Free Angela Davis... from questions about the past
Sure she's a noted philosopher, scholar and activist, but UVA is loaded with those. The draw for some to the Carter G. Woodson Institute worthy April 16-17 symposium on why the United States puts so many of its citizens in jail is the '70s icon-side of Davis. Although celebrated in songs by both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, she isn't resting on her fame or her notoriety.
It's been nearly 40 years since the then-UCLA college professor was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. Her hair, no longer in the signature Afro, still looks exuberant at a hastily thrown together April 13 press conference to drum up attention for "The Problem of Punishment: Race, Inequality, and Justice," where Davis and her hosts keep steering reporters' questions (okay, one reporter's questions) back to the symposium and away from Davis' colorful past.
Her current mission is the abolition of prisons.
"The most important element of abolition is to make institutions of incarceration unnecessary," says Davis. "Imagine a different kind of justice–- not retribution and revenge, but rehabilitation and restoration."
She was already a prison activist in 1970, working with the Black Panthers to free George Jackson, one of the three "Soledad brothers," when a shotgun registered to Davis was taped to the neck of Marin County Judge Harold Haley, who was taken hostage by Jackson's 17-year-old brother, Jonathan Jackson, and then killed in the doomed plot to rescue the Soledad brothers.
Davis fled, was captured by the FBI, and ultimately was acquitted by an all-white jury in 1972 of all charges relating to the kidnapping and killing of Haley.
So how did teenaged Jonathan Jackson get a shotgun belonging to Davis?
"When I was fired from my position as an assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA," Davis explains, recalling the era when Commie-hating Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, urged her ouster, "I had to have people doing security."
Protection by campus police ended at the edge of campus, so Jonathan Jackson along with others toted shotguns to protect Davis.
"It was a very sad situation," says Davis, speaking of Jonathan Jackson, who was killed by police when he tried to escape with Judge Haley. "He became so frustrated his brother was behind bars for stealing $70."
"Are there any questions about the symposium?" asks Deborah McDowell, director of the Woodson Institute.
When one last question is asked about possible misperceptions about Davis and her beliefs, the activist replies, "I don't spend a lot of time worrying about what other people think. I'm not interested in answering questions about Jonathan Jackson. I worry how we're going to dismantle the [prison] system."
Davis certainly has the prison cred on top of the celebrity, as she spent more than a year in jail before her conspiracy acquittal. She is now professor emeritus at University of California, Santa Cruz; and she wants to draw attention to the fact that one in 100 American adults lives behind bars, the highest incarceration rate in the world.
She decries the "dramatic disparity" in the number of people incarcerated in the "prison-industrial complex." And she calls the "racism" that locks up so many people of color a vestige of slavery.
Even though she's no longer officially a communist, Davis is no stranger to protests. While UVA conservatives have announced no protest plans at this point, "The College Republicans would object to her being here because of her economic beliefs because we're capitalists," says chairman Josh Lambert. "Communism, the party she was a member of, is a failed economic and political system."
Lambert doesn't buy the notion of prison abolition, either.
"It's a radical idea," he says. "The university community is one where we can discuss ideas. It's too radical to be seriously considered in an academic discussion. Prison reform we can talk about. Prison abolition–- it's not going to happen."
Former FBI agent and sheriff Ed Robb spent four years with the Virginia Department of Correctional Education, and although he too is a Republican and finds prison abolition too extreme, he agrees with Davis on the need for reform.
"We need need to re-evaluate the way we're doing things," says Robb. "If we keep doing things the way we have been, we'll keep getting results we have, and that's not great."
Keynote speaker Davis talks at 7:30pm on Thursday, April 16 at the Newcomb Hall ballroom, and the event is free, as are all symposium events.