Angela Davis in Texas

Key quotes from the Angela Davis interview:

Education is the major alternative to the prison.

So, it seems to me that the struggle for immigrant rights is the key struggle of our times. And it is a struggle for civil rights. It is a struggle for human rights.

It’s always a good thing to build bridges across racial boundaries. It’s always been a good thing.

Check out the audio interview with Houston IndyMedia

Meanwhile, we’ve typed up a transcript:

Meg: So you advocate prison abolition. That’s a radical idea rarely seen in public discourse. And even as people acknowledge prisons do violate human rights, they view them as necessary evil, and have never considered a world without prisons. What would that world look like, and which has to come first, prison abolition or the social reform that would make that possible?

Angela Davis: Well, first of all, it’s actually a very old idea. It’s not nearly as new and radical as we assume it is, and that is because we have lived with prisons for so long that we take them for granted.

As a matter of fact, very early on, when the institution of the prison was presented as an alternative to corporal and capital punishment, shortly after that, people began to talk about the need to develop a more humane means of addressing the kinds of problems that sent people to prison.

Now, with respect to your second question, I don’t think it really is a question of which comes first, prison abolition or social reform. The one requires the other. There cannot be significant social transformation or definitely not social revolution as long as the resources that ought to be devoted to people’s needs, communities’ needs, health care, housing, education, as long as those resources are devoted to punishment.

And so in my mind, and according to the strategy that many contemporary abolitionists have developed, prison abolition requires the building of new institutions. It requires addressing the problems that the prison presumes to address in new ways.

And so therefore, we have to talk about jobs, we have to talk about housing, we have to talk especially about education, because I believe that education is the major alternative to the prison.

And that way, we kind of crowd out the prison. We kind of begin to abolish the necessity for an institution that confines people, and that is undemocratic, and that breeds torture, and all of those other things.

Chickpea: The US continues to lead the world in incarceration rates. This month the federal government released statistics showing more than 2.3 million US residents are behind bars. Incarceration rates grew most in the South. This has to have a significant impact on the family and friends of those locked up as well as the communities they left behind.

Yet it seems that the voices of the incarcerated go largely unheard, discussed, or even thought about. And given the large and growing numbers of people incarcerated in prison, how much awareness do you think the general public has about the prison-industrial complex and why?

Angela Davis: There is a greater awareness about the imprisonment binge and about the prison-industrial complex today than there was ten years ago. This of course does not mean that there is enough awareness. But there is a movement that is national in scope, that is actually global in scope.

There are prison abolitionist organizations in Australia, for example. There is a connection between an organization called “Sisters Inside,” which is located in Brisbane, Australia and an organization called “Justice Now: Justice Network for Women,” located in Oakland, California. Both of them are abolitionist organizations. Both of them attempt to address the needs of women in prison. But we have a long way to go.

And I think it is extremely important to encourage people to try to imagine a world without prisons, to try to imagine alternatives, and to try to incorporate this demand for a different kind of justice into the radical social movement work we do in other areas.

Meg: At Critical Resistance’s 1998 conference there was a session about developing new vocabularies. In Friday’s session we talked about the importance of vocabulary used when referring to Katrina victims, like “refugees” and “looters.” You co-founded Critical Resistance, which has done a lot of work in the Gulf Coast. Could you talk about the significance of this teminology and the motivation behind it?

Actually, I’m on my way to New Orleans in a couple of hours to participate in the campaign for amnesty for the prisoners of Katrina. So I’m glad you raised that question.

And I’m also glad you raised the issue of new vocabularies, which of course was central to the 1998 founding conference of Critical Resistance.

And when I go to New Orleans this afternoon, we are going to be talking about the extent to which the poor people, and the Black people especially, were characterized as “looters,” because they were considered already to be criminal. They were criminalized before any form of behavior had ever been exhibited.

And this is the reason why critical resistance is now calling for amnesty for everyone who was arrested during Katrina and those who were arrested before Katrina, who were not tried, who had their records lost. Because we want to ensure that at least with this group of people–and this is part of the abolitionist strategy–that they will not have to pay for the rest of their lives for the failure of the government, the state government, the city government, the federal government to address the Katrina disaster.

Now the term “refugee.” Actually I am a bit ambivalent about the way in which people spoke out against that term. And I don’t know who agrees with me or who doesn’t.

But initially when I heard people criticizing the use of that term, it seemed to me that people were saying, these are people who shouldn’t be confused with refugees in Africa.

And had that term been used and had the solidarities been encouraged, and the similarities, we might have been able to further globalize our struggle.

Because it seemed to me that people were saying, these are citizens of America, in the way they put it. I don’t usually use that term America. And yeah, that’s true, but people who are non-citizens also deserve human rights, deserve to be treated in the same way.

And it’s important that we think about the effects of the post-colonial era, both in places like Africa and in places like African America.

And so, I thought there could have been a discussion around the term “refugees” rather than arguing that it was inappropriate, because people were forced into the situation of being refugees from the area of the storm by the failure of the government, just as genocide forces people into that refugee status. Just as impoverishment and global capitalism forces people into that refugee status.

Chickpea: Under the Bush administration, the US approach to immigration reform is focused on enforcement. And, somewhat related to that we’ve seen, especially here in the South, an increase in privately owned and operated immigration detention facilities. Do you see this as one of the major human rights issues in the South and in the prison abolition movement?

Angela Davis: Oh, absolutely. The rise of detention centers. The use of existing state and federal facilities–sometimes municipal jails–to detain immigrants, helps to drive the prison-industrial complex.

And I think that whoever is involved in the campaign around prison issues has to recognize the extent to which structural racism has been promoted by the assault
on immigrant rights. Structural racism in the form of the creation of these institutions of detention, but also in the way that immigrants are linked to the figure of the terrorist, because of the way in which that whole discourse of “immigrants” draws from and feeds on the racisms of the past, the racisms that have affected people of African descent, of Native American people.

So, it seems to me that the struggle for immigrant rights is the key struggle of our times. And it is a struggle for civil rights. It is a struggle for human rights.

Meg: The focus on this conference has been Black-Brown unity. Do you think it is a good idea to focus on building bridges across racial boundaries, or are there more pressing and important issues?

It’s always a good thing to build bridges across racial boundaries. It’s always been a good thing.

You know, one of the points that I often make in relation to my personal history, is that very likely the outcome of my trial would have been very different had not Black-Brown unity been created and strengthened.

In San Jose, California, which is the city where I was tried, there were very few Black people at the time. So the major activist support for me in that community came from Chicano communities.

And so I can personally say that if people had not had the foresight to build Black-Brown unity at that time, I might not be sitting here today.

But there are so many examples of the ways in which people of African descent and Latino people have come together historically. Yeah, I think about Betita Martinez, Elizabeth Martinez, who was one of the leaders of the leaders, founders of the Chicano movement of the 60’s and 70’s. She became involved in social movement work initially supporting Robert Williams, and initially being involved in SNCC.

So, it seems to me that we often assume that this is something new? But it isn’t. And whenever we’ve been successful there has been this unity across racial boundaries–this multi-racial approach to social justice.

Chickpea: This conference acknowledges the importance of both strategic discussion and action. And I wanted to ask you to discuss briefly these two approaches to change in the prison abolition movement, and maybe give some examples of success with action or areas that need more action.

Angela Davis: Coming from California, the prison abolitionist movement, Critical Resistance especially, has been extremely active in trying to prevent the further construction of prisons in California. And this has happened in other parts of the country as well. So that is very clearly a goal that activist strategies can achieve now.

I would also say that sometimes we assume that if we are in favor of a long-range goal, a long-range revolutionary goal, that we don’t want to dirty our hands by getting involved in the work of reform. And I think that’s absolutely ridiculous.

It’s important however to think about who the reform helps. The problem with the prison is that prison reforms historically have helped to build better prison systems. And so if you think of reforms not in terms of strengthening the institution, but about assistng those who happen to be living in that place right now, then that shift in perception, that shift in perspective, will help us to create the kinds of reforms that can help the abolitionist struggle in the long run. So that’s about strategy.

<br /
Chickpea: Well thank you so much for your time.

Meg: Thank you very much. Is there anything that you would like to add that we haven’t covered?

Angela Davis: Well there are many many more things, but unfortunately there isn’t the time. Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity to talk at greater length sometime in the future….

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