Speaking to a virtual crowd of 1,600, famed revolutionary Angela Davis said she was initially immobilized by fear when she was charged with three capital crimes in 1970. However, even in solitary confinement, she began to realize that she was not alone—she had the support of a global community.
“As solitary individuals, we’re capable of very little, but when we come together, we can change the world,” she said.
On Thursday evening, For Members Only, Northwestern’s premier Black student alliance, hosted a virtual discussion about abolition, activism and institutional racism with Davis at the largest annual State of the Black Union in history.
Seniors Mari Gashaw, the coordinator of FMO, and Taylor Bolding, FMO’s vice coordinator of programming, said they’ve been wanting to bring Davis to Northwestern since 2017. This year, alongside the rest of the FMO executive team, they finally could. They said her presence felt appropriate for the particular moment given growing conversations about abolition both on campus and beyond.
“It’s one thing to discuss abolition in a classroom setting, it’s a completely different thing to sit down and be able to interact with someone who has been organizing for as long as some of our parents have been born,” Bolding said.
At the event, moderated by assistant professor of African American studies kihana miraya ross, Davis said she appreciated how the FMO executive team addressed abolition in a way that recognized how gradual reforms will never effectively address the violence produced by institutional racism.
“How long have we been calling for reform of the police? How long have we been protesting the racist violence connected both with the police and with institutions of incarceration?” Davis said.
During the civil rights era, Davis was associated with the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party USA. She remains a prominent activist in the U.S. who views Black liberation and abolition as ongoing movements.
Throughout the decades, Davis’s activism and scholarship have been integral to the prison abolition movement, a political vision that centers on eliminating police and imprisonment and creating enduring alternatives to carceral punishment. Davis has authored multiple books focused on topics ranging from the prison-industrial complex to Black feminism. Davis utilizes her own experiences in her work as someone who spent over a year in jail after she appeared on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list for her involvement with a solidarity campaign for three prisoners.
Throughout the talk, Davis emphasized the intellectual contributions of incarcerated people over the decades. She said that although this event was held through a university setting, it is critical not to underestimate the power of people in prisons given that the most fervent calls for abolition emerged during the 1971 Attica prison rebellion.
“Since the Critical Resistance gathering that happened in this area in September of 1998, we’ve been arguing that dismantling carceral and policing institutions will be a central aspect of the process of bringing down structural and systemic racism…and that ultimately eliminating racism will entail abolishing its structural incarnations,” she said.
Asta Ceesay, a School of Communication sophomore, said she was inspired by Davis’s emphasis on accessibility and how she centered the voices and power of incarcerated individuals.
“[Angela Davis] made everything so accessible, and she was just dropping resources left and right without even being asked to,” Cessay said. “It just really helped open the doors to continue learning more and more about abolitionist ideas and the movement.”
Davis’s visit took place on the one-month mark of NUCNC’s daily marches and action items. The group’s mission revolves around the abolition of policing and oppressive systems on campus and beyond, as well as reinvesting resources into community care and the well-being of Black students.
Davis commended the work and organizing efforts of NUCNC protesters. She said “get the police off campus” and noted that this is an important abolitionist demand both at Northwestern and all schools.
“Her advice was so powerful, and it really empowered me to continue to do the work and continue to learn,” said Weinberg sophomore Jessica Hunter.
While she emphasized the importance of defeating Donald Trump in the recent presidential election, Davis also said that liberation will require more than voting, and organizing for abolitionist demands remains crucial moving into the next administration.
“Abolition, as you know, is not primarily about the negative act of elimination and revocation. It is about recreation; it is about rebuilding, reimagining,” Davis said. “We do not get rid of the old and assume that the new has to be constructed on the same foundation.”
In response to a student’s question about the place of the nation-state in the building of an abolitionist future, Davis emphasized the need to discard the concept of nation-states to “the dustbin of history.” She said that it is important to envision a foundation of human community that exists beyond the nation-state, borders, capitalism and citizenship determined by documentation.
While discussing fear, Davis referenced activist, womanist and poet Audre Lorde, she said that individuals can be afraid while continuing to act. It is impossible to completely banish fear, Davis said, and it is counterintuitive to think that things can only be accomplished in the absence of fear.
“So, my advice is to create strong communities and recognize that you are never alone, and that if you are afraid, you are afraid together, and being together gives you more strength and more courage,” she said.
Gashaw echoed Davis’s statement while discussing what she hoped students would gain from attending the State of the Black Union. Especially in the midst of the daily protests and action items of NUCNC, she wanted students to be empowered by Davis.
“Angela Davis has experienced so much police violence and terror and is still here,” Gashaw said. “I feel like a lot of the people in our community are scared of standing up for what they believe in, and so my hope is that she’ll come here and she’ll revitalize a spirit in people to not be afraid, because fear is really our biggest enemy.”