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Angela Davis Speaks Out on Prisons and Human Rights Abuses in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

StoryDecember 28, 2006
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Scholar and former prisoner Angela Davis was in New Orleans this month to speak out against human rights violations and demand amnesty for those imprisoned during Hurricane Katrina. We hear from her keynote address at the event “Amnesty for Prisoners of Katrina: A Weekend of Reconciliation and Respect for Human Rights.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Former senator and vice-presidential candidate John Edwards has entered the 2008 presidential race—one day earlier than he intended. On Wednesday, Edwards’ campaign inadvertently posted the news of his candidacy during a test run on its website. Edwards had intended to make the announcement today during a speech in the 9th Ward district of New Orleans.

Scholar and former prisoner Angela Davis was also in New Orleans recently. Her visit to the city was in recognition of International Human Rights Day. After Hurricane Katrina hit, many in New Orleans were arrested for looting, left to drown in locked jail cells and held past release dates. As many as 85 percent of defendants in the 3,000 criminal court cases still pending in New Orleans qualify for representation by a public defender. An untold number of them have yet to see a lawyer.

Angela Davis is an activist and lecturer and a professor of history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent books are Abolition Democracy and Are Prisons Obsolete?

AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis went to New Orleans to speak out against human rights violations and demand amnesty for those imprisoned during Hurricane Katrina. She gave the keynote address at a series of events organized by the prison abolition group called Critical Resistance, “Amnesty for Prisoners of Katrina: A Weekend of Reconciliation and Respect for Human Rights.” It took place in New Orleans earlier this month. This is Angela Davis. She referred, by the way, to Merlene Maten, a 73-year-old New Orleans grandmother who spent 16 days in prison for allegedly looting $63 worth of food from a deli a day after Hurricane Katrina hit. This is an excerpt of Angela Davis’s speech.

ANGELA DAVIS: I wanted to—I wanted to focus our attention for a minute on three cases, three incidents in this country recently. I’m talking about the shooting of that young brother, Sean Bell, in New York on the morning of his wedding, the 50 gunshots that the police admit were shot that day. I’m talking about—what’s his name? Michael Richards. Did you see the—did you see? Did you all see it? Did you? Because you can actually go online, and you can see it. It was much, much worse than anything I had ever imagined. OK, I’m not going say anything, because that was like really upsetting. And he says, “I don’t know where it came,” you know.

And then there’s another instance I wanted to mention. And that involved—it’s something that happened in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. And it involved a Kenyan writer by the name of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Now, I don’t know how many of you have read his work, but he is—he is one of the most revered writers in Africa, on the continent of Africa. He’s published—maybe some of you know his—have heard of his book, Decolonizing the Mind? OK, that’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He just published a new book, which is really great. I’m reading it now. It’s called Wizard of the Crow. He’s been on tour with that book, came to San Francisco from Irvine, California, where he’s now teaching, and was staying in a hotel, Hotel Vitale, which is one of those boutique hotels, you know, one of those kind of swanky, sort of small hotels. But Random House was paying for it, right? His publishing company.

And so, he’s sitting there one morning, reading the newspaper, and this employee of the hotel walks over to him and says to him, “I am sorry, but only guests are allowed to use this space.” Now, Ngugi is, I think—he’s probably about 64 or 65. He may have had a sweatshirt on, you know. But, you know, if a white person had a sweatshirt on, nobody would ever assume that he wasn’t or she wasn’t registered in the hotel. And so, Ngugi said to the guy, he says, “What makes you so certain that I am not a guest at this hotel?” And the employee wouldn’t listen to him. And he said he said it again, and finally, they had to go over to registration. And, well, now there’s a big campaign, and the hotel manager has apologized. This is San Francisco, after all. And, you know, this boycott of the hotel got started really quickly on the Internet. And so, the manager is saying he will donate money to anti-racist organizations, and he will do this, and he will do that.

But the thing is, I spoke to Ngugi about this, and he said, “I kept asking him, 'What makes you so certain?' Because I saw this absolute certainty.” Now, the man didn’t say, “You’re black.” He didn’t say, “You know, black people don’t belong here.” He was just certain that he could look at this man and tell that this man didn’t belong there. Just like the cops who shot Sean Bell could look at this young brother and his friends in the club, and he could tell that they were—that they dealt in drugs, they were criminals, that they deserved to be shot.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: They felt threatened.

ANGELA DAVIS: Exactly. So, I want us to think about this certainty, this self-certainty, as a way in which racism expresses itself. It doesn’t have to be about the fact that the person—or it doesn’t—there doesn’t have to be anything explicit about the race of the person. It’s just “I know you should not be here.” It’s like your sheriff said, when Nagin excepted the prisons and the hospitals and a couple of other categories from the evacuation order. Apparently, at the press conference, Sheriff Gusman was asked to answer the question as to why the prisoners were exempted, and he said, “We need to”—something to the effect, “We need to keep them here because this is where they belong. This is where they belong. They are prisoners. This is where they belong.”

So, I want us to think about this question of racism and this self-certainty. And I want us to ask where—where does racism live today? Where did it reside in the past? And how do we identify those spaces that are so haunted by racism today? So, we can actually talk about migrations of racism, because, you know, we used to be able to understand it. We could say exactly what was racism, what wasn’t. And now it’s not that easy. And that is because racism itself changes. It moves, it travels, it migrates, it transmutes itself.

Now, when Hurricane Katrina struck, over 6,000 human beings were locked up in the Orleans Parish Prison. And you know that this is one of the largest city jails in the country. And so, actually, I have this quote that Sheriff Gusman said. When it was announced that the prisons would not be evacuated, he said, “We are fully staffed. We are under our emergency operations plan. We’ve been working with the police department. So we’re going to keep our prisoners where they belong.” And this is that same certainty, the certainty of racism, the certainty that appears to be color blind but is actually where attitudinal racism has migrated. I think we can discover racist attitudes in that certainty. Orleans Parish Prison was where prisoners belonged under any and all circumstances. They belonged out of sight, away from view. As one of the children said who was removed there from the juvenile facility, we were, quote, “treated like trash.” Sheriff Gusman was saying, basically, prisoners belong in a trash can with the top closed shut.

And so there was this disaster within a disaster—as the ACLU National Prison Project put it, a disaster that we could not see, a disaster that went unrecognized because few people thought that prisoners deserved to be treated as human beings, because few people recognized prisoners as having rights, as having human rights. And so prisoners were locked in their cells, and the floodwater was rising, and there was no way to get them out. There was no clean water. They were forced to drink water with feces floating around in it.

We heard about the horrible conditions at the Superdome and at the Convention Center, and they were horrendous. And it’s interesting that both of those places were considered, to a certain extent, places of incarceration for a largely black population. But we did not hear about the people being forced to remain in the flooded spaces of the OPP. We did not know that children had been taken there. And if you look at the ACLU’s report, called “Treated”—I think it’s called “Treated Like Trash.”

AUDIENCE MEMBER: “Abandoned and Abused.”

ANGELA DAVIS: “Abandoned and Abused.” If you look at the ACLU’s—no, I’m talking about—I’m not talking about the ACLU. You’re right. That’s the report about OPP. I’m thinking about the juvenile—that was called “Treated Like Trash,” yeah.

And then, of course, another 700 or so people were arrested during the hurricane, and Merlene Maten was one of them. And then they called Burl Cain. You know, I was shocked that he was still the warden of Angola, you know, because I saw The Farm, that documentary, and I read [Daniel Bergner’s] book, God of the Rodeo, and read about the way in which Burl Cain tried to get him to share the profits from the book with him before he would agree to be—you know, before he would sign the consent form. And, well, anyway, yeah, and if any of you know anything about Burl Cain, you know that, well, at least in that documentary, he gave the impression that one of his favorite activities was conducting executions at Angola, but holding the hands of the people who were being killed in order to usher them on their way to God. I mean, I know some people in Louisiana are—anyway, OK, don’t let me get started there.

But yeah, Camp Greyhound—when he came to run that jail that they call Camp Greyhound—they turned the Greyhound bus station into a jail, right? And when I heard about that, I immediately thought about Guantánamo. I immediately thought about Camp X-Ray in Guantánamo. It seems that the authorities here were more concerned with questions of confinement and control and law and order and with security—in the negative sense. More attention was devoted to possible breaches of the law than to anything else. And in this sense, you might say that what we saw during Katrina was a local manifestation of the military practices and policies guiding the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq—and to the whole so-called war on terror. Just as anyone who looks Arab or Middle Eastern or who is known to practice Islam is a potential terrorist, a potential enemy combatant. You know, think of all the people who are still locked up in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and all these prisons all over the world, because they are suspected of being enemy combatants, just as Merlene Maten was suspected of being a looter because she is black.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Angela Davis, speaking in New Orleans. We’ll be back with her in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we return to Angela Davis, who went on International Human Rights Day to New Orleans and gave the keynote address at an event organized by the prison abolition group Critical Resistance. We’ll return now to that address.

ANGELA DAVIS: When you think about the fact that the sheriff would not even consider the possibility of evacuating the prisoners before Katrina hit land, it was the same kind of racist certainty. When he was confronted with accounts of prisoners in the OPP, Gusman denied their claims altogether, and he said that “You don’t”—quote, and I’m quoting—”You don’t rely on crackheads, cowards and criminals to say what the story is.” It was the same kind of racist certainty. He didn’t say “black crackheads.” He didn’t say “black cowards.” He didn’t say “black criminals.” But each one of those words is a carrier of racism. And so, it seems to me that it might be important for us to think about how the prison-industrial complex contributes to and nourishes itself from and lives on racism.

Now, I was asked to talk a little bit about the prison-industrial complex, but you know—you know what the prison-industrial complex is, don’t you? You do, don’t you? I mean, it’s not just all of those prisons that we see all over the country, jails and prisons. It’s all of the connections. Right? It’s the connections that we begin to see in the 1980s, when the social programs begin to be dismantled and when globalization of capital begins its ascent. And so, capital, money, instead of being focused on the needs of people, increasingly goes into profitable areas. And so there are no resources for healthcare, there’s no resources for housing subsidies, there’s no—so then what happens is that these huge surpluses of populations, who have no place anymore, because there are no jobs for them—a lot of the factories have gone abroad, gone to the Global South, and so people have no way to make a living. And so, I mean, it’s not as if there was a conspiracy, but it was a kind of systematic conspiracy without people actually deciding that this was what was going to happen. And so, the idea is to build more and more prisons to serve as receptacles for those people who no longer have a place because there is no longer jobs for them, there’s no longer education for them, there’s no longer welfare for them, there’s no longer healthcare for them.

This begins in the 1980s, the deindustrialization process, right? And we see it happening right now in the Global South. We see it happening in Africa. We see it happening in Latin America. You can go to countries where the poverty is so extreme because the IMF or the World Bank has decided you get a loan only if you can put it into a profitable sector, not if you want to use the money for schools or not if you want to use the money for housing. And so what happens is that there are increasing numbers of people and countries in Africa, in Latin America and in Asia who have become—who are considered to be garbage now. There’s no place for them. And so they’re building prisons all over. And in some countries, you see abject poverty. And against the backdrop of that abject poverty, you see the shiniest new prison using the most advanced and most sophisticated new technology. Now, something is wrong, something is seriously wrong. And it seems to me that we can—we see those contradictions right here in New Orleans.

And perhaps you’ve heard about the connection that people often make between the prison-industrial complex and slavery. Right? You know about the 13th Amendment, right? And we all talk about the institution of the prison being haunted by slavery. I mean, actually, I’ve heard a lot of talk about ghosts in New Orleans since I’ve been here. You know, apparently, the hotel where we’re staying is haunted. But I really believe in ghosts. I do. But I believe in the ghosts of history, and I don’t know if we recognize those ghosts. And I see that OPP and Angola and CYC and—or YSC are haunted by slavery. Anybody who’s seen the film The Farm cannot help making those connections. But there’s something about the ghosts of slavery I want to talk about this evening, especially as a way of understanding why black people are so easily labeled criminals, so easily identified with—as the threat to law and order.

Now, we know that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. Right? At least that’s what—that’s what they say. I just can’t believe that we believed it. Like, one little statement in the—you know, in an amendment is going to abolish this huge, complicated institution. And the 13th Amendment doesn’t even tell us what slavery is, so it doesn’t even say what it abolished. It just says slavery and involuntary servitude. But slavery was a lot more than involuntary or coercive labor. You know, what are they talking about? Abolishing slavery as being based on human property or being based on social death? Or being based on racism? ’Cause the racism is definitely still here. And the vestiges of slavery are definitely still here.

But there is one vestige, especially, that I think we should be aware of this evening. And that is the extent to which black people, even though we assume that slaves were not recognized as legal personalities, were not recognized by the law, because, you know, slaves could never file suit or could never testify against anyone. But there were ways in which every single slave was recognized as legally accountable, and that is when a slave committed a crime. Now, if property commits a crime—you see what I’m saying? It can’t be morally accountable, it can’t be legally accountable. And the fact that there were so many different punishments, punishments for black people who were slaves that were far more severe than for white people who had committed to the same crimes.

So, if you look at that accountability, that has always been there, and you look at the fact that there are more black people in prison than any other group of people in this country, it seems like, somehow or another, we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that there was like due process there, and there are reasons why there are so many people in prison. But it seems to me that when black people became recognized as full citizens, or recognized as having standing before the law, it’s the same standing that we already had during slavery, and that is that kind of negative standing, the standing of guilt, the ability to be found guilty.

And so now racism expresses itself under the sign of equality, under the sign of due process. The negative affirmation of the legal personality of black people continues to hold sway today. And the proof of the participation of black people in U.S. democracy is precisely the fact that they have received due process before being sentenced in such disproportionate numbers to prison. But the prison is the negative side of democratic freedom, just as slavery—slavery used to furnish the evidence of freedom to people who weren’t slaves. Slavery was a way of letting people know, who weren’t slaves, that they were free. Right? And in a lot of ways, that’s the only—that’s the only way they knew that they were free: that they weren’t slaves. Now, the prison does the same thing. We know that we’re free because we’re not behind bars. And besides, imprisonment has become so profitable.

But I think I need to end now, because I think I’m still on California time, and I’m going over a little bit the time that was allotted me. So, let me conclude by saying that we want amnesty for all the prisoners of Katrina. We want amnesty. We want amnesty for everybody who is doing Katrina time, for everybody who’s doing Katrina time. We want all municipal, state and federal records of prisoners of Katrina expunged. These records should also be expunged from credit and employment agencies. No one should be tried, sentenced, fined, imprisoned, jailed, detained, involuntarily relocated or deported. We call for amnesty to challenge how the prison-industrial complex is used in times of disaster, while structural disasters like racism and poverty continue to be ignored.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Angela Davis teaches at University of California, Santa Cruz. She was speaking in New Orleans. Her most recent books are Abolition Democracy and Are Prisons Obsolete?

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