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Angela Davis tours the nation calling for the abolition of prisons: reports from the University of Virginia and Chicago’s South Side

April 22, 2009

by Anne Bromley

Angela Davis came to KPFA recently to record an interview with Block Report Radio. – Photo: Adalia
Angela Davis came to KPFA recently to record an interview with Block Report Radio. – Photo: Adalia
Charlottesville, Va. – Walking around the University of Virginia’s Academical Village, activist and philosopher Angela Davis remarked that the Lawn rooms seem as cramped as prison cells.

The feeling made her realize that Thomas Jefferson’s architecture compels the observer to think about his legacy, Davis said in her keynote address for the Carter G. Woodson Institute’s conference, “The Problem with Punishment: Race, Inequality and Justice,” held April 16 and 17.

The connection is no mere coincidence. The rooms on the Lawn provide student residents with the privacy to contemplate knowledge, while prison cells confine the prisoner to give him the privacy to penitently contemplate his crime.

The idea of the penitentiary emerged at the same time as the American Revolution, but it has proven a failed experiment in democracy and an institution of racial injustice when one in 100 Americans is behind bars and half of them are Black, she said.

Davis called for a new movement to abolish what she called “the prison-industrial complex” in the U.S., which has become the largest jailer in the world.

Violent people should be dealt with, she said, in the context of the reasons behind the violence and how it is perpetuated. “Simply dumping these people in prison only has the tendency to reproduce more violence,” she said.

The American-style penitentiary system is spreading internationally and having a devastating effect, she said, with prisons serving as receptacles for people who can no longer find a place in their societies.

This may be an auspicious moment in U.S. history to confront the prison crisis, marked in part by President Obama’s election and the economic crisis, she said.

Davis was one of about 30 scholars and others who participated in the multidisciplinary two-day symposium that aimed to contribute serious discussion to the growing national debate on the growth of the prison-industrial complex and racial disparities in the U.S.

In residency at U.Va. for the week, Davis spoke Thursday night to a packed house in Newcomb Hall Ballroom that included hundreds of students – some even traveling from Charlotte, N.C. – as well as faculty, conference participants and community members, including those who identified themselves as ex-convicts and ‘60s radicals during the question-and-answer period following her talk.

Davis and Deborah McDowell, director of the Woodson Institute, both mentioned that Jefferson designed not only his renowned buildings at the University and Monticello, but also an early penitentiary. He contracted architect Benjamin Latrobe to design the first prison in Virginia, with cells for solitary confinement.

Putting offenders in prison was considered a more enlightened idea than the less humane conditions and practices criminals were subjected to around the turn of the 19th century, Davis said.

The example of Jefferson’s legacy, she said, tells us “to be aware of the histories we inhabit.”

The prevalence of corporal punishment for actions that were considered crimes clashed with ideas for the new democracy. Because of slavery, however, the need for corporal punishment persisted, she said.

For example, Davis recounted what ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass told a British audience in London at the time: Although laws were written to sentence a white man to capital punishment only for the crime of murder, there were 70 crimes that could lead a Black man to his death.

“These are the historical roots we see today. The ideas were incorrect, but the early American government saw prisons as progressive, a move away from retribution,” said Davis, who was active in the Black Power Movement and spent time in jail in the early ‘70s, before being acquitted at trial.

“Prison was supposed to allow people to reform themselves. Incarceration turned out to be far more damaging to the psyche … and could not effect rehabilitation,” she said. “We have to undo past damage.

“Racism fuels the prison-industrial complex,” she said. “The vast disproportion of Black people makes it clear. … Black men are criminalized.”

Law enforcement surveillance determines who gets caught and who goes to prison, Davis explained. Many people commit acts that, if discovered, would result in prison sentences, but they are safe because the police don’t target their communities for surveillance.

‘Racism fuels the prison-industrial complex,’ said Angela Davis. ‘The vast disproportion of Black people makes it clear. … Black men are criminalized.’

The assumption, even among some African-Americans, that Black people have a proclivity to criminal activities is part of the daily working of racism.

“The fear of free Black bodies is contained in the systems and strategies that criminalize racism,” Davis said.

She advocated for more productive modes of addressing people who do harm to others and their communities.

‘The fear of free Black bodies is contained in the systems and strategies that criminalize racism,’ Angela Davis said.

“When we think of 2.3 million Americans being in prison on any given day, and all the resources required to sustain the system, why do we not mobilize to change this?” she asked.

It is because of the fear of confronting persistent racism and its history in the U.S., she said. “We are all infected.”

Davis pointed out there are no great disparities in drug use among the range of people and communities. Recently, law officers have shifted their surveillance to rural white people and, oddly enough, that has subjected them to the same form of racism to which Black men are subjected.

Law enforcement surveillance determines who gets caught and who goes to prison, Davis explained. Many people commit acts that, if discovered, would result in prison sentences, but they are safe because the police don’t target their communities for surveillance.

Americans must develop and negotiate social relations to be able to talk about racism without it being so uncomfortable, she said, adding that a justice system must be created that is not based on revenge, but rather is more restorative.

The political climate seems to be more hopeful, she said, lauding Virginia U.S. Sen. Jim Webb’s recent call for prison reform.

Anne Bromley is on the media relations staff at the University of Virginia – her beat: African-American Affairs. She can be reached at abromley@virginia.edu. This story first appeared at UVaToday.

Angela Davis: ‘Not another prison’

by Pepe Lozano

Chicago - Under the theme “Imagine Justice for All in 2009,” the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (NAARPR) held its 36th anniversary and annual Human Rights Awards benefit here April 18. The event was held at the Lutheran School of Theology on the city’s South Side in the Hyde Park area.

Dr. Barbara Ransby, a professor in the African American Studies Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, emceed the event.

“As activists, we’re always protesting what we’re against, but tonight we are celebrating people who are long distance runners in this struggle,” said Ransby. “Tonight we’re here to seek inspiration and highlight the fight to forge lasting change,” she said. Ransby also noted the historic election of President Barack Obama last November was a detrimental blow to racism in this country.

Legendary African American activist Angela Davis, a civil rights leader against the racist U.S. prison system and staunch advocate of ending the death penalty, was the program’s keynote speaker.

“The election of Obama was a millennium transformation, and we’re in a new historical conjunction in 2009,” noted Davis. “In a short period of time so much has changed,” she said.

Given the current economy, there is a very serious crisis erupting in the capitalist system, said Davis. “Many assume Obama is going to save capitalism, but a lot of us here have other ideas about changing the system,” said Davis.

Davis talked about the prison industrial complex and the role President Thomas Jefferson played in constructing the first penitentiary in Virginia.

“Penitentiaries were considered at that time the solution to barbaric forms of punishment,” she said. Founders of the prison system felt correction facilities were an outlet where people could reflect on their crimes, develop a relationship with God and become new, changed and reformed citizens in democratic life, said Davis.

“It’s obvious those hopes were not truly reflected,” noted Davis. “Instead we were given the institutions of prisons as an alternative to death and capital punishment,” she said.

Today the fight against the prison system is the same fight abolitionists fought against slavery 200 years ago, said Davis. “And there is a reason why we still have the prison industrial complex and it’s called racism,” she added.

Davis said the death penalty could be imposed on slaves for 70 different crimes, while whites could be put to death for only one crime – murder.

“Today many whites are also victims of the racist reality of capital punishment,” said Davis.

She noted that one out of 33 U.S. adults is under the direct control of the criminal justice system.

“Racism is directly responsible for the fact that the U.S. has become the great incarcerator and more people are incarcerated here than anywhere in the entire world,” said Davis. “And there is a vast over-representation of Blacks in the system.”

Davis acknowledged that President Obama identifies with Black freedom struggles, and that rightfully excites many activists. She said that legacy of Black radicalism has always been a struggle in some form against the state dating back to slavery.

‘Racism is directly responsible for the fact that the U.S. has become the great incarcerator and more people are incarcerated here than anywhere in the entire world,’ said Angela Davis. ‘And there is a vast over-representation of Blacks in the system.’

“So what happens when you have a Black person at the head of that state?” she asked. “It’s almost a contradiction although we have to recognize the new terrain,” said Davis.

Davis said people cannot sit back and think Obama is going to do all the work. Those who voted for him have to play an important role, especially young people, she said.

“As much as we are told today that racism has receded and that Obama’s election was the last major blow to the racial barrier, that simply isn’t true,” said Davis. “We cannot pretend to talk about racism today like it was back in the 1950s or 1960s,” she said.

“The institutions of racism have very long memories and even Blacks and Latinos continue to practice various forms of prejudice,” said Davis.

“The question of race is so essential to the history of this country,” she noted. “And working against the prison-industrial complex and the death penalty will help us to understand the markings and history of U.S. slavery,” she added.

“The fight for justice today is indivisible. Justice for one always means justice for all and it transcends all national and ethnic groups,” said Davis.

The issue of decriminalizing drugs and the question of violent acts especially when it comes to sentencing people to prison deserves more attention and analysis, noted Davis.

“Not another prison should be constructed in this country,” said Davis, “because the solution is not putting perpetrators behind bars. Sending people to jail does not help heal society’s problems.”

Davis added, “We need a system based on healing, not one that focuses on revenge.”

“If we are ever going to abolish the prison-industrial complex, then we need to begin to abolish the social and racial injustices of our educational system,” said Davis.

Davis came to national attention in 1969 when she was removed from her teaching position at UCLA as a result of her social activism and her membership in the Communist Party USA. In 1970, she was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List on false charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. During her 16-month incarceration, a massive international “Free Angela Davis” campaign was organized, leading to her acquittal in 1972.

Soon after, Davis became a tenured professor in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1994 she was appointed presidential chair in African American and Feminist Studies at the University of California. She has since retired from the University of California, Santa Cruz, but continues to teach classes, working with graduate students and helping to build an activist presence on campus.

Human Rights awards were granted at the event to honorees whose work includes ending the death penalty, overturning wrongful convictions, the fight against racism and efforts to help victims of the prison-industrial complex. The honorees included Patricia Hill, executive director of the African American Police League; Jane Raley, senior staff attorney with the Northwestern Law School; Judith Stuart, an anti-prison activist; Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, retired pastor with the Trinity United Church of Christ; and Karen Yarbrough, Illinois state representative.

The NAARPR works to fundamentally change the prison-industrial complex, including the mass executions of those on death row throughout the U.S. Fifty-three prisoners were executed in 12 states in 2006. There are more than 3,500 people on death row in the U.S., all of them poor and most of them African American or Latino, according to the NAARPR. Most countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, NAARPR leaders charge. The NAARPR has active chapters in Nevada, Kentucky and Illinois. For more information, go to www.naarpr.org.

Pepe Lozano is a Chicago-based journalist who writes for People’s Weekly World, where this story first appeared, and its blog. He can be reached at plozano@pww.org.

5 thoughts on “Angela Davis tours the nation calling for the abolition of prisons: reports from the University of Virginia and Chicago’s South Side

  1. Ed Prida

    Angela Davis has a big mistake, she is wrong thinker, the US is not owner of record for keep Human Being in prison, the great record is Cuba with 485,000 peoples in prison with 92% of them are blacks (Human Being also)when the black Cubans is just 30% of the total population, the US has less with just 1/780 peoples in prison, Cuba/Castro’s Regime/Communist/Davis’Friend has 1/48.
    Please check this statistic in the UN/King’s College of London.
    Additional information available upon request.

    Reply
  2. Concerned Citizen

    Angela Davis is a committed socialist. Ironic that her friend Fidel Castro and the Communist regime in Cuba incarcerate a far higher percentage of its citizens.

    Hey Ms. Davis… why won’t you tell the truth about Castro and the Cuban prisons???

    Reply
  3. Denyce G. Mitchell-James

    I understood Ms. Davis to make reference to the Prison System and it’s population in America, and not in any other parts of the world. I am not sure about the statics on prison populations in Cuba, but it is very clear to me that America houses more Men of Color than any other Country, (and for all of you hater’s out there check that out before you call Ms. Davis a racist)I know of.

    As for as Ms. Davis friendship with Fidel Castro that’s her business it’s not a political issue, more power to the sister for reaching out to other governments and holding them close to her for friendship, and or political reference if she find’s the situation necessary. Ms. Davis early growth and development in this country has not detained her emotionally, socially, psychologically, or morally, but from her courage to speak out on issues she understands as right and politically correct this sister’s early growth and development in this county has SUSTAINED HER.

    Reply
  4. A. Landa

    While there is racism in the US and a diproportionate percentage of prisoners is black, assuming that black males are incarcerated due to their race is, in the best case, oversimplifying. In most case, young black males go to jail, because they comit crimes.

    Now, the real point here is WHY are they more likely to commit crimes?: because of historical and social reasons; because of social injustice, for lack of opportunities, for lack of education, for lack of appropriate role models in their families and environment. NOT because of some genetic predisposition, of course.

    The real work needs to be done within the black community, creating stronger families, better schools, better leaders like President Obama that show to young blacks that YES they can have and achieve dreams in America.

    Assuming that the solution is just to open the jails or not to incarcerate black men, even if they commit a crime, is simply stupid.

    Now, regarding the support of Ms. Davis for Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro: it’s not only “her business” and it is not OK, either. She is a public figure and a leader of the black community. Would it have being OK for an African American leader to support the causes of Hittler, Franco or Pinochet? It is just biased and inmoral.

    Reply

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