Activist, author questioned need for prisons in St. Cloud State speech
The U.S. prison system, in its present state, must be abolished, says University of California-Santa Cruz Professor Emeritus Angela Davis.
Davis, a longtime prison reform advocate, spoke March 4 at St. Cloud State University’s (SCSU) Ritsche Auditorium. She cited a Pew Research Center report on prisons released earlier this month:
“One in every 37 adults in this country is either behind bars or under the direct control of the corrections system — on parole or on probation. Here in Minnesota, it’s one out of every 26 adults. In terms of the entire country, that means 7.3 million people are under the control of the correction system,” Davis said.
She sees prisons as “structural racism,” believing that the current U.S. justice system is “based on revenge” and current prisoner rehabilitation methods are not working.
“We have so many people behind bars because of the racialization that enables criminalization,” Davis noted. “We have huge communities criminalized largely because they are under surveillance — those that are subject to greater surveillance are those communities that produce more prisoners.
“And in communities that aren’t subject to that type of surveillance, people can do all type of things without getting caught, like [Bernard] Madoff. He stole millions of dollars, and now all they are talking about is whether he will be able to keep his house.”
The U.S. prison population continues to rise, especially among Black men and women, continued Davis, adding that a “national discussion on what we need to do to solve this problem” is badly needed. “Have you heard [President] Obama or anybody in the government talk about this?” she asked the over-capacity crowd.
“I don’t want to replace the prison system with something else,” she pointed out, adding that “a purposeful commitment to fix the educational system” would be better.
Sponsored by several campus organizations, the professor, activist and author of five books, including her Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press, 2003), first came into national prominence in 1969. The FBI later named Davis to their 10 Most Wanted list in 1970 after a gun registered in her name was used in an attempted prison escape; she eventually was jailed for 16 months before finally being acquitted of all charges in 1972.
“Freedom means not the abstract ability to do whatever one pleases or not, that is the opposite of being behind bars,” she explained, “but as the access to resources and materials that make it possible to fashion lives, communities and futures. Rights always have been guaranteed for some, but it has been the result of struggle for others.
“For some, rights and liberties have been linked to the status quo. For others, it has been linked to radical, revolutionary challenges to the status quo.”
As a featured speaker of the SCSU’s Women’s History Month activities in March, Davis pointed out, “Women’s history always has been about struggles and movements for change that transformed collective lives,” adding that women of color historically had a lot to do with feminism.
She supports President Obama, but not just because he is Black. “I actually was more interested in the politics of the person,” Davis disclosed. “It’s not about who you are, but what you are willing to do.
“If Hillary [Clinton] had had a better political position on certain issues, I would have supported her. If there have been a White male candidate who would have been more progressive and radical, I would have gone with him.”
Davis warned the audience not to see the president as a one-man problem solver. “Obama is not a Messiah,” she duly pointed out. “Racism has not ended because one Black man and one Black family [is] in the White House.”
On the importance of community activism, Davis said, “Everybody who believes in justice and equality must participate in the Movement. What have kept me [involved] are the communities I am associated with. The strength I need comes from other people.”
After her speech, Davis told the MSR, “I don’t see [problems with the prison system] as a separate issue — it is connected with everything else. So, I can’t say that I want [President Obama] to address that more than seeing him address education or health, because they all intertwine.”
SCSU President Earl Potter told the student audience as he introduced Davis that she is “an agent of change…an icon of activism.” After her talk, he said, “She is a wonderful role model for our students.”
Many stayed after Davis’ speech and chatted with her, getting her autograph and posing for pictures. “I thought it was a great thing to have Angela Davis come out here,” said business management junior Jerry Daye of Apple Valley.
Junior Davidlyn Moore hoped that Davis’s visit would help in SCSU’s continuing diversity issues and solutions. “She is an influential woman,” said freshman Charlyn Logan of Davis.
Of her first visit to St. Cloud since 1980, Davis said, “I enjoyed spending time with students, faculty and community people.” The professor suggested that the basic point of her speech was simple: “We should be excited about ourselves and what we are capable of doing. I think that is the real message.”
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