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Kenyon Farrow
Date Published: 
September 01, 2006

It must be hard to be an icon. People continue to imagine you as they did whenever it was you achieved iconic status. In the case of Angela Davis, she will, like it or not, always be associated with her afro, and that moment during her trial in 1972 when she raised the Black Power fist to the cameras in the courtroom.

I am not immune to this predicament, as I too, have an image of Angela Davis that I cling to in some way. While obsessed with the image of her as the badass sista standing up to the white establishment, we often forget that what first got her into trouble with the state of California was her intellectual work as a Marxist academic, teaching for the University of California system. Much of Davis' intellectual and activist work over the last thirty years has been studying the prison industrial complex.

Abolition Democracy continues her focus on prison issues, this time taking on what was arguably the biggest story in the US on prisons in many years—the photos that emerged revealing the torture of Iraqi prisoners in the US military prison at Abu Ghraib. The book, organized as a series of interviews conducted by philosophy scholar Eduardo Mendieta, is an intervention in the narratives about torture and prisons that surfaced in the US after the Abu Ghraib abuses were made public.

There are several aspects of this book that are useful as a much needed political intervention in mainstream discourse about the Abu Ghraib case. First, Davis makes us understand the continuum of chattel slavery and prisons, and torture as an integral part of both of those institutions:
“What is interesting is that slavery as an institution...managed to become a receptacle for all of those forms of punishment that were considered too barbaric by the developing democratic society. So rather than abolish the death penalty outright, it was offered refuge within slave law...One might say that the institution of slavery served as a receptacle for those forms of punishment considered too uncivilized to be inflicted on white citizens within a democratic society.”

When considering the role of torture in US prisons and Abu Ghraib, we are then forced to understand, as Davis explains, “Military prisons, as they currently exist, incorporate the regimes and practices developed within the domestic prison.”

Many of us first learned about the Abu Ghraib abuses via the horrific photographs that were leaked to the press by officials within the US military. Prompted by a question by Mendieta, Davis ponders the links between gender and sexual violence as they relate to prisons and torture both in the Abu Ghraib prison and within US prisons. Davis talks about the phenomenon of the historical lynching of Blacks and the sexual violence and photography of bodies that also accompanied the lynchings. While declaring that she “would need to think” further about the links between these issues, she does state that “there is a very revealing parallel between sexual coercion and sexual violence within the Abu Ghraib context and the role sexual violence plays in lynching.”

Historical racism

While I do find aspects of Davis' analysis helpful, I also find some of it troubling. There seems to be a tension in the book that both recognizes the continued centrality of anti-black racism to the prison industrial complex, and the need to try and reconcile this particular historical moment called “Post 9-11.” This rhetoric, specifically as it relates to the policing, surveillance, and detention/imprisonment of Middle Eastern people, Arabs, Muslims and South Asians, is a set of narratives from the Left that seek to skirt anti-black racism as the ideology that is foundational to understanding the prison industrial complex.

While I think that Davis is correct in insisting that we don't accept imprisonment and torture, whether domestically or under the guise of the “war on terror”, I think it's also dangerous to declare the “obsolescence of historical racism” when Black women are the fastest growing population of prisoners, and five years after the official beginning of the “war on terror,” Blacks remain half of the US prison population. Somehow, no matter what violence the US is exporting globally at any period in history, the violence inflicted domestically upon Blacks does not seem to lessen. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in the context of the war on terror, demonstrates this point a little too well.

While I consider Abolition Democracy a worthwhile read, it remains a somewhat flawed analysis of the issues it seeks to address. But then again, it must be hard to be an icon because everyone expects you to be what they want and perceive you to be.

Seven Stories Press, 2005