Prison Abolitionist Angela Davis Addresses Social Justice and Career in Activism

Angela Davis integrated climate change and environmental justice into her talk this past Friday evening.

While Angela Davis was imprisoned on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy in 1970, the “overwhelming emotion [she] experienced was fear” for the potential death penalty charges she was facing. In her talk on Friday, February 14, Davis explained how news of immense public support for her freedom and solidarity with her cause overshadowed her fear. Davis was acquitted of all charges two years later and carried on her lifelong career of radical activism and scholarship.

Davis is a political activist, scholar, author, and currently a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Davis is perhaps most well-known for her pedagogical work on the prison industrial complex and political philosophies.

LaShawn Springer, Director of the Community and Multicultural Development Office (CAMD), organized Davis’s visit to campus and introduced her talk. In her introduction, Springer talked about Davis’s impact on her both personally and academically. According to Springer, discovering Davis’s work while in undergraduate school was particularly impactful, as Springer was able to name the marginalization and structures of power that she felt personally affected by.

“[Davis’s works] were starting points in my own development as a black woman and my development as a black scholar….It was through [Davis’s] work that I discovered there was a space for black women, that we were master carpenters, carving out spaces for our whole selves. It was through [Davis’s] work that I was able to articulate the ever elusive and conditional feeling of freedom in the academy and my neighborhood, in this world. And it helped me name the structural and institutional violence as enacted on my loved ones in my community. And that equipped me with the pedagogy of love to enact change,” said Springer.

While much of Davis’s work has focused on the American prison system, she doesn’t consider herself a prison reformer. Davis corrects people when addressed as a reformer, instead choosing to identify as a prison abolitionist. In her talk, Davis explained how the prison industrial complex was a relatively new term in the late 20th century and analyzed the structure of prisons and their relationship to marginalized groups.

“There are no easy solutions [to the prison industrial complex] because we were dealing with an amalgam of economic, political, cultural, representational forces that were responsible in a complex way, for the ruling notion that black people, people of color, poor people, trans people, and others are naturally inclined to criminality and that the only way to address this was to put people in prison. At that time, politicians were winning elections by exploiting the notion of law and order, corporations were profiting, established media were riding the waves of these ideas for their own success,” said Davis.

Ariana White ’22 highlighted Davis’s points about the abolition of the prison system and institutionalized power. White was particularly interested in how Davis analyzed structural marginalization and the moral assumptions made about those in prison.

“I really, really enjoyed the way [Davis] spoke to the community and her concerns with societal problems regarding race and overall marginalized entities. I think her ideas about abolishing the prison system were very interesting. I think it’s very interesting that she fully believes in the rights of all people even when you do bad things and that it is systems that are put in place that make people act a certain way, so it’s not all necessarily one person’s fault,” said White.

Environmental justice and climate change were also focal points of Davis’s talk. Davis emphasized how, first and foremost, climate change affects every facet of social justice.

“Environmental justice is ground zero of such injustice. If we don’t manage to save this planet, then it makes little sense to be involved in all the other struggles that we face… We purge the world of racism, but then there is no planet left to appreciate a non-racist world. Or we finally manage to deal with misogyny, but then climate change is so bad that there’s no future,” said Davis

Throughout her career in social justice, Davis has been considered somewhat of a controversial figure, not just because of her criminal case, but her past and current political affiliations. Specifically, Davis was associated with the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party before creating her own political group, the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

“I suppose [critics are] referring to the fact that I was a member of the Communist Party. Now it’s taken all of these years for scholars to recognize that there are many aspects of U.S. history that have been marginalized or silenced because Communists were involved… And so I think that we’re just now beginning to learn about the contributions that Communists made. And it’s so important to [talk about] capitalism and I try to talk a lot about capitalism, simply because we never discuss it. And we’re all affected by capitalism, racial capitalism. Capitalism is always racial capitalism because it is deeply connected to slavery. I still consider myself a communist, maybe with a small ‘C’ instead of a big ‘C,’” said Davis.

Davis addressed efforts by Native Americans at Phillips Academy (NAPA) and their work in bringing formal land acknowledgements to Andover[a]. She emphasized the historical significance of recognizing colonized land and how she felt land acknowledgements should be social norms implemented by every institution across the U.S.

“We should all remember that the land on which we live and learn and work and love and party and struggle, is colonized land. We cannot forget the foundational violence of this country, violence visited on Indigenous people who were the stewards of the land we now occupy. If we do not count ourselves among the first peoples of this country, and even if our ancestor’s immigration was forced, when you remain complicit in one way or another, the damages of the original genocide have not been undone. And the invisibility to which native people have been relegated is a form of violence that reveals deep affinities with the original genocide,” said Davis.

The recognition of land acknowledgments made an impact on Mareesa Miles, Teaching Fellow in English, who appreciated Davis’s candor and how she spoke directly to the Andover community.

“From what I gathered afterward, and I don’t want to speak for anyone, but it seemed like [Davis’s talk] was a really empowering moment, for especially students of color who got to see this actual queen speak and show her courage and ability to make a difference. I hope that the message would impact other people because she was so big on land acknowledgments… She obviously had, coming in, some understanding of what we are and was really like, ‘I’m not going to shy away from things that I really believe in.’ I think that’s an empowering message for young people to think about. Just because an institution is refusing to do something doesn’t mean we step down; it just means we keep fighting for it,” said Miles.