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Civil rights activist Angela Davis discusses justice, abolition at Zimmerli Art Museum

Angela Davis, a civil rights activist and author, said that 50 years ago, the phrase “seize the time” was a call for individuals to collectively shape the future in terms of justice and equality.  – Photo by Columbia GSAPP / Wikimedia

Last Friday, the Zimmerli Art Museum on the College Avenue campus hosted an event titled “Redefining Justice and Freedom For Everyone — A Talk by Dr. Angela Davis,” during which civil rights activist Angela Davis spoke about topics related to justice and abolition.

At the event, Davis first acknowledged University President Jonathan Holloway and Chancellor-Provost Francine Conway, and thanked those who were involved with the museum’s ongoing exhibition “Angela Davis — Seize the Time.”

The exhibit includes an archive of materials produced by an international organization campaigning for her freedom during the 1960s, according to the Zimmerli’s website

Davis said that 50 years ago, the phrase “seize the time” was a call to action to take advantage of opportunities presented and collectively shape the future.

“I think that slogan incorporated an understanding that we could not simply accept the actions of conservative forces, even when they were clearly documented,” she said.

In addition, Davis said she believes that the present day offers a historic moment to seize the time and take advantage of new opportunities.

Davis said that while it is important to applaud unprecedented achievements, such as having Conway as the University’s first Black chancellor-provost and Holloway as its first Black president, the foundations of such victories tend to crumble shortly after their occurrences.

She then spoke about the historical movements and actions that took place in the wake of the killings of individuals such as Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in 2020.

Davis also discussed how during this racial reckoning, unprecedented numbers of individuals took to the streets and to social media to form a new consciousness about systemic racism, specifically through slogans such as “defund the police" or “abolish prisons.”

"We were not calling for the end of prisons and policing simply for the sake of removing racist and repressive institutions," she said. "Abolition calls for clearing space so that we can create new and more effective and more promising ways of achieving the aims prisons and policing can never achieve."

Davis said that when discourse about abolishing the police and prisons became more popular, these institutions used the convictions of police officers who murdered Black people as a way to push against structural change.

She said that pushes for structural change still persisted as underserved communities continued to experience violence from the police and prisons.

“Let me say that for those who continue to insist that reform is needed, it might be helpful to examine the history of these institutions,” Davis said. “In doing so myself, I have come to the conclusion that reform is actually the glue that has held these institutions together.”

She said that calling for inclusion in systems that are entrenched in structural racism and discrimination is not a solution nor is allowing these systems to remain as they are. In addition, programs that are centered around diversity, equity and inclusion within institutions are not sufficient in bringing forth change, she said.

Instead, Davis said there needs to be an emphasis on justice, which means improved access to jobs, housing, education and mental and physical health care.

Davis also spoke about real-world examples of a collective lack of accountability, such as the war in Afghanistan. She said she wondered why Americans did not protest more against the war and why we have not addressed the impact it has had on Afghanistan.

“Why don’t we demand the acknowledgment of responsibility for the unimaginable state of devastation in which the U.S. military left Afghanistan and why (don't we) demand that material support be offered?” she said.

She said that people critique the idea of abolition because they think that it calls for a utopian vision, which she acknowledges is difficult to achieve.

“(Utopia) is hard to realize, but it doesn't mean that we can’t initiate political and cultural trajectories that may ultimately move us in that direction,” Davis said. “The etymological meaning of utopia is no place, but no place does not mean no time.”

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