There’s a reason Angela Davis is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of her (or any) generation. Here’s the revolutionary scholar and former political prisoner waxing poetic on a recent episode of Democracy NOW!:
…feminist perspectives, I think, are really important, and not just with respect to understanding how essential it is to look at women in prison, even though women constitute a relatively small minority. One can see the way the system functions a lot more clearly by looking at the convergence, for example, of institutional violence and intimate violence. Also, looking at the particular situation of trans prisoners not only allows us to recognize that this is a group that is perhaps more criminalized than any other group—trans people are arrested and imprisoned more frequently than any other group in society—it allows us to see the role that the prison system as a whole plays in upholding the binary notions of gender in the larger society. So, feminism, it seems to me, helps us to reframe the issue of imprisonment and the prison-industrial complex within a larger context. And we see the connections with—between the personal and the political, the institutional and the intimate, the public and the private….
But I think it’s also important to point out that women are such a minority because there are other ways of punishing women in the larger society. And I like to point out that violence against women, which is the most pandemic form of violence in the world—I mean, we talk about police violence, we talk about—when we talk about racist violence, we think about street violence, Trayvon Martin and so forth, and that’s absolutely important to recognize, but at the same time, the violence that happens in relationships is connected with that street violence, institutional violence and intimate violence.
We (broadly speaking) have a tendency of thinking of type of oppression in isolation. What Angela Davis is doing here is getting us think of the connectedness of them all.
Of particular interest to me is the part where she talks the fact that women are a minority in our prison system because we have other ways of punishing them. Violence against women is the most prevalent form of violence, yet largely goes unpunished, in part because, as Davis alludes to, it itself is a form of punishment. It isn’t punishment in the way we understand police violence as a reaction to breaking the law (which it isn’t always, but that’s how we rationalize), but it is the way of keeping women “in their place” that doesn’t involve the state. We don’t have to employ the police or prisons to uphold patriarchy, in the way we use them to uphold racism and capitalism, when women face the daily threat of violence in their homes from people they know. While we pay lip service to the idea that violence against women is wrong, and have made it illegal, the fact that we do little to enforce those laws is the tacit recognition that in order for the current system to remain intact, a degree of violence against women is necessary.
Everyone must be stay in their place, lest the whole system collapses.
When we recognize that, all of our struggles become linked. It’s not about whether the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are more important than the self-defense trials of Marissa Alexander or CeCe McDonald, but the fact that they are all functions of the same system. When we see that, solidarity is possible.
Unfortunately, none of us goes unaffected by privilege, and even in the spaces we carve out to fight back against oppression we can lose sight of our connectedness. We can start to see it as a zero-sum game where the gains of others necessitate a loss for ourselves. That’s not only not the case, but runs counter to the idea of solidarity. But the investment in our own privilege can be deep.
I’m not always sure how to address that because privilege is seductive. There’s always the promise of more. More access, more power, more money, more respect. But this is precisely what Angela Davis wants us to understand: there is no more. There is nothing to be gained by remaining silent about the oppression of others. They are not the same, but our oppressions are linked. The same system that allows trans women to be murdered in the streets without consequence also murders black men in those very same streets. The same system that would deny a rape victim due process because she serves in the military also finds it just to send a black woman to prison for 60 years for trying to defend herself. The same system that teaches black and Latino boys to be “respectable” in order to overcome racism has no respect for the plight of black and Latino girls.
Undoing one form of oppression necessitates that we undo them all. And we have to be willing to stand beside one another until it’s done.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.