World-renowned scholar, activist and feminist Angela Davis was in Chicago May 4 to deliver the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture Annual Public Lecture, in collaboration with the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. Both institutions are at the University of Chicago, and the event was held at Rockefeller Chapel on the university's campus.
Davis' speech, "Feminism and Abolition: Theories and Practices for the 21st Century," was given to a packed crowd of more than 1,500. She was introduced by Cathy Cohen, professor of political science at the university. Davis, 69, is currently Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz where she worked in both the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies Departments.
The lecture had already become historic before Davis stepped up to the podium because of the prior day's news that Assata Shakur is now the first woman to be placed on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list. The FBI and the state of New Jersey doubled the reward for her capture to $2 million. Davis had appeared that morning on the radio program Democracy Now, with Shakur's attorney, Leslie Hinds to speak out against the move, and her comments had been going viral all day long.
Shakur, a former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. She escaped prison in 1979, and received political asylum in Cuba. Shakur and her supporters have long maintained her innocence. Like Shakur, Davis faced charges of murder nearly 40 years ago, and was eventually freed after a long trial. (The campaign around her became a global one and is the subject of the recent documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.)
Addressing the audience, Davis began by saying that she had revised her original introduction to incorporate material on Shakur, and bookended the lecture with her words. Speaking about the the recent FBI announcement, she said it "reminds me of how much work is left over from the twentieth century" and that "we live in a world mutilated by the ravages of capitalism." She recalled her own inclusion on the FBI list decades ago and noted that that the FBI "is still haunted by the ghost of J. Edgar Hoover."
Davis went on to list some of the many political prisoners still in prison, including Mumia Abu-Jamal and her co-defendant from the trial, Ruchell Magee. She said that while the FBI focused on them and people like Shakur, they ignored the mercenaries of Blackhawk.
Much of the lecture focused on what she and many activists refer to as the prison industrial complex (PIC), and its relationship to gender. Historically contextualizing the category of "woman," Davis pointed out that it has always been a contested one, especially in relation to race and class. Black and working-class women have been shut of the category, in favor of a racialized and bourgeois version of the ideal woman, she added.
Davis then focused on transgender women, particularly those in prison. She called on feminists and feminists to understand and acknowledge the ways in which the presence and conditions of trans women in prison contest and expand the category of woman while also exploding binary ideas of gender.
Referencing recent activist work and work on trans prison issues, Davis said that trans women are "at the intersection of race, class, sexuality, and gender." She pointed out that trans women are often singled out by law enforcement and, once in prison, denied access to hormones and medical treatment and usually placed in men's prisons, where they suffer additional sexual and gendered violence. David said that that understanding and questioning these conditions allows us to "learn a great deal about the reach of the PIC" and about what is "ideologically constituted as normal."
Expanding on this, she made the parallel between looking at trans issues and gender issues in general: "When we look at women in prison, we learn about the system as a whole, the nature of punishment, the very apparatus of prison."
Speaking of the general reach of the PICDavis is a prominent prison abolitionistshe pointed to local Chicago statistics about violence and guns, and drew connections between local activism around schools and the prison system. She spoke of how the depletion of resources for public education was creating conditions where more felt compelled to turn to crime and consequently became a larger "disposable population surveilled by electronic technology." In the meantime," she said, corporations profit from creating more surveillance mechanisms meant to police and control the expanding prison population.
Davis also spoke of her faith in younger generations of scholars and activists, saying that they are informed by feminism, and operate from pro-trans and -Islam frameworks. But she also cautioned that as important as it was to support social movements, "we also have to struggle against the assimilationist agenda," and pointed to the fight for marriage equality as one about attaining "bourgeois respectability."
In the question and answer session that followed, Davis spoke to a range of issues, including her appraisal of the "Free Angela" film, which she described as the account of a movement and not just about her. Asked about gun control and the violence faced by Chicago public school students, she said that the best solution was "no more guns, removing all guns from human beings" but that this also meant "disarming the police." This, she said, was an abolitionist struggle.
View a related Letter to the Editor here: Link Here .