[Marxism] Angela Davis returns: are prisons obsolete ?

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Tue Mar 2 11:31:17 MST 2004

Book Review - Are Prisons Obsolete?, by Angela Y. Davis. New York, Seven
Stories Press, 2003.

While the US prison population has surpassed 2 million people, this figure
is more than 20 percent of the entire global imprisoned population combined.
Angela Y. Davis shows, in her most recent book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, that
this alarming situation isn't as old as one might think. Just a little over
30 years ago the entire prison population stood at 200,000 in the US; that
is a tenfold jump in just one generation. In California alone, 3 prisons
were built between 1852 and 1952; from 1984 to the present, over 80
facilities were constructed that now house almost 160,000 people. While
being jailed or imprisoned has become "an ordinary dimension of community
life," according to Davis, for men in working-class Black, Latino, Native
American and some Asian American communities, it is also increasingly an
issue women of these communities have come to face.
Davis points to the increased involvement of corporations in prison
construction, security, health care delivery, food programs and commodity
production using prison labor as the main source of the growth of the
prison-industrial complex. As prisons became a new source of profits, it
became clear to prison corporations that more facilities and prisoners were
needed to increase income. It is evident that increased crime is not the
cause of the prison boom. Davis writes "that many corporations with global
markets now rely on prisons as an important source of profits helps us to
understand the rapidity with which prisons began to proliferate precisely at
a time when official studies indicated that the crime rate was falling."

Angela Yvonne Davis was born 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, the daughter of
schoolteachers. She studied at home and overseas (1961-67) before becoming a
doctoral candidate at the University of California, San Diego, under Herbert
Marcuse. Davis joined the Communist Party in 1968. Because of her political
opinions and despite her record as instructor at the university's Los
Angeles campus, the California Board of Regents in 1970 refused to renew her
appointment as lecturer in philosophy.  Through the Black Panthers, Davis
became an advocate for black political prisoners, and spoke out in defense
of the inmates known as the Soledad Brothers. After the killing of inmate
George Jackson by guards at Soledad Prison, Jackson's younger brother,
Jonathan, attempted to free another prisoner from the Hall of Justice in
Marin County, California on August 7, 1970 by taking hostages. Four people
were killed in the shoot-out that followed, including the trial judge. The
guns Jackson used were registered in the name of Angela Davis. Even although
she was not near the courthouse at the time, a warrant for her arrest went
out. When Davis defied the arrest warrant and went into hiding, she was
placed on the FBI's ten-most-wanted list. Her capture in a New York motel
room in October 1970 and her subsequent imprisonment inspired "Free Angela"
rallies around the world. Davis spent 16 months in jail, before she was
released on bail in 1972. She was later acquitted of all charges by an
all-white jury. Davis resumed teaching at San Francisco State University,
and subsequently lectured in all 50 US states, as well as internationally
throughout Europe, Africa, the Carribean, Russia and the Pacific. She is now
a member of the Advisory Board of the Prison Activist Resource Center. In
1994 Republicans objected to her appointment to a presidential chair at
University of California, Santa Cruz, where she is professor in the History
of Consciousness Department.

The final protest song on John Lennon's album "Some Time in New York City"
(1972) was devoted to Angela, but some rock critics thought it was facile.
Robert Christgau stated: "Agitprop that fails to reach its constituency,
however, is hardly a thing at all, and since Lennon's forte has always been
the communication of new truths to a mass audience, that possibility is very
distressing. He isn't exploiting his charisma this time, he's gambling it.
Not that he isn't singing better than ever. Not that Phil Spector hasn't
added brilliant musical touches--invisible strings, bottleneck guitar,
little Peggy March riff--or that Elephant's Memory, a fine-rocking movesymp
band, doesn't boogie throughout. But the lyrics exhibit a fatal movement
(and avant-gardist) flaw: While striving to enlighten, they condescend. I
have yet to hear of a woman, feminist or no, who isn't offended by the
presumption of the two feminist songs [on the album]. Does Angela Davis have
to be told that she's one of the million political prisoners in the world?
It's bad enough to praise David Peel and worse still to record him, but
imitating his thoughtless hip-left orthodoxy is worst of all. Still, you can
trust a paradox-finder to discern some hope in all of this. Imagine was a
successful popularization of Plastic Ono Band's experiments. Who is to say
John can't do it again? Wouldn't it be wonderful if all this
heart-in-the-right-place effort could be transformed into something that
could be expected to be real to people? Maybe we could even learn to love
Yoko's singing as much as John does. Just imagine."
http://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/bk-aow/lennon.php. Here is the lyrics of
John Lennon's song:

Sister, there's a wind that never dies
Sister, we're breathing together
Sister, our love and hopes forever keep on moving oh so slowly in the world
They gave you sunshine
They gave you sea
They gave you everything but the jailhouse key
They gave you coffee
They gave you tea
They gave you everything but equality
Angela, can you hear the earth is turning?
Angela, the world watches you
Angela, you soon will be returning to your sisters and brothers in the world
Sister, you're still a people teacher
Sister, your word reaches far
Sister, there's a million different races but we all share the same future
in the world
They gave you sunshine
They gave you sea
They gave you everything but the jailhouse key
They gave you coffee
They gave you tea
They gave you everything but equality
Angela, they put you in prison
Angela, they shot down your man
Angela, you're one of the millions of political prisoners in the world

Lennon's 1972 double album was released in America, 3 months before its
release in the UK and that meant that import copies were appearing in the UK
before its local release. The reasons for the delay were copyright problems
with Yoko's name appearing as co-writer on some songs. Northern Songs
refused to acknowledge this claim. Also, the album was meant to be a single
album with a free bonus album of the "Live Jam", but it was given a
catalogue number, pushing it into a higher retail price bracket. The album
cover is designed to look like a newspaper. The UK version also came with a
postcard of the Statue of Liberty and a petition about John's expulsion from
the US (not included in the American release).

A quote from Angela Davis: "I think it's really important to acknowledge
that Dr. [Martin Luther] King, precisely at the moment of his assassination,
was re-conceptualizing the civil rights movement and moving toward a sort of
coalitional relationship with the trade union movement. It's I think quite
significant that he was in Memphis to participate in a demonstration by
sanitation workers who had gone out on strike. Now, if we look at the way in
which the labor movement itself has evolved over the last couple of decades,
we see increasing numbers of black people who are in the leadership of the
labor movement and this is true today."

Books by Angela Davis:

If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (1971)
Autobiography (1974)
Women, Race, and Class (1981)
Women, Culture, and Politics (1989)
Violence Against Women and the Ongoing Challenge to Racism (1992)
The Angela Y. Davis Reader (1998)
The House That Race Built (1998)
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998)
The Angela Y Davis Reader (1999).
Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003)

Some books about Angela Davis:

Ashman, Charles R.: The People vs. Angela Davis. New York, Pinnacle Books,
Aptheker, Bettina: The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis. New York,
International Publishers, 1975.
Major, Reginald: Justice in the Round: The Trial of Angela Davis. New York
Third Press, 1973.
Nadelson, Regina: Who is Angela Davis? The Biography of a Revolutionary. New
York, P.H. Wyden, 1972.
New York Committee to Free Angela Davis. A Political Biography of Angela
Davis. 1971.
Parker, J.: Angela Davis: The Making of a Revolutionary, Arlington House,
Timothy, Mary: Jury Woman: The Story of the Trial of Angela Y. Davis.
Written by a member of the Jury. San Francisco, Glide Publications, 1975.


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