Angela Davis speaks on presidential elections, prison abolition


Veteran activist and University of California-Santa Cruz Professor Angela Davis had what was billed as a “socially conscious conversation” with Duchess Harris, Ph.D., Macalester College associate professor of American Studies, at the St. Paul institution’s Alexander G. Hill Ballroom on February 13.

When the 1970s Black Power icon was asked for her “Black feminist critique” of the Democratic presidential campaign, Davis said she was pleased that there is now a Black man and a White woman who are serious contenders for the presidency. However, she cautioned people not to place all their hopes in either Senators Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or in any one candidate.

“I think we have a messiah complex in this country,” she asserted. “We need an individual upon whom we can confer our own power…I am concerned that we might all go back to our individual lives after the election and assume that whoever is elected gets to carry the ball from then on. And I remember what happened when Bill Clinton was elected…I remember that there were fewer collective movement manifestations during the Clinton years than there were during the previous Bush years. And it seems to me that if we elect someone who’s halfway progressive, that’s when we really have to put the pressure on…”

“We don’t need to hand over our collective potential, our power,” she concluded. “We can’t hand it over to any one individual. Let’s keep that for ourselves.”

The subjects of Davis’ dialogue with Harris moved from campus racist incidents to environmental racism and Black feminism, which for her means “making those connections that are dangerous to make. I’m talking about a mandate to think through things together that we normally think apart.

Historically, that began with Black feminists responding when someone would ask them, ‘What’s more important: your race or your gender?’ …It comes from that initial attempt to think race and gender together when everyone was telling us we had to choose between the two.”

True feminist thinking leads to seeing the connections among forms of oppression, Davis said, such as the idea that “The kind of violence the state commits is a mandate to individuals to commit violence in other settings…for example, what happens to women and men in prisons? What about that routine…sexual coercion that we got to see a little bit in Abu Ghraib? But we don’t think about it as part of the daily regime that people in prison in this country and especially women have to suffer. And not only overt rape, but [also] the very fact of being strip searched routinely is a sexual assault. And then you think about the state as the agent of sexual assault and what does that have to do with the individual man who sexually assaults a woman with whom he is in a relationship.”

Leading to her primary longtime cause of prison abolition, Davis retold her famous story of how she became one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted in 1970 following a deadly attempted courthouse prisoner break led by the brother of imprisoned Black Panther George Jackson; she was accused of conspiring with Jackson’s brother in committing the crime. Davis cites her period of incarceration in a New York City women’s facility after her arrest — and the worldwide “Free Angela” campaign waged on her behalf — as the spurs for her activism on behalf of prisoners and for prison abolition.

After she was acquitted of all charges related to the crime in 1972, the activism from her incarceration and the freedom campaign eventually led to a conference held on prison issues in the late 1990s.

During this conference, the term “prison-industrial complex” was coined. The organization founded by the conference, Critical Resistance, will be holding its 10th annual conference September 26-28 in Oakland, California, and the theme of this year’s event, according to Davis, will be prison abolition.

“What do we mean when we say ‘abolition’?” Davis asked the audience. “In a sense, we mean the abolition of slavery, because slavery hasn’t really been abolished.” She talked about not only how the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery includes an exception for “people who have been duly convicted of a crime,” but also “How in the world can an amendment abolish an institution that had so thoroughly influenced the fabric of life in this country? …Maybe it’s true that the chains were severed, but so many other aspects of slavery were not even addressed by the 13th Amendment…How do you define slavery?”

One definition of slavery, Davis said, is “civil death, which means that you have no status before the law; you have no status in the political area. How many people are still subject to civil death?… George Bush would have never been selected president the first time had it not been for felony disenfranchisement. If just a small fraction of people who were disenfranchised because they had been convicted of a felony were allowed to vote, then there would have been no question about the outcome.

“Slavery required racism as an ideological scaffolding — that wasn’t abolished. Slavery was the denial of civil rights — civil death. How long did it take for Black people to get the right to vote? It took another 100 years. Abolition is complicated…” she said.

“Prison [is] really the afterlife of slavery,” Davis concluded, and that “we have to abolish imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment if we are to begin to complete the process of abolishing slavery.”

Davis does acknowledge that there are dangerous people who are incarcerated. “There are many people in prison who have done enormous harm to others,” she admitted. “But at the same time, there are a lot of people out here in the so-called free world who’ve done a lot of harm to others — think about what’s going on right now in Iraq.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that someone steals a car…and then they end up spending 20 years of their life behind bars, particularly if they’re poor,” Davis insisted. “If they’re not poor, they get a good attorney — so if you look at all the things people do that has landed them in prison, and you think of people who have done exactly the same things, but they come from a different class, they’re more affluent, and they’re able to get attorneys [to free them or get reduced sentences]…it makes no sense.”

Read more quotes from Angela Davis’ appearance at Macalester College on the MSR Blog at

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