Angela Davis has been one of my greatest inspirations and paragons over the past few years since I discovered organizing around prison industrial complex abolition and it seems there’s no better time than today, on her 79th birthday, to celebrate her decades of fighting for liberation. When labeling herself, Angela Davis is a self-identified “Communist, abolitionist, internationalist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist, Black, queer, activist, pro-working class, revolutionary, intellectual community builder” whose work transcends the past 5+ decades of activity. Because it’s her birthday and I want more of my smaller circles to know and study Davis, I’m re-sharing this “Activist Profile” I wrote about her for my Writing for Social Change class at Baylor in 2019. Back then I didn’t drive home Davis’ strict Communist beliefs, but if I could rewrite the article, that’s one of the main changes I would make. Davis was a staunch Communist back when the belief system was highly feared (which it still is today thanks to American propaganda) and defined only by American terms. And while PIC abolition has become more popular thanks to organizing by iconic abolitionists like Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba, Davis was one of the most well-known who has struggled for the dismantling of the carceral state for over 50 years. Needless to say, Angela Davis is someone who greatly inspires me in my organizing work and I think we need to take advantage of all she has to write, share, and lead for the next few decades! Here’s my article I wrote about her as we celebrate her 79th rotation around the sun:
Few national icons have impacted the direction of American history more than antiprison activist, academic, and author Angela Yvonne Davis. Angela Davis was a central figure in the Civil Rights Movement, earning herself merit for the work she did in similar capacities to that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, though she participated in efforts prompted by the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party. Davis was born to Frank— the owner of a service station, and Sallye— an elementary school teacher and an active member of the NAACP and the Southern Negro Youth Congress. Growing up in 1940s Birmingham, Alabama exposed Davis to violent racism at a young age as she saw numerous houses in her neighborhood nicknamed “Dynamite Hill” because they were bombed by the KKK and by attending the segregated Carrie A. Tuggle School. Davis became politically active at a young age, to which she credits her time with the Girl Scouts of America, where she engaged in protesting racial segregation in her hometown. When she entered high school, Davis moved to New York City with her mother when Sallye began her master’s degree program at New York University. Davis attended Elizabeth Irwin High School in the Big Apple, which had a negative reputation for its teachers being involved with the Communist Party. Communist beliefs were ingrained in Davis from childhood because Sallye had also been involved in the party’s activities, so the teachings in high school were familiar.
After graduation, Davis earned a scholarship to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, as one of the few Black students in her entering class. She eventually met philosopher and professor at the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse, at a protest against the Cuban Missile Crisis and the two instantly hit it off. Because of their academic and political relationship, Davis attended more rallies and festivals related to the Communist party. After she visited the World Festival of Youth and Students in Finland in 1963, Davis discovered the FBI had investigated her trip and kept her on a watch list. That same year, the 16th Street Baptist Church in her hometown of Birmingham was bombed by the KKK, killing Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair— four little girls whom Davis had personally knew growing up. The bombing significantly impacted Davis while she studied abroad in Paris, so she returned home and joined the Civil Rights Movement. Davis graduated magna cum laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis in 1965.
Heavily influenced by Marcuse’s academic and political beliefs, Davis followed him to the University of California, San Diego, where she earned her master’s degree in 1968. Davis was hired as an assistant professor of philosophy by the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1969, but once Ronald Reagan, the then-Governor of California, discovered her Communist Party membership, he urged the university’s Board of Regents to fire her. Davis was temporarily hired back after a judge on the California Superior Court ruled that she could not be fired solely based on her political affiliations, but the Board fired her once again in 1970 for her use of “inflammatory language” in public speeches she had given, in one of which she called cops ‘pigs.’ In the same year, Davis became heavily involved in the Soledad Brothers’ case, which involved three incarcerated Black men— George Jackson, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette, who were accused of murdering a white Correctional Officer in the California Soledad Prison. The men were said to have shot John Vincent Mills as a revenge killing after three other incarcerated men were killed by another guard three days prior. Jackson’s younger brother Jonathan attempted to free a few of the people in prison and took a Superior Court judge, Deputy District Attorney, and three members of the jury hostage in an effort to provide agency for his brother, Drumgo, and Clutchette. As they drove away, Jackson, the judge, and two of the incarcerated men were killed, and the others were wounded by returned fire. Davis was later arrested because she purchased the guns used by the younger Jackson in the kidnapping and she was discovered to have been communicating with one of the other imprisoned men before the ambush.
Because California’s aiding and abetting law labels “all persons concerned in the commission of a crime, whether they directly commit the act constituting the offense… principals in any crime so committed,” Davis was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder following the death of Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, despite her not being involved in the crime itself. A warrant was issued for Davis’ arrest, and when the police and FBI were unable to find her, then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover added her to the FBI’s list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives on August 18, 1970. During this time, Davis fled from California and spent time in friends’ houses, only moving about at night. She was found at Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in New York City on October 13 and then-President Richard Nixon applauded the FBI for its “capture of the dangerous terrorist Angela Davis,” (Aptheker 24). Davis announced her innocence to the court in 1971, represented by John Abt, who was the general counsel of the Communist Party USA. She suffered through solitary confinement for nearly two years before a jury had found Davis not guilty of the kidnapping and murder charges in 1972. Because of her unlawful time in prison, Davis soon after became a prison abolitionist and advocate for currently incarcerated people’s rights behind bars.
In her 2003 book Are Prisons Obsolete? Davis introduced the idea of abolition in regards to what she believes is one of the most unjust aspects of the criminal justice system: jails and prisons. Davis summarizes her perspective on what the system accomplishes when she wrote, “Are we willing to relegate ever larger numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked by authoritarian regimes, violence, disease, and technologies of seclusion that produce severe mental instability?” (Davis 10). Davis has spent most of her career as an antiprison activist sharing the history of the prison system and how its background created one of America’s greatest failures in modern history. The injustices surrounding the prison industrial complex are far more complex than just the violence and corruption within cell walls, though. Davis’ work sheds light on how the prison system was created as a new entity for legalized slavery— locking up primarily Black men and women to keep their physical chains on throughout the generations. After people were freed from traditional slavery, white politicians and authority figures found alternative ways to keep Black people in chains both physically and socially. The prison system was built upon the idea that slavery could continue if Black people were arrested, charged, and sentenced, forcing them to perform hard labor for pennies a day while facing violence from other inmates and guards alike.
In a 2014 interview with Socialism and Democracy, Davis delves deeper into the system by discussing how prisons not only employ Black and Brown bodies for little to no payment, but also devastate the population of incarcerated minorities forever. Davis writes, “In fact, we needed to rethink the role of imprisonment and carceral strategies more generally with the aim of recognizing the damage that prisons have done throughout our histories…but more effective means of responding to the myriad of social problems – the lack of jobs, housing, education, health care, etc. – that jails and prisons attempt unsuccessfully to address,” (Davis 22-23). Although prisons were forcibly built by and filled with Black civilians since their creation, the boom of what is now known as mass incarceration, didn’t occur until the 1970s when Nixon declared his ‘war on drugs,’ which sent hundreds of thousands of Black men and women to jail for the same substances that were used in white suburbs. Ronald Reagan was the mastermind behind the largest increase of incarcerated inmates when he led a political witch hunt against communities of color in his expanded drug war. George H. Bush’s militarization of the police, racist dog whistles, and segregationist policies further deepened the cycle of incarceration to the private prison model that’s swept up a majority of Black citizens, to Davis’ dismay. Studies show that although the U.S. boasts 5% of the world’s population, it locks up about 25% of the world’s prisoners. Black people also make up only 13% of the U.S. population, but 38% of its inmates.
Davis’ work includes her numerous composed books, public activism against the spread of prisons and American warfare, and professorship at universities such as UCLA. Her activism, however, is for which she’s primarily known and widely celebrated. Davis doesn’t only focus on prison abolition, though that is what she’s most passionate about— but instead rallies against all forms of injustice including corrupt capitalism, Israel’s violent abuse of Palestinians, and America’s incompetency in regards to civil rights and equity for people of color. When asked about her opinion on abolishing the prison state as a whole, Davis argues that we must learn a new vocabulary surrounding incarceration and recognize why it is put in place in American society. In a conversation on abolition, Davis said, “one of the first challenges is to be able to talk about the many ways in which punishment is linked to poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other modes of dominance,” (Davis and Rodriguez 217). In other words, prisons must be thought of as systematically cruel and unjust factories that are used only to make money without rehabilitating or healing people inside their walls. Closing out the interview, Davis finishes by saying, “the point is that we will not be free to imagine other ways of addressing crime as long as we see the prison as a permanent fixture for dealing with all or most violations of the law,” (218). Discussing the dissolution of the prison industrial complex can be a difficult idea, especially when people on the outside are conditioned to believe that they are safe only when the ‘worst’ of society are locked up, but Davis provides clear and engaging ideas on how to abolish the system and why we must accomplish such a task.
Angela Davis is a civil rights and anti-prison abolitionist icon whose work has inspired masses of people across America. She has spent her life advocating for poor and marginalized communities, lending her voice to those who aren’t afforded one. Without Davis, scholars, politicians, and common citizens might not be discussing prison reform and the injustices around the criminal justice system as frequently as we do today. One can only dream that in her lifetime, we may be closer to imagining a world without prisons.