On Feb. 1, the Undergraduate Student Government at the University of Connecticut hosted esteemed speaker, Dr. Angela Davis, in a virtual conversation on “Abolitionist Movements in the 21st Century.” Dr. Davis discussed the necessity of abolishing prisons and policing, as well as the intersectionality between race, class and gender in abolitionist movements of both the past and present.
The event began via event stream promptly at 7 p.m. and was moderated by UConn student Mason Holland. The discussion is part of USG’s Justice Now Initiative, which was conceived in large part by Student Development Chair Christine Jorquera, USG Alumni Senator Darren Mack and Student Development Deputy Chair Rita Tsafack-Tonleu.
“I know as a non-Black student, there’s nothing I can do to heal generations and generations of trauma and pain this community has faced,” Jorquera, a sixth-semester psychology and human rights major, said about the inspiration behind the speaker series. “The least I could do was help center initiatives and events dedicated to the Black community. To me, diversity, inclusion and equity are more than words. They are a promise meant to be kept and held accountable for.”
Holland opened the discussion with an introduction of the Justice Now Initiative and Dr. Davis herself. Dr. Davis then launched into a 30-minute keynote speech on 21st century abolitionist movements.
Dr. Davis linked the past to the present in her speech by explaining the genealogy between 19th century abolition movements calling for the end of slavery and 21st century abolition movements calling for the end of prisons and the police. In a similar manner to the way in which reforming the system of slavery would not have solved any problems, Dr. Davis argued that “reform has become the very glue that has held these institutions together,” referring to carceral and law enforcement institutions.
“Let me just continue to encourage you to do the work, consolidate your community, allow yourself to imagine and at the same time, discover that there is also joy and pleasure in doing work that is going to transform the world.”Dr. Angela Davis
In addition to looking at abolition movements surrounding prisons and the police, Dr. Davis also discussed the overlap between the feminist movement and the abolitionist movement. Dr. Davis stressed the inability to look at gender as a separate entity from class and race, since doing so causes one to default to Whiteness as the norm. This is how Whiteness came to take over the mainstream feminist movement, Dr. Davis argued, as well as contributed to the development of “carceral feminism,” or feminism that is willing to rely on the racist carceral system as those feminists feel that it benefits them more so than harming others.
Black feminism, meanwhile, attempts to rewrite historical records by showing the legacy of work done by Black feminists and other feminists of color in regard to anti-rape campaigns. This approach to feminism allows us to understand that abolitionist movements are at their best when they are globally interconnected, Dr. Davis noted.
The event then entered the Q&A portion, moderated by Holland. Students had the ability to submit questions to Dr. Davis before the event took place. Questions ranged from those on specific topics that Dr. Davis discussed to those that were more personal.
In response to a question on balancing attempts to move away from a carceral state while also demanding justice for victims of police brutality, Dr. Davis attested that there were always contradictions in movement work. However, she thought there were more effective ways of holding perpetrators accountable rather than just calling for the arrest and imprisonment of the cops that killed Breonna Taylor, for example.
“Simply sending people to prison accomplishes nothing and oftentimes reproduces and intensifies the violence,” Dr. Davis said.
Dr. Davis ended her speaking event on a note of hope, discussing her sense of being connected to communities larger than just herself as a key motivator for her continued activism.
“Our work is collective; it’s not about what’s in it for me, but changing the world for all of us,” Dr. Davis said. A major piece of movement work is challenging individualism and realizing that we’re all produced in and through a larger community.
Dr. Davis ended with advice for UConn students; “don’t give up, recognize that this is the moment that you should be thinking deeply and calling for change, and look at the role that police play on your campus,” she said. “Let me just continue to encourage you to do the work, consolidate your community, allow yourself to imagine and at the same time, discover that there is also joy and pleasure in doing work that is going to transform the world.”
Originally from Birmingham, AL, Dr. Davis rose to prominence as an activist and scholar during the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Known as a radical feminist, member of the Communist Party and affiliate of the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party, Davis was listed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1970 due to her support of the Soledad Brothers, three inmates who were accused of killing a prison guard at Soledad Prison. She is currently a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“Listening to Dr. Davis talk about mobilizing on college campuses was incredibly empowering,” said Prachi Arora, a sixth-semester economics and biology major with a minor in business fundamentals. “I want to commend Mason Holland and everyone at USG who set this up because they’ve gotten amazing speakers for this panel. I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of change these discussions will ignite on the UConn campus.”
The next event in the Justice Now Initiative will take place on Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. via event stream. “Melting Pot: Multi-Cultural Diplomacy/Multi-National Patriotism” will be a moderated discussion between Ilyasah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X and a professor, author and activist, and UConn student Shane Young. For more information on the rest of the Justice Now Initiative, go to the USG Instagram or USG website.