Rebecca Roberts comments on Angela Davis' recent lecture and abolitionist struggles.
The week ending the 25th of October 2013 is memorable to me for a number of reasons.
It was the week in which the Reclaim Justice Network held two events on how to radically shrink the criminal justice system. On the 25th Angela Davis gave Birkbeck Law School’s annual lecture – titled ‘Freedom is a constant struggle’. It was also my son’s 5th birthday.
I’ll start with Davis. Her 2003 book, Are prisons obsolete? offers a critical analysis of the rise of incarceration and the penal industrial complex in the US. Calling for an abolition of prisons and the development of non-criminal justice alternatives, Davis has been influential in the work of organisations such as Critical Resistance and Incite!, among others.
At the Birkbeck lecture, to an audience of hundreds (perhaps a thousand – I’m terrible at estimating this kind of thing) – Davis did not disappoint.
In her rousing style she opened by reading the lyrics to ‘Freedom is a constant struggle’, a song of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement:
Freedom is a constant struggle.
Freedom is a constant struggle.
Freedom is a constant struggle.
Oh Lord, we’ve struggled so long.
We must be free. We must be free.
As she embarked on the lecture her message soon became clear. There have been successes in the battle for emancipation – but the fight is not yet over. She warned against believing official accounts of history – those histories that tell us that individual (usually white) men have brought about large scale social change. We need to rewrite history – to understand our present – and recognise freedoms won and the important power of collective action in these accomplishments.
Davis reminded us of the immense possibilities for change. She pointed out that through collective critical consciousness, realities that seem fixed become malleable and new realities become possible. Our social, political and economic realities are neither permanent nor predetermined. They have not always been this way. They will not always be like this. We can play a role in changing things.
On prisons, Davis is still waving the abolitionist flag. Linking social injustice to the wider mechanisms of penal institutions, she described how the commodification of healthcare and the privatisation of prisons are connected. As part of the struggle for the abolition of prisons we must demand resources for better education and better healthcare. She does not just talk about a struggle against prisons – it is a struggle for social justice.
While the analysis offered by Davis is grounded in US history, her insights have immense value to a UK audience. The UK has seen an expansion of criminal justice power with growing numbers of people caught up in complex systems of punishment delivered through welfare, social and criminal justice institutions. Punishment and conditionality have become deeply embedded as a primary means of managing ‘dangerous’ populations.
Alongside this, the penal industrial complex is emerging as a powerful force within the UK’s systems of control and punishment:
“The prison industrial complex is a system situated at the intersection of government and private interests. It uses prisons as a solution to social, political and economic problems. It includes human rights violations, the death penalty, slave labor, policing, courts, the media, political prisoners and the elimination of dissent.” (Prison Culture website)
It was accidental (and yet timely) that the Reclaim Justice Network held events in London and Manchester, the week of Davis’ lecture. Intended to provide a forum for a growing network of people concerned about these developments, we played the ‘penal industrial complex game’. It turned out to be a great way to get us thinking about the drivers of penal expansion. It also led to discussions about the contradictions and complexities for practitioners working within the system. This was followed by a brainstorm on alternatives (summarised by Tom Kemp, here). The Reclaim Justice Network is working to build a national movement to challenge society’s excessive reliance upon criminal law – and to build effective and socially just alternatives that provide genuine community safety. It is hoped that the network can grow and members can hold local events and establish effective campaigns.
The Davis lecture and Reclaim Justice Network meetings left me feeling optimistic and yet at the same time, daunted by the scale of the struggle ahead.
As my son opened his birthday presents from friends that weekend he was very excited by the lego police set with motorbike, robber and a wheelbarrow full of jewels. He constructed the model and got down to serious play with the coppers chasing the robbers, threatening to put them in jail. He let me join in and I soon disrupted his game. I introduced some naughty bankers who took all the jewels. Then the robber worked with the other lego men (there were no lego women, but I’ll fight that battle another day) to take back the jewels and share it all out equally between everyone. If only it was that simple…
The domination of criminal justice thinking and practice will be difficult to shake – it’s hard enough, even with a 5 year old. And yet, there is mounting concern about the role of private companies involved in tagging, the detention of migrants and prisoners; the integrity of the police; the privatisation of probation; and growing evidence of abuses and disturbances in prisons and immigration detention centres. These offer opportunities for activism and protest; for building alliances with those who share our concern for social justice over criminal justice. This isn’t just a matter of penal reform. It is bigger than that. It is about equality and freedom and fairness.
Is freedom a constant struggle? Yes – and it feels like we are at the very start of some very important struggles.
Rebecca Roberts is Senior Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and a member of the Reclaim Justice Network steering group. You can email her at email@example.com or via Twitter @reberrama. A recording of Angela Davis' lecture is available to listen to here.