ST PETER — Internationally known prisoner rights and peace activist Angela Davis said her activism and notoriety escalated in 1969 when she was fired from her first teaching job at UCLA for being a member of the Communist Party, USA.
She told a packed Christ’s Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College that she had reservations about joining the Communist Party.
“Because I didn’t think they were radical enough.”
Davis, who calls for the abolition of the “prison industrial complex,” said the prison system is not only racist and can’t rehabilitate anyone, but fundamentally fuels other social problems, particularly violence.
“It’s a system of imprisonment that is driven by racism that has its roots in the history of slavery,” she said, noting that there are more black men in prison today than there were slaves in the 1850s.
The racist, violent nature of prisons, she said, creates a violent mindset that spills out to the streets and homes of American men and women. She said people view the victims of police brutality or racist violence as young colored men.
“But consider that in this country women are the most consistent targets of violence. Why can’t we make the connection about violence in intimate settings, abuse, rape with the violence that’s inflicted on the streets, inflicted by the police, inflicted by institutions?”
Davis spoke Saturday at the Building Bridges Conference. In its 18th year, the topic of this year’s student-led conference was “Sentenced for Life: Confronting the Calamity of Mass Incarceration.”
Davis’ political activism began at a young age in Birmingham, Ala., and continued through her high school years in New York. But after being fired from teaching — by a board of directors that included ex officio member Ronald Reagan — her notoriety and influence grew.
“I went from absolute anonymity to being the focus of media attention from all over the world.”
Her advocacy for prisoners’ rights dates back to 1969 and her involvement in the campaign to free the Soledad Brothers, which led to her own arrest and imprisonment.
In 1970, she was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List on false charges, and was the subject of an intense police search that drove her underground and culminated in one of the most famous trials in recent U.S. history. During her 16-month incarceration, a massive international “Free Angela Davis” campaign was organized, leading to her acquittal in 1972.
The Soledad Brothers were three young black men falsely accused of killing a prison guard. One of the men was killed in prison in California, which sparked the famous Attica prison takeover in New York. At a later trial, the other two men were acquitted.
“This was the moment we started talking about abolishing prisons as the form of government punishment.”
She noted that there were 200,000 people in prison at that time, but there are 2.5 million in prison now.
She said that like the financial profitability of the military industrial complex, the prison industry spurs huge profits for a broad category of private firms that operate and service the prison system.
Davis is a Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where she previously taught in the history of consciousness and feminist studies departments.
Gustavus senior and conference co-chair Jasmine Porter said the conference focused on the “voiceless” prison population — “people that many would not be willing to fight for because of the stigma.
“People think we are fighting on behalf of murderers, serial killers and rapists. But mass incarceration is incarcerating people for nonviolent offenses, and some are locked away for things that people even here on campus are doing,” Porter said.