A few hundred people gathered at DePaul University’s Cortelyou Commons Thursday night for a much-anticipated talk by Mariame Kaba, the organizer and educator who many credit with founding the prison and police abolition movement in Chicago.
For two decades, Kaba educated Chicagoans on the prison-industrial complex and violence against black women and children in addition to organizing multiple groups and initiatives to end youth criminalization and other forms of state violence. Last year she returned to live in her native New York City, but she’s continued to be a mentor to and champion of grassroots activists in Chicago.
True to form, Kaba began her talk asking not to be photographed or videotaped before then launching into a history lesson. In recent months she’s been at the forefront of efforts to bring attention to the story of Bresha Meadows, a 15-year-old Ohio girl who killed her abusive father last July and is now detained and facing aggravated murder charges. Kaba was instrumental in starting the #FreeBresha social media campaign, orchestrating mass mailings of support letters and art to Meadows, and organizing public protests calling for her release and for the dismissal of charges against her. Meadows’s case, Kaba explained, has deep historical roots.
As with much of her education work, Kaba told individual women’s stories Thursday night to build an argument about how the state criminalizes women (especially poor, black, and/or transgender women) for retaliating against domestic and sexual violence. It all began, she said, with the case of Celia, a woman enslaved in Missouri in the 1850s. Celia’s story “grounds the work that I do,” she said.
Celia was 14 years old when she was sold to a recently widowed farmer, Kaba explained. He raped her even before they got back to the farm; the abuse continued for several more years. By age 19 Celia had had two children and was pregnant with a third. After she became romantically involved with an enslaved man on the same farm, Celia asked her master’s grown daughters (the children of his deceased wife) to help her stop their father’s advances, but he continued. When he came for her one night, Celia killed him and burned his body in the fireplace. The reason we know so much about her story today is because Celia was eventually put on trial for murder.
This trial, Kaba said, was highly unusual. Even more unusual was the fact that Celia had a vigorous team of defense attorneys. They argued that under Missouri law a woman could justifiably kill in self-defense in order to protect herself from sexual advances. The judge, however, disagreed with their interpretation of the law: because Celia was enslaved, she was considered property, not a person, and therefore, as Kaba put it, had “no self to defend.”
Celia was convicted and hanged. But “the belief that black women in particular have no selves to defend, because we’re unhuman, had an afterlife which continues today,” Kaba said. She then spoke at length about 1970s organizing around the case of Joan Little, a woman who while incarcerated in North Carolina killed a guard who was trying to rape her, was put on trial, and eventually acquitted.
Kaba then called up Eisha Love and Monica Cosby, two formerly incarcerated women, to detail their own experiences.
Love, an African-American transgender woman, spent nearly four years in pretrial detention on attempted-murder charges after she ran over a member of a group of male attackers with her car. Cosby spent 20 years in prison for a conviction of first-degree murder after being in a violently abusive relationship with a man who ultimately killed his mother. (Cosby’s involvement in the murder and her alleged criminal intent were disputed.)
Both women talked about the importance of knowing that there were people on the outside who cared about them while they were incarcerated. Love was housed in an all-male maximum-security division of the Cook County Jail. While in prison Cosby spent several years in and out of solitary confinement for months at a time; at times she was confined for turning down sexual advances from guards or infractions as small as having lip balm.
Cosby spoke of the isolation and abandonment she felt, especially on the part of other women. At one point, after seeing women on the inside abused by guards or sent to solitary for refusing to submit to abuse, she sent out letters to feminist organizations in frustration.
“Can I cuss?” she asked meekly, to hearty affirmation from Kaba and the audience. She said her letters basically came down to: “Where you bitches at?”
To be out of prison today, and to see the interest and support for cases like hers, brought Cosby to tears. She took a long pause to collect herself before telling the audience “I’m beyond grateful.”
Love shared similar gratitude for the outpouring of letters and support she received while in jail.
“What you all do—the sharing, the tweeting, the posting—is a blessing,” Love said. “I would not be here without you all.”
Sex workers, along with Native American, black, brown, transgender, and incarcerated women, have long been left out of mainstream feminist organizing. Part of the problem, Kaba explains, is that middle-class and white-women-led feminism, the one with corporate sponsors and celebrity spokespeople, is often fighting for more protections from the state. Meanwhile, marginalized women are frequently fighting against state violence, including violence in the form of policies that cut off access to health care, education, credit, nutritious food, and even bathrooms.
With that, Kaba segued to our current political moment. The Trump-led political sea change, she said, presents both challenges and opportunities. Although there’s newfound fervor for organized resistance, “I think we’re gonna have to fight on multiple grounds,” she said. “I think we’re gonna have to fight against the receding of certain [policies and protections] that people think are useful while also never forgetting that we have to fight against the state violence, which is only going to get worse under this administration.”
Kaba and organizer Holly Krig highlighted the work of abolitionist groups such as Black and Pink, which organizes letter writing to incarcerated women and LGBTQ prisoners; the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which is fighting to end money bail in Illinois; and Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, which organizes trips for kids to visit incarcerated mothers. These groups already have agendas and programs in place, but need continued funding and more participation. Kaba also encouraged everyone to attend the trans liberation march planned downtown Friday evening.
Most importantly, Kaba advocated continued analysis of emerging problems and emerging solutions, lest activist energies get co-opted into proposals that continue to marginalize, exclude, and criminalize people.
“This is not just about rights protection, but also about the state itself being a perpetrator—the state itself being a rapist, and the state itself being all the things that people want to fight on an interpersonal level,” she said. “The state does the same things. It has more power and resources at its disposal than John on the street does. I think we just have to keep mindful about that.”