Part of the Series
The Road to Abolition
The uprising against police brutality and anti-Black racism continues to sweep across the United States and countries around the world, forcing a reckoning in the halls of power and on the streets. The mass protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 have dramatically shifted public opinion on policing and systemic racism, as “defund the police” becomes a rallying cry of the movement. We discuss the historic moment with legendary scholar and activist Angela Davis. “One never knows when conditions may give rise to a conjuncture such as the current one that rapidly shifts popular consciousness and suddenly allows us to move in the direction of radical change,” she says. “The intensity of these current demonstrations cannot be sustained over time, but we will have to be ready to shift gears and address these issues in different arenas.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As the nationwide uprising against police brutality and racism continues to roil the nation and the world, bringing down Confederate statues and forcing a reckoning in city halls and on the streets, President Trump defended law enforcement Thursday, dismissing growing calls to defund the police. He spoke at a campaign-style event at a church in Dallas, Texas, announcing a new executive order advising police departments to adopt national standards for use of force. Trump did not invite the top three law enforcement officials in Dallas, who are all African American. The move comes after Trump called protesters ”THUGS” and threatened to deploy the U.S. military to end, quote, “riots and lawlessness.” This is Trump speaking Thursday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They want to get rid of the police forces. They actually want to get rid of it. And that’s what they do, and that’s where they’d go. And you know that, because at the top position, there’s not going to be much leadership. There’s not much leadership left.
Instead, we have to go the opposite way. We must invest more energy and resources in police training and recruiting and community engagement. We have to respect our police. We have to take care of our police. They’re protecting us. And if they’re allowed to do their job, they’ll do a great job. And you always have a bad apple no matter where you go. You have bad apples. And there are not too many of them. And I can tell you there are not too many of them in the police department. We all know a lot of members of the police.
AMY GOODMAN: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is also calling for an increase to police funding. In an op-ed in USA Today, he called for police departments to receive an additional $300 million to, quote, “reinvigorate community policing in our country.” On Wednesday night, Biden discussed police funding on The Daily Show.
JOE BIDEN: I don’t believe police should be defunded, but I think the conditions should be placed upon them where departments are having to take significant reforms relating to that. We should set up a national use-of-force standard.
AMY GOODMAN: But many argue reform will not fix the inherently racist system of policing. Since the global protest movement began, Minneapolis has pledged to dismantle its police department, the mayors of Los Angeles and New York City have promised to slash police department budgets, and calls to “defund the police” are being heard in spaces that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
Well, for more on this historic moment, we are spending the hour with the legendary activist and scholar Angela Davis, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For half a century, Angela Davis has been one of the most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States, an icon of the Black liberation movement. Angela Davis’s work around issues of gender, race, class and prisons has influenced critical thought and social movements across several generations. She’s a leading advocate for prison abolition, a position informed by her own experience as a prisoner and a fugitive on the FBI’s top 10 wanted list more than 40 years ago. Once caught, she faced the death penalty in California. After being acquitted on all charges, she’s spent her life fighting to change the criminal justice system.
Angela Davis, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us today for the hour.
ANGELA DAVIS: Thank you very much, Amy. It’s wonderful to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, do you think this moment is a tipping point, a turning point? You, who have been involved in activism for almost half a century, do you see this moment as different, perhaps more different than any period of time you have lived through?
ANGELA DAVIS: Absolutely. This is an extraordinary moment. I have never experienced anything like the conditions we are currently experiencing, the conjuncture created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the recognition of the systemic racism that has been rendered visible under these conditions because of the disproportionate deaths in Black and Latinx communities. And this is a moment I don’t know whether I ever expected to experience.
When the protests began, of course, around the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade and many others who have lost their lives to racist state violence and vigilante violence — when these protests erupted, I remembered something that I’ve said many times to encourage activists, who often feel that the work that they do is not leading to tangible results. I often ask them to consider the very long trajectory of Black struggles. And what has been most important is the forging of legacies, the new arenas of struggle that can be handed down to younger generations.
But I’ve often said one never knows when conditions may give rise to a conjuncture such as the current one that rapidly shifts popular consciousness and suddenly allows us to move in the direction of radical change. If one does not engage in the ongoing work when such a moment arises, we cannot take advantage of the opportunities to change. And, of course, this moment will pass. The intensity of the current demonstrations cannot be sustained over time, but we will have to be ready to shift gears and address these issues in different arenas, including, of course, the electoral arena.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, you have long been a leader of the critical resistance movement, the abolition movement. And I’m wondering if you can explain the demand, as you see it, what you feel needs to be done, around defunding the police, and then around prison abolition.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, the call to defund the police is, I think, an abolitionist demand, but it reflects only one aspect of the process represented by the demand. Defunding the police is not simply about withdrawing funding for law enforcement and doing nothing else. And it appears as if this is the rather superficial understanding that has caused Biden to move in the direction he’s moving in.
It’s about shifting public funds to new services and new institutions — mental health counselors, who can respond to people who are in crisis without arms. It’s about shifting funding to education, to housing, to recreation. All of these things help to create security and safety. It’s about learning that safety, safeguarded by violence, is not really safety.
And I would say that abolition is not primarily a negative strategy. It’s not primarily about dismantling, getting rid of, but it’s about reenvisioning. It’s about building anew. And I would argue that abolition is a feminist strategy. And one sees in these abolitionist demands that are emerging the pivotal influence of feminist theories and practices.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that further.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I want us to see feminism not only as addressing issues of gender, but rather as a methodological approach of understanding the intersectionality of struggles and issues. Abolition feminism counters carceral feminism, which has unfortunately assumed that issues such as violence against women can be effectively addressed by using police force, by using imprisonment as a solution. And of course we know that Joseph Biden, in 1994, who claims that the Violence Against Women Act was such an important moment in his career — the Violence Against Women Act was couched within the 1994 Crime Act, the Clinton Crime Act.
And what we’re calling for is a process of decriminalization, not — recognizing that threats to safety, threats to security, come not primarily from what is defined as crime, but rather from the failure of institutions in our country to address issues of health, issues of violence, education, etc. So, abolition is really about rethinking the kind of future we want, the social future, the economic future, the political future. It’s about revolution, I would argue.
AMY GOODMAN: You write in Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, “Neoliberal ideology drives us to focus on individuals, ourselves, individual victims, individual perpetrators. But how is it possible to solve the massive problem of racist state violence by calling upon individual police officers to bear the burden of that history and to assume that by prosecuting them, by exacting our revenge on them, we would have somehow made progress in eradicating racism?” So, explain what exactly you’re demanding.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, neoliberal logic assumes that the fundamental unit of society is the individual, and I would say the abstract individual. According to that logic, Black people can combat racism by pulling themselves up by their own individual bootstraps. That logic recognizes — or fails, rather, to recognize that there are institutional barriers that cannot be brought down by individual determination. If a Black person is materially unable to attend the university, the solution is not affirmative action, they argue, but rather the person simply needs to work harder, get good grades and do what is necessary in order to acquire the funds to pay for tuition. Neoliberal logic deters us from thinking about the simpler solution, which is free education.
I’m thinking about the fact that we have been aware of the need for these institutional strategies at least since 1935 — but of course before, but I’m choosing 1935 because that was the year when W.E.B. Du Bois published his germinal Black Reconstruction in America. And the question was not what should individual Black people do, but rather how to reorganize and restructure post-slavery society in order to guarantee the incorporation of those who had been formerly enslaved. The society could not remain the same — or should not have remained the same. Neoliberalism resists change at the individual level. It asks the individual to adapt to conditions of capitalism, to conditions of racism.
Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.
Truthout is widely read among people with lower incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.
We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so.
We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?