Watch our extended interview with the world-renowned author, activist and scholar Angela Davis about the significance of the Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, the use of solitary confinement in prisons, and the global movement to challenge the expansion of immigrant detention. “If we are going to mount an effective campaign against what we call the prison-industrial complex,” Davis argues, “it has to take into consideration immigration detention is the fastest-growing area of that complex.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the struggle to overhaul the criminal justice system in the United States has reached a pivotal moment. From the Obama administration’s push to reform harsh and racially biased sentencing for drug offenses to the recent decision by New York state to reform its use of solitary confinement, there is a growing momentum toward rethinking the system. But new battles have also emerged, like the fight over Stand Your Ground laws in states like Florida, where a number of recent court cases have highlighted the issue of racial bias in the court system. Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman of color who fired what she says was a warning shot into a wall near her abusive husband, is facing up to 60 years in prison at her retrial. Michael Dunn, who shot and killed an African-American teenager in a dispute over loud music in the same state of Florida, is facing a minimum of 60 years for attempted murder, but the jury failed to convict him of the central charge in the case: the murder of Jordan Davis, a case that, for many, recalled the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about these issues, the world-renowned author, activist, scholar, Angela Davis, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For over four decades, she has been one of the most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States. She’s speaking here in New York on Friday at the Beyond the Bars conference up at Columbia University.
It’s great to have you here, Angela.
ANGELA DAVIS: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the conference on Friday?
ANGELA DAVIS: This is a conference that is happening at Columbia University. My good friend Kathy Boudin has been organizing this conference for the last three years. And as many people know, Kathy spent a quarter of a century behind bars. Kathy and I went to high school together, believe it or not, not very far from the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village, so we’ve known each other for many years. And it’s very exciting that our lives have come together again around this—around these issues relating to prison abolition.
Kathy has been doing work around long-termists. And I think it’s extremely important to recognize that we can’t just focus our questions on people who are, quote, “innocent” or people who seem, according to the propaganda and the ideology, less dangerous, but we have to look at the damage that prison does, not only to those who are inside, but those on the outside, when people are kept behind bars for decades and decades. Of course, Eddie Conway had been in prison for 44 years, and that is just unimaginable. So, the conference tomorrow, on Friday—Friday and Saturday, actually—is going to address a range of issues, “Beyond the Bars: Breaking Through,” breaking through precisely because there have been some important victories over the recent period, and how do we use those as a springboard to continue.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—in terms of the growing prison population, the fastest-growing sector of that population are people being detained on immigration offenses. I think the—more than 50 percent of all the prosecutions of the U.S. Justice Department last year were immigration-related, either misdemeanors or felonies. And to what degree the—this country is coming to grips, obviously, with the continued issue of having to have some kind of a 21st century immigration policy? And Europe is facing the same problems, in terms of the immigrants from Africa and other parts of the world that are coming into Europe, that we’re not dealing with the other side of globalization that is resulting in immigration crackdowns.
ANGELA DAVIS: Absolutely, absolutely. And I had the opportunity to teach in Frankfurt, Germany, during the month of December, and met with a number of immigration activists. And what we talked about was the importance of creating a global movement in defense of immigrant rights, challenging the consequences of globalization and, you know, the post-colonial repression that has been instituted, literally, all over the world.
As a matter of fact, the company G4S, which, as I pointed out, is in the deportation business, is responsible for the death of a young man who was being deported from England, from Britain, to Angola, a young man by the name of Jimmy Mubenga, I think his name was. He was—he was killed on a British Airlines plane by guards who used what they called a karaoke hold, by pressing him into the front—the back of the seat in front of him to keep him from talking. So, when I was in Frankfurt, I learned about all of these horror stories happening in immigration detention facilities.
And if we are going to mount an effective campaign against what we call the prison-industrial complex, it has to take into consideration that, as you pointed out, immigrant detention is the fastest-growing area of that, of that complex. And, of course, we know that some of the most repressive immigration laws have been drafted by private prison companies precisely because they see immigrant detention as the most profitable sector of the private prison industry.
AMY GOODMAN: The prison guard lobby in California is extremely powerful, as it is in many places in the United States. I was just in Texas, and many were shocked that the prison guard lobby came out against solitary confinement in Texas because, they said, it makes prisoners more violent. And then, interestingly, in New York, New York is ending the practice of solitary confinement for juveniles.
ANGELA DAVIS: Exactly. And we know that there have been demonstrations by prisoners all over the country against solitary confinement, and especially the very, very long hunger strike in California in which prisoners stood up against this most barbarian form of punishment. And in a sense, one can look at solitary confinement as a microcosm of the whole system, solitary confinement within a prison. The prison is solitary confinement within the society. And how can one expect to create any kind of rehabilitation, which unfortunately prisons still claim that they rehabilitate, in the context of the kind of isolation that happens in these institutions? So, solitary confinement needs to be abolished, yes, but I think that is a strong argument for the abolition of imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about—we had talked earlier about this whole issue of what had happened to the sort of the progressive movement under Obama. We’re having an interesting experiment right here in New York City now with this new progressive government, where we have a mayor, all of the—the majority of the City Council, as well as the—all the other elected officials are all progressive liberals, some even radical. And yet, the new mayor has openly espoused keeping the grassroots movement going as a pressure point. In fact, I think today there’s a huge gathering of housing activists, affordable housing activists, pressing the agenda that the mayor has laid out in terms of creating more affordable housing. So there seems to be an attempt to not let the movement get co-opted or die once you get these more sympathetic officials elected. And I’m wondering if you’re sensing across the country whether the grassroots movement is continuing to hold politicians to the fire in any way possible.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I certainly hope this works in New York. And it was good that a progressive mayor was elected. My sense has always been that one cannot necessarily count on elected officials for leadership, which is what we tend to do. The movement has to give political leadership, and hopefully that happens in New York.
I know that Ras Baraka is running for mayor of Newark, and I’m looking at that election very closely. And, of course, we unfortunately lost his father, Amiri Baraka, not very long ago, and Amiri was a very strong supporter of his son. As a matter of fact, Amiri had invited me to come to Newark some months ago. I think it was back in October where I went and spoke at an incredible, an arousing event for Ras. So, let’s see what happens in Newark, as well, especially given its history, its radical history.
And it might be a trend all over the country. Who—you know, who knows? And I think we still have to do that with Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: You gave the Martin Luther King address at the Academy of Music—
ANGELA DAVIS: Oh, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —in front of Mayor de Blasio, his wife and Bill Bratton, as well, the police commissioner. What was your message to them?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I don’t know whether it was in front of them. I think they left before I spoke. But I saw them, but I don’t think they got to see me. Yeah, and I know that some people were a bit disturbed by that fact. I had no idea that they were going to speak there, by the way. I was invited to give the Martin Luther King address.
And I think the stop-and-frisk issue, which has been so important in New York—I remember Jazz Hayden and the leadership that he gave to that movement—that cannot be resolved simply by dropping—by settling the lawsuits. And I think this is the strategy now. And I think it will be important to settle those lawsuits, but the issue of stop-and-frisk runs so much more deeply. And I think it’s only grassroots progressive organizations that will have the power to chart a path towards the abolition of stop-and-frisk.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to turn to a clip from the recent documentary, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, directed by Shola Lynch. Here, a young Angela Davis speaks about the right to self-defense.
ANGELA DAVIS: I’m representing the Che-Lumumba Club of the Communist Party. There is a conspiracy in the land. It’s a conspiracy to wipe out, to murder, every single Black Panther in America and to wipe out the black community as a whole. Brothers and sisters, this is genocide. We have to call it by its name. This is genocide.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Right on!
ANGELA DAVIS: This conspiracy to commit murder and genocide on our people forces us to exercise our constitutional right to bear arms and to use those arms to defend our community, our families and ourselves. Power to the people!
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was a clip from the documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. Now, Angela, the whole issue of the right to self-defense, it’s some—it’s an issue that has receded in the public consciousness, even in the progressive or radical, revolutionary movement here in this country.
ANGELA DAVIS: Yes. And, of course, that was a key issue during the 1960s, the 1970s. The Black Panther Party was initially called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. We had Deacons for Defense. And we had Robert Williams in North Carolina, who eventually wrote a book called Negroes with Guns, because he argued that black people had the right to stand up to the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. I often point out that when I was growing up, my father had guns in the house, and I saw him pull out those guns when we feared that the Ku Klux Klan was about to bomb our house. And there were many bombings in our neighborhood.
AMY GOODMAN: You grew up in Birmingham.
ANGELA DAVIS: I grew up in Birmingham. And it wasn’t such a major issue. It was simply understood that we had the right to self-defense. And let me point out that now, today, there are 300 [million] guns in the U.S. There are more guns in this country than anywhere else in the world. And there’s a connection between the number of guns and the number of people in prison. And certainly, that is not about the question of self-defense, which historically goes back to the era of Reconstruction, Radical Reconstruction, when black people were determined to defend the efforts to create a new society in the aftermath of slavery. And it was when the—under the Hayes-Tilden Compromise that the military was withdrawn, federal troops were withdrawn from the South, that Radical Reconstruction was dismantled. And as W.E.B. Du Bois said, democracy died then, except within the hearts of black people. So, the right to self-defense was very much connected with the effort to build democracy.
Today, the issue of gun control, it’s very different. I would say, today, that everybody should be disarmed—and not only civilians: We should disarm the police, and eventually the military. You know, considering that there are enough guns in this country to kill every single—I mean, there are more—there are as many guns as there are people in this country, and it makes no sense.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, I wanted to get your take on the first time—this is 2014—that a black director has won an Oscar for Best Film, and that film was 12 Years a Slave. Your thoughts on 12 Years a Slave? They were presented on Sunday night, the Academy Awards. It’s about a free black man, kidnapped, sold into slavery. Steve McQueen was the director, who spoke on behalf of the film.
STEVE McQUEEN: Everyone—everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today. Thank you very much. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: There you have it, Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, a remarkable film.
ANGELA DAVIS: Absolutely. And I am so happy to see this film. It is sparking a new conversation around the role of slavery in the history of this country. And I’ve often pointed out that the history of the United States of America is a history of slavery. The majority of the years since 1619 to 1865, 240-some years, and that means that there—we’ve only had 150 or so years without slavery. But then, if one looks at the argument that someone like Douglas Blackmon makes in his book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of [Black] Americans from the Civil War to World War II, one realizes that the convict lease system was an even more insidious form of slavery. And it was not disestablished until the 1940s. So, I think it’s good to have discussions around slavery again. It’s strange that they only happen when films are released. I remember the last really major discussion in this country was back in the ’70s, when Roots came out.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When Roots came out, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the connection between slavery and prisons today?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I would say that the prison-industrial complex reminds us that we live with the ghost of slavery. Punishment was used in the aftermath of slavery in order to reinstitute slavery. So the bridge is the convict lease system, when vast numbers of black people were forced into servitude, often by capitalist corporations from the North. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. The steel industry, the iron, the mining of iron ore, the mining of coal, which was done by companies like U.S. Steel, was done by people who were forced into servitude after having been criminalized and arrested for reasons that often amounted to talking too loud or failing to look at a white person walking down the street. So, the criminalization of blackness, which is at the core of the vast prison population today, finds its roots in slavery and in the aftermath of slavery.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then, of course, once you’ve got a criminal record, even after coming out, let’s say, with a stop-and-frisk or a minor sentence, you now then have this criminal record, which is a cross to bear in terms of employment or opportunities to access the general benefits of the society.
ANGELA DAVIS: Exactly. That’s why there are Ban the Box movements all over the country. Get rid of the box that asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
AMY GOODMAN: And has that passed in California?
ANGELA DAVIS: California has been very good, because, of course, the—All of Us or None, which is an organization of former prisoners, former felons, has been conducting this struggle for a long time. And on the campus at NYU, there are efforts to get rid of the box, abolish the box, in student applications, student applications for admissions.
But getting back to 12 Years a Slave, I do have some critical observations. And I think it’s important, even as we applaud such a great film, to point out that it was based—that it was based on a slave narrative of someone who was free. And my question is: Would people have identified with a slave who had never been free, someone who had been denied the opportunity to get an education? Would it have been possible to create that kind of interest? And I have to say I don’t think so. I think it was really only because Solomon Northup, the author of the slave narrative, had been a free man.
And then I had some issues about the representation of women. I’m always looking at that, of course. And the fact that I’m critical doesn’t mean that I don’t think the film is a great film. But I was—when I saw that the overwhelming majority of women were represented primarily as objects of violence, as objects of repression. Alfre Woodard, who plays the so-called “wife” of a slaveholder, is the only one who has any agency. You know, all of the other women are just suffering beings. And we know that women played amazing roles in challenging slavery. So I would have, you know, wanted to get some glimpse of that, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Angela Davis, we want to thank you for spending this extra time with us. Angela Davis, author and activist, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Can anyone go to the conference tomorrow and—
ANGELA DAVIS: Oh, yes. It’s open. It’s open.
AMY GOODMAN: —Sunday at Columbia?
ANGELA DAVIS: And I should point out that—
AMY GOODMAN: This is the New York audience you’re talking to now.
ANGELA DAVIS: —that I’m speaking. Beth Richie from Chicago, who’s an absolutely amazing scholar-activist, is speaking. And my sister, Fania Davis, whom we saw in the film, who does work on restorative justice, she will also be one of the speakers.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the work she does on restorative justice?
ANGELA DAVIS: She is the executive director of an organization that is called Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. And as an attorney, she does restorative justice work in terms of keeping people out of the criminal justice system. And her organization works in schools to attempt to teach teachers and students how to resolve conflicts and problems without punitive methods and without the use of violence. So, she and her organization teach kids how to do healing circles. And it’s so wonderful to see these kids, who never knew that it was possible to deal with these problems except by fighting, asking for a circle so that they can talk it through.