Dr. Angela Davis – a 1960s radical associated with the Black Panthers and Communist Party – headlined a private event in Los Angeles last month where she joined Black Lives Matter leaders in advocating for the abolition of police, prisons, and capitalism.
“You can’t simply focus myopically on one thing and say ‘get rid of slavery,’ or ‘get rid of prisons,’ or ‘get rid of the police,’” Davis, a former professor in the University of California system, explained. “Abolition asks us to think about what it is we need to do to transform the entire context, the entire society.”
Titled “Abolition in the Age of Trump,” the gathering was organized by Dignity and Power Now - an activist group focusing on the rights of incarcerated people. DPN was founded by Patrisse Cullors, who is also a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. It was instrumental in the formation of a new civilian oversight board for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), which oversees the nation’s largest jail system.
As the Los Angeles Times reports:
“The push to create a civilian panel began amid revelations of widespread abuses in the county jails and has gained new currency as national attention has been focused on police use of force and relationships between law enforcement and minority communities last year.
Mark-Anthony Johnson, an activist with the group Dignity and Power Now, which led the push by community groups for a civilian commission, praised the progress made over the last three years but slammed the decision to allow former law enforcement officials on the panel.”
“I am an abolitionist,” Cullors, who emceed the event, told the crowd assembled in the Underground Museum’s Purple Garden. “I’m going to proclaim it and shout it and remind people.”
Davis, a leader of the new abolition movement, praised Cullors and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter for creating “a new arena of struggle” that incorporates the same objectives that she has been fighting for since the 1971 Attica Prison riot. It was a four-day uprising where inmates took control of a correctional facility in New York. After the State Police had moved in, 29 prisoners and ten hostages had been shot dead.
“The brothers who stood up in Attica called not for the reform of the prison system, but abolition,” Davis recalled. “That was the first time that I began to take it really seriously.”
At the time, Davis herself was incarcerated on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy in connection with the shooting deaths of four people in California - including a judge. An international “Free Angela Davis” campaign ensued. As the New York Times reported on January 31, 1971:
“A State Senator whose wife was shot two weeks ago in an attempted kidnapping plot said this week that two young black men involved had planned to demand ransom and to attempt a trade of their victims for Angela Davis, the black militant accused of murder in California.”
More than 45 years later, Davis still has the allegiance of black revolutionaries, who have latched on to her concept of abolition she revived not long ago. In 1997, Davis co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization created to challenge “the idea that imprisonment and policing are a solution for social, political, and economic problems.”
“We were thinking about trying to change vocabularies, and the term that we introduced at that time was the ‘prison industrial complex,’” Davis recalled. “That gives us the opportunity to talk about racism. That allows us to talk about the economy and the role that capitalist corporations play, particularly in the context of global capitalism - which is really responsible for the proliferation of prisons all over the world. Because you need a place for people that are rendered ‘surplus’ by the kinds of economies that are created by capitalist corporations.”
The phrase Davis helped coin is now part of the Black Lives Matter lexicon. Its website calls for “the complete dismantling of the prison industrial complex,” and states:
Many of the movement’s organizers identify as abolitionists, which in the 21st-century context refers to people who want to abolish prisons and end the problem of mass incarceration of black and Latino people.”
The activists at the forum agreed that the pursuit of abolition must be conjoined with an effort to tear down and replace what’s left of America’s capitalist structure.
“Anti-capitalism without abolition doesn’t work,” said Janaya Khan, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Canada.
“Abolition isn’t just about destroying something,” said Cullors. “It’s about the building up of something.”
“We will have to overthrow the economic system under which we live,” said Davis. “We will have to look beyond capitalism. We need something else – whether we want to call it socialism or communism or whatever, we need something else.”
The event concluded with Davis joining hands with members of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, as Cullors paid tribute to former Black Liberation Army leader Assata Shakur. Also affiliated with the Black Panthers, Shakur was convicted of murder for her involvement in a 1973 shootout that left a New Jersey State Trooper dead. She is currently living in exile in Cuba after escaping from prison in 1979.