isn't enough. Hence, why Finnish schools are highly-rated across the board despite being fairly traditional. (They have virtually no homelessness and an intricate welfare state.)

As we engage in change-making, there is a push for reform and abolition, not one or the other. Kaba explains,

People think that either you’re interested in reform or you’re an abolitionist—that you have to choose to be in one camp or the other. I don’t think that way. For some people, reform is the main focus and end goal and for some people, abolition is the horizon. But I don’t know anybody who is an abolitionist who doesn’t support some reforms. Mainly those reforms are, to use the term coined by André Gorz and popularized by Ruth Wilson Gilmore here in the United States, non-reformist reforms. Which reforms don’t make it harder for us to dismantle the systems we are trying to abolish? Don’t make it harder to create new things? What “non-reformist” reforms will help us move toward the horizon of abolition? Sometimes people who you love dearly want you to fight for their reformist reform. They want you to fight for something they think will benefit a small tiny sliver of the people harmed by this behemoth monster without consideration for how it would then entrench other things that would make life harder for other people.

In the classroom, we can simultaneously build human-centered systems (e.g. switching to a portfolio rather than a one-and-done test), advocate for a full transition away from grades, and demand proper funding of our communities. However, we must be careful that we're not just making current systems bearable. An issue I take with programs such as Teach Like a Pirate is its cornerstone proposal: creating "hooks" to drive students toward engaging in content, which is based on the principle belief of control through "fun." If we stop at classroom change with "make what exists really exciting", we fundamentally miss the mark on why we need radical classroom change to truly transform and build an equitable learning experience. It exhausts ourselves from focusing on the greater questions about school.

Focusing our energy on creating new systems ensures we create high-quality progressive environments that recognize student and teacher humanity, and in-turn build robust learning communities. Sometimes, educators will believe these ideas in theory but not recognize the deeper, underlying changes that systemic shifts require. As Kaba explains,

Among those are people who will often say things like, “I’m running a circle, therefore I’m doing restorative justice.” That is ridiculous. It’s just a tool that people use within a larger framework of restorative justice, which asks people different kinds of questions. I like to not fall into binaries too much, like it’s this or this. It’s many different kinds of things to many different kinds of people who use it many different kinds of ways. How I came to focus on transformative justice really was that.

Yet, any questioning of the system is a strong foundation toward radical change. There will be failures along the way. (Kaba explains how the tech industry and banks normalize failure as no big deal, but social activists seem terrified of it.)

We Do This 'Til We Free Us gives educators the tools to recognize the carceral network, implement change-making into their practice, and fight back against oppressive systems. It's a needed work that educators can utilize to demand better and question their inherent ideas about the classroom. I highly everyone read this work to inform themselves and join a movement toward transformational change.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
The YouTube symbol. (A play button.)

watch now