In a 1970 interview from the Marin County prison, civil rights activist and radical academic Angela Davis said, “Some young girls who were very close to me and my family were killed in a church bombing [in 1963]. My father participated in armed patrols, because they had to protect the community. They’d get out every night, in shifts of course, with their weapons, and they’d drive around the community to make sure that there weren’t any strange racists there, because they [racists] bombed houses all over… my earliest childhood memories are bound up with the sounds of dynamite.”
Davis was born in January of 1944 to Frank Davis, a businessman, and Sallye Davis, an organizer for the Southern Negro Youth Congress, a group with close ties to the Communist Party. Davis had grown up on ‘Dynamite Hill’, an area in Birmingham, Alabama especially rife with racial conflict. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, where four young black girls were killed and whose perpetrators were arrested fourteen years too late, was one of many incidents that shaped Davis’ youth in the sixties. With a justice system that seemed fundamentally inimical to enforcing laws or ensuring public safety for poor minorities, Davis joined Advance, a Communist youth group in New York. She later completed her B.A. at Brandeis University and went on to study under Herbert Marcuse, a German philosopher and a noted Marxist theorist, at the University of Frankfurt. Her class studies served as the beginning of an ideological defense against the coming decades of racial and class upheaval, decades where she would go on to become a legendary figure in the sphere of prison activism and in the civil rights movement.
On August 7th, 1970, 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson entered a Marin County courthouse room that was conducting a trial of some Black Panther members. Jonathan’s brother, George Jackson, was a prolific prison writer and leftist activist who had been writing letters to Angela Davis during his incarceration – he was also part of the infamous group called the Soledad Brothers, who had been allegedly involved in the murder of a prison guard at Soledad prison. Jonathan entered the courthouse, armed the defendants and kidnapped the court judge, demanding that the Soledad Brothers be released. The incident ended in a shootout, with two defendants, the judge and Jonathan Jackson dying of gunshot wounds. When authorities discovered that the guns were under Davis’ name, a national manhunt ensued, and she was arrested for murder. Davis was found to be innocent by an all-white jury following a two-year-long global movement to ‘Free Angela,’ but by this time she had lost her assistant professorship at UCLA teaching philosophy (Gov. Ronald Reagan was said to have orchestrated this due to Davis’ membership with Communist Party USA), and had spent some time atop the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted list.
Years later, Angela Davis is now an iconic, and at times controversial, civil rights activist and speaker; her brief time in America’s prison system all those years ago give her warnings on the prison-industrial system today considerable weight. In an interview with The Nation, Davis decries the sheer colossus of American citizens behind bars, and notes the “increasing profitability of holding them captive”. In a subconscious nod to her decidedly socialist political roots, she adds that the prison-industrial complex “is one of the most dramatic examples of the destructive tendencies of global capitalism”. Davis has been a vocal opponent of the privatization and ‘big-business-ification’ of the prison system, making it a veritable industry in the abetting hands of a ferociously capitalist government. She has even formed an organization ‘Critical Resistance’ whose goal is to bring down the prison industry’s political lobbying powers and begin a movement toward the ‘de-carceration’ of American prisons.
Davis’ cry for the past several decades on this matter can be epitomized in three words: “Education, not incarceration.” The very education system that aided both her activist struggles and her academic dreams may yet be sound; she frequently quotes Frederick Douglass: “Education is indeed the way to liberation.” In a famous interview with Democracy Now, she discards the illusive nature of a post-racial society, saying that Americans still “live with those vestiges”, and that slavery’s effects on the class structures of the United States has resulted in a “ lack of an education system that serves all people regardless of their economic background”. She ended with a hopeful note, but one that belies the incredible difficulty of escaping the entrenched bureaucracy of capitalism: “The prison-industrial complex has become a receptacle for those who have not been able to find a place in society. And this is true not only in the US… this is why we are experiencing the expansion of the prison system in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America. And this is very much connected to the rise in global capitalism. So, prison abolition is about building a new world.”