Angela Davis, a former member of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and currently a writer and activist, spoke in the Kaul Auditorium at Reed College on Monday night about prison abolition.
Notable community and college groups were in attendance with Reed students. Sisters in Action for Power, Reclaiming Our Origins Through Struggle (ROOTS) and students from the Portland State Multicultural Center were invited to the event, which was otherwise for Reed students only.
Sa’eed Haji, a PSU senior and coordinator for the Black Cultural Affairs Board was one of only 10 PSU students who received tickets to the event. Jon Joiner, the coordinator of the Multicultural Center, received the tickets from organizers of the event and gave them to students involved in the center.
Planners of the event originally approached PSU groups “looking for contributors to offset the cost” of bringing Davis to Reed, Joiner said, and the Reed Multicultural Association of Students (MAS) asked the PSU Multicultural Center to “be a part of the co-sponsoring group.”
After receiving approval, Joiner returned Reed’s call and said, “Yeah, we would be glad to be a co-sponsoring group.” However, upon speaking to a student staffer at the MAS, Joiner was told the co-sponsorship of the center was not needed. Joiner was unsure as to why MAS no longer needed the help of PSU to co-sponsor Davis’s speech.
At the event, students from both schools listened as Davis began, “This is a very difficult moment in our history … with the global war on terrorism, the war against Afghanistan and the permanent war against Iraq, the Patriot Act and Patriot Act Two. … We need a great deal of hope these days.”
Davis explained what prisons do to prisoners. “Civil death … when civil liberties are taken away (from prisoners), this is what I want to talk about this evening,” Davis said.
Calling prisons gendered institutions, Davis explained that women experience routine sexual abuse by guards. “The strip-search routine that happens consistently in women’s prisons, vaginal and anal searches, each time they go to court or are visited … this is systematic sexual assault,” Davis said.
Detailing the powers given to guards, Davis made the point that off-duty a forced strip search would be considered sexual assault, whereas on-duty, a strip search can be forced on a woman legally. Calling the state “an agent of sexual assault,” Davis said a movement for prison abolition must “stop state sexual assault and abolish sexualized violence against women.”
Delving into the core of what Davis calls the Prison Industrial Complex, Davis said the “process of sentencing a person to prison is race-neutral, but race is still a determining factor in who will go to prison and who will go to the university.”
“Under the guise of race neutrality, we have a powerful structure of racism,” she said.
“More than 2 million people in America are in prisons and over 70 percent are people of color,” she said.
Detailing the roots of the death penalty, Davis proclaimed, “Capital punishment has not become abolished because of the structure of racism in America.” Historically, a white person was subject to the death penalty for one offense, whereas a black person would be subject to it for 70 different types of offenses, Davis said. “We are living with the sentiments of that history today.”
Comparing the movement to abolish prisons to the slavery abolition movement in the United States, Davis paraphrased W.E.B. DuBois: “‘It’s not enough to destroy the institution of slavery, a whole new set of institutions should have been created.’ … I would propose the same thing today for prison abolition. … I would argue for socialist institutions,” she said.
Davis sees decreasing the prison population until it no longer exists as an overarching strategy for prison abolition. Davis sees alternative institutions to prisons in the “demilitarization” of schools, the revitalization of education, a health system that provides free mental and physical care, housing and jobs for everyone.
Haji said he “agreed with most everything she (Davis) says.”
“People are not equal,” he said. “In every category you find a gap between people. The system creates a gap between the people. … The system is based on capitalism.”
Davis explained that “today, for a movement to abolish prisons calls for a movement to establish a more radical democracy.”