A more reflective Panther, Angela Davis takes on prisons

By Jerry Tallmer
The Villager (November 22, 2000) pp. 1 & 11

They were expecting maybe 25 people to show up.

But a good three-quarters of an hour before the arrival of the principal speaker, some 250 people, by Carl Rosenstein's estimate, had packed into the narrow confines of the Puffin Room, a gallery at 435 Broome St., and gallery director Rosenstein at the microphone was pleading: "People against the walls, please don't lean on the artwork - yes, you in the red sweatshirt."

As photographers and video people readied their equipment, Rosenstein, with a glance around the room, also declared: "If there's anybody here who doesn't wish to be on camera - anybody who's wanted - please stand up now and say so."

The gathering on this Sunday afternoon in Soho, waiting for Angela - a once very wanted person named Angela Davis - was of all varieties, complexions and ages, from high-school kids or even younger to bereted lifelong radical Mo Fishman, somewhere in his 80s, veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Spanish Civil War.

The subject of the day, and of the exhibit now through Dec. 31 at the Puffin - a "center of art activism" named for a bird that's been brought back from extinction - was, and is, The Prison Industrial Complex. Lining both long walls are paintings, drawings, photos, documents, etc., ranging from Sing Sing death row and its now defunct electric chair to, somewhat more of the moment, the death house in George W. Bush's home state.

Once upon a time, in the early 1970s, middle America was as much startled by the flaming beauty as the flaming words of Black Panther Angela Yvonne Davis, the girl who at 26 - a product of the revolutionary teachings of Herbert Marcuse at the University of California - had been acquitted (by a white jury) of all charges of complicity with George Jackson in the bloody Soledad Brothers escape-attempt shootout in front of the Marin County courthouse.

Then, the enormously Afro-crowned, coffee-colored golden girl was given to dropping such dogmatic idle remarks as: "Huey Newton can do anything" - about a young Panther colleague and hero of hers who would come in the end to almost nothing.

Now the Angela Davis who entered the room to a standing ovation was a tall, handsome, mature woman in a black pants suit, a tiny gold chain at her throat, tiny gold hoops at her ears. She has written many books. She is a professor of the History of Consciousness at University of California Santa Cruz. What was once that sensational Afro is now a rusty modified mop, but the good bones are still there, along with the authority. But that too is now a different, modified authority.

Where once her words of liberation and revolution were as lightning bolts, now her no less rugged opposition to what she and others term The Prison Industrial Complex is ringed around by thoughtful cautions, her clear, lucid propositions bracketed by the contrasting ceaseless motion of her hands.

"I think this is an amazing moment," she said - a moment of increasing call for prison reform in this country, of a budding widespread fed-upness with the death penalty - "but we also need to be critical, to execute our critical faculties. It's not only what 'they' are doing, they, the enemy, but what we are doing, too."

She had just previously warned against throwing total effort against the death penalty at the expense of what, to her, is the larger picture: the entire "industrial complex" that privatizes the prison system, here and around the world, that makes money for the corporations that build and run the prisons, for the architects who design them, the manufacturers who equip them, even the phone companies who service them - and aovercharge on collect calls.

"Building prisons is extremely profitable. Corporations have a stake in the consturction and expansion of the prison system. Even companies like Victoria's Secret have been known to - indirectly - use prison labor."

"General Electric!" cried a voice from out front.

"General Electric" concurred the speaker.

The historian in Davis reminded the audience that the prison industrial complex has precedents: "Blacks released from slavery were leased out on building projects - they built Atlanta. The intersection of the punishment system with the economy is doing things it precisely shouldn't do.

"We learn how not to see the prisons in our midst," she said. "There's a new jail, for instance, in San Francisco, alongside the Freeway. The walls are translucent glass. People drive by, saying: "What is that - a museum?"

The "invisibility" of prisons comes up again and again, she said, in her travels around this country and the world.
"One of the things I try to do wherever I go is to visit the prisons. Argentian, Brazil, the Netherlands, Australia - two weeks ago, Sweden. And what strikes me is, wherever you go, it feels the same. In Australia, who do you find in prison? That's right, aborogines. In Sweden? Africans, Turks, Gypsis. Netherlands, the same."

The recent "fissures in our own country's general support of the death penalty, she noted, include a Republican Governor of Illinois having declared a moratorium on executions in that state - "and that's good," Davis said, as well as better than anything Al Gore has risked. "But if opposition to the death penalty is structured only around the notion of innocence," she said, "it may boomerang on us."

"Even Jesse Jackson says he wants the death penalty to be halted 'until it can be fairly and evenly applied.' Well, what does that mean?" she vigorously demanded, transcending color and guilt in one purely logical stroke.

Indeed, color and guilt came nowhere into a video that a little while earlie Angela Davis had watched with the same mounting horror as everyone else.

This was "Scott Segregation Unit," a 30-minute documentary detailing some of the things that had been done to a young woman named Jamie Whitcomb during her four years in Scott Women's Prison in Michigan.

Those things - visible in the video in harrowing detail, complete with the prisoner's howls, pleadings and curses on sound track - include being chained, naked, at hands and legs by four and five guards (male and female) at a time, pinned to a mattress on a marble slab, under a light that never goes off, often in the prisoner's own excretory and/or menstrual waste. And sometimes left in those chains for 20 or 21 days.

In a post-release interview by producer/director Carol Jacobsen, who introduced the screening at the Puffin, the voice of Jamie Whitcomb specifies that the crime for which she was sentenced to from two to four years in prison was "malicious destruction of property over $100."

"My brother and I had an argument. He broke my hand. I got a baseball bat and smashed his truck windows."

Four years for that. Over and over again, in prison, "I couldn't handle it," she says, and repeatedly tried to hang herself, which got her chained once again in a Self-Mutilation Prevention Unit. She also was raped, at least once. And maced, at least once. "Too cold too much. Too hot too much… After a couple of days, the body shuts down."

How was the videotaping of all this allowed, Carol Jacobsen was asked. The answer: It wasn't she who did the taping, it was the guards themselves, a bureaucratic form of self-protection against charges of torture.

Jamie Whitcomb nevertheless later sued the State of Michigan for torture, and won - a whole big $92,000. Not enough, but something.

"It was hard to watch," said Angela Davis of the video, obviously stifling a lot of inner fire, "and very courageous of her [Whitcomb] to allow us to see her as she was seen by the guards. I was in fact very angry at the sort of voyeuristic camera work there.

"But I'm glad, in the film as with this exhibition" - with a gesture of the walls - "we focus in large part on the condition of women, who always tend to get marginalized." And who better to know it than Angela Davis, onetime purportedly equal Black Panther cohort of Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, et al?

"The prison system itself is a gendered system, " she added.

This was born out, had been born out, by several of the afternoon's earlier speakers, among them Chris Doyle, research director of Amnesty International, an organization that has as one of its many goals the removal of all male guards from women's prisons, and Koretta McClendon, a tough, fiery "former prisoner and recovering substance abuser" who brought the house down with one simple sentence: "Prisons do not work."

Angela Davis had a more direct response. She threw her arms around Koretta McClendon.