Activism | Interviews | Police

Mariame Kaba

Lexi Drexelius

Mariame Kaba, a longtime educator and activist, has advocated for black youth on issues ranging from prison justice to women’s empowerment. She is the founder and director of Project NIA, an organization dedicated to ending youth incarceration, and has had a hand in founding numerous other justice-based projects. In June, she called together organizers across a spectrum of Chicago anti-racist groups to address police violence against black youth.  The collective would generate the We Charge Genocide report and its related accountability projects, including ChiCopwatch trainings and a viral campaign. She spoke with the Weekly on the morning before last week’s CPD budget hearing at City Council, for which We Charge Genocide members had published a set of questions about accountability for aldermen to ask at the hearing.  She talked about the history of brutality and resistance, recent and decades old, that grounds the U.N. report, and her hopes for the future the delegation might help create.

For an introduction to We Charge Genocide, see here

Can you speak a little bit to the shared roots of Project NIA and We Charge Genocide, issue-wise, and how you see their work as overlapping or distinct?

I started Project NIA five-and-a-half years ago, and the work is focused on eradicating youth incarceration, youth justice related issues…we do popular education stuff, and then we also have an incubation side of our work; we support people who want to do projects that relate to juvenile justice and are taking initiative in making that happen.

Circles and Cyphers is a project that Project NIA catalyzed and incubated until earlier this year, when they went out on their own under the auspices of the United Church of Rogers Park. Circles works with gang-affiliated and prison-involved young people and uses hip-hop to kind of talk about issues and then to develop leadership.

One of the young people who’d begun to get involved with that project [Dominique Franklin],  was tased and killed by Chicago police back in May, and I think I saw a lot of the young people who I’ve come to know and really love very much struggling mightily around that issue, around the fact that, you know, their friend was killed. And people felt that all sorts of ways: anger and worry and sadness. But it was hard to figure out a way to mold those into a space where people could use those emotions to organize, to address the underlying issues that would lead to this kind of violence.

So I put out a call to a few people initially and said, “Do you all want to come together and talk about what kind of responses we might have, and one idea I have is to basically update the 1951 ‘We Charge Genocide’ petition, bring it up to the twenty-first century. And what would that look like? What could that be? Maybe we can get a delegation of young people and do it based on that.” And so that was the beginning. We met in early June and early July. We Charge Genocide is not an organization, it’s a vehicle where people who have many different organization affiliations, or none, come together and address the goals that we set in those two meetings.

We talk about the police at Project NIA, mainly because the police are the gatekeepers of the state, and they’re also the representations that young people encounter, that they see on a regular basis, that are incredibly oppressive throughout, and that are unfair. So they talk a lot about the police. And so in that case, Project NIA deals with these issues, it has to. But We Charge Genocide is a separate iteration.

In the past you’ve expressed frustration with the public discourse around these issues that treats police violence as episodic. So much of that discourse ends up hinging on individuals, and whether they were innocent, whether they were armed. As an activist, how do you balance the desire to hold up and honor individual narratives, while trying to impress that this is a systemic problem?

I think you do what we hope we’re doing. My belief is that you have to think about the history of these kinds of issues, how they’ve played out. You have to allow people to understand that it’s a particular social issue, a particular problem. For example, there’s been a claim being made, for as long as there’s been police, that police have violated and harmed and been violent toward people.

So first, letting people understand the history of these things, and that they’ve been going on for a long time, and that people have been resisting for a long time. I think that’s important. And then the second thing is to be very much focused on—people care about individual stories, who is it, what happened. And carrying those, that’s fine, but you always have to be putting that in the larger context, the history of the matter, but also the current articulations and the current manifestations of the issue. So I think it’s incumbent on the people who are working around these issues to constantly remind people that it is bigger than one person, while also honoring the people who’ve individually been harmed. It’s always the both-and; it’s not an either-or. It’s always both-and.

Can you speak to the goals of sending the We Charge Genocide petition and delegation to Geneva?

Sure. At bottom, we have dual ideas, at least as I saw it initially. First and foremost, it’s important to place ourselves within the broader history of how people have addressed various kinds of issues, and so I felt harking back to We Charge Genocide was also its own popular education attempt, to talk about how other people have addressed these issues in the past. So people have been able to go back and read the petition, see what other people have done, understand and know the story. So one was just rooting us in the history of struggle, and in particular the black freedom movement.

Part of the reason why the original delegation came into being was because Du Bois and [Paul] Robeson and [William L.] Patterson and all of the other folks who were involved in that petition [the Civil Rights Congress] were incredibly frustrated. This was 1951—the ideas earlier than that, what people understand as the civil rights movement but is really the black freedom movement—in a moment when that was actually stalled…people are getting killed left right and center, still, with impunity, and this is before the Montgomery bus boycotts, right, this is before all of those things.

And so people are looking for something that would break open the struggle for black freedom in this country in a different way, and they come up with going to the U.N. on that. The idea was that the United States needed to have a flashlight pointed at it from the outside that would change the dynamic in some way. That people were sick and tired of the traditional ways they’d been trying to do things and getting nowhere. And so they needed to do something outside of the box, and get out of the box.

When Patterson shows up to Paris, his stash of petitions are all gone from his luggage—so that shows you something about what the country felt about the threat of having black people going overseas to talk about the crimes and the basic torture of the population, particularly black people in this country. They don’t ever want to be put on blast in front of other people and then be unable to claim that this is a country that values human rights, and is exceptional. Every time you out, from the inside of the country, the myth of American exceptionalism, that makes a lot of Americans—not just the elite, but even those people who see themselves as aspiring to the elite, as becoming the elite—that makes them incredibly upset and unhappy.

And so you can’t look at the history of that original petition and not connect it to the other things that happened afterward that allowed for some changes to come into being in the country, whether it was laws or it was people getting fired from their jobs or whatever it was. It was building more of a movement, more momentum. In the same way that those particular folks operated at that time, it seemed to me important at this stage, in this historical moment, for us to break out a little bit of the ways in which we had traditionally done things.

This delegation, we think, is the first ever delegation of young people of color, certainly ever to present to the Committee Against Torture, and maybe to present in any of those kinds of forums before. So that’s also significant, in and of itself: who is going.

Who do you think should be holding the police accountable that isn’t right now?

Everybody. Particularly white people. But white people are the police in some esoteric way, right? Frank Wilderson talks about the “corporeality of whiteness” being the police. And I think that, I think that that’s really important. And I don’t know who’s doing that work, really deeply in the white community.

But it’s not just holding the police accountable, it’s asking the questions of, “why the police” and “why policing” at all. I think that it’s a question. Again Wilderson had made a great point: “I’m not against police brutality. I’m against police.” I’m against police. And that’s a different conversation, right, because it’s a conversation that begs the question of whether you can reform the system, and basically suggests that you cannot, and that therefore you have to think of abolition. And then what does that lead to? That’s a bigger and different question. I always engage in reform mainly because real people are harmed, and targeted, and I think of reform as harm reduction, but I don’t think of it as an end in and of itself, ever.

In the meantime, what do you think communities can be doing directly to hold police forces accountable?

A lot of things. There are a lot of things already happening. I always say this over and over again, people are continually saying it, but it’s just true: we do not need more campaigns or organizations. We have many. We need more people. We need more people. And that means we need more people to join existing work. There’s work at the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression; they’re trying to push for a civilian review board that’s an elected civilian board that would oversee Chicago. There’s a Coalition for Equitable Policing on the South Side; they’re trying to fight the UofC police, which is a private police entity that’s completely unaccountable, that oversees 65,000 people, most of whom don’t go to the University of Chicago. People are fighting for transparency and data and some policies to be put in place around racial profiling, for the UCPD, which is its own entity in the city. Loyola should try to do the same, and other campuses that have police.

You can join We Charge Genocide; we have a monthly meeting. You can email us and are welcome to join in and be part of that.

There are people right now fighting for police issues today at the City Council hearing around pushing for Chicago police to understand better what the budget is, and to push for less money to go to the police. Asking some really good questions of the CPD, to try to get answers around police militarization and police misconduct. There’s the folks at the Invisible Institute pushing on data, for complaints to be released, and they got back this batch of data from it that came out a couple months ago about police complaints and we finally learned a lot about the complaints that aren’t actually sustained, which is most of them. I mean, for me, there’s no shortage of work. And it’s not that this work is new, most of it is work that’s been going on for many years under different auspices. So I think that people can do any number of things in their own way, whatever you feel. Whether it’s on the individual level, where you’re monitoring the police yourself, whether it’s pushing your elected officials.

Stop calling the police yourself. Stop using the police as a first resort for everything that happens. Think about the reaction, the chain reaction that you set into motion when you call the cops.

I hope that what comes through is the importance of people doing something. I’m so uninterested in the usual, I don’t know what you’d call it, “My strategy’s radical-er than thou’s, than yours.” I’m really uninterested in that. I really feel we’re at a time now where all hands literally need to be on deck.

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