By Vinh-Doan T., SJPJC Intern
On February 11, 2021, I had the privilege to attend a keynote speech delivered by Dr. Angela Davis, hosted by SJSU’s Human Rights Institute. Attending this event was surreal; I always regarded Angela Davis as a legendary figure. I had always seen her in documentaries, and she is cited as one of the major voices for progressive change. Seeing her speak “in person” over Zoom had me starstruck. As I listened to her deliver the keynote, it was so clear to me that she fully had the intention of dedicating her life to improving the world around her. In this particular speech, Davis was discussing the direction of progressive activism in our society today, and where Abolition, Prison, Feminism, Racism, and Capitalism fit into history as well as how they manifest themselves in our justice system and society. Ultimately, Davis’ speech turned out to be a powerful oration speaking to the intersectionality of these and other issues.
Davis drew very strong connections between each of these. She began speaking to the hand-in-hand nature of abolition, prison, and capitalism. While the term “abolition” often refers to abolishing our police system, it’s really not as simple as that. With this vision of abolition, one of the goals would generally be to eliminate institutions currently operating in our government and justice system that are oppressive in nature. The thought of essentially eliminating our police system and not using prisons as they exist in the US today may seem like a rash and sudden movement. However, Angela Davis was also very effective in clarifying what this “elimination” truly entails. Davis’ vision for abolition is not to simply erase these institutions. Her intention for that dismantling is to give space to more constructive institutions to fill in the needs of addressing crime and wrongdoing, and to do so in a way that cultivates our society and democracy at the same time. With this mindset, abolition is a movement for growth and not destruction.
The expansion of that vision does not stop there. Paradigms baked into our society such as heteropatriarchy as well as racism continue to oppress human beings. In that respect Davis was passionate in ensuring that the roles that Feminism and movements representing the struggle against racism, such as Black Lives Matter, play in the abolitionist future. Tying those two issues together, Angela Davis referred to the quintessential roles that women had in fueling organizations like the Black Panthers and Brown Berets.
On a final note about common themes, Davis went into detail about how economically racist the ties between economy and prison, or the prison-industrial complex, are. She specifically referred to privatized prisons as a huge money for prison based corporations. And, referring back to the perception of abolition as a scary, undeveloped movement, this prison-industrial complex has created a situation where people involved in prisons (entailing thousands of jobs) would indeed be afraid of their jobs being taken away. But, she also emphasized time and time again that abolition is not about simply destroying institutions that are found to be inadequate. It is both a methodological approach to eliminating oppressive institutions and a philosophy of embracing and emphasizing local community strength in order to be truly constructive with each other in order to create a society where the aforementioned institutions no longer have a place or reason to exist; this philosophy is in direct opposition with our current culture of racist capitalism, a culture that Davis gives the Black Lives Matter movement a lot of recognition for working against.
Davis’ keynote above all else passed to me a very unique and insightful perspective to all of these issues, gained only through a lifetime of working with and living the life of a true activist. As activists it is our duty to ourselves, our society, and the future to follow in Angela Davis’ footsteps and work to change our society to allow room for the mindset of abolition to be understood. This will ultimately allow us to come together and work towards a truly common good not restrained by oppression. To end on an inspirational note, nearing the end of the question and answer portion of the Zoom event, Davis made the point that at the time she started her work, even talking about true equal treatment for black people was considered a hugely radical idea. So even though the concepts and goals that our modern day experience of progressive ideas such as abolition may be made out to seem to be dangerous and incomprehensive, that is only because the oppressive and self-serving institutions that are threatened by these ideas receive them as such. The key truly is perseverance in a desire to build a better future.