Famous former inmate blasts prison system

In a speech bookended by standing ovations, Angela Davis, professor of the history of consciousness at University of California, Santa Cruz, addressed the topic “Race, Gender and Justice” in front of a packed Harrison Auditorium in the University Museum April 7.

Davis condemned the United States justice system as racist and the growing prison system as a logical outgrowth of a capitalist democracy, calling herself an “abolitionist” and citing the cases of former Black Panthers Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is on death row, and fugitive Assata Shakur, as well as those of New York’s Amadou Diallo and Philadelphia’s Donta Dawson, who were killed by police.

A former Black Panther who was jailed — and eventually acquitted in 1972 — on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, Davis was also the Communist Party’s candidate for vice president in 1980 and 1984.

“We’re confronting a crisis in this country. Does everybody know this?” Davis said in her keynote address at the Law School’s annual Edward V. Sparer Symposium. “We think of racism as discrimination against individuals as opposed to what is happening structurally.” Structural racism “gets incorporated in the prison industrial complex,” with its disproportionate number of black inmates. She also noted that women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population.

Though she said she was reluctant to talk of her activities in the ’60s for fear of people today romanticizing those days, she did speak of an incident during which a house she and others were having a party in was surrounded by police. The group required federal authorites to escort them to safety. Noting the need for a “historical perspective,” she compared that incident to “today’s routine racial profiling.”

Davis said that she is studying race and gender in the prison systems of the U.S., which has the largest per capita imprisonment in the world; the Netherlands, which has one of the lowest; and Cuba, which she included to study the effect of its socialist government.

“The betterment of conditions in prison is a step toward the betterment of the free world outside,” she said.


Originally published on April 20, 2000