Angela Davis: A Life in Struggle
Wherever I am, whatever I happen to be doing,
I try to feel connected to futures that are only possible through struggle.
Angela Davis’ feminism, anti-racism and Marxism are deeply shaped by the urge for social change. Across the diversity of problems her speeches and writings address, social change and the practice of freedom remain central. As an activist and thinker, Davis remains faithful to the principle of thinking through the world in order to change it, a principle that is also at the heart of the ALICE project and Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ sociology of absences and emergences. Davis was one of the first activist-intellectuals to articulate the ways in which patriarchy, racism and capitalism are integral to one another, and centered in understanding the ways in which this structure inhibited - or allowed for - social mobilization across gender, racial and class divides. Her work, developed through approximately half a century of writings, speeches and activism, and published in anthologies, journals, books, and her autobiography, revolves around these issues. Angela Davis has also inspired movements, documentaries, songs and children’s books. At the same time, Davis oeuvre reflects how she herself has been profoundly shaped by the movements and collectives which she has been part of, inspired or encountered in the course of her life - from the Black liberation movements in the US of the 1960s to contemporary resistance movements against Israeli Apartheid in Palestine. Perhaps the clearest entry-point to understanding the importance and nuance in Davis contributions is her work around the prison industrial complex. Here, we clearly can see not only how Davis has been shaped by her own life trajectory and commitment to social change, but also the different dimensions of her thinking, which spans from articulating the contours of the global system of oppression in specific settings, to understanding how the ways in which we understand ideas such as ‘woman’, ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’ need to be critically assessed, being wary of the ways in which these very ideas are also used and defined in favor of the system of oppression. As we will also see, her own life trajectory also allows understanding how Davis’ work increasingly center on prisons as institutions that incarnate the global system of oppression.
Angela Yvonne Davis is born out of the struggles for freedom of black people in the USA. Her parents were black community activists in Birmingham, Alabama, where Davis was born in 1944. The social context was that of apartheid: She was born in the era of the Jim Crow that followed the 1800-1866 Black Codes, which had restricted the civil rights and civil liberties of African Americans. The Jim Crow lasted between 1876 and 1965. In the Southern states, the Jim Crow era mandated de jure racial segregation while in the Northern states racial segregation, although not legally sanctioned, was common practice. Thus, in the Southern states law mandated segregation in public schools, in public transportation, public spaces and restaurants. In the Northern states, the de facto segregation occurred through job discrimination, bank lending practices and patterns of social housing, among others. Birmingham was also referred to as Bombingham, and the neighborhood where Davis grew up as “Dynamite Hill” because the Ku Klux Klan often committed acts of arson and put bombs there. The killings of her people, disregarding their age, were part of the everyday.
Davis studied philosophy and carried out her studies in the US and Europe (France and Germany). At 25, in 1969, having finished her PhD, she became assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, teaching black and Marxist philosophy. Davis was already a relatively known black radical activist, member of the Communist Party, and part of the black liberation movement known as the Black Panthers. Her involvement in these movements sparked several of her research activities pertaining black women’s role in liberation movements, and how liberation was inhibited by the ways different movements reproduced the structures they sought to change by not understanding the intimate links between racism, capitalism and patriarchy. She experienced how some of the black liberation movements were clear about their anti-racist standing and understood the complex relationship between racism and capitalism, but were less equipped to understand and act in consequence of the fact that patriarchy itself was integral to the system as well. Instead, they tended to reproduce the racist-capitalist society’s patriarchal ideas about black women. Similarly, Davis noted how the struggle of white women, often positioned in the middle-to upper classes, tended to obscure if not reproduce, the system’s oppression of black communities. For example, white feminists’ demands for more security and protection meant increased police and longer prison sentences for black communities. Davis saw these dynamic as instances of the ways in which unity across diversity is inhibited by the very oppressive system, becoming significant obstacles for social change. Understanding these dynamics and acting against them is therefore an urgent matter, central to any process of bringing about social change.
A black communist woman and radical feminist engaged in the struggle of liberation of African-Americans, the iconic status that Davis still enjoys was cast by her persecution and imprisonment by the FBI in 1970. When she was hired as assistant professor at the University of California, the governor of California and future president of the US, Ronald Reagan, urged the Board of Regents of the University to fire Davis. Davis had at this point already started her activism in relation to the prison industrial complex, and was involved in the activism around the imprisonment of three black activists in the Soledad prison. The three activists and a judge were killed in a hostage situation that involved the protest to the unjust imprisonment and death of another black activist and close friend of Angela Davis, George Jackson. Davis was accused of having provided the arms employed in the hostage situation, and labeled as US public enemy number one.
In face of this accusation, Angela Davis fled. She was wanted as an “armed and dangerous” person and the FBI engaged in a disproportionate persecution to catch her. Also called “the red panther” and “the black terrorist”, she was captured in October 1970 in New York. In January 1971 the State of California accused her of three felonies: murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. With those accusations the risk of being sentenced to death was high. Davis realized that the attacks directed at her person exceeded her personal situation; she was instead being used as the incarnation of a specific construction of a “public enemy”, used to bring about a sense of insecurity in the population and induce fear in the black community. This image of the public enemy also legitimized the persecution of others who were engaged in freedom struggles: in the course of her persecution, hundreds of women like Davis were incarcerated.
Inspired by discussions with George Jackson, Davis started investigating black women. While in prison she wrote the paper “Reflections on the Black Women’s Role in the Community of Slaves”, addressing how misconceptions about black women were produced by the racist-capitalist-patriarchal system of oppression, and often reproduced by male freedom fighters as well. This investigation also allowed her to understand how her own prosecution was also framed from within the racist-capitalist-patriarchal logic. She was for instance depicted as “a vicious woman of uncontrollable passions, the vicious conspirator blinded by love”. Davis entered courtrooms with a raised fist, the greeting that signifies Black Power. Her case awoke international solidarity from India, Africa, Europe, Latin America and the US. People demanded her liberation denouncing her arbitrary detention and the McCarthyism and racism inherent in her detention. She was finally liberated with caution in June 1972, having spent most of her time in prison in solitary confinement. Already legendary at this point in history, today she continues to highlight that the logic upon which a person is made “legendary” like her is an individualist logic that dismembers the political power of the struggle, which is never individual and always in community: “It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle”.1
Angela Davis is among the founding members of the Critical Resistance movement, a long-term anti-racist project that aims to generate a broad coalition against the prison industrial complex. Critical Resistance works to raise awareness on the emergence of an expanding and increasingly repressive prison industrial complex, and on the economic, political and ideological agendas of the punishment industry, which includes imperialism, extractivism, the arms industry, and the diverse economic interests these obey. Prisons are central to the maintenance of social inequalities and in the production of second-class citizens in the USA as well as on a global level. The prisons are places where the triad of capitalism, racism and patriarchy materialize: prisons are places where people who struggle with the problems of economic disadvantage are placed. Most people living in economic and social disadvantage are also those who have been historically racialized. And prisons divide people into ‘men’ and ‘women’, reproducing also the dominant gender heteronormative logic of the system. As such, taking prisons seriously and analyzing them in depth forces us to think through the state of democracy in our societies, and to think and practice alternatives that effectively dismantle the racist-capitalist-patriarchal system.
As a punishment, the logic of imprisonment assumes that people have rights and liberties that can be taken away from them. But this way of thinking about punishment as a removal of peoples’ fundamental rights and liberties is highly problematic. It is equivalent to the death punishment: it is killing people in civil and political terms. Prisons are a death machinery, they are totalitarian institutions, and this begs that we pose the following question: “what does it mean to live in a democracy where there are closed institutions that engage in repressive and totalitarian practices?” It means that democracy does not exist. The idea of democracy gives us the illusion that we are all born equal, as individuals who are not marked by history. As such, the idea of democracy obscures how inequality is also inherited along racial and gender lines. Democracy is also an illusion that sustains the false sense of security promoted by the prison industrial complex. In practice, the prison industrial complex “reproduces the conditions of its own expansion, creating a syndrome of self-perpetuation”. The fact that “the fundamental legal definition of crime is an action in violation of the law” (Davis, 2012: 67) means that in any instance in which we disobey the law, we have committed a crime. But what happens when the law itself predominantly works to protect the interests of the few? And what are laws that protect private property if not deeply ideological and protecting the interests of the few?
The fact that prisons are machineries of death may sound strange to people unacquainted with the thinking of Critical Resistance and, in general, with the black critical philosophies and histories, which have shown how racism – from its inception with the conquest of the Americas and the establishment of the institution of enslavement until today – is closely associated with death. Davis uses Ruth Gilmore’s definition of racism, which is true to the black critical tradition of thought: racism is “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death, in distinct yet densely interconnected political geographies”. In other words; racism is central to capitalism; both function on a global scale. The primary actors responsible for upholding this system of oppression are the global elites; the people who have the power to define, defend and enforce national and international policies and legal frameworks used to make the system operational, or to carry out extralegal measures for the same ends. And the people who are systematically exposed to premature death are people marked by racial-patriarchal modes of subordination: the system has never systematically engaged in producing the premature death of the white man. For the most part, the system has oppressed the white women, but not engaged in practices that systematically institutionalize their destruction.
One could perhaps argue that we cannot have criminals participating in political and civil life, and therefore prisons are important to guaranteeing the sound function of democracies. The problem is that if criminality – or lack of the same – is a standard that decides whether a person can or cannot participate in political and civil life, then this standard is not applied. In fact, many governments in the world include criminals: be they people who justify and carry out crimes against humanity, be they people who threaten, kill and kidnap in order to get to power of stay there, be they people who profit from drug trade, people who defend violence against women, etc. And then we have prisons which are full with people who have decided to act against some of the above mentioned problems, to change their situation of disadvantage and exclusion. The vast majority of people imprisoned around the world are people with mental health problems, and people who have done what it takes to feed their children. While the global elites live out their freedoms at the expense of the freedoms and wellbeing of the other groups, while they profit from the exploitation of people around the world carried out by transnational corporations, while they turn the health systems into systems that work against the health of the vast majorities, while they increase the numbers of impoverished people and divest children of a worthy future, it is the last, not the first, who will be the majorities inside the prison industrial complex. And as imprisoned people the social death produced by not having access to health care, to quality education, to food, to a future with dignity will be completed by the civil and political death imposed by imprisonment.
The prison industrial complex sells an idea of false security; it presents itself as an institution that ultimately protects us from crime. The idea of security is false because it is based on the idea that crime is something inherent to the human being, and not something that emerges in a system built on the systematic dispossession of peoples’ dignity, their possibilities of life, of education, of healthcare. The oppressive system generates crime, and the prison industrial complex is instrumental to the system. The term “prison industrial complex” is used “to point out that there is a global proliferation of prisons and prisoners that is more clearly linked to economic and political structures and ideologies than to individual criminal conduct and efforts to curb crime” (Davis, 2012: 147). The global expansion of the prison industrial complex is linked to the global expansion of transnational corporations.
Angela Davis’ contribution is invaluable, underlining the need to understand the complexity of oppression in order to strengthen social struggles and change. Her priority is always to contribute to a better world and a better future. In the quote introducing this text, she affirms that she always tries to be connected to futures that are only possible through struggle. In doing so, she refers to how the system as such works to close off the future of many people because it produces their social death. In the best of cases, people who have been socially killed by being deprived of access to healthcare, to food, to human compassion will struggle against the very system that produces their death. In this case, the struggle itself is resistance to social death: in struggle people forge their right to participate in political and civil life. In the worst cases, they will be imprisoned or suffer physical death before entering prison. The point is that the struggle against the racist, capitalist and patriarchal structures is the very practice of freedom; it is an exercise of life. The struggle against the prison industrial complex is a struggle for radical change that includes the construction of institutions that support freedom, that is, freedom as the collective search for real democracy, and the construction of the fundamental conditions that we need in order to have different life projects, different futures, without one being at the cost of the other.
1 A Q&A With Angela Davis on Black Power, Feminism and the Prison-Industrial Complex. August 2014. Retrieved in September 2014 from http://www.thenation.com/article/181386/qa-angela-davis-black-power-feminism-and-prison-industrial-complex#.
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Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003)
Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire (2005)
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Freedom is a Constant Struggle (2015)
Critical Resistance: http://criticalresistance.org
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2013)
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Como citarSuárez-Krabbe, Julia (2019), "Angela Davis", Mestras e Mestres do Mundo: Coragem e Sabedoria. Consultado a 21.01.22, em https://alice.ces.uc.pt/mestrxs/index.php?id=27696&pag=23918&entry=30101&id_lingua=2. ISBN: 978-989-8847-08-9