Civil Rights icon Angela Davis speaks with Crossroads students about prison abolition, community and contemporary activism
By Lydia You
“Thank you so much, I’m like, so starstruck right now,” an excited Alana Cotwright exclaimed over video chat. Cotwright, a senior at progressive, private K-12 school Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, was speaking to her idol: philosopher, academic, author and iconic American political activist, Dr. Angela Davis.
Cotwright and a handful of other students from Crossroads School were participating in an online panel hosted by the school’s Institute of Equity & Justice, which was broadcast on Sept. 8 and again on Sept. 14.
Angela Davis, born in 1944, grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where her experience with deep segregation helped incite her prolific activist career at a young age. She recalled how the KKK burned down part of her church after she participated in an interracial discussion group, and how she witnessed bombings at several houses and churches in her neighborhood.
“The only way we could live in dignity was to resist and so I spent my entire life resisting and it’s been a wonderful life,” she said with an impish smile, crediting her teachers and community for never letting her doubt her self-worth despite the violent, entrenched racism she faced.
Davis is perhaps most well-known for her seminal work in establishing and popularizing the concept of the “prison-industrial complex” in America. She herself was once on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, and spent over a year in prison between 1970 and 1972 after being linked with communist organizations and tied to a fatal court shooting. She was ultimately acquitted in 1972.
Davis spoke about the mental and physical tolls of imprisonment: “I remember I had these horrendous stress headaches that would not go away.”
Nowadays, we see passionate calls to “defund the police” and strong advocacy for “prison abolition” filling our social media feeds and protest chants on the streets. But how does one go about implementing these sweeping reforms in a logistical sense? Davis elaborated during the talk with students, discussing how her time in prison informed her ideas on criminal justice and incarceration.
“I was beginning to understand the role that the prison plays in structural racism,” said Davis. “Prisons have become as powerful as they have precisely because in our capitalist world, these services are considered to be commodities…and the imprisonment process itself becomes a kind of profit making process. But capitalism is racial capitalism. It has always been racial capitalism.”
Her views on prison abolition center on reforming the very systems that our country is structured on — housing, education, health care — and diverting funds from prisons and law enforcement to instead invest back into making these services free and accessible.
“Abolition is not simply about the negative process of getting rid of prisons. It’s more about creating a society that does not require prisons, that doesn’t need these institutions of violence,” Davis said.
Many students asked Davis to give advice to young activists just starting to form their own personal socio-political views.
“I’ve personally noticed an overwhelming number of young people who are becoming or wanting to become radicalized at an earlier age,” observed Crossroads senior Kai McAliley. “A lot of young people are currently searching for identities that might be outside or even explicitly against certain current social and political structures. … How should this generation that is currently questioning structured society carry themselves in order for these individual roots to grow into a powerful community?” McAliley asked.
Davis herself, of course, knows what it’s like growing up in a fraught time period of a nation reckoning with centuries-old racial and social tensions.
She replied to McAliley’s question with a call for older activists to be more forgiving of young people’s mistakes, and encouraged young people to chart their own paths and explore different ways of expressing and resisting. “I often say that art helps us to feel what we don’t yet know how to say. And in that sense, art is the beacon of light. Art can shape the path and I point this out because oftentimes people assume that in order to make a difference in this world, one has to be your conventional political activist. And some people love doing that work, and that is what they should do. But other people are more passionate about poetry. And so why not use poetry as an entrée into the movement, or music?”
Davis also underlined the importance of community in her talk, and pointed out the pitfalls of falling into the individualistic mindset that is nurtured through our current hyper-capitalist system.
“Ideologies of capitalism represent the individual as the basic unit of society… they don’t recognize the importance of history, they don’t recognize the importance of community… But capitalism has transformed you know, all of the services, all of the things we need as human beings into commodities,” Davis said. “This is what I think I have spent my entire life attempting to do — to point out that community allows us to grow and develop in ways that we could never imagine if we were only individuals.”
Now, at age 76, Dr. Angela Davis is looking to pass on the torch to a new generation of young activists.
“Virtually every major revolutionary transformation in the world has been spearheaded by young people,” she said, smiling at the earnest faces speaking to her on the screen. “Young people are always in the vanguard…because we’re talking about your future.”