Angela Davis: I Always Find Hope in Struggle

Angela Davis on Prison Abolition, the War on Drugs, Why Social Movements Shouldn’t Wait on Obama, Solitary Confinement, Immigration Detention and "12 Years a Slave"
Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzalez
March 6, 2014
Angela Davis
Democracy Now!

For more than four decades, the world-renowned author, activist and scholar Angela Davis has been one of most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States. An icon of the 1970s black liberation movement, Davis’ work around issues of gender, race, class and prisons has influenced critical thought and social movements across several generations. She is a leading advocate for prison abolition, a position informed by her own experience as a fugitive on the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list more than 40 years ago. Davis, a professor emerita at University of California, Santa Cruz, and the subject of the recent documentary, "Free Angela and All Political Prisoners," joins us to discuss prison abolition, mass incarceration, the so-called war on drugs, International Women’s Day, and why President Obama’s second term should see a greater wave of activism than in his first.

Watch Part 1 of this interview.

Watch Part 2 of this interview.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The struggle to overhaul the criminal justice system in the United States has reached a pivotal moment. From the Obama administration’s push to reform harsh and racially biased sentencing for drug offenses to the recent decision by New York state to reform its use of solitary confinement, there is a growing momentum toward rethinking the system. But new battles have also emerged, like the fight over Stand Your Ground laws in states like Florida, where a number of recent court cases have highlighted the issue of racial bias in the court system. Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman of color who fired what she says was a warning shot into a wall near her abusive husband, is facing up to 60 years in prison at her retrial. Michael Dunn, who shot and killed an African-American teenager in a dispute over loud music in the same state of Florida, is facing a minimum of 60 years for attempted murder, but the jury failed to convict him of the central charge in the case: the murder of Jordan Davis, a case that, for many, recalled the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about these issues, we spend the rest of the hour with the world-renowned author, activist, scholar, Angela Davis, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For over four decades, she has been one of the most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States. She’s speaking here in New York on Friday at the Beyond the Bars conference up at Columbia University.

It’s great to have you here, Angela.

ANGELA DAVIS: Thank you, Amy. Thank you. Thank you, Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you sense progress?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, yes. I think that this is a pivotal moment. There are openings. And I think it’s very important to point out that people have been struggling over these issues for years and for decades. This is also a problematic moment. And those of us who identify as prison abolitionists, as opposed to prison reformers, make the point that oftentimes reforms create situations where mass incarceration becomes even more entrenched; and so, therefore, we have to think about what in the long run will produce decarceration, fewer people behind bars, and hopefully, eventually, in the future, the possibility of imagining a landscape without prisons, where other means are used to address issues of harm, where social problems, such as illiteracy and poverty, do not lead vast numbers of people along a trajectory that leads to prison.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering, in term—the first term of President Obama was often referred to by some through the myth of post-racial America, represented by the election of President Obama. But even he has shied away, until recently, dealing with some of the racial inequities of our system, especially the prison system. I’m wondering if you can see a movement or transformation in the president himself in how he deals with some of these issues?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, this is his second term. He really has nothing to lose. And it really is about time that he began to address what is one of the most critical issues in this country. It’s pretty unfortunate that Obama has waited until now to speak out, but it’s good that he is speaking out. And I think we can use this opportunity to perhaps achieve some important victories.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean, Angela, the difference between being a prison abolitionist, how you describe yourself, and a prison reformer.

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, of course, in 1977, when the Attica rebellion took place, that was a really important moment in the history of mass incarceration, the history of the prison in this country. The prisoners who were the spokespeople for the uprising indicated that they were struggling for a world without prisons. During the 1970s, the notion of prison abolition became very important. And as a matter of fact, public intellectuals, judges, journalists took it very seriously and began to think about alternatives.

However, in the 1980s, with the dismantling of social services, structural adjustment in the Global South, the rise of global capitalism, we began to see the prison emerging as a major institution to address the problems that were produced by the deindustrialization, lack of jobs, less funding into education, lack of education, the closedown of systems that were designed to assist people who had mental and emotional problems. And now, of course, the prison system is also a psychiatric facility. I always point out that the largest psychiatric facilities in the country are Rikers Island in New York and Cook County in Chicago.

So, the question is: How does one address the needs of prisoners by instituting reforms that are not going to create a stronger prison system? Now there are something like two-and-a-half million people behind bars, if one counts all of the various aspects of what we call the prison-industrial complex, including military prisons, jails in Indian country, state and federal prisons, county jails, immigrant detention facilities—which constitute the fastest-growing sector of the prison-industrial complex. Yeah, so how—the question is: How do we respond to the needs of those who are inside, and at the same time begin a process of decarceration that will allow us to end this reliance on imprisonment as a default method of addressing—not addressing, really—major social problems?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how do you see the changing public attitudes toward the war on drugs and the willingness of some states now to begin a decriminalization process and recognize drug addiction more as a health problem than as a criminal justice problem? Do you see that having some hope of sharply reducing the prison population?

ANGELA DAVIS: Yes, I think—I think it is important. But again, it’s also essential to point out that people have been struggling around these issues for a very long time. And oftentimes when these new moments emerge, it is as if the legislators have come up with this idea for the very first time. And, of course, it is important that decriminalization is happening in certain states, because drugs have served—the so-called war on drugs, which, as we know, has been a war on poor communities, black and Latino communities, all over the country—that so-called war on drugs has been the major motor driving the rising prison population. So, I often point out we need to look at the corresponding pharmaceutical-industrial complex when we, you know, think about the way drugs have served as a pretext for incarcerating such vast numbers of people of color.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the for-profit system, the for-profit prison system?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, they’re private prisons. Of course, the U.S. has given rise to this private prison industry. Corrections Corporation of America was the first private prison corporation. And now, of course, we have institutions like G4S, which is the third-largest private corporation in the entire world, third only to, number one, Wal-Mart, number two, Foxconn. And this security corporation, which has—which owns and operates prisons all over the country, which is involved in the production of the carceral technologies used in occupied Palestine by Israel, which is involved in deporting prisoners from Europe to the Global South, from the U.S. to Mexico—one begins to see how it all comes together.

But I think that private prisons are not the only indication of the thoroughgoing corporatization of punishment. Even public prisons rely on private corporations. And healthcare has been outsourced. Food production has been outsourced. The few programs that there are in prisons have been outsourced. So there is a privatization of imprisonment such that it’s not possible to consider the issue of mass incarceration without looking at the important role it plays in the economy. And this means, of course, that people who have very little to do with criminal justice, with punishment, have no stakes in that, really, have stakes in the continued increase in prison populations, because it means more profit for them.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. I want to also ask you about feminism, where that plays in, as we move in on International Women’s Day, March 8th, on Saturday. We’re speaking with Angela Davis, the author, the activist, the professor. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "Angela," Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon and Yoko Ono singing about Angela Davis. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Our guest today is the academic and activist Angela Davis. Her remarkable life journey is chronicled in a recent documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, directed by Shola Lynch.

REPORTER: Philosophy Professor Angela Davis admitted that she is a member of the Communist Party.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Hoover put her on the top 10. Everybody had a file on her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Her first lecture drew 2,000 students.

FANIA DAVIS: Angela’s education is now being put into practice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Angela Davis purchased four guns.

ANGELA DAVIS: There is a conspiracy in the land. It’s a conspiracy to wipe out the black community as a whole.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Well, I think she’s trying to overthrow our system of government, and she admits that.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: The actions of the FBI in apprehending Angela Davis, a rather remarkable story.

REPORTER: The U.S. district court judge set bail at $100,000.

FANIA DAVIS: She knows that the movement to free all political prisoners is growing every day.

GOV. RONALD REAGAN: This entire incident was a deliberate provocation.

ANGELA DAVIS: They wanted to break me. They wanted me to respond.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: There was enormous feeling for Angela everywhere in the world.

SALLYE DAVIS: We know that she is innocent.

RALPH ABERNATHY: We want to tell that pharaoh in Washington to let Angela Davis go free.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: What they’re doing to her is an exaggerated form of what happens every day to black people in this country.

PROTESTERS: Free Angela! Free Angela! Free Angela!

ANGELA DAVIS: What does it mean to be a criminal in this society?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 3: They are not going to kill her. They’re not going to imprison her. We’re going to free her. We’re going to win her freedom.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was a documentary on Angela Davis. The making of that documentary, the filmmaker approached you wanting to do what?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, she was interested in making a film about the trial. I had previously been aware of her work, because she did a wonderful film on Shirley Chisholm, Unbought & Unbossed. And I—

AMY GOODMAN: Who ran for president in, what, 1972.

ANGELA DAVIS: Who ran for president, the first, yes, black woman to run for president in this country. And I had been approached many times by people who wanted to do films, but I’ve been reluctant, because I didn’t think it would be very productive to have a film primarily focused on me. And I knew Shola wanted to tell the story of the trial, and that would also mean telling the story of the campaign that developed all over the country and all over the world around the demand for my freedom. And she did quite an amazing job of retrieving archival footage. And I’ve often pointed out, there were things that I did not know until she made that film. I hadn’t seen a lot of the archival footage because, of course, I was in jail when it was shown on television.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you were in prison for and acquitted of.

ANGELA DAVIS: I was charged with three capital crimes: murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. And I was acquitted on all three charges.

AMY GOODMAN: Weren’t you in prison just down the road from us right here?

ANGELA DAVIS: Yes, as a matter of fact, on the way to the studio, I saw the spot where the old Women’s House of Detention stood, which is right on the corner of Greenwich and Sixth Avenue, Avenue of the Americas. And, yes, the night I was arrested, I could hear the voices of people who had gathered outside to call for my freedom. I suppose that’s one of the reasons it’s no longer in that spot anymore. It’s on Rikers Island, so that the community does not have the same kind of access.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of the Women’s House of Detention, you’ve been speaking increasingly about bringing feminism within an abolitionist frame and abolition within a feminist frame. What do you mean by that?

ANGELA DAVIS: Absolutely. Well, actually, I mean a number of things by that, because feminist perspectives, I think, are really important, and not just with respect to understanding how essential it is to look at women in prison, even though women constitute a relatively small minority. One can see the way the system functions a lot more clearly by looking at the convergence, for example, of institutional violence and intimate violence. Also, looking at the particular situation of trans prisoners not only allows us to recognize that this is a group that is perhaps more criminalized than any other group—trans people are arrested and imprisoned more frequently than any other group in society—it allows us to see the role that the prison system as a whole plays in upholding the binary notions of gender in the larger society. So, feminism, it seems to me, helps us to reframe the issue of imprisonment and the prison-industrial complex within a larger context. And we see the connections with—between the personal and the political, the institutional and the intimate, the public and the private.

AMY GOODMAN: Aren’t women the fastest-growing population in prison?

ANGELA DAVIS: And all over the world, women constitute the fastest-growing population in prison. But I think it’s also important to point out that women are such a minority because there are other ways of punishing women in the larger society. And I like to point out that violence against women, which is the most pandemic form of violence in the world—I mean, we talk about police violence, we talk about—when we talk about racist violence, we think about street violence, Trayvon Martin and so forth, and that’s absolutely important to recognize, but at the same time, the violence that happens in relationships is connected with that street violence, institutional violence and intimate violence. And when one looks at women’s situation, it’s important—it’s essential to grasp that connection, which then allows us to have a different view on the institution that is responsible for the incarceration of so many men, and especially black and Latino men.

AMY GOODMAN: As we move into this International Women’s Day, what gives you most hope?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I think—I always find hope in struggle. I find hope in younger generations.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel people have been demobilized under President Obama or are getting more active?

ANGELA DAVIS: I think we could have been much more active. And one of the problems, I think, was that after this world historical election that took place, we went home and decided that this one man in Washington would carry the ball for us, not recognizing that, actually, he was the president of the imperialist, militarist United States of America. And I think that we might have had more victories during the era of Obama’s administration had we mobilized, had we continually put pressure on him, and also created the possibility for him to take more progressive stances.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you still think there’s hope in the next few years?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I think we have to act as if there is hope.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we have to wrap, but we are going to continue this conversation and post it online at democracynow.org. Angela Davis, author and activist, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the subject of the recent film, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.

**************************

Watch our extended interview with the world-renowned author, activist and scholar Angela Davis about the significance of the Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, the use of solitary confinement in prisons, and the global movement to challenge the expansion of immigrant detention. "If we are going to mount an effective campaign against what we call the prison-industrial complex," Davis argues, "it has to take into consideration immigration detention is the fastest-growing area of that complex."

Click here for Part 1 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the struggle to overhaul the criminal justice system in the United States has reached a pivotal moment. From the Obama administration’s push to reform harsh and racially biased sentencing for drug offenses to the recent decision by New York state to reform its use of solitary confinement, there is a growing momentum toward rethinking the system. But new battles have also emerged, like the fight over Stand Your Ground laws in states like Florida, where a number of recent court cases have highlighted the issue of racial bias in the court system. Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman of color who fired what she says was a warning shot into a wall near her abusive husband, is facing up to 60 years in prison at her retrial. Michael Dunn, who shot and killed an African-American teenager in a dispute over loud music in the same state of Florida, is facing a minimum of 60 years for attempted murder, but the jury failed to convict him of the central charge in the case: the murder of Jordan Davis, a case that, for many, recalled the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about these issues, the world-renowned author, activist, scholar, Angela Davis, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For over four decades, she has been one of the most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States. She’s speaking here in New York on Friday at the Beyond the Bars conference up at Columbia University.

It’s great to have you here, Angela.

ANGELA DAVIS: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the conference on Friday?

ANGELA DAVIS: This is a conference that is happening at Columbia University. My good friend Kathy Boudin has been organizing this conference for the last three years. And as many people know, Kathy spent a quarter of a century behind bars. Kathy and I went to high school together, believe it or not, not very far from the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village, so we’ve known each other for many years. And it’s very exciting that our lives have come together again around this—around these issues relating to prison abolition.

Kathy has been doing work around long-termists. And I think it’s extremely important to recognize that we can’t just focus our questions on people who are, quote, "innocent" or people who seem, according to the propaganda and the ideology, less dangerous, but we have to look at the damage that prison does, not only to those who are inside, but those on the outside, when people are kept behind bars for decades and decades. Of course, Eddie Conway had been in prison for 44 years, and that is just unimaginable. So, the conference tomorrow, on Friday—Friday and Saturday, actually—is going to address a range of issues, "Beyond the Bars: Breaking Through," breaking through precisely because there have been some important victories over the recent period, and how do we use those as a springboard to continue.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—in terms of the growing prison population, the fastest-growing sector of that population are people being detained on immigration offenses. I think the—more than 50 percent of all the prosecutions of the U.S. Justice Department last year were immigration-related, either misdemeanors or felonies. And to what degree the—this country is coming to grips, obviously, with the continued issue of having to have some kind of a 21st century immigration policy? And Europe is facing the same problems, in terms of the immigrants from Africa and other parts of the world that are coming into Europe, that we’re not dealing with the other side of globalization that is resulting in immigration crackdowns.

ANGELA DAVIS: Absolutely, absolutely. And I had the opportunity to teach in Frankfurt, Germany, during the month of December, and met with a number of immigration activists. And what we talked about was the importance of creating a global movement in defense of immigrant rights, challenging the consequences of globalization and, you know, the post-colonial repression that has been instituted, literally, all over the world.

As a matter of fact, the company G4S, which, as I pointed out, is in the deportation business, is responsible for the death of a young man who was being deported from England, from Britain, to Angola, a young man by the name of Jimmy Mubenga, I think his name was. He was—he was killed on a British Airlines plane by guards who used what they called a karaoke hold, by pressing him into the front—the back of the seat in front of him to keep him from talking. So, when I was in Frankfurt, I learned about all of these horror stories happening in immigration detention facilities.

And if we are going to mount an effective campaign against what we call the prison-industrial complex, it has to take into consideration that, as you pointed out, immigrant detention is the fastest-growing area of that, of that complex. And, of course, we know that some of the most repressive immigration laws have been drafted by private prison companies precisely because they see immigrant detention as the most profitable sector of the private prison industry.

AMY GOODMAN: The prison guard lobby in California is extremely powerful, as it is in many places in the United States. I was just in Texas, and many were shocked that the prison guard lobby came out against solitary confinement in Texas because, they said, it makes prisoners more violent. And then, interestingly, in New York, New York is ending the practice of solitary confinement for juveniles.

ANGELA DAVIS: Exactly. And we know that there have been demonstrations by prisoners all over the country against solitary confinement, and especially the very, very long hunger strike in California in which prisoners stood up against this most barbarian form of punishment. And in a sense, one can look at solitary confinement as a microcosm of the whole system, solitary confinement within a prison. The prison is solitary confinement within the society. And how can one expect to create any kind of rehabilitation, which unfortunately prisons still claim that they rehabilitate, in the context of the kind of isolation that happens in these institutions? So, solitary confinement needs to be abolished, yes, but I think that is a strong argument for the abolition of imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about—we had talked earlier about this whole issue of what had happened to the sort of the progressive movement under Obama. We’re having an interesting experiment right here in New York City now with this new progressive government, where we have a mayor, all of the—the majority of the City Council, as well as the—all the other elected officials are all progressive liberals, some even radical. And yet, the new mayor has openly espoused keeping the grassroots movement going as a pressure point. In fact, I think today there’s a huge gathering of housing activists, affordable housing activists, pressing the agenda that the mayor has laid out in terms of creating more affordable housing. So there seems to be an attempt to not let the movement get co-opted or die once you get these more sympathetic officials elected. And I’m wondering if you’re sensing across the country whether the grassroots movement is continuing to hold politicians to the fire in any way possible.

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I certainly hope this works in New York. And it was good that a progressive mayor was elected. My sense has always been that one cannot necessarily count on elected officials for leadership, which is what we tend to do. The movement has to give political leadership, and hopefully that happens in New York.

I know that Ras Baraka is running for mayor of Newark, and I’m looking at that election very closely. And, of course, we unfortunately lost his father, Amiri Baraka, not very long ago, and Amiri was a very strong supporter of his son. As a matter of fact, Amiri had invited me to come to Newark some months ago. I think it was back in October where I went and spoke at an incredible, an arousing event for Ras. So, let’s see what happens in Newark, as well, especially given its history, its radical history.

And it might be a trend all over the country. Who—you know, who knows? And I think we still have to do that with Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: You gave the Martin Luther King address at the Academy of Music—

ANGELA DAVIS: Oh, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —in front of Mayor de Blasio, his wife and Bill Bratton, as well, the police commissioner. What was your message to them?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I don’t know whether it was in front of them. I think they left before I spoke. But I saw them, but I don’t think they got to see me. Yeah, and I know that some people were a bit disturbed by that fact. I had no idea that they were going to speak there, by the way. I was invited to give the Martin Luther King address.

And I think the stop-and-frisk issue, which has been so important in New York—I remember Jazz Hayden and the leadership that he gave to that movement—that cannot be resolved simply by dropping—by settling the lawsuits. And I think this is the strategy now. And I think it will be important to settle those lawsuits, but the issue of stop-and-frisk runs so much more deeply. And I think it’s only grassroots progressive organizations that will have the power to chart a path towards the abolition of stop-and-frisk.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to turn to a clip from the recent documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, directed by Shola Lynch. Here, a young Angela Davis speaks about the right to self-defense.

ANGELA DAVIS: I’m representing the Che-Lumumba Club of the Communist Party. There is a conspiracy in the land. It’s a conspiracy to wipe out, to murder, every single Black Panther in America and to wipe out the black community as a whole. Brothers and sisters, this is genocide. We have to call it by its name. This is genocide.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Right on!

ANGELA DAVIS: This conspiracy to commit murder and genocide on our people forces us to exercise our constitutional right to bear arms and to use those arms to defend our community, our families and ourselves. Power to the people!

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was a clip from the documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. Now, Angela, the whole issue of the right to self-defense, it’s some—it’s an issue that has receded in the public consciousness, even in the progressive or radical, revolutionary movement here in this country.

ANGELA DAVIS: Yes. And, of course, that was a key issue during the 1960s, the 1970s. The Black Panther Party was initially called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. We had Deacons for Defense. And we had Robert Williams in North Carolina, who eventually wrote a book called Negroes with Guns, because he argued that black people had the right to stand up to the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. I often point out that when I was growing up, my father had guns in the house, and I saw him pull out those guns when we feared that the Ku Klux Klan was about to bomb our house. And there were many bombings in our neighborhood.

AMY GOODMAN: You grew up in Birmingham.

ANGELA DAVIS: I grew up in Birmingham. And it wasn’t such a major issue. It was simply understood that we had the right to self-defense. And let me point out that now, today, there are 300 [million] guns in the U.S. There are more guns in this country than anywhere else in the world. And there’s a connection between the number of guns and the number of people in prison. And certainly, that is not about the question of self-defense, which historically goes back to the era of Reconstruction, Radical Reconstruction, when black people were determined to defend the efforts to create a new society in the aftermath of slavery. And it was when the—under the Hayes-Tilden Compromise that the military was withdrawn, federal troops were withdrawn from the South, that Radical Reconstruction was dismantled. And as W.E.B. Du Bois said, democracy died then, except within the hearts of black people. So, the right to self-defense was very much connected with the effort to build democracy.

Today, the issue of gun control, it’s very different. I would say, today, that everybody should be disarmed—and not only civilians: We should disarm the police, and eventually the military. You know, considering that there are enough guns in this country to kill every single—I mean, there are more—there are as many guns as there are people in this country, and it makes no sense.

AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, I wanted to get your take on the first time—this is 2014—that a black director has won an Oscar for Best Film, and that film was 12 Years a Slave. Your thoughts on 12 Years a Slave? They were presented on Sunday night, the Academy Awards. It’s about a free black man, kidnapped, sold into slavery. Steve McQueen was the director, who spoke on behalf of the film.

STEVE McQUEEN: Everyone—everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today. Thank you very much. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: There you have it, Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, a remarkable film.

ANGELA DAVIS: Absolutely. And I am so happy to see this film. It is sparking a new conversation around the role of slavery in the history of this country. And I’ve often pointed out that the history of the United States of America is a history of slavery. The majority of the years since 1619 to 1865, 240-some years, and that means that there—we’ve only had 150 or so years without slavery. But then, if one looks at the argument that someone like Douglas Blackmon makes in his book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of [Black] Americans from the Civil War to World War II, one realizes that the convict lease system was an even more insidious form of slavery. And it was not disestablished until the 1940s. So, I think it’s good to have discussions around slavery again. It’s strange that they only happen when films are released. I remember the last really major discussion in this country was back in the ’70s, when Roots came out.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When Roots came out, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the connection between slavery and prisons today?

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I would say that the prison-industrial complex reminds us that we live with the ghost of slavery. Punishment was used in the aftermath of slavery in order to reinstitute slavery. So the bridge is the convict lease system, when vast numbers of black people were forced into servitude, often by capitalist corporations from the North. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. The steel industry, the iron, the mining of iron ore, the mining of coal, which was done by companies like U.S. Steel, was done by people who were forced into servitude after having been criminalized and arrested for reasons that often amounted to talking too loud or failing to look at a white person walking down the street. So, the criminalization of blackness, which is at the core of the vast prison population today, finds its roots in slavery and in the aftermath of slavery.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then, of course, once you’ve got a criminal record, even after coming out, let’s say, with a stop-and-frisk or a minor sentence, you now then have this criminal record, which is a cross to bear in terms of employment or opportunities to access the general benefits of the society.

ANGELA DAVIS: Exactly. That’s why there are Ban the Box movements all over the country. Get rid of the box that asks, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?"

AMY GOODMAN: And has that passed in California?

ANGELA DAVIS: California has been very good, because, of course, the—All of Us or None, which is an organization of former prisoners, former felons, has been conducting this struggle for a long time. And on the campus at NYU, there are efforts to get rid of the box, abolish the box, in student applications, student applications for admissions.

But getting back to 12 Years a Slave, I do have some critical observations. And I think it’s important, even as we applaud such a great film, to point out that it was based—that it was based on a slave narrative of someone who was free. And my question is: Would people have identified with a slave who had never been free, someone who had been denied the opportunity to get an education? Would it have been possible to create that kind of interest? And I have to say I don’t think so. I think it was really only because Solomon Northup, the author of the slave narrative, had been a free man.

And then I had some issues about the representation of women. I’m always looking at that, of course. And the fact that I’m critical doesn’t mean that I don’t think the film is a great film. But I was—when I saw that the overwhelming majority of women were represented primarily as objects of violence, as objects of repression. Alfre Woodard, who plays the so-called "wife" of a slaveholder, is the only one who has any agency. You know, all of the other women are just suffering beings. And we know that women played amazing roles in challenging slavery. So I would have, you know, wanted to get some glimpse of that, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Angela Davis, we want to thank you for spending this extra time with us. Angela Davis, author and activist, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Can anyone go to the conference tomorrow and—

ANGELA DAVIS: Oh, yes. It’s open. It’s open.

AMY GOODMAN: —Sunday at Columbia?

ANGELA DAVIS: And I should point out that—

AMY GOODMAN: This is the New York audience you’re talking to now.

ANGELA DAVIS: —that I’m speaking. Beth Richie from Chicago, who’s an absolutely amazing scholar-activist, is speaking. And my sister, Fania Davis, whom we saw in the film, who does work on restorative justice, she will also be one of the speakers.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the work she does on restorative justice?

ANGELA DAVIS: She is the executive director of an organization that is called Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. And as an attorney, she does restorative justice work in terms of keeping people out of the criminal justice system. And her organization works in schools to attempt to teach teachers and students how to resolve conflicts and problems without punitive methods and without the use of violence. So, she and her organization teach kids how to do healing circles. And it’s so wonderful to see these kids, who never knew that it was possible to deal with these problems except by fighting, asking for a circle so that they can talk it through.

March 9, 2014