Prison industry and military serve similar purposes, Angela Davis says
transcribed by Ernesto Longa
April 1999

Angela Davis is a professor at University of California at Santa Cruz, and heads up a doctoral program on the History of Consciousness. She is author of Race, Sex & Class and the Autobiography of Angela Davis. Dr. Davis was driven underground and spent time on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for her organizing with the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, in the late '60's. She was later captured and incarcerated. She spoke at University of South Florida in Tampa on March 30:

...I've actually come here to trouble you, to disturb you. Over the last few years I've been trying to integrate into the talks that I do something about the expanding prison system in this country. People don't like to talk about prisons. There is silence and there has been silence about the fact that this society incarcerates an ever increasing number of people. As a matter of fact, we are now approaching the figure of 2 million. I want to talk a little bit about Florida as well. I come here from California, and Florida and California seem to be rivals in this effort to lock up as many people as possible. But first I want to talk about the military-industrial complex, because there is a connection between the prison-industrial complex and the military-industrial complex.

How many of you recognize that term the military-industrial complex? Well I know everyone my age does, right? Okay this is something we have to re-integrate into our vocabulary, especially witnessing what's going on now in Yugoslavia, and the millions of dollars of weapons that are being used in an effort that is making a very difficult situation much worse than it was before NATO and the US went in. (applause)

About a week and a half ago I was down in Oakland...and suddenly I heard helicopters and gun shots and it turned out that about a mile from my house the Marines were conducting war games. I learned that about 6,000 marines had landed in participate in what the Marine Corps calls Urban Warrior Advanced Warfighting Experiment. The exercise took place on an abandoned naval hospital....and I discovered that between March 15 -18 there were 14 waves of hovercraft landings, more than 40 aircraft overflights, the detonations of 60 flashbang grenades .... On Tuesday, when I went to run a errand--you know in California everyone has to drive everywhere they go and you get on the freeway--so I tried to get on the freeway and discovered that the freeway was shut down.

The police had shut down the freeway in order to allow a military caravan to proceed. As it turned out, they had created a scenario for an exercise which apparently involved a natural disaster, and the marines were supposed to be bringing humanitarian relief. Does that sound familiar?

In the midst of distributing food and water and diapers so-called rebels attacked the marines. Then they proceeded to engage in full scale warfare. Now what is interesting is that this entire exercise was scripted by Hollywood Films International, and they had sent out a casting call, and they hired 200 actors, including 29 specific roles. I did a little research on what was going on and discovered that during these war games the Marines were using technology developed during the late 1960s and early 70s by police departments to deal with the anti-war demonstrations, and the anti-racist protests that were happening. As a matter of fact, I can remember in those days hearing about these new technologies. One involved the dropping of this sticky foam on large numbers of people causing them to stick together. Another one involved quick drying substances that would seal doorways, windows and pipes. Then one that we talked about a great deal in that period, was an ultra-sound weapon that causes nausea.

In the late 1960s, of course, police departments began to incorporate military technology into their strategies. I was actually present in 1969 when the first SWAT squad...connected with the LAPD, appeared in an effort to serve a warrant for disturbing the peace on a member of the Black Panther Party. They came with helicopters, they came with former green berets, they dynamited the building. Well anyway, I don't want to go back to the 60s, but I do want you to know that there has been this strangely symbiotic relationship between the military and domestic law enforcement so that now the military is using technologies developed by the police....A local journalist, who looked through the documents in connection with the Advanced Urban War Fighting Experiment discovered that there were aerial photographs of cities like New York, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco and Miami which indicates that these exercises may not simply be designed to address a problem somewhere else in a Third World country. As a matter of fact the specific kinds of issues they were dealing with was how to make there technologies work in very dense urban environments with skyscrapers. There are not a lot of Third World countries that look like that, so I really wonder what's going on.

I mention this military exercise because I think it is important particularly in light of what is going on right now in Kosovo, that we think very deeply about the extent to which the Pentagon continues to expand even though the reason that used to be given for the need for such vast amounts of weapons no longer exists. Once the Soviet Union would seem as if we would begin a process of converting a wartime economy into a peacetime economy, am I right? (applause) But the Pentagon budget continues to rise. As a matter of fact, the projected Pentagon budget for this year is $270 billion, which is at least $3 billion more than the previous year...The Pentagon budget is more than one-half of the entire discretionary federal budget, which means we spend more to produce weapons of devastation and destruction than we spend on job training, education, healthcare, housing, the environment, national parks and most social services combined. We cannot allow this to continue to happen.

When I think about that Urban War Experiment, it seems to me that it indicates how the military is imagining the future. How does the military imagine the future? I think it thinks that it will not only be in the Persian Gulf and Yugoslavia, but also in Los Angeles, and New York, and maybe Tampa Bay Florida. I begin with this issue because I really think it is important for us to frame our thinking these days with larger issues. We have sort of gotten out of the habit of thinking beyond our particular local situation. We have gotten out of the habit of making connections and about thinking very deeply and seriously about what is happening to people that seem entirely unrelated to us. The image that the military seems to have of the future is one in which vast numbers of people will be excluded from the official economy and thus from housing, healthcare, and education. Especially if Ward Connelly is successful in bringing his anti-affirmative action messages here to Florida and all over the country. (applause) I hear he spent some time here trying to get that initiative on the ballot.

As I said, I flew in from California today and we are having a very hard time. Five times as many black men are in prison as are in our vast public education system...Now it seems to me that this image of the future imagined by the military is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, if social programs responding to the needs of poor people continue to be gutted, and if racism continues to sink more deeply into the material and ideological structures of this society. We can say today that racism is no longer on the surface in the way we used to know it. People now know what not to say, and now know how not to act, but this does not mean that racism is not very much a part of the economy ...(applause), very much a part of the educational system ....

Now the future imagined by the military, I think, is the very same future being prepared for by an expanding prison-industrial complex. There is, as I was saying, a symbiotic relationship between the military-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex. For one, the corporate world is so deeply involved in these weapons of destruction and war. It is also deeply involved in the punishment industry. As a matter of fact it has stakes that are so vast that the construction of prisons has acquired a dynamic that is totally unrelated to the diminishing crime rates. Crime rates peaked in the 1980s, which is precisely when prison construction took off, even as crime rates began to fall.

If so many of our social resources are being devoured by the military and the penal system, then where do we find the means with which to address the problems confronted by poor people and by the disproportionately poor in communities of color. As I said this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. War and imprisonment are necessary to deal with those problems and those populations that are driven to desperation precisely because there are no social resources to help them and there are no social resources to help them because they're being used up by the preparations to deal with those who have no resources. (applause)

I think there is a global dimension to this problem, particularly when we examine the extent to which the globalization of capital is creating undemocratic structures that are entirely unrelated to any particular nation states, so that corporations can basically make decisions on their own. It is almost as if they assume the role of government. When the International Monetary Fund predicates its loans on compelling Third World countries to open their borders to trans-national corporations, and when they require that these countries use fewer resources for social programs ... then also military solutions have to be prepared. At the same time when corporations go into these countries in the south, they dislocate the local economies and they make it impossible for people to live the lives that they have lived in the past.

[Because of this] many people are compelled to look elsewhere for their future. They come to the United States because this country has the image of being the most democratic country in the world. The country that opens its arms to the poor. What happens when they come here? Particularly if they have no papers? They are arrested and either placed in jails or prisons or in an expanding network of INS detention centers. As a matter of fact the Immigration and Naturalization Service is now the federal agency that has the largest numbers of armed agents. There are more armed INS agents than there are armed FBI agents.

So how have we allowed this to happen? In a sense we are complicit. Because we often don't think critically about what we read in the paper or watch on the television. We end up using the same vocabulary, expressing the same ideas that are offered to us through these media, and don't stop to think about what it means to put people in prison simply because they are coming here looking for a better life. Especially if they are coming from countries where corporations that used to be headquartered in the US are now traveling and migrating, immigrating from country to country looking for cheap labor. They don't want to deal with the labor movement in this country. They want to find workers who they can pay a few cents an hour....

...I'd like you to meditate on the new figures released to the Justice Department last week, indicating that there are now 1.8 million people behind bars... Within nine months there will be 2 million people, those are the estimates. California alone has a 164,000 people in prison. Texas has 143,000....and over 66,000 people [are imprisoned in Florida]....We forget about them, they are no longer considered to be human beings of any worth or value. As a matter of fact prisons are designed to hold what is considered to be the garbage of society. As a matter of fact, instead of dealing with the problems that they have, if they have drug problems, instead of dealing with their drug problems and helping them to find a way to address them we just through them away ... put them in prison. In the meantime, we don't think about what happens in these prisons. So it grows and it grows like a cancer, within our society. We are rarely aware of the implications of incarcerating such a large number of people and assuming that incarceration is the only valid form of punishment. You know prisons haven't existed forever. Most of us treat prisons as if they were these natural phenomena. Do you ever think about the fact that prisons have only been in existence since the beginning of the 1800's? Prisons as punishment are relatively new to human history. Guess who developed the models, the US....

....Here in Florida there are 66,000 people in prison, there are 372 people on death row, including 4 women. There are 103,918 people on probation. Florida disenfranchises all categories of felons and ex-felons. If you are convicted of a felony in Florida you will forever lose your right to participate in the political processes of this state and this country. There are 647,000 people disenfranchised in Florida, because they have been convicted of felonies....31.2% of all black men eligible to vote in Florida are permanently disenfranchised. That is to say that a third of all black men will never be able to participate in the political processes here. Now that isn't right. Isn't there something really bizarre about that? Unless you are going to assume that just because a person goes to prison that means that that person should forever be thrown away. One of the interesting things about prison in the beginning of the history of prisons was that they were supposed to be places where people could go and repent and be penitent. Sort of make themselves into new human beings, but now the whole notion of rehabilitation has been thrown away, and I wonder why.

There is a point I always like to make, because it causes people think. As I said this evening, I really want to trouble you....because I think we have to trouble ourselves if we don't want to look forward to a very dismal future in this country. If you consider that most people in this country--as scholars have discovered through surveys--legitimate social scientific surveys indicate that most people in this country, as a matter of fact in most countries, have committed a crime at one point in their lives that would probably lead them to jail or to prison. Think about that for a minute. The problem is that certain kinds of people get caught more often than other kinds of people (applause). Certain kinds of people are under surveillance, are watched, and so when they do something wrong, you can be sure that they are going to be caught. I mean of course this isn't to say that committing an anti-social act should be condoned. Not by any means. The point is that prison doesn't help people. If you have committed a crime and you go to prison, you are going to be much worse when you get out than you were when you went in.... (applause)

....Seriously though prisons manufacture crime, they don't solve the problem. Something else we need to think about is how we construct crime, what is the meaning of crime? How do we define crime? Why are certain things considered criminal and other equally dangerous or even more dangerous activities not criminalized. What about the assault on the environment, that will cause many people to suffer illness and death for generations to come? What about the work place and the kinds of unsafe workplaces that are created? People don't generally go to prison for that. They pay a fine. I remember in all the discussion of crime waves and the need for wars against crime, there was never any discussion of what is perhaps the most epidemic form of crime in the world, and that is domestic violence. (applause) Now I wouldn't suggest that we put every person, male or female, who engages in acts of domestic violence in prison because I think if we did there wouldnt be too many of us left on the outside, when you consider that half of all relationships involve some kind of violence. It does mean that we have to think more creatively, and more deeply about ways of addressing the kinds of problems that lead people to prison....

...As I said before we have to be able to move between specific issues and larger and more general issues. We can't forget that it was during the Reagan years...that an attack on the welfare state began. That the welfare state began to be dismantled. That all the social programs that people used to rely on, began to disappear. The most recent example of this dismantling of the welfare state, in the largest sense, was the very specific attack on women on welfare. I didn't hear very many people standing up to President Clinton saying why is it that you need to abolish this system, which provides a pittance for a few mothers who otherwise would not be able to find the kinds of jobs that would allow them to support their families.....

...70% of all people who are in prison are people of color, and black women constitute the fastest growing sector of the imprisoned population. Women in general constitute the fastest growing sector, but black women are growing even faster than the whole population of women. But if so many black people are being imprisoned today how does this relate to the development of strategies for urban warfare in the future, relating back to my opening remarks. Who will be the targets of this warfare? Why is such an increasing number of people of color, black, Latino, large numbers of Asians and immigrants from Africa, Central America, the Caribbean being constituted as expendable populations? People who don't have a place in this society, people who are marginalised and incarcerated in jails and prisons and INS detention centers. How can we answer these questions? What is the relationship between the military repression, one might say, and the repression happening within the prison system?

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