Interview with Prof. Angela Y. Davis, U.S. civil rights activist.
A RADICAL feminist and a fierce critic of capitalism, Professor Angela Yvonne Davis is a familiar name to the women's movement in India and an iconic figure for the various groups fighting for civil rights. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944, she had first-hand experience of racism. Her father, she says, kept a gun in the house to protect the family from the Ku Klux Klan.
Angela Davis plunged headlong into the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s.
In 1971, she was framed for a shoot-out at a courthouse in Marin County, California, which resulted in the death of three people, including the presiding judge. She went on the run and figured in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's list of 10 most wanted fugitives. Labelled a terrorist by President Richard Nixon, Angela Davis was tried on charges that would have led to her execution. However, an all-white jury acquitted the 20-something woman, but not before an international campaign was launched for her release. During her visit to India, in the first week of April, she profusely acknowledged the role played by the Indian people in the campaign for her release.
Angela Davis was the vice-presidential candidate of the Communist Party in 1980 and 1984. Owing to her association with the Communist Party, she had to forfeit her job as assistant professor in the late 1960s. Angela Davis has written extensively on race, class, gender and prison reforms. Her own brush with the criminal justice system catapulted her into a campaign for prison abolition, an issue which she argues is related to the ultimate establishment of an egalitarian society. She is the founder of Critical Resistance, an organisation that is working towards the abolition of the prison industrial complex.
Apart from her bestselling autobiography, her other well-known books include Women, Race & Class, Women, Culture & Politics, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism and Are Prisons Obsolete?. In New Delhi, she delivered the 21st J.P. Naik Memorial Lecture on Prison Abolition and the Challenges of Feminism, organised jointly by the Centre for Women's Development Studies and the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi. She was also the lead speaker on Contemporary Quests for Social Justice at the second Navayana annual lecture. Angela Davis is at present Professor Emerita at the History of Consciousness Programme at the University of California, Santa Cruz.Excerpts from an interview:
Why is the issue of prison reform, or the movement against the industrial prison complex, a very important one not only in the context of the United States but globally?
First, I would say that those of us who are associated with the campaign against the prison industrial complex make a point of not defining ourselves as prison reformers. So we don't talk about prison reforms because we think that prison reform has strengthened the institution of the prison over time and the notion of prison abolition is far more complex than that of prison reform because it focusses not only on the institution of prison itself but on socio-economic issues that are most often responsible for the majority of situations that lead people to prison. So we think it is important because it helps us to understand the nature of capitalism in the 21st century, global capitalism. The U.S. prison is marketed through global capitalism and has become the major model for addressing socio-economic problems in many parts of the world, including in the Third World. It has become a way of ignoring the real issues by simply depositing people who have problems such as illiteracy, poverty and mental illness as opposed to dealing with those issues, and, increasingly, these can be seen in the global South and in the U.S.
On the one hand, there are the very real practical issues that allow us to make demands for education and not incarceration say to shift funds that go into the construction and operation of these huge prisons to education and health care. The long-range vision is one of a society that no longer needs to rely on the existence of prisons for security. A society like that would need to extricate itself from the violence that has so many faces, violence against women, institutional violence and internal family violence. The face of the 21st century's so-called war against terror has increasingly become that institution institutions of preservation; military prisons and prisons where torture was committed. I think that is even a more persuasive reason why we have to at least create the possibility of imagining a world without prisons. In a sense it has a kind of a utopian dimension to it. What would it be like to live in a world that did not require us to rely on prisons for a sense of security? That would mean that we would also look at other repressive ways of maintaining security. The gated communities are the other side of a prison. It would mean that we would be attentive also to the extent to which incarceration has become so profitable that entities that you would think normally had no stake in the expansion of prisons worldwide are now stakeholders in the process of expanding prisons. I spoke on the privatisation of prisons at the J.P. Naik memorial lecture and the use of prison labour by most major corporations in the country. On the one hand, there are private prison corporations. The largest private corporation is called Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). What is interesting about CCA is that it was initially modelled after one of the first private health care systems, the Hospitals Corporation of America. Some of the funders for the early CCA were connected to Kentucky Fried Chicken. All of these capitalist circuits make it very clear that the economic purpose of the corporation is to generate profit. Now, there also private security corporations Blackwater [Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Florida] is the most well known among them. Aside from the actual corporations that own and operate prisons, there are multiple involvements by regular corporations in the operation by the prison. Outsourcing happens in public prisons; they might outsource their meal service. A company like Sodexho Marriott (a provider of outsourced food in North America) does food production for prisons on a global scale and also operates prisons in places such as Chile and, I believe, the United Kingdom, and at the same time it does food service for the U.S. military. Focussing on the prison is not only because it is a repressive institution, not only because we are supporting prisoners' rights, but it allows us to understand the structure of 21st century global capitalism, and it is a way of building movements that have the potential of becoming anti-capitalist. If you look at the way we deal with education within the campaign against the prison industrial complex so it becomes really and finally a movement for a better society a movement for a socialist society because abolition as such would not be possible if the structures of capital remain in place the way they are today.
You mentioned towards the end of the J.P. Naik lecture that prison abolition could take place with the abolition or end of capitalism.
It would be important if we do think it is still possible to build socialism or some kind of a non-capitalist society. We have to focus on the institutions that might otherwise move in a relatively unchanged way into a new society. This is a lesson that we can learn from the socialism of the 20th century. It is not enough to simply change the economic structures, but we have to be attentive to political structures, the structures of violence and incarceration. The campaign has many different aspects, even aspects that require us to think about the way in which we can be ideologically influenced by a particular kind of justice under capitalism, which is retributive and is based on vengeance. So we ask people to think about the way they themselves have incorporated this impulse towards vengeance in their own emotional psychic structure. So that when a person does something that is harmful in any way to another person, that person figures out a way to get back. Abolition requires us to think on that kind of psychic emotional level and to urge people to be aware of the extent to which the state resides in our minds, hearts and emotions. Central to this campaign is the issue of disarmament. The effort to remove guns from the public has to be complemented to disarm the police. Studies have indicated that domestic violence as it unfolds in families of policemen, for example, military people, is much greater and much more intensive. So again, it is important to keep the institutional intention with the intent of the person in mind and to recognise that things are not going to change if we simply take guns away from the public. In the U.S., everybody has guns now. I have a history that involves guns. My attitude towards guns is very different today than it was during that period. I grew up with guns in our home because my father had to protect us all from the Ku Klux Klan. The guns were there for self-defence. That was my relationship. I would say that I am terribly in favour of making guns illegal not only in the hands of individuals but also in the hands of the police. The conservative forces insist on it as a fundamental right.
You have spoken on diversity and its link to justice and equality, especially on how it can be used to make the machine of oppression more efficient. In an interview, you had said that the model of diversity as the difference that brings about no difference and the change that brings about no change, is questionable.
I would not say that diversity has no use whatever. Frequently, diversity is simply a strategy to keep the same wheels turning so that it is not linked to justice, equality. When you look at the corporate model of diversity, they are seeking people and women of colour who will not rock the boat. Now that is why this model entails a difference that does not make a difference. For example, if one looks at university campuses and their admission policies, often times they will admit middle class students of colour so that the campus looks diverse, but they expect that the middle-class students will have the same attitudes and perspectives as the white students. On the other hand, the way in which these policies are predicated on the fact that people will pay. They will admit poor students with colour and perhaps even give them a fellowship but not assist them to compensate for the lack of preparation, and then they end up flunking out. So what they say is that we admitted all these students of colour but they just couldn't make it. In that way they absolve themselves of the responsibility of guaranteeing that the historical modes of oppression, which often have to do with the lack of preparation, are to be addressed. Many of the students who have received affirmative action scholarships were ashamed of it.
One of the arguments that we use to counteract that [the argument that affirmative action has led to tokenism] is that affirmative action was never designed to address the problems of individuals. It was not a strategy to push individuals forward it was a strategy to lift up whole communities. And in our case in the U.S., we had this enormous backlash against affirmative action. In California, for instance, affirmative action is illegal. It is not illegal at the federal level, but at the State level, in terms of jobs and education race cannot be taken into consideration. So the assumption is that affirmative action on the basis of race is actually discrimination against white people. So it is white people's civil rights that need to be defended. It is white people who are threatened by the use of affirmative policies to benefit people of colour. It is the impact of neoliberal ideology that focusses so exclusively on the individual that it becomes impossible to imagine collective subjects and community subjects. It is possible to make this argument about white rights being denied because with respect to affirmative action for black people and other people of colour, it is the individual who is seen as the beneficiary and not the community that has historically suffered under discrimination. Affirmative action should not be seen simply as a way to bring more people who have been historically subjugated and marginalised into social, political educational and economic institutions. In order for that to happen, there has to be some effort to address the reasons why they are not there in the first place.
So affirmative action programmes need to be linked with programmes that will provide mentoring and other kinds of compensation for the lack of preparation and people should not be made to feel inferior as they need that. As long as the university and the state focus on the individual and holds the individual responsible for their inability to succeed, which is what neoliberalism is doing to an extent, which is far greater than anything we imagined, then these problems are going to continue to exist. As long as it is only an administrative policy, it is not linked to justice and equality.
You have emphasised how rather than spending on prison infrastructure and maintenance, it is important to focus on health and education. In India, too, there are sections, the Left parties in particular, who push for more social spending by the government. How good or bad is the situation in the U.S. with respect to social sector spending?
Let me give you the example of the State of California. I live in California, which has historically had the best educational system in the country. If you are a resident of California, you can basically get a free education to the post-doctoral level. California used to be number one in the country; now I think it is 40-something in terms of the funds from the general budget that are accorded to education. So education is not funded; but what is funded is this vast prison industrial complex. There has been a major crisis in the University of California. All employees, including professors, have been forced to go on furlough. Salaries have been cut, programmes have been dis-established. Especially programmes that were the most recent ones to be created, such as Women and Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies, are the first ones to be dismantled. I was thinking that had we had the foresight and the capacity to develop a campaign that linked the situation of education to the situation of prisons had educators and students protested that the prison system was growing by leaps and bounds we are talking about the period of the 1980s and the 1990s, the rise of global capital had we been able to do that, we would have been able to avoid the total collapse of the high educational structures.
You contested the vice-presidential election as a candidate of the Communist Party. You lost your job as assistant professor in the late 1960s because of your political association. You also believe that socialism is the future. How central is this belief for the kind of structural changes you have talked about?
I have had historical ties to the Communist Party and my first ties to India were mediated through the Communist Party. I left the Communist Party in 1991 under conditions that made it difficult for people who felt the need to affiliate with the collective body of people struggling for socialism. We wanted internal democracy. It was difficult for us to remain within the party, so we left as a large group. We created another organisation called Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. I still do work with the Communist Party. Do I believe that socialism is possible? I have to believe that the capitalism we know today is not permanent. As a student of Marx, I am persuaded to think that even as transformations have taken place through history, they have not been the transformations we hoped for and capitalism has consolidated itself rather than falling apart. At the same time, we see class fissures expressing themselves much more violently today than before. In a sense, I would say that the proclamation of a capitalist victory over socialism that happened in the aftermath of the dismantling of world socialism was rather premature because the cost for creating the kind of capitalism that exists today has been enormous. Looking at the numbers of people behind bars in the U.S. is just one lens for analysing capitalism, which is hopefully on its last legs. But, of course, as Marx pointed out, there has to be a conscious collective of people struggling against capitalism. We have to rebuild that global, transnational community that has to be class conscious, race conscious, gender conscious and [with a smile] caste conscious. We have to take seriously these new modes of justice that have been enabled by working class people's struggles for equality, struggles against racism, against casteism here. In a sense, it is an infinite process.