Angela Davis ushers in a new generation of Black women activists and artists
If there is hope and determination in 2023 that the abolition of carceral and racist systems and institutions is ever to occur—oh, that it might be so—it was on full display Jan. 22 at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA).
In the downtown Oakland museum’s James Moore Theatre, where a sold-out audience meant the program simultaneously streamed live in the adjacent Lecture Hall, people sat transfixed by the articulate voices, acute intelligence and powerful conviction of a panel of four Black women gathered in conversation.
The all-star lineup for the 90-minute, Sunday afternoon program, “Abolition: A Multigenerational Perspective,” included activist, scholar and author Angela Davis, former Oakland youth poet laureate and author Leila Mottley (Nightcrawling), Black Organizing Project national movement building director Jessica Black and moderator Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project and executive director of the Justice Teams Network.
Davis is featured in “Seize the Day,” the current exhibit in OMCA’s Great Hall that focuses on her life, legacy and ongoing role as a contemporary activist and author. A special lens is turned on Black history and the intersectionality of race, gender, economics and politics in America—and how those factors impacted and are foundational in Davis’ philosophies, writing and activism. The exhibition includes contemporary and historical artworks, media, literature, sketches, rare manuscripts and a dedicated archive on Davis drawn from the collection of Lisbet Tellefsen.
The program began with a dance performance by Destiny Art’s Junior Company, followed by dynamic and profoundly moving spoken word from director, playwright, arts educator and Oakland poet laureate Ayodele Nzinga, Ph.D., whose two poems were offered to “put heads in the right place.”
Indeed they did, with “Something Is Always Dying” leaving indelible imagery: a woman walking seven miles with only five pennies in her pocket, roses turned to mulch, rage and bullets stored in a drawer, stories that begin with hope, gods of thunder and something always dying, just not in the middle of the room.
A second poem insisted “power concedes nothing without a demand,” and proclaimed that space is colonized, humans are raped by capitalism, everything is for sale and freedom is an action word. Most provocative and prescient was a question asked: If they change the name of your struggle, is it still the same struggle?
The line of inquiry created a perfect segue and introduction for Brooks’ first question to the panel: “The term abolition is deeply personal. What is your personal and political definition?”
Davis said being succinct “is not my best quality,” before proving her self-assessment wrong and expressing her thoughts with brevity and clarity. “We assume abolitionism is about getting rid of something. This is the mistake we made with slavery,” she said. “Slavery was legally demolished. But what was not addressed was all of the ways slavery had defined the economic and social and political and cultural fabric of this country. That is why we are doing the work we are today, trying to get rid of all of the influences and resonances of slavery.
“Rather than assume that the major project of abolition is simply to get rid of something, the question we ask is how to create a new world. How to create a world that does not need racist and repressive institutions like the police, like prisons, like the assaults on families, especially the Black families and families of color we associate with what Dorothy Roberts called ‘a family policing system,’” Davis continued.
Mottley, in her definition that preceded Davis’ comments, had expressed related thoughts and a fundamental belief that “demolishing what we know” will mean “stepping into fear.” By refusing carceral logic that tells communities and societies that prisons and policing are the only pathways to security, she said rethinking the issue will transform abolition from actions that are destructive and ruinous to a term suggesting a world of unprecedented possibility.
Black added a vital footnote: A radical reimagining of abolitionism will result in every voice being included in the solutions that counter the policing violations she and other oppressed people have witnessed—police officers violating women alleged to be prostitutes, police planting drugs on Black people—and more broadly, “police officers (who) come into a community and strip Black brothers and sisters of their rights,” said Black.
Another triggering word, “defund,” Brooks said is on the tongues of political pundits. The pandemic was a collision course in which the already oppressed were farther pushed down by violence, according to Brooks. The uptick in violence in America, she said, was real, but not due to defunded police departments, which had not been enacted anywhere that violence erupted.The word “defund,” she suggested, had been wielded as a polarizing, fact empty flashpoint.
Davis said activism and conversations related to abolitionism (that may or may not include defunding police departments) are absolutely important, despite the up-and-down patterns she observes. “What we are witnessing are efforts to render abolitionist strategies ineffective,” she said. “Whenever we appear to be moving forward—let’s look at the amazing actions of the summer of 2020.
“I don’t want us to forget that, because that was an indication that huge numbers of people in this country are willing to do the work that will ultimately eradicate the influence of slavery and colonialism. That they will take seriously the need to get rid of structural racism,” Davis continued. “People began to recognize collectively that racism is not just about some people hitting Asian Americans or Indigenous people. But they thought that all you have to do is make sure that individuals think deeply about their actions and change.
“That’s ridiculous. Racism is about institutions that need work, regardless of what individuals think or feel. That was a new insight, although some of us have been saying that for 50 years. I remember those conversations happening when I was a teenager!” she recalled.
Racism is not just a problem in the United States, Davis suggested, but emerges from colonialism and white supremacy that exists in Europe, Africa and South America. Conversations are good, but responses that thus far aim at shutting down the dialogue constitute real danger. “I’m going to say something that will upset somebody,” she warned. “All these DEI formations. There is diversity, equity and inclusion in every institution in this country, and oftentimes, those institutions are unwilling to transform themselves.
“They assume all you have to do is bring more Latinx people, more Indigenous people, Black people and Asian people into the institution that itself has not changed at all,” said Davis. She wondered if thinking of freedom or abolition as a destination or as a recognizable signpost are dangerous and lead to thinking the struggle is over. “Each time one victory is won, we learn about other issues we’ve failed to consider,” she pointed out. According to Davis, abolition is an infinite process because achieving even partial freedom places each person in a position responsible for freeing someone else.
Directing the conversation to specifically address defunding police and eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline, Black said defunding law enforcement departments still leaves behind a society and culture that promotes and utilizes violence as a control. Shifting the ideology to allow for possible alternatives she believes is progressive and doable, but requires steady determination and hard work.
“We are seeing some strides on the ground, on some school campuses. This is still a beast, with many racist structures and practices, but there’s an embracing of community that hasn’t existed before,” said Black. “(There is more) partnering with community-based organizations who are experts in certain situations.”
With substantial work left to do, Black said adequate pay for people working to push back on false narratives in the social justice movement would provide her with more hope. Students who fight for restorative justice coordinators or “whenever our babies have incremental wins” are examples of “sparks” leading her to believe change will someday arrive and be permanent.
The idea of reimagining tropes and false narratives, a continuous theme in the discussion, re-emerged when Davis suggested picturing a world in which society did not rely for safety on institutions founded in racism and violence. Such a portrait would have to address attitudes about economic status, mental health, capitalism and a range of ideologies.
Capitalism, she said, is devastating and thinks only about the value of a lifespan, but not the world as it might exist 100 years from now. Connections to feminism, to non-gender conforming people fighting to establish social justice for LGBTQ+ people, worldwide restorative justice and critical race reform efforts, and in particular, the work of Black women in the abolitionist practices that stretch beyond prison reform, are important sources for learning and inspiration, according to Davis.
Attention next turned to artists and activism. Mottley said adequate time, space and resources to rest, hope, imagine and rethink is crucial for artists. Art, she noted, is essential to everyone because it decreases the space between the personal self and abstract concepts like social injustice. “When you love a character or song, when you invest in something for healing, it’s so much harder to remove yourself from the ability to have that as a daily practice,” Motley stated.
Healing for the healers and applying the topic to Black women who often work the frontlines in the struggle for social justice, caused Brooks to ask, “What is the cost to them?”
Davis emphasized that Black women are not a marginal demographic and said carcerality affects everyone. “When we struggle, we always struggle for everyone else,” she noted. About to celebrate her 79th birthday in mere days, Davis said she never thought she’d experience a moment when there are wide-spread, public conversations about abolition. She imagined any shift in public conversation would happen in future decades, when she was no longer alive.
“What is so remarkable about Black people, is that for centuries that impulse to struggle has been passed down from one generation to the next. It has been renewed over and over again. That is why Black history is important, because it is about the quest for freedom, infinite movement toward liberation. It’s not a destination; it’s the journey itself. Freedom is expansive; it’s so capacious,” Davis pointed out.
Her words drew applause when she added that if the binary definition of gender could be “blown away” by the LGBTQ community and if the level of acceptance seen today can happen (allowing there is more room for progress), then “there is no limit to what we can do.”
Black said the violence and racism generated on social media and in reality means there is much work to be done. Intentional strategies that protect the healers and activists on the ground; wrap-around services to fight collectively against systemic racism; methodologies to deal with the day-to-day trauma and PTSD, not just of victims of oppression and violence experience, but of caretakers, case workers, social advocates, legal representatives, extended family members and others, are efficacious techniques for ensuring the movement continues to be energized and is safe, she continued.
Education and conversations about the actual physiological and mental health impacts of generational trauma, an important and often overlooked topic, can be most effective and safe if held in intergenerational and safe forums that include not just women and youth, but elders, adult males and non-gendering conforming individuals, said Black.
Mottley said a response system that is grassroots best serves communities. As essential as a compassionate approach may be, it isn’t the only method for addressing trauma or calling out bad actors in the community. Communal shaming on social media to communicate about a social predator in a community is one way to enact real consequences for someone causing harm in a community, according to Mottley. Paired with social justice, space for redemption and a reformative forgiveness process, public shaming is not punitive, but consequential, effective, purposeful and humanely fulfilled.
Questions from the audience included what would happen to incarcerated people and societies if all prisons were closed and prisoners released. In previous comments about specific people who had been held in prisons for decades, Davis advocated vigorously, ultimately reaching the conclusion,“I say, free them all.”
In response to the audience question, Davis said that if the prisons were completely emptied tomorrow, there would not be “any more problems in what we’re considering the free world than what we’re having now.” She said if society drew from the intellectual energy inside prisons that “is amazing” and brought people home to help figure out how to make change without the entire planet being destroyed, a tremendous resource would be available. “Use the energy of people in prisons who’ve been studying this for 20, 30, 40, 50 years,” she insisted.
Black felt no obligation to answer the question, but instead turned the question back to young people, like the youth who posed the initial question. “I think we go back and imagine (with them) what would the world be like? We plant the seeds,” she responded.
Mottley described viewing incarcerated people as “other,” or finding safety in “us and them” thinking created an illusionary escape from truth. Instead, a paradigm shift, she said, is fundamental to changing the culture and mindsets underlying racism and other forms of oppression.
Mind-shifting rose into prominence and applied to Brooks’ paraphrase of an audience question about reparations: “Are African Americans due reparations, and what should it look like?”
Davis said, “We should move away from assuming the idea that reparations involves giving individuals money. Reparations for Black people, in connection with the damage and the traumas that have been produced and reproduced since the era of slavery, have a great deal to do with creating a radical, more democratic society,” she stated.
“As someone who has always believed in socialism and communism, a socialist perspective towards reparations would not mean giving every person who is a descendant of those who suffered those collective traumas some money, but rather, transform our institutions,” she noted. “Free education, not just for Black people, but for everyone, should be the cornerstone.” Davis said housing, health care and other needs with education as primary would be a collective approach to reparations that she could endorse.
Mottley brought the conversation to a fascinating, succinct and direct close, posing questions of her own: “How do you monetize a life? How much is our trauma worth?”
In agreement that such a calculation is impossible to perform, and even if a monetary metric is deserved and reached, the panel collectively said the true work of abolitionism is changing hearts and minds, finding and bolstering hope and will and powerful voices in a world facing catastrophic challenges—environmental, economic, social justice, individual freedoms, poverty, over-incarceration, health crises and more.
Believing that abolition viewed from this capacious perspective is vital, Davis said signs of progress and advancement in the movement will be evident not just in humans and their problems, but will be evident in freedom, concern and care for all things, such as insects, animals, oceans, the Earth, the solar system, and “things and people other than themselves.”