Once seen as an extreme or radical point of view, discussions of prison abolition are suddenly being taken seriously in the mainstream. It's a remarkable change, one that Angela Davis isn't taking any credit for. "I don't really consider myself so significant as an individual," she says on this week's episode of the LGBTQ&Apodcast.
"I'm aware of the ways in which, especially in capitalist societies, there's a tendency to focus on the individual at the expense of allowing people to understand that history unfolds, not as a consequence of the actions and the words of great individuals, but rather as a consequence of people coming together, joining hands, and uniting with their differences--not across their differences, but with their differences--in a quest to create more freedom and more happiness in the world."
While credit for this new moment can be assigned to the work of many people, including a large number of names that history will never know, it's Angela Davis who's become a symbol for some of the boldest, most essential work of our lifetime: abolition, feminism, anticapitalism, the list goes on. From the movement that rose up around her arrest in 1970, she has appeared on murals and t-shirts, in songs by The Rolling Stones and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. This type of international attention wasn't something she ever desired, not something she's ever become fully comfortable with, but all along, she's used that attention, shrewdly pointing it away from herself and onto her work.
Davis' latest book, Abolition. Feminism. Now., is co-written with three other leaders of the movement, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Richie. It's a call to action, one that reframes abolition and feminism as the same political struggle.
Angela Davis joined the LGBTQ&A podcast this week to talk about why her incarceration was crucial in shaping her political journey, why we must challenge the notion that there is only one important revolutionary struggle, and why she supported the LGBTQ+ movement long before she discovered her own queerness.
You can listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts or read excerpts below.
Jeffrey Masters: You describe the period you were incarcerated as being "immensely fruitful," not only was it critical in shaping your political journey, but you write that it also helped you discover your intellectual vocation. What specifically did you learn or experience during that time that was so influential? Angela Davis: First of all, I should say, as the years have passed and as the negative aspects of imprisonment have begun to recede, I've recognized how fruitful that period was and in many ways, how much of a gift it was.
Before being imprisoned, I had devoted many years to struggles for the freedom of political prisoners, along of course with many other activists. And I really thought we understood the role of jails and prisons as instruments of racism and oppression. But when I was arrested myself, I began to realize that we were not taking into account the degree to which these institutions were so deeply gendered. Of course, we did not have access to the theoretical language at the time. But I realized there was a profound gap in our understanding that we had been engaged in these struggles as if the only people who went to jail and prison were men.
That was a time that witnessed the rise of the women's liberation movement. I supported the women's liberation movement, but I was deeply critical at the same time. During the time I was in jail, I had the opportunity to engage in extended reflections. I can say that as someone who had been active for quite a long time and who had been rushing around from one rally to the next and trying to engage in intellectual labor at the same time, this was really the first time that I had the opportunity to reflect deeply on this question of gender.
JM: Not to oversimplify things at all, but do you think you might not have found your way to becoming such a significant figure in the abolitionist movement had you not spent time behind bars? AD: I don't really consider myself so significant as an individual. I see all of the work that I've done in relation to abolition and other movements as a part of collective struggles. So I don't know whether I would have played exactly the same role had I not gone to jail, but I like to think that there would not have been any major difference in the role that I played. Whether I would've become a known figure or not, probably not, probably hardly anyone would've known my name, had it not been for the incredibly phenomenal movement that was organized all over this country and all over the world.
And so I like to think of myself as standing in for that movement rather than as an individual who has the kind of distinctive qualities that would lead to becoming a known person.
JM: Isn't that the great irony of it all? Arresting you and putting you on trial made you into an international rockstar, in many ways. And you were able to use that celebrity to become even more effective in your work. AD: I have to say that I did not welcome that role, and I still feel a bit uncomfortable in that role.
JM: You write extensively in your autobiography about your time in The Women's House of Detention, specifically about what a queer place that prison was. How aware were you of your own queerness at that time? AD: Well, I cringe, when I look at some of the language that I use in describing life in The Women's House of Detention and how I was often critical of the way that some of the women seem more interested in hooking up, in personal relationships and developing surrogate family formations than organizing against the jail administration. That was how I saw my major identity, as political, and to a certain extent, I still do.
I didn't identify as queer at the time. It would be many years before this identification would become meaningful for me as an individual. But I do think that spending time in The Women's House of Detention--The House of D, we called it--and being inside the culture had a great impact on me.
JM: I was wondering because in your autobiography, which amazingly was edited by Toni Morrison, your sexuality isn't mentioned. But the book was published in 1974 and I didn't know if including your own sexuality would have even been an option at that time. AD: There really would've been nothing for me to write about at that time. I was supportive of what we then call the Gay Liberation movement, but I myself did not identify as queer and was not involved in the kinds of relationships that would have generated that kind of identification.
I totally support the politics of coming out, but at the same time, I'm critical of the assumption that one's identity has to be the major driving force that determines one's politics. And I should say that I was supportive of the Gay Liberation movement long before I identified as a member of the LGBTQ community. This is a logic that is pretty much the same that I've attempted to use with respect to other movements of liberation. I don't have to be a member of the Latinx community to be a passionate supporter of anti-Latinx racism, to place the defense of immigrants, for example, at the center of my own political awareness.
And I should point out that I've always been critical of movements whose sole aim is assimilation, including those Black movements that are only concerned with integration, inclusion, and not radical transformation. So while early on, before I entered as a member of the LGBTQ community, I embraced those sectors of the gay movement that were anti-racist and anti-capitalist. I didn't identify with narrow demands for equality in the military or marriage equality. Not that I wouldn't be supportive of these demands as civil rights demands. But just as civil rights for racially oppressed people don't go nearly far enough in terms of calling for economic and social and cultural transformation, I've always supported those radical sectors of the LGBTQ movement that called for the abolition of marriage as a capitalist institution and the dismantling of the military.
JM: Looking at these movements, the fight for Black liberation, for queer liberation, from my perspective it looked like in the '70s and '80s that these acted as separate movements that did not interact. For you, advocating for communities that you're not a part of, did you feel like you were in the minority doing that? AD: Not really, as an activist who grew up in Marxist and communist circles, I always identified with people who were trying to challenge the notion that there was only one important revolutionary struggle and that was the struggle of the working class. Now I am not myself a member of the working class, but I learned early on to identify with working-class struggles and to recognize their importance, but also at the same time to be able to treat Black struggles as equally important.
JM: You always go out of your way to make it clear that your work and activism includes trans people. That stands out, frankly, because that's not always the case for older generations. The awareness and understanding of trans people has not always been as great as it is today. AD: This emerged from the work we were doing in critical resistance. And I can remember very clearly that the first stage was a kind of defense of the rights of trans people in prison. And then we recognized the degree to which the experiences of trans people represented an institutional gendering of the prison industrial complex. We had to think about this focus on gender as structural, therefore, I think I'm not the only one whose awareness was expanded by involvement with trans people in prison.
And at the same time, I was involved in campaigns against gender violence. And those campaigns that developed in defense of trans women, such as CeCe McDonald, especially trans women of color helped us to understand the structural nature of gender violence. And I can say that TGIJP, the Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project that Miss Major led for such a long time here in the Bay Area, had a profound impact on my thinking with respect to the absolute centrality of defending trans people.
JM: Part of me wanting to talk to you about your queerness came from seeing you being interviewed at such a large number of places and it's not mentioned. I feel like we focus on these other identity points. AD: Well, I'm a person who doesn't focus so much on individual identities as I do on collective struggles. I'm a member of the Black community, but I don't usually say, "as a Black person..." My whole notion of identity comes not from what a person happens to be, but from that person's willingness to engage in radical struggles to create a better world. And so I would say that tension between identity and politics or one might describe it as the politics of identity or the identification of political struggles as central in our quest to change the world.
I'm interested in struggle. Let me put it that way. And I've always been since I was a very young child, more so than being interested in simply naming the identity of a person, whether it be myself or someone else. I mean, I always point out that there're so many Black people with whom I cannot identify. Therefore, I don't talk about the Black community as a homogeneous community. And I don't talk about the Black struggle as a struggle only of Black people. I talk about the Black struggle as a struggle in which people of many different racial and ethnic backgrounds have participated and are responsible for the victories that have been won.
JM: We are talking about abolition and the prison industrial complex in the mainstream more than ever before. But when it comes to these public discussions about mass incarceration and abolition, I often hear them being framed as a Black issue, something that only affects Black people. How can we talk about these issues and acknowledge that Black people are disproportionately affected while also letting people know that this affects all of us? AD: We are engaged in this conversation in the aftermath of the recall of Chesa Boudin from his position as district attorney of San Francisco. So I have to acknowledge that we are in a period that is a kind of a counter-revolutionary period, one would say. In which there are liberal politicians pulling out the crime issue, the ideology of the war against crime, and are attempting to push us back in a backward direction.
I think abolition is still a radical demand. I think particularly in the recent period, since the rise of Black Lives Matter and especially since the summer of 2020, when more people went out into the streets than ever before, when more white people demonstrated in this country than ever before in its history, that we are at a period where there is beginning to be an understanding of the intersectionality of all of these issues of the fact that racism doesn't simply affect Black communities and communities of color, but it affects everyone.
Capitalism is racial capitalism. Capitalism is founded on slavery and colonialism. And you can't really talk about the history of Black people without also talking about the genocidal assaults on Indigenous people and on Latinx populations and also on white people. Perhaps I'm referring to a quest for a different kind of intersectional understanding, but I do think that now more than ever before, we can glimpse the possibilities of that kind of understanding. Mass incarceration is not simply a reenactment of slavery. Of course, we are living continually the afterlife of slavery, but when one looks at the extent to which what we call the prison industrial complex emanates from global capitalism and the soaring prison populations that we have experienced in this country have focused largely on communities of color on Indigenous, Black and Latinx and Muslim communities, but also poor white communities that this same phenomenon is now beginning to be seen in places like Brazil, in Egypt, for example, in Europe.
So this is a global phenomenon that is important, even as we recognize the globality of climate change.
JM: I was thinking about this because there are many who say they support different issues, but when it comes to voting, their votes don't line up with those spoken desires. AD: It's an indication of the fact that there is so much more work to be done in this country. And if I point to the summer of 2020 as a turning point, it is not so much because of what was accomplished then. But rather because I think that we have created the foundation for a new kind of organizing that emphasizes ways in which we are all interconnected and not only as humans but that our fate is interconnected with the fate of other animals, other non-human animals on this planet and the flora of this planet.
JM: You mentioned Chesa Boudin who was recalled, but are there big wins you can point to in recent years that indicate a more positive change? AD: Well, yes, there have been big wins, but they've also been big losses. In a sense, it's been about one step forward and two steps backward.
I'm especially concerned about this tendency now to challenge the abolitionist movements that have emerged in conjunction with the Black Lives Matters movement. And let me say parenthetically, that I think that so many people came to identify with the call to make Black Lives Matter, because they recognize that it wasn't focused only on Black people, but rather the message of that demand is that in order for all lives to matter, we have to guarantee that Black Lives Matter. So there's a kind of logic of intersectionality inherent in the very demand.
But I'm someone who's learned never to simply assume that one or two or three or four progressive victories means that we are moving in a radical direction. We not only have to defend the victories that we win, but we have to push forward. And this is a period I think that calls for even more intense organization, organizing efforts on the part of everyone who believes in justice and equality and freedom.
JM: When it comes to your legacy, you're on posters, murals, you're in songs by the Rolling Stones, by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Knowing that your name and face have become something so much bigger than you, you won't have control over what your legacy will be, but does that differ from what you would want it to be? AD: I'm not so interested in my individual legacy as I am in the legacy of the movements that I have been involved in. I feel pretty uncomfortable in this position of an individual who should be concerned about a legacy.
JM: Even after all these years, that's true? AD: Yes, even after all these years because I'm aware of the ways in which, especially in capitalist societies, there's a tendency to focus on the individual at the expense of allowing people to understand that history unfolds, not as a consequence of the actions and the words of great individuals, but rather as a consequence of people coming together, joining hands, and uniting with their differences -- not across their differences, but with their differences -- in a quest to create more freedom and more happiness in the world.