Prison abolitionist, political prisoner, Black Panther, Communist, radical activist, Black feminist, critical resistor, public intellectual, intellectual activist, and university professor are just some of the labels by which Angela Davis has been known throughout her lifetime. Davis was the face of Black Pride in the 1970s, was a candidate for vice president on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984, and is a major feminist scholar. Today's generation knows her as a critic of the criminal justice system, particularly the prison-industrial complex, and as a prison abolitionist. Davis is currently a full professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she holds a joint appointment in the History of Consciousness and Women's Studies departments.
From the beginning, Davis has combined theory and practice through scholarship and participation in the grassroots movements of 1960s Black Liberation to the more recent prison abolition movement. Through 4 decades Davis has critiqued the “broken” criminal justice system through global, racial, gender, and class lenses. She urges us to think about the connections between the racialized figures of the “terrorist,” the “criminal,” and the “immigrant.” Noting that crime is socially constructed, Davis reminds us that the “criminal” in the United States is stereotypically portrayed as a young Black man and that not only White people but Black people alike believe this stereotype. Crime in the United States is racialized, according to Davis. Yet her critique goes beyond race in that it includes global, gender, and class analyses, and her racial analysis includes not only Blacks and Whites but also Native Americans, Latinos, and other people of color.
Angela Davis was born and raised in the “cradle of the confederacy,” Birmingham, Alabama, during the end of segregation in the 1940s and 1950s. Although she attended segregated schools through junior high, she came from a privileged Black middle-class family. Davis then received an American Friends Service Committee scholarship to attend Elizabeth Irwin High School, a private school in Greenwich Village, New York. At Irwin High, she was exposed to Marxist-Leninist socialist ideology through conversations with teachers who had been blacklisted for their Communist membership. After having graduated from Irwin High School, Davis received a scholarship to Brandeis University, where she was one of only a few Black students. Extensive international travels while at Brandeis gave Davis a worldview of oppression, which she maintains to this day. During the summer of 1962, she attended the Eighth World Youth Festival in Helsinki, Finland, and met Cuban students with whom she was enthralled. For her third year at Brandeis (1963-1964), Davis studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. There, she engaged in political dialogue with Algerian students who were protesting French colonialism. Davis returned to Brandeis for her senior year and arranged an independent study in philosophy with the famous Herbert Marcuse, a radical philosopher of the Frankfurt school of critical theory who was teaching at Brandeis. Davis decided to pursue her graduate studies in philosophy. Upon graduation from Brandeis, she returned to Europe to do graduate work in philosophy at the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe University in Frankfurt, Federal Republic of Germany. In 1967, she returned to the United States to attend graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, where she received her master's degree in philosophy in 1969, again working with Marcuse, who had come there from Brandeis. During her international travels and while pursuing her degrees, she was always politically active and often arranged her classes so that she could have full days to work in the Black Liberation movement.
While pursuing her master's degree at the University of California, San Diego, Davis participated in antiwar demonstrations and was an active member of the Black Panther Political Party (BPPP), the Los Angeles Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the Communist Party USA. Unlike Bobby Seale's Black Panther Defense Party, the BPPP was composed of young Black intelligentsia. Davis came to national attention when she was fired from her first teaching job as an acting assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of California at Los Angeles for being a member of the Communist Party. Although the school president supported her, the Board of Regents ordered that she be removed. Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California, vowed she would never again work in the University of California system. From the beginning, Davis's activism revolved around issues of racial discrimination and the criminal justice system. In Abolition Democracy she reflects that she has been involved with prisoners' rights ever since she became a member of the BPPP. Davis worked to free the Soledad Brothers (George Jackson, John Clutchette, and Fleeta Drumgo) from prison, arguing that they had been imprisoned on fraudulent murder charges. To this day, Davis includes George Jackson in her speeches and points out the discriminatory sentencing of Black men along with the disproportionate incarceration of minorities in the United States, which existed in the late 1960s and continues to the present. Perhaps the defining moment of her activism happened when she wasn't even there. Jonathan Jackson, George's young brother, used Davis's gun in an attempt to free three San Quentin prisoners when they appeared in the Marin County Courthouse, on August 7, 1970. In the ensuing gun fight, Jonathan Jackson and two of the three prisoners died, along with the presiding judge. The authorities found the gun registered in Davis's name and charged her with murder and kidnapping. Driven underground by an intensive police search, Davis was placed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI's) 10 most wanted fugitives list. The FBI found her in New York. She was incarcerated at the New York Women's House of Detention and later extradited to California, where she was held in jail, in solitary confinement, to await trial. Davis was acquitted and released almost 18 months after arrest, following an international “Free Angela Davis” campaign. Davis has continued to be involved with organizations that criticize racism in the criminal justice system, work to release prisoners, and ultimately question the very institution of prison. She is a member of the advisory board of the Prison Activist Resource Center. She was instrumental in organizing Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex in 1998, a grassroots conference held annually, which works to develop strategies that will ultimately abolish the prison-industrial complex. She works with Justice Now, an organization that provides legal assistance to women in prison. Davis is also affiliated with Sisters Inside, a similar Australian organization based in Queensland.
Prison issues have literally and figuratively defined Angela Davis's life. In her work with George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers, she realized that the prison system serves as a “weapon of racist and political repression” (Davis, 1999). While jailed in the early 1970s, Davis wrote about the relationship between the institutions of prisons and slavery, focusing on how the prison system maintained racism. Today, she emphasizes the ways in which prison reproduces forms of racism. She recognizes concerns related to young Black men in Black communities, almost one third of whom are under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system—either in prison, on parole, or on probation. However, as a Black feminist, she warns us that focusing on young Black men alone can result in a failure to address the criminalization of young Black women and the increasing incarceration rate for women.
Davis is also recognized for popularizing the concept of the prison-industrial complex. The prison-industrial complex is a interconnected group of public and private entities that have an economic stake in maintaining prisons throughout the world, not just in the United States. In a speech given at Colorado College in 1997 titled The Prison Industrial Complex, she described how corporations that move overseas disrupt both the communities they leave and the new ones they inhabit.
Her most recent discussion of prison abolition, in Are Prisons Obsolete? questions why American society takes prisons for granted. She points out that the frequent and discriminatory imposition of prison sentences is an ordinary fact of life for the poor, Black, and Latina/o young people in the United States. Davis examines the consequences of living with prison as punishment, arguing that continuing to build prisons creates a vicious cycle: Funds that are used to build prisons are not available to the communities from which the prisoners come, and thus those communities experience greater economic stress.
Finally, Davis asks us to think about a society without prisons. Why are they necessary at all? It is difficult to envision a society without prisons, because this would be a more complicated endeavor than simply replacing the prison with a single alternative. Davis challenges us to create a “new terrain of justice,” where one in every three young men of color is not destined to become imprisoned.
Contrary to former Governor Ronald Reagan's proclamation, Davis has been working as a university professor in the state of California for over the past 20 years.
Black Panther Party, Prison Abolition, Racialization of Crime
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