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Angela Davis Speaks on Civic Engagement

Davis Speaks on Civic Engagement


NOVEMBER 11, 2002

“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
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
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
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
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 Jamalwidely 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.”

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Act Locally, Angela

It would be nice to see Angela supporting the rights of oppressed people locally (like demanding better conditions for women at the local jail and supporting the rights of homeless women to sleep at night without fear of arrest under the Sleeping Ban). She has never to my knowledge come out publically against the Sleeping Ban here nor criticized the local City Council.

Does anyone know of local poverty and civil rights issues on which she's taken a stand (like local police violence)?

I think it's particularly important for people with a national (and international) reputation to take a stand. If they don't, their silence speaks loudly in another direction.


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