- Angela Davisworld-renowned abolitionist, author, activist and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
In a Democracy Now! special, we revisit our June 2020 interview with the legendary activist and scholar Angela Davis about the uprising against police brutality and racism launched in May after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The protests have helped dramatically shift public opinion on policing and systemic racism, as “defund the police” became a rallying cry of the movement. Davis is professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For half a century, she has been one of the most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States and an icon of the Black liberation movement.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s special looking back at the uprising against police brutality and racism following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th. The protests helped shift public opinion on policing and systemic racism, with “defund the police” becoming a rallying cry of the movement.
Well, for more on the historic protests, we turn to the legendary activist and scholar Angela Davis, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For half a century, Angela Davis has been one of the most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States and an icon of the Black liberation movement. I interviewed her in early June and asked her if she thought this moment is truly a turning point.
ANGELA DAVIS: This is an extraordinary moment. I have never experienced anything like the conditions we are currently experiencing, the conjuncture created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the recognition of the systemic racism that has been rendered visible under these conditions because of the disproportionate deaths in Black and Latinx communities. And this is a moment I don’t know whether I ever expected to experience.
When the protests began, of course, around the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade and many others who have lost their lives to racist state violence and vigilante violence — when these protests erupted, I remembered something that I’ve said many times to encourage activists, who often feel that the work that they do is not leading to tangible results. I often ask them to consider the very long trajectory of Black struggles. And what has been most important is the forging of legacies, the new arenas of struggle that can be handed down to younger generations.
But I’ve often said one never knows when conditions may give rise to a conjuncture such as the current one that rapidly shifts popular consciousness and suddenly allows us to move in the direction of radical change. If one does not engage in the ongoing work when such a moment arises, we cannot take advantage of the opportunities to change. And, of course, this moment will pass. The intensity of the current demonstrations cannot be sustained over time, but we will have to be ready to shift gears and address these issues in different arenas, including, of course, the electoral arena.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, you have long been a leader of the critical resistance movement, the abolition movement. And I’m wondering if you can explain the demand, as you see it, what you feel needs to be done, around defunding the police, and then around prison abolition.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, the call to defund the police is, I think, an abolitionist demand, but it reflects only one aspect of the process represented by the demand. Defunding the police is not simply about withdrawing funding for law enforcement and doing nothing else. And it appears as if this is the rather superficial understanding that has caused Biden to move in the direction he’s moving in.
It’s about shifting public funds to new services and new institutions — mental health counselors, who can respond to people who are in crisis without arms. It’s about shifting funding to education, to housing, to recreation. All of these things help to create security and safety. It’s about learning that safety, safeguarded by violence, is not really safety.
And I would say that abolition is not primarily a negative strategy. It’s not primarily about dismantling, getting rid of, but it’s about reenvisioning. It’s about building anew. And I would argue that abolition is a feminist strategy. And one sees in these abolitionist demands that are emerging the pivotal influence of feminist theories and practices.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that further.
ANGELA DAVIS: I want us to see feminism not only as addressing issues of gender, but rather as a methodological approach of understanding the intersectionality of struggles and issues. Abolition feminism counters carceral feminism, which has unfortunately assumed that issues such as violence against women can be effectively addressed by using police force, by using imprisonment as a solution. And of course we know that Joseph Biden, in 1994, who claims that the Violence Against Women Act was such an important moment in his career — the Violence Against Women Act was couched within the 1994 Crime Act, the Clinton Crime Act.
And what we’re calling for is a process of decriminalization, not — recognizing that threats to safety, threats to security, come not primarily from what is defined as crime, but rather from the failure of institutions in our country to address issues of health, issues of violence, education, etc. So, abolition is really about rethinking the kind of future we want, the social future, the economic future, the political future. It’s about revolution, I would argue.
AMY GOODMAN: You write in Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, “Neoliberal ideology drives us to focus on individuals, ourselves, individual victims, individual perpetrators. But how is it possible to solve the massive problem of racist state violence by calling upon individual police officers to bear the burden of that history and to assume that by prosecuting them, by exacting our revenge on them, we would have somehow made progress in eradicating racism?” So, explain what exactly you’re demanding.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, neoliberal logic assumes that the fundamental unit of society is the individual, and I would say the abstract individual. According to that logic, Black people can combat racism by pulling themselves up by their own individual bootstraps. That logic recognizes — or fails, rather, to recognize that there are institutional barriers that cannot be brought down by individual determination. If a Black person is materially unable to attend the university, the solution is not affirmative action, they argue, but rather the person simply needs to work harder, get good grades and do what is necessary in order to acquire the funds to pay for tuition. Neoliberal logic deters us from thinking about the simpler solution, which is free education.
I’m thinking about the fact that we have been aware of the need for these institutional strategies at least since 1935 — but of course before, but I’m choosing 1935 because that was the year when W.E.B. Du Bois published his germinal Black Reconstruction in America. And the question was not what should individual Black people do, but rather how to reorganize and restructure post-slavery society in order to guarantee the incorporation of those who had been formerly enslaved. The society could not remain the same — or should not have remained the same. Neoliberalism resists change at the individual level. It asks the individual to adapt to conditions of capitalism, to conditions of racism.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Angela Davis, about the monuments to racists, colonizers, Confederates, that are continuing to fall across the United States and around the world. Did you think you would ever see this? You think about Bree Newsome after the horror at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who shimmied up that flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina Legislature and took down the Confederate flag, and they put it right on back up. What about what we’re seeing today?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, of course, Bree Newsome was a wonderful pioneer. And I think it’s important to link this trend to the campaign in South Africa, Rhodes Must Fall. And, of course, I think this reflects the extent to which we are being called upon to deeply reflect on the role of historical racisms that have brought us to the point where we are today.
You know, racism should have been immediately confronted in the aftermath of the end of slavery. This is what Dr. Du Bois’s analysis was all about, not so much in terms of, “Well, what we were going to do about these poor people who have been enslaved so many generations?” but, rather, “How can we reorganize our society in order to guarantee the incorporation of previously enslaved people?”
Now attention is being turned towards the symbols of slavery, the symbols of colonialism. And, of course, any campaigns against racism in this country have to address, in the very first place, the conditions of Indigenous people. I think it’s important that we’re seeing these demonstrations, but I think at the same time we have to recognize that we cannot simply get rid of the history. We have to recognize the devastatingly negative role that that history has played in charting the trajectory of the United States of America. And so, I think that these assaults on statues represent an attempt to begin to think through what we have to do to bring down institutions and reenvision them, reorganize them, create new institutions that can attend to the needs of all people.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about racism and capitalism? You often write and speak about how they are intimately connected. And talk about a world that you envision.
ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah, racism is integrally linked to capitalism. And I think it’s a mistake to assume that we can combat racism by leaving capitalism in place. As Cedric Robinson pointed out in his book Black Marxism, capitalism is racial capitalism. And, of course, to just say for a moment, that Marx pointed out that what he called primitive accumulation, capital doesn’t just appear from nowhere. The original capital was provided by the labor of slaves. The Industrial Revolution, which pivoted around the production of capital, was enabled by slave labor in the U.S. So, I am convinced that the ultimate eradication of racism is going to require us to move toward a more socialist organization of our economies, of our other institutions. I think we have a long way to go before we can begin to talk about an economic system that is not based on exploitation and on the super-exploitation of Black people, Latinx people and other racialized populations.
But I do think that we now have the conceptual means to engage in discussions, popular discussions, about capitalism. Occupy gave us new language. The notion of the prison-industrial complex requires us to understand the globalization of capitalism. Anti-capitalist consciousness helps us to understand the predicament of immigrants, who are barred from the U.S. by the wall that has been created by the current occupant. These conditions have been created by global capitalism. And I think this is a period during which we need to begin that process of popular education, which will allow people to understand the interconnections of racism, heteropatriarchy, capitalism.
AMY GOODMAN: The legendary activist and scholar Angela Davis, speaking in June. When we come back, we’ll talk to professors Cornel West and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.