Angela Davis’ call to re-imagine justice and democracy

Angela Davis

Angela Davis — political activist, educator, scholar, and author — spoke to the St. Catherine University community virtually at the Spring Core Convocation in February. Screenshot by Michelle Mullowney '17.

The recent words of political activist, educator, scholar, and author Angela Davis, PhD, to the St. Catherine University community continue to ring following the conviction of the police officer who killed George Floyd in May 2020:

“Our current efforts to identify and to begin to dismantle structural racism in prisons, in policing, in the healthcare system, in education, in jobs, in housing — this is a collective effort to make our society better, to break down impediments to democracy, not only for Black people, but for everyone.”

Davis joined St. Kate’s for “Are Prisons Obsolete? A Conversation with Angela Davis” on February 25, a Spring Core Convocation virtual event introduced by Tarshia Stanley, PhD, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences and moderated by Nancy Heitzeg, PhD, Endowed Professor in the Sciences and professor of sociology and critical studies of race and ethnicity.

Known widely for her critique of the prison industrial complex, Davis discussed the movement of prison and police abolition into mainstream discourse in the aftermath of the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Heitzeg facilitated questions from the audience, particularly in light of the spring University programming which has centered around Davis’ book Are Prisons Obsolete?

As Davis detailed in her remarks, the issue at the root of Derek Chauvin’s trial is more fundamental than a question of his conviction. Undergirding this is the structural racism that facilitated the police officer’s murder of George Floyd in the first place: the white supremacy ingrained into U.S. policing and punishment that for centuries has proven deadly to people of color, especially Black people.


“Something is terribly wrong”

According to data analyzed by the NAACP, Black people are incarcerated in state prisons at five times the rate of white people; one in three Black boys and one in six Latino boys are sentenced to prison, contrasted to one in 17 white boys. Taking into account that the national prison population has expanded by 700% since the 1970s to a staggering 2.3 million today, the massive overrepresentation of U.S. incarcerated BIPOC is starkly apparent.

“When we consider that there are so many Black people, so many Indigenous people, so many other people of color who are in prison for doing things that white people can do with impunity,” Davis said in her February address, “that in itself ought to tell us that something is terribly wrong.”

As just one example, despite roughly equal usage rates, Black people are 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to a 2020 report by the ACLU.

In looking at the overrepresentation of BIPOC in prisons, combined with the reliance of state and federal governments and corporations on prison labor, said Davis, “we discover a genealogical relationship between the institution of the prison and the institution of slavery.” Just as abolitionists worked to abolish the institution of slavery, Davis and others continue to strive for abolition of the prison system.

Re-imagining justice through the abolition of prisons

Prison abolition calls for the dismantling of the prison and policing institutions, a prospect many may find intimidating and unfathomable, given the cultural pervasiveness of these systems. However, Davis argues in Are Prisons Obsolete?, “it should be remembered that the ancestors of many of today’s most ardent liberals could not have imagined life without slavery, life without lynching, or life without segregation” — all systems once considered the norm, systems that governance of the time only confronted once under a significant amount of pressure from activists.

“Abolitionist movements ask us to consider the role played by the larger society in creating the kinds of trajectories that lead to harm or that lead people on a path to prison, and to think about transforming those conditions, rather than focusing myopically on the single institution of the prisoner, of the police,” said Davis in February.

“We have been so trained to think of justice as retributive, justice as punitive, that it is very difficult to imagine a different kind of justice — a justice that doesn’t consist of hurting the person who hurt you,” she continued. “In order to move in the direction of something like transformative justice or restorative justice, we have to consider all of the conditions that lead to the creation of harm … rather than simply create a kind of cycle that leads from one form of violence to another.

“If there have been protests directed at these institutions for the entire duration of their history, doesn't it make sense now to try something new?”

Collective power through community with others

Leaving the St. Catherine community with a final piece of wisdom furnished by her many years as an activist and community organizer, Davis emphasized the importance of working with others to enact change.

“Always create community,” she said at the conclusion to her remarks. “What you cannot accomplish by yourself, and what may be frustrating and painful … if you do it in community with others, you can become powerful, you can become courageous. Always create community, so that you can take care of yourself, so that if you need to rest you can rest and you can be certain that the work continues to get done because your comrades, your sisters and brothers, are with you. That is the most important advice that I would offer to young activists today.”

About the 2021 Spring Core Convocation

This virtual event was developed in collaboration with Heitzeg’s “Challenging Criminalization: Beyond Policing and Punishment” Endowed Chair in the Sciences series and the Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women. Davis’ lecture was part of the spring Integrated Learning Series and St. Kate’s Library One Read for Racial Justice, the latter of which centered this spring’s programming on the United States prison and policing institutions, and in particular, Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis.


Related content:

Newswire: “We have got to find justice.”

One Read for Racial Justice and accompanying resource guide

Integrated Learning Series event recordings