Angela Davis on Legalized Murder

September 22, 2011

Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons and Torture by Angela Davis.

Back blurb:

In a series of intereviews given in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Angela Y. David explores how historical systems of oppression like slavery and lynching continue to influence and undermine democracy today. Davis builds on W.E.B DuBois’ view that when people were released from slavery in this country, they were denied the full privileges of other citizens. This denial of full rights and the creation of a U.S. prison system emerged as a way of maintaining dominance and control over entire populations. Davis explores the notion of Abolition Democracy as the democracy to come, as et of social relations free of oppression and injustice.

 

Excerpts:

The prison in the United States has become a kind of ghetto. And if I hear you correctly, you’re suggesting that in the United States there cannot be a non-racial prison system-that a nonracist prison system would be an oxymoron.

Yes, I suppose you may put it that way. As a matter of fact, there is an assumption that an institution of repression, if it does its work equitably–if it treats, say, white people in the same way it does black people–it is an indication of progress under the sign of equality and justice. I am very suspicious of such an abstract approach. James Byrd was lynched in Jasper, Texas a few years ago by a group of white supremacists… Do you remember that incident?

Yes, and he was dragged around as well.

Two of the white men who helped to carry out the lynching were sentenced to death. That moment was celebrated as a victory, as if the cause of racial justice is served by meting out same horrendous and barbaric treatment to white people that black people have historically suffered. That kind of equality does not make a great deal of sense to me.

Can you expand on that? In other words, there’s a continuum between the antebellum period, the reconstruction, the ghettos and the death penalty, which are equally racialized. Indeed, all of these institutions and spaces seem to have their roots in slavery. Are these links and continuities what you are alluding to?

What is interesting is that slavery as an institution, during the end of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, for example, managed to become a receptacle for all those forms of punishment that were considered to be barbaric by the developing democracy. So rather than abolish the death penalty outright, it was offered refuge within slave law. This meant that white people eventually were released from the threat of death for most offenses, with murder remaining as the usual offense leading to a white execution. Black slaves, on the other hand, were subject to the death penalty in some states for as many as seventy different offenses. One might say that the institution of slavery served as a receptacle  for those forms of punishment considered to be too uncivilized to be inflicted on white citizens within a democratic society. With the abolition of slavery this clearly racialized form of punishment became de-racialized  and persists today under the guise of a color-blind justice. Capital punishment continues to be inflicted disproportionately on black people, but when the black person is sentenced to death, he/she comes under the authority of law as the abstract judicial subject, as a rights-bearing individual, not as a member of a racialized community that has been subjected to conditions that make him/her a prime candidate for legal repression. In this respect, he/she is “equal” to his/her white counterpart, who therefore is not entirely immune to the hidden racism of the law.

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