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Angela Davis: We Owe It to People Who Came Before Us to Fight to Abolish Prisons

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Angela Davis is a leading advocate for prison abolition, a position informed by her own experience as a prisoner and a fugitive on the FBI’s top 10 wanted list more than 40 years ago. Once caught, she faced the death penalty in California. After being acquitted on all charges, she spent her life fighting to change the criminal justice system. Amy Goodman sat down with Angela Davis at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., in October to talk about the prison abolition movement.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to my conversation with Angela Davis. I spoke with her in October at Busboys and Poets, a cultural hub and restaurant in Washington, D.C.

AMY GOODMAN: I just was at San Quentin a few weeks ago. One of our fellows at Democracy Now!, she worked at the San Quentin News, and we went into San Quentin. And the first thing the prisoners showed us as we walked in the prison, they pointed and said, “This is where George Jackson was gunned down.” The first thing they showed us. This was agonizing for you.

ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah. August 21st, 1971, George was killed by San Quentin guards. And it was—during that period, there was so much going on, that it was—we could hardly find the time to mourn and to grieve, because, you know, something else would happen. Jonathan had been killed almost exactly a year before that. That period was so compressed in so many ways. And I’ll never forget when my attorney Howard Moore and my attorney Margaret Burnham came to visit me, because I was—at that particular time I was back in solitary confinement, because I had been extradited to California. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And you chose to have black attorneys, which was a very important statement.

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, yeah. Why not—I mean, the thing is, there were so many political prisoners during that period. And, you know, there were really good attorneys. Kunstler was amazing, right? But there were also black attorneys, who were committed, who had a history in civil rights activism, like Howard Moore, Margaret Burnham, who is my closest friend in the world. And we always say that we’ve known each other since before we were born, because our mothers were pregnant together, and our mothers were best friends. And she was the first person to show up at the jail. And she stayed with me from—she’s the only attorney who was with me from the very beginning, until the acquittal happened, which meant that she had to bring her son, her son who had cerebral palsy. That, you know, posed a whole number of challenges. She moved with him to California.

I will never forget Margaret’s—Margaret is amazing. You all should know her, as a matter of fact. She’s had about five different careers. She was a civil rights attorney. She was my attorney for two years. She was a judge in Boston. She ran an international law practice. She helped to write the Constitution of South Africa. And now she has a project—then she became a legal scholar and teaches law at Northeastern. She has this program that is called Civil Rights and Restorative Justice, where she investigates cases of black people in the South who were killed or who had their property taken away from them, who were lynched, in Alabama, in Georgia, in Mississippi, Louisiana. So, yeah, yeah. So I had three black attorneys. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Your third lawyer was?

ANGELA DAVIS: Leo Branton.

AMY GOODMAN: And he’s the one who, in court, turned to the jury and said, “Be black for a minute.” Right? Because the idea that you went underground, he said, you’ll automatically think that means she’s guilty. But change the color of your skin—and, don’t worry, you can go back in just a minute—and think what you would do.

ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah, he did do that. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Right? Think what you would do if you were black in America at that time, and the police were going after you, and the FBI.

ANGELA DAVIS: See, Leo’s first love was drama. He studied drama. And so he had this sense of, you know, how to capture the attention of the jury. And many, many years later, we were at Harvard. Charles Ogletree did an event in which he invited me and my siblings and the attorneys. And Leo remembered, word for word, the closing argument. And he stood up in front of these students—this was in the 1990s—and gave the closing argument again.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true that at one point they sat a woman, a good friend of yours, next to you to show the unreliability of eyewitness accounts?

ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah. My friend Kendra Alexander, with whom I was active in the Communist Party and a number of other organizations. She did legal work throughout the trial, as did her husband Franklin and my sister. And so, she sat at the table with us. And this witness was poised to identify me. And he identified Kendra.

AMY GOODMAN: They said, “Is she in this room today?”

ANGELA DAVIS: That is—yes, yeah, exactly. Yeah, there were all of these, I guess, Perry Mason moments in the trial that were—

AMY GOODMAN: And you were released on bail. But then describe the moment, the moment of the jury coming back in. Your family, your whole family, was there? But your mother was too nervous to come into the courtroom?

ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah, my mother didn’t want to come in. And Margaret, who had known my mother since she was born, you know, said, “Sallye”—we all learned to call the parents by their first names; that was kind of like a communist—you know? So, she said, Margaret said, “Sallye, you can’t stay out; you have to come in.” And she came in. But what was interesting was that Margaret was the one who was so totally composed, and she totally had it together. You know, she was the attorney. But as soon as the jury walked into the courtroom, she lost it. She like—her hands went up like this. But yeah, the jury announced the verdict. And Franklin sobbed out loud. You heard this loud voice of this man crying. Franklin was another close comrade friend, who did organizing around the case. Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: One, two, three, the charges were read.


AMY GOODMAN: And you were found not guilty on all three charges.


AMY GOODMAN: You walked out into the sunlight, and the next chapter of your life began.

ANGELA DAVIS: Well, you know, we had a party that night, and champagne. It was great. And then, you know, the jurors wanted to get together, so I got to—so I actually became really good friends with the foreperson of the jury, whose name was Mary Timothy.

But then, the very next day, we got together and decided that something had to be done to keep the whole apparatus together that was responsible for organizing around the demand for my freedom, because, initially, it was National United Committee to Free Angela Davis, and during the time I was in jail, I looked at all of the women who were there, who had no resources, who had no access to attorneys, and I said, “This can’t just be about me.” And so, the name was changed: the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners.

And so, the very next day, after we had partied all night, we had a meeting to figure out how we could begin to move to a new phase, how we could create a new organization. We created an organization called the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. Some of the first cases were the Attica Brothers, because the Attica rebellion had happened in 1971, September, right after George was killed. There was the case of Reverend Ben Chavis and the Wilmington 10. There were so many cases. Lolita Lebrón, who was still in prison at the time. So we immediately—

AMY GOODMAN: The Puerto Rican independence activist.

ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah. So we immediately began to do that work. And I mention it because, you know, oftentimes we don’t get to see the history, the trajectory that makes it possible to engage in certain kinds of political actions 20, 30, 40 years later. And so, I think that we were helping to lay the foundation for movements against racist police violence today. As a matter of fact, we had a caucus within the organization that was very specifically concerned with stopping police violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Forty-seven years ago, George Jackson was killed. And on the 47th anniversary, this year, 2018, the prison strike lasted three weeks, from the gunning down of George Jackson to the Attica uprising. And prisoners around the country, once again, in this year, rose up, at great possibility of retribution against them, went on hunger strike, went on work strikes.

ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah, that national prisoner strike was so important. We often don’t recognize the degree to which the historical memory, that I was talking about before, plays such an important part in the lives of prisoners. Prisoners, even young people who have been recently arrested and sentenced to prison, are politically educated. They learn from the old-timers about, you know, all of the events that have happened over the years, the significance of George Jackson, all of the campaigns that took place in the 1960s and the 1970s. They actually do a much better job than people in the free world of preserving history. And, of course, the fact that we now can openly call for the abolition of imprisonment as the existing mode of punishment, and the abolition of policing as the major form of security in our worlds, we owe that to people who stood up many decades ago. I’ll never forget that.

AMY GOODMAN: And just before we move forward, I wanted to go back eight years to 1963, because this is also another anniversary. And it’s close to your home, because it’s where you were born. September 15, 1963, the blowing up of the Birmingham church in Alabama, a church you knew well. You were 19 years old. Where were you on that Sunday when that church, that icon within—in Birmingham, was blown up, and killed the four little girls?

ANGELA DAVIS: I was in France. I was spending my junior year studying in Paris. And when I learned about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, I was there. And in those days, the technology of communication was not what it is today. You couldn’t just, you know, text somebody or—I mean, I called my family maybe once every two months when I was there. And so, that was a phone call I still vividly remember.

And my mother was very good friends with the mother of Carole Robertson. And as I’ve said many times, almost all of the girls were close to our family. You know, Cynthia lived right—two doors away from us. And Carole was my sister’s best friend. And she had taken Carole’s mother, whose name was Alpha Bliss Robertson—if any of you have seen Spike Lee’s film Four Little Girls, she’s interviewed there. That was one of his best films, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: It was so good.

ANGELA DAVIS: It was really good. And so, Alpha Bliss Robertson called my mother and said, “Would you please take me to the church? Because I have to pick up Carole. There’s—you know, something has happened there.” And so my mother was like there when she discovered what had happened to her child.

We could talk about that incident, but I think it’s also important to realize that that wasn’t the first time a church had been bombed. Often people who are not from the South don’t realize that that was a routine expression of racist terror. It happened all the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you—didn’t you grow up on Dynamite Hill? Didn’t they call it that?

ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah, where I lived was called Dynamite Hill, because so many houses were bombed. The church I attended, which was a couple blocks from the house, was burned when I was 11 years old, because we had an interracial discussion group going on there. So, you know, I’ve said many times that, you know, there’s all of this discussion about terror and the threat of terror, and the Islamophobia that goes along with it, but there’s never any acknowledgment of the extent to which terror shaped the country, and especially the South. And no one did anything about it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, have you ever had a discussion with another woman who was born in Birmingham, the former national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice?

ANGELA DAVIS: Not the one you’re talking about. No, I—you know, all kinds—

AMY GOODMAN: Two slightly different trajectories of life that came out of Birmingham—Condoleezza and Angela.

ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah. All kinds of people are from Birmingham. But, you know, I actually did read her autobiography a while ago, and I realized that there was a major difference.

AMY GOODMAN: I didn’t read her autobiography, and I had already figured that out.

ANGELA DAVIS: But, you see, one of the things I learned, growing up in Birmingham, was to really treasure community. And I learned that an injury to one is an injury to all. And I, you know, got a sense of—you know, I’m actually really glad I grew up in that segregated world, because it taught me about the possibilities of community. And I can remember our teachers, when the white men from the Board of Education would come to school and call the teachers by their first name, because that was one of the ways in which they gave expression to their racism. And so the teachers would stand up and fight back and end up losing their jobs, just from speaking back to, you know, a white Board of Education representative. And so, I felt this closeness there.

Now, the reason I make this point is because in Condoleezza Rice’s autobiography, she points out that she was reared to think of herself as someone who had to stand out, who had to be better than anyone else, who had to—who had to—if we’re running a race, she always had to be five miles ahead. And, well, you know, we all learn that if you’re black, you have to be 10 times better than white people. But she wanted to be—

AMY GOODMAN: So you didn’t just face one death sentence, you faced three.

ANGELA DAVIS: Right. No, but Condoleezza Rice wanted to be 10 times better than all black people, too, so… And I don’t think she grew up with that sense that—of the power of community. She grew up with a sense of the need to stand out as an individual. And I think that’s the fundamental difference.

AMY GOODMAN: The legendary activist and scholar Dr. Angela Davis. We’ll return to her in a moment to talk about challenging capitalism, today’s youth movements, fighting for justice and what gives her hope.

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From 1968 to 2018: Angela Davis on Freedom Struggles Then and Now, and the Movements of the Future

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