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Angela Davis: third-wave abolition is concrete and ideological, intersectional and international, and the time for organizing is now

Profile picture of Samson ZhangSamson Zhang
Oct 30, 20217 min read

"When I use the word radical, I think about its etymological origin. Radical refers to roots: to things that are vital and lifegiving, not extremist," Angela Davis said, opening her lecture on Thursday night.

What followed was a forceful display of the clear-mindedness, power, and compassion that had first absorbed me standing at the back of a chapel listening to Davis two years ago. There must be change and there can be change, Davis said, at concrete and ideological levels. Our current third wave of abolition must be intersectional and international; we must not water down our demands; we must grasp this revolutionary moment.

Though I don't expect to capture Davis' intensity, clarity, or comprehensiveness, here is my account of the big ideas of the lecture.

See my notes on Tuesday's lecture for further context

Prison abolition is the third wave of abolition

Slavery was the first. Those who fought to abolish slavery fought not only to abolish the isolated institution of enslavement in the U.S., but the abolition of the democracy -- the white, heteropatriarchal democracy -- which enabled slavery to exist within it, and the creation of a radical new one in its place. In this respect, the first wave of abolitionists failed in their mission, with white supremacy consolidating in American democracy following the civil war rather than dissipating.

The consequence, of course, was that a second wave of abolition was necessary: organization against Jim Crow segregation, culminating in the civil rights movement of the 60s. Davis pointed out that the very framing of this struggle as a civil rights struggle was reductionist: the movement against segregation was a movement for freedom for Black people, for which civil rights are necessary but certainly not sufficient. In fact, the conflation of freedom with abstract equality under law is a "clandestine racialization" of the very concepts of freedom and equality, framing equality as equivalent to being "treated as if you were white" and thus freedom as fundamentally tied to whiteness. Isolating civil rights abstracts away the concrete, freedom-denying realities of the law and law enforcement.

The third wave of abolition fights for the same fundamental goal as the first two: building a society where freedom and equality are possible and abolishing the structures that stand in the way. The structures at hand are police and prisons: deeply racist and, with the prison-industrial complex, capitalist institutions that our democracy has given the power to inflict violence and deny humanity upon individuals and communities of their choosing.

"The Police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defense against crime." Davis quotes Alex Vitale (who visited campus just a week ago) quoting David Bayley, adding that the notion that "the public does not know it" is false in the case of many communities of color, and after the events of the past year in broader numbers of the public too.

Reform is the glue that holds policing and prisons together

Reform does not weaken prisons because prisons themselves were created as more humane reforms to capital punishment. And from the beginning, it was evident that prisons did not lessen the repressive nature of the criminal justice system. Charles Dickens wrote about the inhumanity of solitary confinement in 1842, which was established as a reformed alternative to mass prisons. 200 years later, we are making the same cries, but if we cry only for reform, we are more likely to deepen the repressive power of prisons than lessen it.

As Davis stressed in Tuesday's talk, it's clear that what's required is to look elsewhere: to abolish police and prisons not for the sake of dismantling them, but to stop spending all of our energy thinking about reforms that cement their existence, and to clear space to imagine new strategies and solutions for serving and protecting communities.

For institutions like the police and prisons, racism is so deeply embedded that it's impossible to eliminate it without the whole structure collapsing. We've come to believe that reform, and thus racism, is all that's possible: "the task of abolition is to get rid of racist institutions not only in reality, but in our minds," Davis said.

Davis quoted Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" at the beginning of the lecture:

You keep on saying "Go slow!" "Go slow!" But that's just the trouble "Too slow" Desegregation "Too slow" Mass participation "Too slow" Reunification "Too slow" Do things gradually "Too slow" But bring more tragedy "Too slow"

"If you weaken your demands, you forget what you're fighting for," Davis said.

Abolition is intersectional and international

When white suffragists protested British common law declaring wives totally subject to their husbands' control, they compared the law to slavery.

In Palestine, activists have called Gaza and the West Bank "the largest open-air prisons in the world." In American police departments trained by the Israeli army, including ones as prominent as Baltimore's and D.C. Capitol police, the connection is direct.

Palestinian activists wrote to Davis when she was imprisoned, a source of her personal commitment to fighting for justice in Palestine.

The struggle for abolition is at its most powerful not when it is the single most attention-grabbing issue, but when it is fought in solidarity with liberation movements across dimensions of repression and around the world.

Racism cannot be abolished until capitalism is abolished

"Capitalism has always been racial capitalism," Davis said, pointing out that slavery and colonialism were the two pillars on which modern capitalist states like the U.S. were built.

On a theoretical level, the foundation is unambiguous: "read Marx, read Capital", Davis instructs Abrar -- and all of us -- when he asks about exploitative clothes manufacturing in Bangladesh after the lecture. The fetishization of commodities erases human relationships: we are blinded from the suffering of the young women in sweatshops that produce the very things we wear each day.

Penetrating the ideological wall to see the underlying humanity is a basis for struggle. "Develop a practice of thinking about the labor that goes into the things you use on a day-to-day basis," Davis advises, and let this new awareness inform our thought, messaging, and struggle.

Now is a revolutionary time

Davis' bombshell conclusion at the end of the night: "I've never experienced a period in U.S. history as open to creating communities of struggle as the present." Said by a radical activist of the 60s and 70s, an organizer of these very communities of struggle for the past half-century.

If we grasp the moment, we can create change. If we fail to do so, all will return back to normal.

A student asks for Davis' justification of the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement against Israel. In the face of Israeli state violence, "it's the least that we can do," Davis said. "It's really not a big deal...it should be only the beginning."

A CMC man asks what demands should be made of CMC in response to its major donors and board members Roberts and Kravis' KKR building pipelines through indigenous land. "That's your job to figure out. Get students, faculty, and workers together and figure out how to make it clear to the administration that you won't stand for this," Davis said. "That's called organizing."

Davis called out students who told her that they were unable to talk to their families or communities after going to school: "if you're unable to translate your ideas and connect with them, then you haven't learned anything." Higher-ed institutions are fundamentally elitist, teaching us that we're better than those without comparable educations: but people uneducated about technical vocabulary, or "big words", are able to grasp complex ideas, and it's our task as much as anyone else's to communicate with them.

Now is the time to work, not to be quiet, not to be obedient and career-focused, not to be complicit: straddling contradictions, now is the time to fight back against concrete manifestations of repression along with the ideologies that anchor and obscure them.

Revolutionary Reading Club

Notes on Lenin and other revolutionary/critical/whatever social theory I stumble upon