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July 9, 2007 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Angela Davis Speaks to Wellington about Crime

John Lennon and Yoko sung a song about her, but judging from the audience attendance of activist Professor Angela Davis you’d think she was the rock star.

Her audience packed out two lecture theatres, while hundreds more had to be turned away. Davis, who lectures on the History of Consciousness (which roughly translates into ‘issues surrounding gender and racial discrimination’) at the University of California was chaperoned by Maori Party MP Hone Harawira, who acted as her ‘security’ for the visit. Her introductory speakers talked about how her involvement in black activism in the USA had influenced their own approaches to indigenous rights in Aotearoa. So just why does an academic speaking about the ‘prison industrial complex’ attract so much attention, and what does she have to offer us in terms of making our own society more just?


Angela Davis, named ‘sweet black angel’ by the Rolling Stones, has been speaking and writing about the philosophy of social injustice since the 1960s. Her popularity extends beyond the reach of your average academic because of her involvement with the Communist and Black Panther parties – in particular, two incidents in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. In 1969, Ronald Reagan (then California Governor) used his influence to fire her from the post of associate professor of philosophy at the University of California, due to her membership in the Communist Party (though she was subsequently reinstated due to a public outcry).

At the same time, Davis was becoming involved with the Black Panthers, who patrolled the ghettos of California to ‘police the police’, taking on officers who abused black citizens. They funded these activities by buying copies of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book from Chinese markets for a few cents, and selling them on to students for a few dollars.

It would be hard to overestimate the violence surrounding the Panthers’ activities, both from the government (who ran an assassination campaign against Panther leaders), and from the Panthers themselves. In 1970, a group of Black Panthers freed one of their number from a county courthouse, and demanded that the three Soledad Brothers (Panther leaders imprisoned in Soledad prison) be released. The Panthers then taped a shotgun to the presiding judge’s throat and blew him apart. Davis became a wanted fugitive when it was revealed that one of the guns used in the escape was registered under her name; her image (the bright young women hidden under a gigantic afro) spread around the world, to the extent that she now says she is remembered more as a hairdo than as a social activist.

The Prison Industrial Complex

While Davis’ involvement in the incident was only peripheral, her experiences with the police and subsequent jail time allowed her a degree of personal insight into the US justice system which has driven her academic work. She is a founding member of Critical Resistance, a prison abolition group. During her Wellington lecture, she stated that prisons needed to be abolished rather than simply reformed, and that although this may strike us as an unworkable idea, she wanted to discuss the “conditions of possibility” for such a move.

Essentially, what Davis finds abhorrent about prisons is that they have become “the response of first resort for too many of our social problems”. For many of these problems, such as poverty and broken families, imprisonment simply increases pressure and exacerbates the difficulties in people’s lives. In the USA, most drug users are sent to prison, where hard drugs are so freely available that sending an addict to prison will worsen their addiction. Why, then, is prison such a popular punishment?

Davis’ central argument is that prisons are not isolated entities locked away from society, but are interwoven into the very fabric of a democratic society. Only by looking at prisoners who are deprived of their rights and liberties are we non-prisoners able to feel truly free; prisons thus serve as an example to make us feel liberated. Furthermore, Davis uses the term “prison industrial complex” to describe the way prisons contribute to a capitalist society, not only by providing businesses with a captive audience whom the government will pay contractors to feed, clothe and guard, but also by providing us with a place in which to dump undesirables. Davis stated that both the military and prisons are disproportionately populated by poor and coloured people in every country around the world; many of the impoverished black Californians she has met who have joined the military told her that it was their only opportunity to receive an education and escape their inevitable path towards jail. These youths join Uncle Sam’s Gang to escape the Bloods and Crips, and “the price of their education is the infliction of torture on other poor people around the world”.

If it is true that prisons and the military are both dumping grounds for undesirables, and given that prisons in the USA are so overflowing that new ones are continually being built, then another, much darker fact follows: the wars the USA embarks upon are used to get rid of excess undesirables. Davis does not state this, but her argument implies that the USA, and any other country which uses both the military and prisons to hold unwanted people, are going to have to go to war in order to use up excess population, which explains why such disastrous catastrophes as Iraq continue to take place. But given the massive public oppositions to such wars, prisons are going to continue to be a popular alternative in any society unwilling to actually tackle its social problems head-on. The military also reinforces prisons by providing a justification for harsher treatment of inmates – to illustrate this point, Davis points to Guantanamo Bay.

Prisons very rarely produce better people, and most prisoners emerge unreformed. By putting the victims of the war on drugs in prison, Davis claims that anti-drug laws “criminalise entire communities.” Citing Foucault’s argument that prisons are intended not to cure society of all crime but to re-organize and classify crimes, she argues that “prison reproduces itself because it presents itself as a social solution to what we collectively think of as crime”.

Responsibility to the Responsible?

Anyone advocating the abolition of prisons is going to be met with the following counter-argument: “What about those criminals who are truly dangerous? Surely we cannot simply let them roam free?” Davis addressed this argument during her lecture. Firstly, she stated that the majority of prisoners are imprisoned for non-violent crimes; and secondly, some supposedly violent crimes are essentially the same as supposedly non-violent crimes – for example, whether a person is convicted of robbery (a violent crime) or shoplifting (non-violent) may have more to do with their background and ethnicity than with the crime itself. Thus keeping society safe from the actual violent prisoners is not the major function of the prison. But here her argument begins to fall apart. Suppose we do reform the prison so as to only imprison the minority of criminals who are violent and dangerous. What we have then done is reform the prison system, not abolish it – yet Davis says that she wants abolition. She does not, however, provide an alternative to prison for that small minority who are indeed dangerous.

Suppose we do reform the prison so as to only imprison the minority of criminals who are violent and dangerous. What we have then done is reform the prison system, not abolish it – yet Davis says that she wants abolition

One way in which she tries to address this problem is to discuss responsibility. Yes, she admits that there are many reprehensible violent criminals who are responsible for their crimes. But she states that rich corporate elites whose activities lead to impoverishment should also be held accountable for the crimes which impoverished people commit. This means that while some form of imprisonment may be necessary, if our legal system is to be truly just, it must attach the responsibility for crimes to everyone who is responsible, not just the immediate offender. Nevertheless, prisons cannot be abolished because of that minority of criminals who require it; therefore the term “prison abolition” is not particularly useful.

One further problem with Davis’ lecture was her attempts to apply her theories to a New Zealand context. She stated that the best way to understand a society is to visit its prisons, yet admitted that she had not visited ours. She then noted that New Zealand has the world’s second-highest per-capita rate of imprisonment, which is untrue (we have the seventh highest rate in the OECD, behind the USA, Mexico and Poland). While this is only a minor detail, it suggests a bigger problem: while there are similarities between prison systems around the world (both the USA and New Zealand have disproportionately high rates of imprisonment among indigenous peoples), there are also differences which Davis has not adequately addressed. Finally, the problem with prisons is rather more complex than a simple “prisons are bad” slogan. Prisons are overused, and often contribute towards crime, but that does not make their abolition desirable, especially when we lack alternatives for the small minority of prisoners who cannot be released.

What Davis has to offer us

While Angela Davis tends towards offering too much simple radicalism in her analysis of prisons and social problems, her Wellington lecture had much to offer us when we look at the problems with our society. While I have criticized Davis for not offering alternatives to prison, she herself stated that she is much more interested in looking positively at a future which does not need prisons, than at pointing the finger at those who commit crimes. Any society which relies upon imprisonment has already failed. If crime is to be reduced, its causes need to be addressed, whereas imprisonment can only ever address its effects.

Given the increasing harshness with which New Zealand treats its criminals, this is something we can learn from. Conditions in prisons became harsher thoughout the 1990s. In the USA Bill Clinton abolished prison education programs; here, the National Party took away maximum-security prisoners’ rights to decorate their cells. In both 2002 and again this year, sentence lengths have been increased due to public pressure. If we want to actually produce a society in which we have less crime, then we need to listen to Davisand buck our current trends.

At the end of the day, Angela Davis believes the only way to solve social problems is to become a more caring, compassionate society.

This is self-evidently true, and it is also true that we cannot force society to become more caring by building more prisons. Yes, some prisoners are responsible for their reprehensible crimes, and thus Davis’ desire for the abolition of the prison is idealistic. But we do need to approach crime with a more holistic approach, and compassionately address its true causes. This is why hundreds of people turn out to hear her speak, and this is why she is a vital figure.


About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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