Prison Politics

Angela Davis takes on the criminal justice system

Is the public's attitude about prison issues today different from its views in the 1960s and 1970s? The fact that so many of us were political prisoners--and were designated as common criminals--caused people to think about the ideological function of criminalization. Of course, that was before the shift toward conservative consciousness. Now crime is something that every politician--including the people we call progressives--feels obliged to raise to guarantee election.

Why do you think crime has become America's hottest political issue? I don't think anyone in this country escapes the fear of crime. Studies have indicated that the people who are most afraid of crime are the people who are least likely to be victims of crime. But I think that the fear that people experience in relation to crime is often about a whole range of things. It's about projection of fear on the criminal rather than thinking about all of the things that create insecurities.

It used to be that Communism was the enemy. But we don't have the Communist enemy anymore as a way to deflect all of those fears. So now there are other enemies. The "criminal" is the enemy. The "welfare mother" is the enemy. The "immigrant" is the enemy.

Angela Davis
David Bauman/ The Press-Enterprise
Angela Davis

In what ways do you hope your campaign encourages Americans to reevaluate their attitudes about crime? I think we need to disconnect crime from punishment. There is a widespread tendency to assume that punishment is a direct result of crime. In other words, the assumption is that people are punished because they commit crimes. If we do not succeed in unhooking "crime and punishment" we will never understand the connection between race and punishment or crime and punishment.

People of color are subject to far more intense modes of surveillance than white people. Take drugs, for example. Studies indicate that although the rate of illicit drug use among white people is actually greater than among black people, black people are arrested and convicted on drug charges far more frequently.

Other studies have demonstrated that a majority of people have committed a crime at some point in their lives. But only among those populations that are criminalized--even before their members commit crimes--can we expect high rates of arrest and imprisonment.

What do you think the future holds? It's scary. We're looking at the prospect of the majority of black men being behind bars within the next decade.

At the same time, I think that people are more receptive to critiques of the prison system than they were five years ago. Even in the established media, like the Times, the discourse is beginning to rupture. The whole criminalizing discourse is not as powerful as it might have been five years ago. The reason why we're organizing this conference is because we think this is the time to launch a national movement.

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