By Yordanose Solomone
One of the best things about 2017 was Angela Davis’ speech at St Olaf University in Northfield, MN. It was so good and overwhelming that I forgot to wish my sister a Happy Birthday that March for the first time in 20 years. She still gives me crap for that, by the way. It was worth the hour-long drive from Northfield from Minneapolis. There were so many people there to see her that they had to turn back some, so they live streamed it. I happen to have been one of the lucky ones who sat in the chapel of a very expensive school that represents everything Angela Davis stands against and listen to one of the best speeches I have heard in my 22 years of being.
For those who are unfamiliar with Angela Davis, she is an American political activist, academic, and author ( among other things). She emerged in the 60s as a crucial counterculture activist, radical, and leader in the Communist Party USA. She has spoken and fought against many things including the prison industrial complex, police brutality in the black community, and anything that has to do with the capitalist notions that are in place to oppress poor people of color and other marginalize communities.
She opened with her overall premise, which was the commodification of “the struggle” in the 21st century. This was really interesting, as she went on to develop the interrelatedness of and commonalities in different struggles. As someone who appreciates and fights for intersectionality-based social justice, I was already intrigued.
Davis specifically spoke about the invasion of capitalism and its perpetual commodification of “love” by bringing in the example of a Mercedes-Benz commercial. She spoke about the heteronormative relationship that is exhibited in this commercial and many others. The commercial has a similar formula to all other car commercials except this one was for Valentine’s day so it was framed as, “if you love your partner, you give them a Mercedes for this commodified holiday.”
She stated that the capitalist regime we live under is very much casting a shadow over things we view as pure, such as love. This commercial, like many others, is clearly confined within certain socioeconomic lines but doesn’t seem to refer to that. Davis didn’t stop there, once she started speaking about the commodification of love and relationships, that led to her primary topic regarding capitalism: the privatization of punishment and corporatization of prison and by extension, people.
Davis is one of the prominent figures in the world that is working hard to abolish the prison industrial complex. Recently, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow has spoken about the numerical significance of mass incarceration and its relation to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Alexander was also featured in an excellent movie made by filmmaker, Ava DuVernay called The 13th. However, no one has really dug deeper and spoken about the implications of those numbers like Angela Davis has.
Many scholars and books have talked about it in the context of reframed slavery in the 21st century. As a professor, Davis has said many times, that the goal of global capitalism is to commodify every single thing, including people. The desire to privatize prison is a problem on its own, not only does it encourage profit from incarceration, but it also dehumanizes people.
The commodification of the industrial prison system doesn’t just stop with prison, it manifests in the world outside prisons. We are seeing more and more health care commodification, education commodification, recreation commodification and so on. It’s a trend but none of it is new, it’s just happening at a much higher rate than it has before. According to Davis, the global aspiration of capitalism is ultimately colonization and slavery in a different form. It’s just the language that will be different. As prisons are adding numbers, the middle class is disappearing, the wealth gap is getting larger, and people are struggling a lot more than they did before.
Global capitalism causes people of color or other marginalized identities to be left with nothing and be susceptible to committing petty crimes as a way to manage themselves and their families. The people depending on steel and mining work were left with nothing as the work for these fields shrunk in the 80s and 90s causing a surplus population. The majority of the prison population is not there because of anything ground breaking, but rather lack of opportunities that led them to crime in different forms.
Davis spoke about the changes in the welfare system. Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisors in 1935 created the welfare system for the masses of unemployed workers. He also backed the idea of federal aid for poor children and other dependent persons. The way the welfare system works now, however, is as a crippling tool for working people and potential working people. When you can’t provide people with enough, you create the prison complex. This is happening more and more.
One of the last things Angela Davis spoke about was the feminism that we as a people should associate ourselves with, and that is anti capitalist feminism. An anti capitalist feminist is someone who practices social justice that revolves around internationalism, anti racism, intersectionality, and abolition. When concluding her speech, Davis stated, “This country is responsible for so much of the misery in the world.” The best way to contribute is to practice a collective leadership that is not assimilatory or doesn’t originate from racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic or classist institutions.
She left the audience with something that is usually forgotten when having social justice conservations. It takes a while to see the change won by resistance, and being discouraged because your protest at Minneapolis police precinct hasn’t had the effect you were looking for is the result of a gratification-based society that is generated by capitalism. Davis closed her speech with a hopeful, “We represent the dreams of those who came before us.”
Overall, I am hoping to fight alongside professor Davis and other people like her as a newly claimed anti capitalist feminist who will contribute to the dreams of my ancestors in the best way that I can.