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Angela Davis on Prison Abolition, the War on Drugs and Why Social Movements Shouldn’t Wait on Obama

Davis’s work around issues of gender, race, class and prisons has influenced social movements across generations.

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For more than four decades, the world-renowned author, activist and scholar Angela Davis has been one of most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States. An icon of the 1970s black liberation movement, Davis’ work around issues of gender, race, class and prisons has influenced critical thought and social movements across several generations. She is a leading advocate for prison abolition, a position informed by her own experience as a fugitive on the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list more than 40 years ago. Davis, a professor emerita at University of California, Santa Cruz, and the subject of the recent documentary, “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners,” joins us to discuss prison abolition, mass incarceration, the so-called war on drugs, International Women’s Day, and why President Obama’s second term should see a greater wave of activism than in his first. Watch Part 2 of this interview.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The struggle to overhaul the criminal justice system in the United States has reached a pivotal moment. From the Obama administration’s push to reform harsh and racially biased sentencing for drug offenses to the recent decision by New York state to reform its use of solitary confinement, there is a growing momentum toward rethinking the system. But new battles have also emerged, like the fight over Stand Your Ground laws in states like Florida, where a number of recent court cases have highlighted the issue of racial bias in the court system. Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman of color who fired what she says was a warning shot into a wall near her abusive husband, is facing up to 60 years in prison at her retrial. Michael Dunn, who shot and killed an African-American teenager in a dispute over loud music in the same state of Florida, is facing a minimum of 60 years for attempted murder, but the jury failed to convict him of the central charge in the case: the murder of Jordan Davis, a case that, for many, recalled the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about these issues, we spend the rest of the hour with the world-renowned author, activist, scholar, Angela Davis, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For over four decades, she has been one of the most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States. She’s speaking here in New York on Friday at the Beyond the Bars conference up at Columbia University.

It’s great to have you here, Angela.

ANGELA DAVIS: Thank you, Amy. Thank you. Thank you, Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you sense progress?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, yes. I think that this is a pivotal moment. There are openings. And I think it’s very important to point out that people have been struggling over these issues for years and for decades. This is also a problematic moment. And those of us who identify as prison abolitionists, as opposed to prison reformers, make the point that oftentimes reforms create situations where mass incarceration becomes even more entrenched; and so, therefore, we have to think about what in the long run will produce decarceration, fewer people behind bars, and hopefully, eventually, in the future, the possibility of imagining a landscape without prisons, where other means are used to address issues of harm, where social problems, such as illiteracy and poverty, do not lead vast numbers of people along a trajectory that leads to prison.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering, in term—the first term of President Obama was often referred to by some through the myth of post-racial America, represented by the election of President Obama. But even he has shied away, until recently, dealing with some of the racial inequities of our system, especially the prison system. I’m wondering if you can see a movement or transformation in the president himself in how he deals with some of these issues?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, this is his second term. He really has nothing to lose. And it really is about time that he began to address what is one of the most critical issues in this country. It’s pretty unfortunate that Obama has waited until now to speak out, but it’s good that he is speaking out. And I think we can use this opportunity to perhaps achieve some important victories.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean, Angela, the difference between being a prison abolitionist, how you describe yourself, and a prison reformer.

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, of course, in 1977, when the Attica rebellion took place, that was a really important moment in the history of mass incarceration, the history of the prison in this country. The prisoners who were the spokespeople for the uprising indicated that they were struggling for a world without prisons. During the 1970s, the notion of prison abolition became very important. And as a matter of fact, public intellectuals, judges, journalists took it very seriously and began to think about alternatives.

However, in the 1980s, with the dismantling of social services, structural adjustment in the Global South, the rise of global capitalism, we began to see the prison emerging as a major institution to address the problems that were produced by the deindustrialization, lack of jobs, less funding into education, lack of education, the closedown of systems that were designed to assist people who had mental and emotional problems. And now, of course, the prison system is also a psychiatric facility. I always point out that the largest psychiatric facilities in the country are Rikers Island in New York and Cook County in Chicago.

So, the question is: How does one address the needs of prisoners by instituting reforms that are not going to create a stronger prison system? Now there are something like two-and-a-half million people behind bars, if one counts all of the various aspects of what we call the prison-industrial complex, including military prisons, jails in Indian country, state and federal prisons, county jails, immigrant detention facilities—which constitute the fastest-growing sector of the prison-industrial complex. Yeah, so how—the question is: How do we respond to the needs of those who are inside, and at the same time begin a process of decarceration that will allow us to end this reliance on imprisonment as a default method of addressing—not addressing, really—major social problems?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how do you see the changing public attitudes toward the war on drugs and the willingness of some states now to begin a decriminalization process and recognize drug addiction more as a health problem than as a criminal justice problem? Do you see that having some hope of sharply reducing the prison population?

ANGELA DAVIS: Yes, I think—I think it is important. But again, it’s also essential to point out that people have been struggling around these issues for a very long time. And oftentimes when these new moments emerge, it is as if the legislators have come up with this idea for the very first time. And, of course, it is important that decriminalization is happening in certain states, because drugs have served—the so-called war on drugs, which, as we know, has been a war on poor communities, black and Latino communities, all over the country—that so-called war on drugs has been the major motor driving the rising prison population. So, I often point out we need to look at the corresponding pharmaceutical-industrial complex when we, you know, think about the way drugs have served as a pretext for incarcerating such vast numbers of people of color.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the for-profit system, the for-profit prison system?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, they’re private prisons. Of course, the U.S. has given rise to this private prison industry. Corrections Corporation of America was the first private prison corporation. And now, of course, we have institutions like G4S, which is the third-largest private corporation in the entire world, third only to, number one, Wal-Mart, number two, Foxconn. And this security corporation, which has—which owns and operates prisons all over the country, which is involved in the production of the carceral technologies used in occupied Palestine by Israel, which is involved in deporting prisoners from Europe to the Global South, from the U.S. to Mexico—one begins to see how it all comes together.

But I think that private prisons are not the only indication of the thoroughgoing corporatization of punishment. Even public prisons rely on private corporations. And healthcare has been outsourced. Food production has been outsourced. The few programs that there are in prisons have been outsourced. So there is a privatization of imprisonment such that it’s not possible to consider the issue of mass incarceration without looking at the important role it plays in the economy. And this means, of course, that people who have very little to do with criminal justice, with punishment, have no stakes in that, really, have stakes in the continued increase in prison populations, because it means more profit for them.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. I want to also ask you about feminism, where that plays in, as we move in on International Women’s Day, March 8th, on Saturday. We’re speaking with Angela Davis, the author, the activist, the professor. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Angela,” Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon and Yoko Ono singing about Angela Davis. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Our guest today is the academic and activist Angela Davis. Her remarkable life journey is chronicled in a recent documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, directed by Shola Lynch.

REPORTER: Philosophy Professor Angela Davis admitted that she is a member of the Communist Party.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Hoover put her on the top 10. Everybody had a file on her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Her first lecture drew 2,000 students.

FANIA DAVIS: Angela’s education is now being put into practice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Angela Davis purchased four guns.

ANGELA DAVIS: There is a conspiracy in the land. It’s a conspiracy to wipe out the black community as a whole.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Well, I think she’s trying to overthrow our system of government, and she admits that.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The actions of the FBI in apprehending Angela Davis, a rather remarkable story.

REPORTER: The U.S. district court judge set bail at $100,000.

FANIA DAVIS: She knows that the movement to free all political prisoners is growing every day.

GOV. RONALD REAGAN: This entire incident was a deliberate provocation.

ANGELA DAVIS: They wanted to break me. They wanted me to respond.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: There was enormous feeling for Angela everywhere in the world.

SALLYE DAVIS: We know that she is innocent.

RALPH ABERNATHY: We want to tell that pharaoh in Washington to let Angela Davis go free.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: What they’re doing to her is an exaggerated form of what happens every day to black people in this country.

PROTESTERS: Free Angela! Free Angela! Free Angela!

ANGELA DAVIS: What does it mean to be a criminal in this society?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 3: They are not going to kill her. They’re not going to imprison her. We’re going to free her. We’re going to win her freedom.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was a documentary on Angela Davis. The making of that documentary, the filmmaker approached you wanting to do what?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, she was interested in making a film about the trial. I had previously been aware of her work, because she did a wonderful film on Shirley Chisholm, Unbought & Unbossed. And I—

AMY GOODMAN: Who ran for president in, what, 1972.

ANGELA DAVIS: Who ran for president, the first, yes, black woman to run for president in this country. And I had been approached many times by people who wanted to do films, but I’ve been reluctant, because I didn’t think it would be very productive to have a film primarily focused on me. And I knew Shola wanted to tell the story of the trial, and that would also mean telling the story of the campaign that developed all over the country and all over the world around the demand for my freedom. And she did quite an amazing job of retrieving archival footage. And I’ve often pointed out, there were things that I did not know until she made that film. I hadn’t seen a lot of the archival footage because, of course, I was in jail when it was shown on television.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you were in prison for and acquitted of.

ANGELA DAVIS: I was charged with three capital crimes: murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. And I was acquitted on all three charges.

AMY GOODMAN: Weren’t you in prison just down the road from us right here?

ANGELA DAVIS: Yes, as a matter of fact, on the way to the studio, I saw the spot where the old Women’s House of Detention stood, which is right on the corner of Greenwich and Sixth Avenue, Avenue of the Americas. And, yes, the night I was arrested, I could hear the voices of people who had gathered outside to call for my freedom. I suppose that’s one of the reasons it’s no longer in that spot anymore. It’s on Rikers Island, so that the community does not have the same kind of access.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of the Women’s House of Detention, you’ve been speaking increasingly about bringing feminism within an abolitionist frame and abolition within a feminist frame. What do you mean by that?

ANGELA DAVIS: Absolutely. Well, actually, I mean a number of things by that, because feminist perspectives, I think, are really important, and not just with respect to understanding how essential it is to look at women in prison, even though women constitute a relatively small minority. One can see the way the system functions a lot more clearly by looking at the convergence, for example, of institutional violence and intimate violence. Also, looking at the particular situation of trans prisoners not only allows us to recognize that this is a group that is perhaps more criminalized than any other group—trans people are arrested and imprisoned more frequently than any other group in society—it allows us to see the role that the prison system as a whole plays in upholding the binary notions of gender in the larger society. So, feminism, it seems to me, helps us to reframe the issue of imprisonment and the prison-industrial complex within a larger context. And we see the connections with—between the personal and the political, the institutional and the intimate, the public and the private.

AMY GOODMAN: Aren’t women the fastest-growing population in prison?

ANGELA DAVIS: And all over the world, women constitute the fastest-growing population in prison. But I think it’s also important to point out that women are such a minority because there are other ways of punishing women in the larger society. And I like to point out that violence against women, which is the most pandemic form of violence in the world—I mean, we talk about police violence, we talk about—when we talk about racist violence, we think about street violence, Trayvon Martin and so forth, and that’s absolutely important to recognize, but at the same time, the violence that happens in relationships is connected with that street violence, institutional violence and intimate violence. And when one looks at women’s situation, it’s important—it’s essential to grasp that connection, which then allows us to have a different view on the institution that is responsible for the incarceration of so many men, and especially black and Latino men.

AMY GOODMAN: As we move into this International Women’s Day, what gives you most hope?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I think—I always find hope in struggle. I find hope in younger generations.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel people have been demobilized under President Obama or are getting more active?

ANGELA DAVIS: I think we could have been much more active. And one of the problems, I think, was that after this world historical election that took place, we went home and decided that this one man in Washington would carry the ball for us, not recognizing that, actually, he was the president of the imperialist, militarist United States of America. And I think that we might have had more victories during the era of Obama’s administration had we mobilized, had we continually put pressure on him, and also created the possibility for him to take more progressive stances.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you still think there’s hope in the next few years?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I think we have to act as if there is hope.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we have to wrap, but we are going to continue this conversation and post it online at Angela Davis, author and activist, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the subject of the recent film, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.

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