World-renowned author, activist and professor Angela Davis talks about the prison abolition movement from her time as a Black Panther leader to today. In her tireless efforts as an abolitionist and a teacher, Davis continues to be a fierce advocate of education and the interconnected struggles of oppressed peoples. Davis talks about Indigenous genocide, Palestine, critical race theory and the role of independent media. “Democracy Now! helps us to place our own domestic issues and struggles within the context of global battles against fascism,” says Davis.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Well, this year we’ve been marking Democracy Now!’s 25th anniversary on the air. Earlier this month, Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Martín Espada, Winona LaDuke, Danny Glover, Danny DeVito and others joined us for a virtual anniversary celebration. You can watch the whole event at democracynow.org.
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Today, we bring you our full conversation with Angela Davis, the world-renowned abolitionist, author, activist and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I interviewed her from her home in Oakland, California.
AMY GOODMAN: On this 25th anniversary celebration, Angela, it is such an honor to have you join us, as you’ve done so many times in the last decades.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, thank you so much, Amy. You know, it seems like it’s been longer than 25 years. It seems like Democracy Now! has always been there. But I think I may also be thinking about I.F. Stone’s newsletter and some other progressive media in your lineage.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, to be counted in that amazing pantheon, someone like I.F. Stone, who said to journalism students, “If you can remember two words, remember ‘governments lie.’ If you can remember three words, remember ‘all governments lie,’” it would be an honor for us to be counted together with I.F. Stone.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, thank you so much for your work over the years. I was just reflecting on the fact that when no one else would cover Mumia Abu-Jamal, we were able to hear his voice on Democracy Now! And when no one else was thinking about Assata Shakur and the demonization of Assata Shakur, Amy, you and Juan and your colleagues were covering her case. So thank you so much. I don’t know what we would have been able to do in our efforts to push for radical social change if Democracy Now! had not been there.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Angela, I wanted to ask you — when we first spoke on Democracy Now! about abolishing about the prison-industrial complex, that was back in 2010. And you said then that, quote, “Prison abolition is about building a new world.” Here we are more than a decade later. The abolition movement has drawn more attention. What is key to understand about how this movement can continue to grow?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, you know, let’s remember that the abolition movement has a very long genealogy. We can go back to the 1970s and the Attica brothers uprising. The people in prison there who rose up against the horrendous conditions also called for prison abolition.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s right.
ANGELA DAVIS: This was perhaps the first time that there was this public display of a way to address the prison system that was not couched in the ideology of reform.
I am absolutely surprised that abolition has entered into public discourse during this period. To tell the truth, many of my comrades and I assumed that it would be decades and decades, you know, perhaps 50 years from now, people would finally begin to understand that we cannot keep attempting to reform the police or reform the prisons. Reform is actually the glue that has held these institutions together over the years.
But it’s so exciting now to see young people, especially, talking about building a new world, recognizing that it’s not about punishing this person and that person, it’s about creating a new framework so that we do not have to depend on institutions like the police and prisons for safety and security. We can learn how to depend on education and healthcare and mental healthcare and recreation and all of the things that human beings need in order to flourish. That is true security, true safety.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about another aspect of that movement, as well. You’re the daughter of civil rights activists. You went on to become a prominent member of the Communist Party USA, a leader of the Black Panther Party. And you were targeted by the FBI. At one point, the FBI had you on its list of the 10 most wanted fugitives in America. Yet today, some of the loudest voices within the young radical resurgence in America, especially on the college campuses and in middle-class intellectual circles, are openly dismissive or simply ignorant of the most vital lessons of the Panther Party, the Young Lords and figures like Malcolm X, you and W.E.B. Du Bois, who all urged the need not only to battle systemic racism but also to strive for the solidarity of oppressed people of all races, for unity of workers against imperialism. But this new trend now, it seems to me, is focusing more on racial identity, individual biases and anti-Blackness as the central question for social change. And in doing so, they echo a historical strain of narrow nationalism, what we used to call in the Young Lords back then “pork chop nationalism.” The Panther Party, as well, called it that. Some have even sought on social media to cancel you and the lived experience and the sacrifices of radical socialists and the revolutionary movement within the Black and Brown communities. I’m wondering your thoughts on that? I’ve heard you speak on it, I think, at a forum in Germany recently.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, yes. Yeah, I’m very disappointed that we don’t have a more capacious public understanding of what it means to stand up against racism, that racism is the very foundation of this country, based on colonialism and slavery. And that means, in the very first place, it is important to recognize the connections between Indigenous people and people of African descent. It is not possible to tell the story of people of African descent in the Americas without also telling the story of Indigenous people.
You know, I think that when we engage in serious conversations with young people who really want to learn, they begin to get it. They begin to recognize that we can’t work with these narrow assumptions about Blackness and who counts as Black and the efforts to dismiss what is often referred to as political Blackness. And, of course, Du Bois taught us so many decades ago that the reason for identifying connections and relationalities among African people and people of African descent has little to do with the biology or genetics of Blackness, but rather has everything to do with struggles against imperialism, everything to do with global struggles for a better world. But, of course, we continue those conversations.
And I’m actually impressed by the fact that increasing numbers of people are recognizing how important it is to have a decolonial or anti-imperialist perspective. If we did not expect to have abolition become a central element of public discourse during the early part of the 21st century — and it has become that — then I think we can be a little more optimistic about the possibility of encouraging people to think more critically about the future struggles against racism.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela, I wanted to ask you about this latest news. North Dakota’s Republican Governor Doug Burgum has signed legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory, so public schools are now barred from teaching students that, quote, “racism is systemically embedded in American society.” Critics say the law could ban the teaching of slavery, redlining and the civil rights movement. Even discussion of the law that was just passed is now prohibited in North Dakota’s schools. And you see this happening across the country. You know, I see Democracy Now! and, overall, independent media, one of its powers, aside from assuring that there’s a forum for people to speak for themselves, is bringing historical context to everything. So, when we talk about you today, in 2021, you constantly go back in time, and you look to the future. You talk about the struggles of the ’60s and what’s happening now. What about this movement against education in America?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, Amy, I think that what we are witnessing at this moment is a profound clash between forces of the past and forces of the future. The campaign against teaching critical race theory in schools — now, first of all, critical race theory is not taught in high schools. And I wish more critical race theory were taught at the university level. But critical race theory has become a watchword for any conversations about racism, any effort to engage in the education of students in our schools about the history of this country and of the Americas and of the planet. Any discussions about slavery as the foundational element of this country are being barred, according to the proponents of removing, quote, “critical race theory” from the schools.
But let’s not be misled by the term they are using. What we are witnessing are efforts on the part of the forces of white supremacy to regain a control which they more or less had in the past. So, I think that it is absolutely essential to engage in the kinds of efforts to prevent them from consolidating a victory in the realm of education. And, of course, those of us who are active in the abolitionist movement see education as central to the process of dismantling the prison, as central to the process of imagining new forms of safety and security that can supplant the violence of the police.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Angela, I’m wondering if you could talk about the growing threat of fascism and authoritarianism here in the United States. Clearly, the January 6th events, I think, were a wake-up call to those who hadn’t awakened during the period of the Trump presidency. But the signs, not only in the United States but in much of Western Europe, are that the right-wing, fascist and populist — right-wing populist movements and fascist movements keep growing. Your sense of how progressives and radicals can unite to beat back this tide here in the United States?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, of course, fortunately, we did manage to evict fascism from the White House. But I think that people are often a little too shortsighted and assume that by evicting the forces of fascism from the White House, that we had consolidated a victory. No, this is simply a skirmish, as Gramsci might point out, that we need to continue the effort to challenge a fascism that, of course, relies on racism in this country and white supremacy as the ways in which it expresses itself. There’s Brazil, of course, and we see continuing efforts to challenge, you know, what the terrible forces of fascism have done in that country.
I would suggest that here in the U.S., if we are serious about being victorious over fascism, that we have to have an internationalist perspective. We can’t simply focus on what is happening in Washington. We can’t simply focus only on our domestic issues. We have to have a greater understanding of what is happening in Brazil, in the Philippines, in South Africa, in Palestine, throughout Europe. And, of course, this is why we need Democracy Now! Democracy Now! helps us to place our own domestic issues and struggles within the context of global battles against fascism, against climate change, especially against climate change, against racism. We’re becoming aware that racism is not primarily a U.S. phenomenon, not primarily a South African phenomenon. It has infected our global atmosphere.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, you mentioned Palestine, Angela. And in 2019, you were very excited when the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute announced that you were going to get the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. I mean, you come from Birmingham, and you were returning home, and it was going to be this big celebration. So we ended up following you back to Birmingham, but this was after the institute rescinded the award, reportedly due to your activism around Palestine. I mean, this became a major brouhaha. In the end, thousands of people — and we covered this whole journey you took — came out to the convention center to hear you speak, to show their support. The institute was disgraced. People resigned from the board. Ultimately, they reversed their decision, and you did get the Fred Shuttlesworth award. I mean, it was an amazing series of months, what happened. And I was wondering if you could talk about that and advice you have for others who have come under attack for their support of Palestine.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, yeah, Amy, that was actually an incredible experience. And I am so excited now about the attention that Palestine has garnered in a place like Birmingham, Alabama. So many of the people who became involved in the effort to contest the decision of the board of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute were not necessarily familiar with the struggles in Palestine. But in the process of recognizing that everyone deserves the attention of human rights activists, one cannot be in favor of human rights with the exclusion of certain communities or certain struggles or certain countries. And so I am excited to recognize now that people who were not necessarily involved in the campaign for justice in Palestine have joined that movement — Black people, Jewish people.
And as someone who’s been involved virtually all of my life in struggles around Palestine, as difficult as things remain — and we see the evictions continuing to take place. We see efforts to consolidate the rule of the Zionists, both there and — both in the region and throughout the world. But at the same time, there is, I think, more hope than we have experienced ever in the struggle for justice for Palestine, more people who are involved. And so, at first, I was so disappointed when I discovered that they were rescinding that award, but now I think, in many ways, that was a gift, because that generated conversation, and it generated a renewed reflection, collective reflection, on the absolute importance of focusing on justice for Palestine.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll be back with scholar and activist Angela Davis in 20 seconds.