Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy Maija Harkonen (r) posed questions of Angela Davis after the Margaret Brent Lecture by Davis.

St. Mary’s City, MD — A controversial Civil Rights leader has been given an award by St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Angela Davis was presented Oct. 29 with the Margaret Brent Award in advance of delivering the annual lecture named for the mid-1600’s women’s voting rights advocate at St. Mary’s City.

Davis (shown at left), while a professor at University of California in the late 1960’s, was a member of the Communist Party and an associate of the Black Panther Party. Her affiliation with the Communist Party led to her firing by then California Governor Ronald Reagan.

In 1970 Davis was arrested, charged, tried and acquitted of conspiracy in the bombing of a Marin County, CA courthouse in which four people were killed.
Most recently Davis has focused on the social problems associated with mass incarceration, particularly black men. That was the focus of her talk. But before her talk, St. Mary’s College President Dr. Tuajuanda Jordan, in presenting Davis with the award, called having her on the campus “almost overwhelming.” She called Davis “an icon, a courageous champion of all people.”

Previous Margaret Brent Award winners included Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, Toni Morrison, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Betty Friedan and Helen Thomas.

Davis is currently a Distinguished Professor Emerita of the History of Consciousness and of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is entitled, “The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues.”

Davis said before the talk she took a walk around St. Mary’s City. At the reconstructed statehouse she saw the stocks and pillories and observed that today’s jails should be an improvement over that. Her talk concluded that they aren’t.

Davis cited a New York Times editorial earlier this year that was called “The 1.5 million missing black men.” Those black men are either dead from violence or imprisoned. That number includes 100,000 just in the south alone. One in six black men are among the missing “from deadly violence or one might say civil death by prison,” she said.

But the effect also goes to the 1.5 million black women outside. “They also suffer the collateral consequences of incarceration,” with the requirement of visits and phone calls, she said. And she noted that the women’s prison population is also growing.

She said there was an increased attention being focused on the problem of “over incarceration,” or “mass incarceration.” She asked if that was a good thing and answered by saying, “I fear that it may not bring about results that will bring lasting changes.”

She observed that the “War on Drugs” is often blamed for the increase in the number of incarcerated black men. But she said the root of the problem lies at the feet of the dismantling of the welfare state. The soaring prison population of the 1980’s coincided with “the breakdown of institutions to insure human welfare, when anyone could be treated at a hospital.” Unsaid in her talk was the fact that was also during the presidency of the man who fired her at the University of California.

Davis said that was also the time when “the education system was thoroughly traumatized.” She added, “Now people think of education as something costing money.”

This was also a time when jobs migrated to places where labor was cheap, decimating some communities of the jobs that they depended on. She said that also paralleled the decline in the unions. “Black people were most seriously affected by the decline of unions,” she said.

Davis opined that the arguments about raising the minimum wage are reminiscent of the historical arguments about reducing the number of hours a day that everyone works. “It used to be 16 hours a day,” she said, and concluded with the improvement in work efficiency, “It should be four hours a day.”

She said the economy has led to “underground economies flourishing in the vacuum created by these changes.” One of those underground economies is the drug industry which she said has flourished with the flourishing of the pharmaceutical industry. “It becomes, to me, a common industry. What distinguishes one from the other?”

Davis got the biggest reaction from the audience packed into the college gym when she pointed out that $80 billion a year is spent on incarceration. She said with that amount of money there could be universal pre-K for three- and four-year-olds. Or the salary of every high school teacher could be doubled. Or you could “eliminate tuition for every public college and university.”

Of President Obama recently expressing concerns about over incarceration, Davis said, “We can’t allow him to forget he said that.” In fact she noted there “seems to be a bipartisan consensus on over-incarceration.” Conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon, she said, because of the skyrocketing government costs for prisons.

“Even when you get out of prison you continue to be civilly dead,” she said, with the difficulty of getting a job. She said there is also a movement to prevent employers asking the question about whether someone had previously been jailed on an employment application.

But then Davis seriously asked, “What if the system cannot be fixed,” She said so-called prison reform was designed as an alternative to capital punishment. But, she added, “Slavery is the reason capital punishment remains today.” She said most states banned capital punishment except for murder and crimes committed by blacks. “The institution itself has its roots in racism.”

She also noted that many feminists became involved in prison reform in the 1870’s. She said if a woman committed a crime they were considered to be “fallen women – not able to be rehabilitated.”

Moving forward 100 years, the concern about indeterminate sentencing practices led to policies such mandatory minimums and three strikes and you are out. .”At many moments of reform the institution (of incarceration) ended up being strengthened and more repressive.”

Another trend that is strengthening the incarceration system, she said, is the privatization of prison.

The problem can’t be solved, she said, “without the dismantling of the prison/industrial complex that relies on racism.”

Davis urged the audience “to contemplate a prison crisis that sees a connection between the underlying violence of prison and the violence of police,” in mentioning the several recent race-related cases involving police.

Racism is not strictly a domestic problem,” Davis insisted, and used as an example Palestine, which she called”the largest open-air prison in the world.”
Addressing the students in the audience, Davis said, “I urge you to think broadly in ways that sometimes go against the grain.” She added, “I urge you to think in the spirit of Margaret Brent.”

Davis then took questions from Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy Maija Harkonen and then from the audience. Harkonen asked what the country will be like in ten years without any changes.

Davis answered, “I like to think what is possible.” That would include changes in incarceration and the full development of the country’s education system, she said.
In a question about addressing the drug problem, Davis said that society promotes the use of drugs in advertising messages. “You have illicit drug trade that parallels licit drug trade. The entire country has a drug problem and it is fueled by doctors and the pharmaceutical companies.”

Davis, in response to a question, also praised the Black Lives Matter movement for being decentralized without a charismatic black leader, and mentioned Dr. King as an example. In those cases women were footnotes in history. It’s about time we find another way,” she said.

The Margaret Brent Lecture was sponsored by St. Mary’s College Women, Gender and Equality Studies Program, The Office of the President, the Lecture and Fine Arts Committee and the Center for the Study of Democracy.

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com