A capacity crowd of over 2,000 people of various ethnicities packed into Harlem’s historic Riverside Church recently to hear keynote speaker Angela Davis address U.S. plans regarding its prison-industrial-complex.
A distinguished panel of individuals participated in the round-table discussion, which included Black Panther progressive scholar and ’60s symbol for Black self-determination, Angela Davis. She was joined by radical activists professor Ruth Wilson-Gilmore and author Vijay Prashad, as well as Air America radio host Laura Flanders, the event’s moderator.
Davis gained international notoriety as a fugitive and prisoner of war after her pursuit and eventual capture as a suspected conspirator in the attempted liberation effort of fellow Black Panther and Soledad Brother George Jackson from a Marion County courtroom in California on Aug. 7, 1970.
Jackson’s 17-year-old brother, Jonathan, took command of a courtroom during the trial of James McClain. The younger Jackson brandished three guns and, with assistance from inmates Ruchell Magee and William Christmas, took Superior Court judge Harold Haley, Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas and three jurors hostage.
As they fled in a van, police opened fire, killing Haley, McClain, Christmas and Jonathan Jackson. Although Davis was not present, the guns used in the daring escape effort had been registered in her name and she was soon placed on the FBI’s most-wanted list. She evaded arrest for months, before eventually being captured on Oct. 13 in New York City. She was extradited to California and was later acquitted of all charges.
During the recent seminar, panelists touched upon the social ills that are brought about by a structured plan put in place by the powers that be. “Capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it,” read Wilson-Gilmore from her notes.
She outlined some of the dynamics of the prison-industrial complex: “Capitalism and racism [are] amongst the prison-industrial complex, but through that solidarity joined together to create an anti-racist social order that provoked that famous man [Martin Luther King Jr.] to say from that pulpit or chair 43 years ago last month, ‘I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,’” she quoted from King’s “Beyond Vietnam” dissertation delivered at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967.
“It is to control and corral them that the prison-industrial-complex grew and that the police forces expanded,” determined Prashad. “The state has no further use for its people. It can only offer incarceration of one kind or another.” He laid out how the system of capitalism exploits the working-class majority while enriching the minority elite. He also explained how the education system determines at a very young age which people fall into which economic category as adults.
Keynote speaker Davis eloquently addressed the audience on the history of chattel slavery in America up until a century or so ago, making the correlation to modern-day slavery-the prison-industrial-complex.
“As we reflect on abolition…it is important that we evoke the spirit of the Attica Rebellion and remember that 40 years ago, the state attempted to violently repress anti-prison activism,” recalled Davis. “Some of you may remember that the Attica Rebellion was in part a response to the murder of George Jackson in San Quentin.”
She added, “Today in 2011, there are more Black men in prison than there were enslaved in 1850. Today we cannot afford to think about abolition as an impracticable utopia solution to the prison crisis. Today it has become a necessity.”
To conclude, Davis detailed some social inequalities that are still occurring, and noted why America’s society is structured for Americanized-Africans to fail while continuously being exploited.
“The 21st century abolition movement focuses on the prison-industrial-complex built on the racist structures and ideologies produced by slavery, segregation and economic exploitation! So today our demand is not a simple call to abolish prisons and capital punishment, although we say… abolish prisons and capital punishment and free Mumia Abu Jamal!” To applause from the audience, she continued, “It is also a call to create the conditions of life -education, health care, housing, jobs and other benefits of citizenship which are not enclosed by national boundaries. New outlets for human creativity, all of which will render prisons as we know them today unnecessary!”