It should come as no surprise to say that practically everyone, if given the chance, would love at least five minutes with Angela Davis. And when I learned, last month, that she was coming to town to give a talk entitled "Prisons and American History: The Prison-Industrial Complex," I included myself in that number. So what did I do? I contacted the Bush School, who was sponsoring her visit as part of its Diversity Speaker Series, expecting to be told, "No way, forget about it."
Instead, I got a call from the school's Director of Diversity, Eddie Moore, Jr., telling me that, yes, she was busy that day, but there was one slim chance for an interview: I would have to talk to her in the car ride from the airport. Would that be OK? he wondered. I practically jumped through the phone to say, "Are you kidding? Of course." That only left one problem: What in the world do you ask Sister Angela Davis?
I could have talked to her about her involvement in the Black Panther Party; about how she fled underground when she was wanted for her alleged conspiracy in the murder of a judge; of how she was eventually captured, tried, and acquitted of the crime; about how she ran for vice president on the Communist ticket in 1980; about her seminal 1981 book, Women, Race, and Class; about... a million other things. Instead, I decided to focus on the prison-industrial complex and see where that led.
So it was that on a rain-battered afternoon in November, with Sister Davis in the front passenger seat and me in the rear, I placed a digital recorder near her. And, with the windshield wipers shoosh-shoo-ing a steady beat, we talked about prisons, homelessness, the media, crack, South Africa, Barack Obama, and my brother.
First, a very basic question: How would you define the prison-industrial complex?
Well, I would define the prison-industrial complex as a set of connections, a set of relations between the various prisons and jails and other forms of incarceration; corporations that help produce the expanding prison population that either provide services for the expanding jails and prisons or benefit directly from the privatization of these institutions. So you have the prisons, the corporations, but also the media. The media plays an extremely important role in producing ideas about the criminal that helps to make the link between poverty and criminality. It helps to criminalize communities, especially poor communities, Black communities, Latino communities. So it's not just the physical institutions: it's the relations that keep the incarceration rates climbing, the relations that make it profitable to criminalize communities and shut away large numbers of people.
I want to touch on the media and the figure/portrayal of the criminal. Are you talking about how TV news can have the image of a Black man in handcuffs being put in the back of a car? Or do you mean more than that?
Well, it's not only that. It's visual, but it's not only visual. It's about the representation of the criminal as society's enemy. I would say there's a connection between what you might call representational practices of showing the criminal and representational practices of showing the terrorist. And in previous years, the Communists. And racism plays an important role in creating images of all three of these so-called enemies as connected with Blackness.
Sometimes we have complicated connections that many people take for granted. Just as it was taken for granted that slaves were inferior and could never be full citizens, it's taken for granted that the overwhelming majority of criminality comes from Black youth. It's taken for granted that young Black people do more drugs and sell more drugs than any other group, and that's just a blatant falsehood. If you look at the studies that have been done by respected social scientific scholars and organizations, you discover that Black youth actually take less heroin, they take less crack, they sell less heroin, they sell less crack, they sell less, obviously, powder cocaine. The only drug where there's an equal rate of both sell and consumption is marijuana. But even Black people walk around thinking that it's young Black kids who are responsible, at least at the lower levels, for most of the drug traffic, and that's just not true.
How do you get the Black person -- me -- who has been bombarded with images of Black criminality, to understand that those images are false?
It might be helpful to focus in the first place on the work that these images do. And this I think is comparable to what many of us try to do with the term prison-industrial complex. It's been in use for maybe the last decade, and I think the use of that term marked a shift from thinking about prisons and prisoners solely in terms of crime and criminality to thinking about the work that these institutions and connections do. If you think about the prison as a profitable enterprise that is bringing, in some cases, a substantial amount of profit into corporations that range from Dial Soap to Starbucks, then we might not rely on our emotional connection to the idea that crime produces incarceration. You might say, "Most people in prison have committed crimes," but there are many people who are not in prison who have committed the same crimes. So there's another reason to learn how to question those things that we take for granted. That might be the beginning of a critical consciousness. Probably takes a lot more, but right now I'm working with an organization called Critical Resistance, and we are focusing on prison abolition.
So. Abolition. That's a word that carries -- it has a history. Why choose such a word?
As you've pointed out, that term does have a history. It's been used in a number of contexts -- abolition of the death penalty, that's still a movement that's very much unfolding in the U.S. But the resonances that probably everyone will perceive are the resonances with the abolition of slavery. Our approach to abolition is to talk about ways of creating those institutions that would actually address the problems for which many people end up going to prison.
Can you give me an example of what one institution might look like?
One system that would take its place would be a public educational system that everyone has access to and encourages people to love knowledge and to identify with people in other parts of the world. It's not just creating a free educational system, say, free school K-12, free high school, free college and university, free post-graduate-- I mean, that's necessary. But it's also important to think about how we would transform the educational system so that it really results in the flowering of individualities and really encourages people to find themselves. If you go into any major prison, you'll find this incredible amount of illiteracy. It's unfortunate that oftentimes people don't have the time to sit down and learn how to read and write and focus and concentrate until they go to prison. Why can't they learn that when they're in the first or second or third grade? Why do they have to wait until they're adults to develop their mind? So, I see education as being the main alternative to prisons, really.
The idea of building the institutions that really will address the social problems we face is not using the footprint of the prison to date [but asking]: How do we deal with those 2.2 million people in a less repressive way? Oftentimes -- well, most of the time -- poor people who are mentally or emotionally ill end up going into prison, where they get channeled into the worst of the worst, into the Supermax security facilities, for no other reason than they need some kind of professional assistance to address their emotional or mental issues.
How is homelessness linked into this prison-industrial complex?
Oftentimes, homelessness is an invitation to police to use the institution of prisons to clean up the neighborhood. I don't think there is any city that has a really progressive policy around homelessness, because if there were a really progressive policy, then housing would be provided and we don't see that anywhere in the country. So, if you look at many of the people who end up in jail or prison -- especially in jail -- they are people who don't have addresses, and they are so much more vulnerable precisely because they don't have homes, they don't have anyone to answer for them.
One of the things that strikes me about homelessness, about the mentally ill and about the prison system, is that they create a cloak of invisibility. You can walk by someone who's homeless, or mentally ill, and you don't really have to look at that person. When someone's in a prison or jail, you don't see them.
I think you're absolutely right, but I think you learn not to look at them. You learn to turn your head when you're walking down the street. You learn not to be aware that there are prisons in your community, even though you see representations of prisons in the media -- on television, in the movies -- virtually every day. In San Francisco, there's a relatively new county jail that you can see just as you get ready to cross the Bay Bridge. Many people see it and think, "Oh, it's a museum." It has this beautiful translucent glass. But if you look hard enough, you can see the cells on the other side. That to me is metaphor for the way we learn how to not look at prisons, how not to take homelessness seriously by pushing it to the margins of our consciousness.
So, education can help us to find a new way to address our problems. But you talk about how communities are harmed by the prison-industrial complex.
Absolutely. Some people talk about restorative justice or reparative justice. But the question is: How do you address harm, not by harming someone else, but by trying to bring people together to understand what may have happened? I think we have many, many examples of the possibilities of creating these processes. I think the best examples come from Africa, to tell the truth. I mean, South Africa kind of pioneered the whole thing with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, because they knew that there would be no way to build a new society if they had to address every single act of violence -- committed by white people, committed by Black people -- in the old way. Had they done that, they would have probably had to, if this is even conceivable, send the majority of people to prison. And when we think about the fact that the majority of so-called crimes aren't prosecuted -- I mean, if we thought we could solve the problem of violence against women by incarcerating every single person who has been a perpetrator, then we would have nothing left for education.
So, as we were driving, there was just a bumper sticker: "Obama 08." How are the presidential candidates dealing with this issue?
I don't think they're really talking about it. Some of them may acknowledge the existence of a problem, of a crisis, but they're not really giving leadership to the rest of the country with respect to how to have this conversation. I hope that before the end of the campaign, someone like Obama does step up and raise the issue of disenfranchisement, for example. [We need to] address the implications of civil death, which is basically what happens to people when they go to prison, and what continues to happen to many people when they get out of the prison -- it's not only about them vanishing from the polity -- [and] they can't vote, they don't have full civil rights. It's also about simple things, such as how do you get a job when you've been in prison for 15 years? Many people make the point that if so many Black men had not been disenfranchised in Florida, there's no way that Bush could have ever been appointed president.
I'm not a person who has ever been a Democrat. Still, I had some hope because I knew Obama was very involved in the anti-war movement, and before he became a senator, he was very active in grassroots struggles. I'm a bit disappointed that I don't see him using the same language that he once used. But he's a politician, I guess, so what can you say? And I think it would be better if he's elected. Obviously, it would be better than George Bush.
But I also remember the Clinton years. Clinton actually was supposed to be our first Black president, wasn't he? But the Clinton Administration set the stage for so much of what happened during the Bush Administration. Clinton could have gotten rid of the sentencing laws that make a person who has been convicted of selling crack cocaine receive a sentence a hundred times higher [than for powder], but he didn't. So, I'm very wary. I think we need a new independent politics.
All right. I was wondering if I was going to bring this up, but I will. [Pause.] So, my brother is 49. I can't even count how many years he's been in jail: 15, 16, 17, 18 years? He's out now. But what can I do to help my brother? What can we all do to help our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers?
Rather than handling it as an individual problem, as much pain and suffering as it does bring to us as individuals, try to find some solidarity, try to hook up with people who are trying to address some of the same issues. There's an organization called All Of Us Or None. It's an organization created by former felons. The organization is run by former prisoners and it's for former prisoners. I mean, I've worked with them-- well, you know, I was in jail, so I classify myself as a former prisoner as well, although because I wasn't convicted, I don't have the same civil death issues that people who were convicted have. But I've worked with so many people who find that the way they can deal with what awaits them or doesn't await them out here in the so-called free world is to get involved in various movements. There's an organization called Justice Now, another called Legal Service for Prisoners With Children.
[To me.] You know, good luck with that. I think there are very few Black people who can truly say with an honest face that they have no connection with these institutions. I have cousins who have been in prison for many years, and my telephone bill shows it. If you look at something like the telephone company, that charges more money for prisoners to make collect calls -- that's an example of how the corporations benefit from these institutions. I think we have to acknowledge that connection and make something of it. I would say participate in the campaign to abolish prisons.