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Angela Davis: Feminism and Abolitionism In The 21st Century

Internationally-known civil rights activist and feminist theorist Angela Davis presented two public lectures in Pensacola this week. Tuesday, she spoke at Pensacola State College, and her talk on Monday marked the culmination of this year’s Women’s Studies Conference at the University of West Florida.

Davis has written extensively over the past six decades about women, race, class, and incarceration, which has been a persistent theme of her work in recent years. All of those issues were woven throughout her talk, both from a historical point of view and in terms of what’s happening today.

And, I think this is a particularly auspicious moment to be engaging in feminism and social justice,” Davis said.

Dr. Davis is Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She referred to the recent news headlines, beginning with the police shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.

“And, I want to begin by pointing out that the most well-known of these cases of racist violence have involved young black men, not only Michael Brown and Eric Garner. But, you here in Florida are aware of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, who was killed by a man who did not like the fact that he had turned the music up in his car,” said Davis, continuing to name case after case involving young men and women of color, some of whom suffered from mental health challenges.

“It seems that this impulse to kill without asking questions is born of racism. And, it helps us to understand something about the way in which structural racism not only affects people of color. It affects white people as well.”

Davis’ talk at UWF was titled “Feminism and Abolitionism in the 21st Century.”

When I speak of feminism, I’m talking about radical, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-imperialist feminism. And the very hall mark of these feminisms has always been their capaciousness, their capacity to embrace difference and to discover connections among issues that seem on the surface to be quite separate.”

From there, she wove in the notion of abolitionism. For her, that means the abolition of the vestiges of slavery, capital punishment, and of prison as the dominant mode of punishment. Additionally, she said it means the abolition of race, class, gender and sexual hierarchies.

Looking specifically at the history of slavery in the U.S, Davis says one of the lingering vestiges is Capital Punishment. Davis noted a recent report on lynching in the 12 southern states by the Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery. One of their findings, she says, was that historically lynchings didn’t really begin to decline until the death penalty was used on a more routine basis.

“What has been done in this country has been to try to transform capital punishment into something so rationalized that it can be considered humane. Humane forms of capital punishment, to me that oxymoronic. But, yet the debates have been what have been the most humane way to kill someone,” said Davis.

She points that the nation has gone from the firing squad to the electric chair and gas chamber, and now to the use of lethal injection.

Davis believes there should be continued calls to end the death penalty.

Also, she’d like to rethink and overhaul the U.S. prison system, where more than 2 million adults are incarcerated.

Taking it further, on the issue of crime and punishment, she believes it’s time to think about punishment separate from crime.

That is punishment in so far as it’s connected to the lack of education or illiteracy, economic injustices, privatization of prisons and the fact that punished bodies become the sources of vast profit,” Davis said.

While much of Davis’ talk focused on racial and institutional violence, she says it is violence against women that’s still most prominent world-wide. However, she notes it’s all connected.

“Violence at the hands of police, violence in prison often produces gender violence in the free world…violence against gay men, lesbians, trans, 'inter-sex' people…As long as it’s okay to inflict violence against women, then so many of the other modes of violence will continue to persist.”

Over the decades, Angela Davis has written numerous books on the topics discussed during her Pensacola lectures. Among them: Women, Culture, and Politics; Are Prisons Obsolete?; and The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues, which was released in 2011.

In advance of her visit to Pensacola, Davis partnered with Open Books to raise money for the Prison Books Project.

Open Books is a nonprofit bookstore that operates out of the Longhollow Neighborhood Community Center at 1040 N. Guillemard St. With proceeds and donations, the store sends free books to indigent prisoners to improve their lives and provide educational resources during their imprisonment.

Also as part of the fundraising effort, artist Carter J. Gaston created a mural-like painting of Davis for a silent auction. Half of the proceeds will go Gaston and the other half will help support the Prison Books Project.  

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.