George Floyd’s murder sparked a worldwide conversation and reignited the media’s coverage of the long-standing pursuit of Black justice. Thousands of protestors rallied across the nation and globe, shouting “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Their Name,” demanding to be heard and not forgotten. However, one word rang through the streets, and like the 9 minutes and 29 seconds of George Floyd’s murder, it stagnated on everyone’s mind: abolition. Whether it was about the police, America’s economic and political system or gender binaries, abolition became the solution.
Last week, long-time advocate for total prison abolition and creator of the term prison industrial complex, Dr. Angela Davis joined USC Visions and Voices in a virtual conversation with Professor Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro at the intersections of race, gender and critical analysis about the utility of prisons. Like her abolitionist predecessors, Dr. Davis noted that legal slavery did not end in 1865 but instead was passed to its direct descendent: the prison system. In it, the apparitions of bondage and racism reign true.
Now 77 years old, sitting in her home office, Dr. Davis revisited her past thoughts and acknowledged the progress we have made concerning abolition as well as Black liberation.
“If one compares where we were 50 years ago, there are many ways in which we have moved forward and achieved progress[...] I am totally amazed by this moment because I never imagined abolition discourse entering the mainstream where people seriously began to engage with these questions.”
If we are to continue towards the reality of total prison abolition and, in the future, multifaceted liberation, “we have to move past the binary conventions of gender,” says Davis. As she notes in her extensive works, prison is often seen as a catch-all for those who are deemed “criminals.” However, this pervasive view of carcerality neglects to recognize the role of racism and its oppressive allies (i.e. sexism, classism, queerphobia) in creating rather than solving the problem. . She continues and adds that we cannot think about imprisonment through a myopic lens as the answer to all problems. Instead, we must become more intersectional in thought. We must consider how race, gender, socioeconomic status, international residency, and much more impact the severity of punishment within prisons and contemplate whether imprisonment is the correct solution.
“[Intersectionality] makes it easier to imagine liberation, and at the same time, the analysis and the forms of practice that we need are much harder. We are not allowed to be myopic in our vision. We’re not allowed to focus on only one issue. We have to take into consideration how these issues are deeply contextualized.”
According to the UC Santa Cruz professor emerita, part of that context is our economic system. Asserting that capitalism, “is the backdrop for the prison industrial complex as a whole,” Dr. Davis urged students to look at the abolition of capitalism as the surrogate for this transformation, reminding them that capitalism has grown within a racial context and has become the justification for violence or inhumane practices within all these single institutions that people have come to challenge. It has evolved alongside racism and necessitates the exploitation of Black and Brown bodies, and extracts any commodifiable value.
In one of the final questions posed, Dr. Davis reminded attendees that no one person can sustain themselves within the revolution, and it’s okay to be afraid. She reminds her listeners that community is essential, and collectively everyone can work together and build the courage to accomplish and progress in ways that we best see fit. Alongside conversations of abolition in the largest or smallest sense, it’s important to remember change happens collectively, and there are several strategies to cultivate the radical transformation we need.