Last week’s defeat of state’s attorney Anita Alvarez in the Democratic primary was a big win for Chicago’s activist community, but the #ByeAnita effort would be the last Chicago campaign for organizer Mariame Kaba. The day after the election she announced she would soon be moving to New York City, where she grew up.
Kaba came to Chicago in 1995 to study sociology at Northwestern. “I thought I would stay for three years and then move back east,” she says. Instead, she remained for more than two decades. In that time, she’s been a linchpin of virtually every important activist effort in Chicago.
Among them, she pushed for the torture reparations ordinance the city passed in 2015 to compensate victims of police commander Jon Burge, and she helped launch the We Charge Genocide campaign, which in 2014 presented evidence of police brutality to the United Nations. Most recently, an organization she founded, Project NIA, rallied around the #ByeAnita hashtag with canvassing, a teach-in, and the Anita Alvarez Must Go website.
“I’m very proud of the campaigns we ran not to have things happen,” she told me, pointing to the fact that the mayor and the legislature have not passed an oft-threatened increase in the mandatory sentencing for gun possession.
In addition to Project NIA, which works against youth incarceration, she has worked with Incite!, an anti-violence organization of women of color. Her blog, Prison Culture, is an essential resource for anti-prison activists, and she has more than 38,000 followers on Twitter, where she reports on protests, promotes campaigns, and frequently organizes bail fund drives for arrested activists.
“What makes Mariame really important and really unique in Chicago, ” says activist and writer Yasmin Nair, “is that her commitment to issues extends to more than simply organizing campaigns and moving on to the next one. Her commitment is to establishing connections between organizers, constantly asking us to think about how we related to each other during those campaigns.”
Kaba has influenced Chicago activism around prison and police especially. When she came to Chicago in 1995, only a few organizations were working on prison reform issues, Kaba says. “To see groups come up since then to take the issue seriously, and to see people adopting the label of being an abolitionist, I feel like I had something to do with that, so I’m very proud of that.”
Kaba also has created a model for black queer feminists, according to Page May, a member of Assata’s Daughters and a fellow activist in the #ByeAnita campaign. “We’re in a moment where black queer feminism is being lifted up in ways it hasn’t been,” May says, “and that has a lot to do with the foundation that Mariame has been laying for decades in this city—back when it wasn’t sexy or cool.”
May also praises Kaba’s knack for intergenerational organizing. “We’re losing someone who understands how to organize young people. She’s an older person who supports youth-led, youth-centered organization. There are very few people who know how to work with young people as well as Mariame does.”
“I’m not an optimistic person, but I’m a hopeful person,” Kaba says. “In this case I feel very optimistic about what organizing looks like, particularly what young people’s organizing looks like in Chicago. So many different groups of young people are coming together from different perspectives and working together on common goals.”
Kaba says she returning to New York for family reasons. This fall she will teach a class in gender and criminalization at Columbia University, but she also eager to rest for a few months. “I haven’t taken a break from work in so so long,” she says. “Whatever I do, I’ll always be an organizer.”