Angela Y. Davis on what's radical in the 21st century

UCLA professor Angela Y. Davis

UCLA professor Angela Y. Davis. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times / April 29, 2014)

Forty-five years after her first UCLA teaching gig attracted the wrath of Gov. Ronald Reagan, Angela Y. Davis is back on campus this semester, as regents' lecturer in the gender studies department. Her Thursday address in Royce Hall, about feminism and prison abolition, sums up some but not all of her work — a long academic career paralleled by radical activism. President Nixon called her a "dangerous terrorist" when she was charged with murder and conspiracy after a deadly 1970 courthouse shootout. She was acquitted, and since then, the woman born in the Jim Crow minefield of Birmingham, Ala., has written, taught and lectured around the world. Her iconic Afro has morphed from its 1970s silhouette; her intensity has not.

Congress is working on prison-sentence reform. Many states have banned capital punishment. Isn't this encouraging?

I've associated myself with the prison abolition movement; that does not mean I refuse to endorse reforms. There is a very important campaign against solitary confinement, a reform that is absolutely necessary. The difference resides in whether the reforms help to make life more habitable for people in prison, or whether they further entrench the prison-industrial complex itself. So it's not an either-or situation.

What would a just prison system look like to you?

It's complicated. Most of us in the 21st century abolitionist movement look to W.E.B. Du Bois' critique about the abolition of slavery — that it was not enough simply to throw away the chains. The real goal was to re-create a democratic society that would allow for the incorporation of former slaves. [Prison abolition] would be about building a new democracy: substantive rights to economic sustenance, to healthcare; more emphasis on education than incarceration; creating new institutions that would tend to make prisons obsolete.

You think prisons won't be necessary one day?

It is possible, but even [if it doesn't happen], we can move to a very different kind of justice that does not require a retributive impulse when someone does something terrible.

Do you watch the prison-themed comedy-drama "Orange Is the New Black"?

I not only saw the series but I read [Piper Kerman's] memoir. She has a much deeper analysis than one sees in the series, but as a person who has looked at the role of women's prisons in visual culture, primarily films, I think [the series] isn't bad. There are so many aspects that often don't [appear in] depictions of people in those oppressive circumstances. "12 Years a Slave," for example — one thing I missed in that film was some sense of joy, some sense of pleasure, some sense of humanity.

You are back this semester at UCLA, the campus from which Gov. Ronald Reagan had you fired.

This was an offer I could not refuse. The students are very different from the students of 1969, 1970. They're so much more sophisticated, in the sense of having more complicated questions.

When you consider feminism today, do you think women have retreated, except maybe when it comes to boardroom feminism?

One can talk about multiple feminisms; it is not a unitary phenomenon. There are those who assume feminism is about moving up the hierarchy into positions of power, and that's OK, but that's not what feminism does best. If the women at the bottom move up, the whole structure moves up.

The kind of feminism I identify with is a method for research but also for activism.

Stokely Carmichael sort of joked that the position for women in the civil rights movement's Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was "prone." Are women full partners in politics today?

Perhaps not completely, but we have made a lot of progress. In the way we think about past movements, I encourage people to look beyond heroic male figures. While Martin Luther King is someone I revere, I don't like to allow his representation to erase the contributions of ordinary people. The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott was successful because black women, domestic workers, refused to ride the bus. Had they not, where would we be today?

You support free birth control and abortion, which is denounced in some quarters as genocidal.

Sometimes [in] what might appear to be outlandish statements, we discover there may be a kernel of truth. While I would never argue that birth control or abortion rights constitute genocide, I have to take into consideration how sterilization has been imposed on poor people, especially people of color, and that someone like Margaret Sanger argued [birth control] was a privilege for affluent women but a duty for poorer women.

What do you think of the nation's first black president?

There are moments of enormous possibility, and the election was such a moment. People all over the world felt as if we were moving toward a new world. However brief that sense of euphoria was, we should not forget that. That allows us to understand what possibilities might reside in the future. [But] many people tended to deposit so many aspirations in this single individual that they failed — we failed — to do the work [to take] better advantage of that moment. People went to the polls and said, "We've done our job," and left it up to Obama.

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