Former Black Panther advocates education over incarceration
- Breaking barriers to help all students feel at home
- Jewish students and historical perspectives
- On Africa Week: Group provides opportunities for cultural learning
On Thursday, March 4, civil rights activist Angela Davis visited the College to speak at a lecture for S.H.O.U.T.! weekend. This year's theme for S.H.O.U.T.!--the Pugh Community Board's (PCB) Speaking, Hearing, Opening Up Together event--was "Spread the Wealth," trying, in light of the current economic situation, to get students to realize what non-monetary kinds of wealth our society has to offer.
"We chose this theme after considering the current economic situation and its impact on the United States. During times like these we often forget the other wealths that our society has to offer," Sonia Mahabir '10, chair of PCB, said in her introduction at the lecture. "This weekend is about embracing our differences, to be empowered, fueled and motivated by individualities and to motivate others as we all have unique cultures, opinions and knowledge. Everyone has privileges, and we hope that this weekend will inspire us to work together to foster community as we spread our wealth."
This was Davis' third visit to the College since the eve of the first Gulf War. Thursday night's lecture focused on "spreading the wealth" in today's society, both economically and politically. Her focus was the prison and public education system in California, where Davis currently teaches as a professor in the University of California school system.
"Public education in California is in total crisis. I don't think it's possible to talk about the public education crisis in California without, at the same time, talking about the prison system in California," Davis said.
Davis noted how the state of California has nearly as many people enrolled in the prison system as it does in the public school system, and that the state spends nearly the same amount of money on both programs. Following this year's theme of "spread the wealth," Davis argued that more money should be dedicated to the school system and to enrolling students than to the prison system. By setting aside more funding for education, the young people in California will be more likely to enter college than to be incarcerated.
Davis further emphasized the importance of redirecting funds, and therefore, in theory, children, from prisons to schools by pointing out that police forces in California are being given funding to patrol minority neighborhoods with higher security, which is contributing to the overwhelming population of minorities in the prison system.
The problem is that minority youth grow up in a climate where they know that they are expected to enter crime and therefore many of them do end up committing crimes and getting caught. The truth is that white youths commit just as many crimes, she said, but because police aren't patrolling those neighborhoods as closely, white kids are not the ones being imprisoned for their crimes.
A former Black Panther and member of the Communist Party, Davis attributed this disparity between races in California prisons with lingering feelings of racism that still have not been addressed in today's society.
"What I've come to recognize, from being involved as an activist for the last 55 years or so, is that, when we think we win victories, they're not etched in stone. There are many people that think we did civil rights back then, in the Civil Rights Era, and they think that that door is closed and there is no need for a continued struggle for civil rights," Davis said.
The feeling that the United States has achieved freedom, Davis noted, also ties in with the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. She reflected on how, at this same time last year, we "still [had] a collective euphoria about the fact that we had done something of world historic proportions in this country. We had elected the first African American President...well, how many more are we going to elect?"
"The point I'm making is that the collective ecstasy many of us experienced during the first period of Obama's presidency has receded. Many of us thought that we would actually experience world historic transformations as a result of this world historic election by virtue of the presence of a black man in the White House. [We believed] we would be vicariously free, and that freedom would bring about an end to racism and misogyny and homophobia, and we would all have jobs and we would all have health care and we would all have access to education regardless of our economic background, and immigrants from Mexico and Central America would not be the subjects of such intense discrimination," Davis said.
"Why did we lose the afterglow of that moment so rapidly? Why do we so easily forget?"
While Davis admits that there are things that Obama has done that she does not agree with, she believes that the people should be able to recognize the collective power this country generated when we got Obama elected in the first place. "Think about the fact that if anyone had suggested when Obama was going to run that there would have been a real possibility that he would be elected, people would have laughed. At the time, most black people supported Hillary Clinton because they believed there was no way Obama would be elected president," Davis said. At the end of the lecture, Davis connected her message of civil rights with the fact that there are still many people in this country who do not experience freedom on a day-to-day basis, including women, minorities and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
"Men and women will have to recognize that the whole binary structure of gender that we've worked with for so long does not work," Davis said. "[It is] so important to work for the rights of transvestites, not only because it is a community that is more criminalized than any community, but because we learn about the prison system as this giant gender apparatus and it has an impact not only on those who are inside the prison, but it helps to sustain the stability of the binary structure of gender in society."
Davis continued to appeal to many students on campus who fought for the "No on 1" campaign earlier this year by addressing the role of marriage in today's culture. She spoke of how many people in this country believe that "civil rights are only for black people anyways, so we don't have to think about civil rights for immigrants or other people, or LGBT communities, and we don't have to think about marriage as a civil right. If some people have the right to get married, everybody should have the right to get married."
As Davis admitted at the beginning of her lecture, she is not the type of woman who believes that once she conquers one battle, her work is over. Despite the many decades she has been involved in political activism, she understands that her work, and the work of those after her, will never be finished.
"Many dimensions of freedom are not covered by civil rights, [and] we will probably never be able to define the notion of freedom."