Prison nation

Angela Davis brings news of oppression but few solutions

Activist Angela Davis arrived two hours late Friday night to deliver the conference’s keynote speech.

Activist Angela Davis arrived two hours late Friday night to deliver the conference’s keynote speech.

Photo by Tom Angel

Angela Davis—a heroine to some, a socialist pariah to others—greeted a Laxson Auditorium audience with a tired smile and said, “I finally made it.”

Davis’ scheduled 7:30 p.m. appearance was pushed to 9 p.m. due to Friday’s adverse weather conditions. Her by-then-diminished audience may have been small—about 150 people—but it had plenty of enthusiasm. Unfortunately—perhaps it was the long delay at the San Francisco airport—Davis’ silky voice could not make up for a disjointed address.

Davis’s titular focus on women, race and the prison industrial complex provided a loose framework for a lecture on the evils of corporatism. It wasn’t at all what I expected from this icon of the black-power rebellion of the ‘60s.

Davis, readers may remember, was a fiery lecturer and political firebrand who, in 1969, when Ronald Reagan was governor, was fired from her UCLA teaching position, largely because she was a member of the Communist Party U.S.A. But it was her work in the Black Panther Party that brought her even greater notoriety. In 1970, she became involved in the cause of the so-called Soledad Brothers, self-styled Black Panther “political prisoners,” one of whom—best-selling writer George Jackson—was killed by a prison guard during a bloody but failed prison break. Jackson’s brother had tried to force the break by taking hostages, including a judge who eventually was killed, at the Marin County Courthouse. The guns Jackson used were registered in Davis’ name.

Davis defied the authorities and ran; she was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Eventually, however, she was acquitted—following one of the most highly publicized trials in state history—of all charges and resumed her academic life teaching in the California university system.

Her critique of the system remains as provocative as ever, however. Here are some of the highlights of her speech:

•The growing prison-industrial complex: Imprisonment has become the all-purpose solution to social problems in our society, Davis insisted. “The new affirmative-action programs will be channeling people of color into prison,” she said. “With George W. Bush in office, the prison-industrial complex will grow. Racism will grow and become acceptable.”

•Women in prison: “The vast majority of women are in jail for non-violent offenses,” said Davis. Decriminalizing “sex work"—prostitution—would go a long way toward reducing the population in women’s prisons.

•The destruction of the democratic process: “Bush [the audience hissed every time the president’s name was mentioned] became president due to the ‘civil death’ of 400,000 black men in Florida,” Davis pointed out. Felons in Florida, as in a number of other states, permanently lose the right to vote after conviction.

•Youth are the next target: Already Proposition 21 allows a teenager to be treated as an adult at the discretion of the prosecutor. California has the highest incarceration rate for kids in the nation, twice the national average. “Our schools, said Davis, “are getting the children of California ready for prison. Schools are architecturally related to the prisons.” Metal detectors and police patrols are conforming students into prisoners.

Davis talked a lot about the prison system, seeming to see it as emblematic of the evils of capitalism. She talked about how MCI, for example, profits off prisoners by charging their families, almost all of them poor, exorbitant surcharges on collect calls made from prison.

Economics, especially the economics of capitalism, is what Davis’s speech was really about. Because corporations are profiting from prison inmates and as long as corporations make profits through the new slavery of prison labor, the system will never change, suggested Davis.

At the end, when the audience looked to Davis for suggestions on how to make changes, she backed off. “Boycotts against corporations should be selective, otherwise our lives would be unlivable,” she advised. Instead she told the audience to visit a prisoner, “generate a sense of empowerment,” join a coalition for prisoners’ rights.

My impression? The Angela Davis who appeared in Laxson seems to have kept the beliefs but lost the passion. It was as if she has been transformed from Angela Davis, radical activist, to Angela Davis, lecture circuit rider. Her talk seemed rote, as if she’d said it many times before. I expected a little more fire. I wondered how much she was paid.