Prison abolitionist and activist Angela Davis was in Chicago Sept. 7, as the keynote speaker at "Bending the Arc," a new symposium series in honor of late civil-rights attorney and activist Robert Howard.
The event took place at St. James Cathedral in downtown Chicago.
Beth Richie, professor of Criminal Justice and Gender and Women's Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago, introduced Davis to the audience. Davis's talk was titled "If you want peace, fight for justice," and addressed the possibility of social justice in the context of the gun violence.
The event unfolded to address the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict as well as recent school closings in Chicago, and the reported increase in gun violence in the city. However, Jeanne Kracher, executive director of Crossroads Fund, a partner in presenting the symposium, emphasized that a group of youth activists, who met with Davis that afternoon, had been working on actions and planning since late last year.
Davis, whose 1972 trial focused on her possession of guns, began by pointing to a central conflict for many concerned about violence: "Many people ask, 'How do you feel about guns today?'" She said that at the time, ownership of guns by African Americans was primarily about the need to respond to racist violence, "the need for guns for defense." She said that her father "had guns in the house, when the Ku Klux Klan were lurking around on 'Dynamite Hill'," the racially charged neighborhood where they lived.
She also pointed out that Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro inspired many at the time, as did Nelson Mandelathe last of whom, she pointed out, was once on the U.S. list of terrorists. "We saw ourselves engaging in revolutionary movements." She said events like the killing of Fred Hampton in Chicago made people feel like they were under siege.
But, she said, at the same time, in discussions about gun violence, the solutions differed from the ones offered today, which suggested more guns and more violence: "At the time, we said yes, take guns away from everybody and especially the police."
Davis went on to talk of the differences between then and now. She said that it was important to get at the roots of the issue of gun violence, and one way was to make clear the relationships between, for instance, mass incarceration and the epidemic of gun violence. "Violence," she added, "precludes future possibilities."
Davis returned often to the theme of the prison industrial complex (PIC), asking the audience to consider the long-term effects of its presence: "The PIC is violence rendered legitimate by the law ... we need to point out that solutions proposed to violence are responsible for cases of violence in the first place, make people more violent than when they are committed."
She concluded by asking people to "think beyond this moment, beyond the decade, and the century. Racism is still with us because too many of us think it can be wished away." Calling for more historical and contextual understandings of movement and political histories, she cautioned that violence would prevail "if we fail to recognize the depth of its histories."
A panel discussion with several Chicago activists working on violence and the PIC followed Davis's remarks. The participants were Henry Cervantes, a program trainer with Marquette University's Center for Peacemaking; Mariame Kaba, the founding Director of Project NIA, an organization that aims to end youth incarceration in Illinois; Ameena Matthews, with the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention's Ceasefire Program in the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health; and Ryan Lugalia-Holland, the co-executive director of the YMCA of Metro Chicago's "Youth Safety and Violence Prevention" strategy.
The panel was introduced and moderated by NPR correspondent Cheryl Corley, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle provided contextualizing remarks. Preckwinkle, like some others on the panel, returned to a fact mentioned by Davis, that the United States has 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's prison population.
Preckwinkle discussed this in context of the higher rates of African American and Latino incarceration, and the steps that she was trying to put in place to address that, including reducing the number of those defined as low-risk pretrial detainees (she said 90 percent of the people in Cook County jail are pretrial). Panelists spoke about what they felt was important in reducing the escalation of violence.
Cervantes addressed the need for grassroots organizing, and Kaba said it was important to challenge the creation of an increasingly militarized police force. Holland talked about the need for more community-based solutions, while Matthews described her work between police and youth on the streets.