November 11, 2002

Davis Speaks on Civic Engagement

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“An Evening of Civic Engagement” with Angela Davis last Friday marked the first event of a three-part Student Civic Engagement Conference.

The series was sponsored by the Public Service Center and several other campus organizations. It was designed to foster leadership and hosted students from all across the country.

The evening opened with an introduction from Dr. Kenneth Clark, director of Cornell United Religious Work, who described the affect Prof. Angela Davis, history of consciousness, University of California at Santa Cruz has had on the national psyche.

Davis took the podium to a standing ovation and began her speech with a series of questions to the audience: “How many of you are a part of the Cornell community? How many of you are a part of communities beyond this campus?”

Of civic engagement, Davis said it “involves posing hard questions.” She commented on the recent election results and said how now is the time to generate encouragement and critical thinking in social circles.

Davis, a member of the Communist Party and of the Black Panthers in the late 1960’s, became only the third woman to appear on the FBI’s Most Wanted List in 1970 after being accused of murder. Later acquitted, Davis went on to publish several books and teach.

“Social activism involves an understanding of the complexity of the world we live in,” Davis said.

Davis allotted most of her time to a discussion on prisons. In response to this, Yaneris Rosa ’04 said, “She seemed to be very passionate about prisons. One of her most important points was how the prison institution came into being through history and how it can leave through history.”

In her speech, Davis questioned how the United States could have over two million prisoners when there are nine million in the world. Americans comprise 5 percent of the world population and 20 percent of the world’s prison population, she said.

Davis posed philosophical questions to the audience such as: “Why do Americans take the prison system for granted?” and “Why does it not occur to us that this is an institution that needs to be abolished?”

She compared the typical public reaction to abolishing prisons with the public reaction that had been generated by the anti-slavery movement: “Many people said they just couldn’t imagine anything else.”

Davis also discussed the role of gender in crime and punishment. She said, “One of the most consistent practices is the strip search and the cavity search. If we are going to find fault in rape, then we must also find the state responsible.”

Furthermore, she stated, “Historically, female prisons were often used to house those who were considered ‘bad women.’ They were designed to domesticate women. The women prisoners were taught how to cook and sew, and because most of these women were poor, these prisons created good domestic servants.”

Davis concluded her speech with two international examples of resistance to advanced imprisoning techniques, which have been overlooked by traditional media.

In the first example, Davis described an ongoing hunger strike in Turkey prisons, which its participants call a ‘Death Fast.’ The strikers are protesting the U.S. proposed imposition of F-type prisons, which place one or two people per cell and may involve solitary confinement.

According to Davis, so far about 50 prisoners have died in the strike; the last two were women who survived for over 400 days on just water, salt, and vitamins.

She referred in her second example to South Africa, whose citizens, Davis said, “should have space to explore democracy. But instead the prison system has expanded enormously.”

Plans to build the country’s first super-maximum security prison with sensory deprivation has sparked protest from a local South African town that would be vying for the same scarce water resources.

Davis discussed the role racism plays in the trial and conviction of inmates and used the cases of Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal — widely consider political prisoners — as examples.

This subject led her into a discussion of America’s stance on terrorism and immigration. “It seems as if we only know one person’s name in Iraq. We forget that any war is going to produce devastation for thousands of innocent families.”

Specifically, Davis discussed the Bush administration. “The xenophobic community that George W. Bush is bent on creating is an enormous threat.” Davis said this attitude is particularly dangerous to the African American community because, “African Americans are seduced by thinking they belong to the inner circle.”

Davis concluded her speech by stating, “In order to critically evaluate the prison system, we need to think about anti-globalization and anti-capitalist critiques.”

Archived article by Cassandra Wilson