Blog post

Prison Interviews with Angela Y. Davis

An interview with Angela Davis in October 1970 from the Women's House of Detention, New York.

Angela Y. Davis 1 June 2020

Prison Interviews with Angela Y. Davis

Extracted from If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance

Are you hopeful of winning justice in the courts, or not?

The court system in this country is increasingly becoming a powerful instrument of repression. It is being used to crush the struggle for the liberation of oppressed people and not only to crush the conscious revolutionary but to break the rebellious spirit of Black people, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans in general. And I think that one of the best methods of radicalizing an individual today is to have him spend a day in court witnessing the way we are unceasingly railroaded into the jails and prisons. Now even the facade of democracy is beginning to fall. Therefore we can't expect justice from a repressive judicial system and I'm sure that an exclusively legalistic approach to my defense would be fatal. So what we have to do is to talk about placing the courts on trial. Oppressed people must demonstrate in an organized fashion to the ruling class that we are prepared to use every means at our disposal to gain freedom and justice for our people.

I understand that you have been getting mail from all over the world. Could you give us some idea of your thoughts on the worldwide support that you’re getting and what the nature of your mail was?

Well, the support from abroad has been overwhelming. All the socialist countries have lodged protests in some way or form. I was particularly pleased to hear of the activity that has been going on in Cuba and in Europe, especially in Germany, Italy and France. Demonstrations have been organized. Petition campaigns, poster and button campaigns have been initiated and funds are being raised. Right now I receive from 100 to 400 letters a day, at least half of them originating from abroad, including many countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa. The thousands of letters from schoolchildren in the GDR have been tremendously moving. Just recently the World Council of Peace met at Stockholm and decided to wage an international campaign in my defense. The international support I’ve been receiving is extremely important but I think it is all the more important that this campaign be extended, that its limits be extended to become a fight to release all political prisoners within this country.

In your own formation as a revolutionary you spent a good deal of time in countries like France, West Germany and Cuba. Can you compare your experiences abroad in this regard?

One can't really be a true revolutionary without being cognizant of the need to link up with forces all over the world battling with imperialism. My trips abroad, most of which were undertaken for purposes involving my university studies, contributed a great deal to my own political development. In Paris in 1962 experiences which were transmitted to me by partisans of the Algerian struggle provided a stark contrast to our civil rights struggle in the United States. The increasingly aggressive posture being assumed by the Algerians gave me a concrete idea of the general direction in which our own movement should be heading; that is, if we were really serious about total change. As for the French themselves, they conveyed to me the idea, free from abstraction, that repression was a universal phenomenon wherever there were people struggling for freedom and justice. In a number of demonstrations, I personally felt the cutting streams of water from the firehoses manned by French police. And of course my Algerian acquaintances were incessantly subjected to police harassment.

My trip to Germany, inspired by a desire to learn more about the philosophical tradition out of which Marxism arose, taught me one basic fact. Marx was right when he said in the 11th of the Feurbach theses that philosophers as philosophers have simply interpreted the world and that the point, however, is to change it.

This I experienced by witnessing and participating in the student movement growing conscious of itself, growing conscious of the need to break away from the mentors — the very philosophers who had stimulated the students to comprehend the nature of Marxism — and begin to act, to act directly. This action took the form of increasingly militant demonstrations against US imperialism, its aggression in Vietnam, its flunkies in West Germany and also the form of moving to organize the dispossessed at a grass-roots level and the attempt to involve labor. It was my involvement in the demonstrative political activity led by German SDS (Socialist Students League) which made me realize that I had to come home to wage the fight among my owe people, Black people.

The Cuban experience was immensely enlightening. My first prolonged contact with a socialist country through my own eyes and limbs too, I might add, since I cut cane for a while. Through discussions with Cubans throughout the country — workers, students, Communist Party leaders — I became aware of the tremendous commitment, sacrifice and knowledge that is required in order to make a revolution work. We saw the problems as well as the achievements and I think that the brother in The Battle of Algiers was unquestionably correct when he contended that although a revolution is hard to initiate and although it is even harder to sustain to the point of seizing power, the most difficult period of all is the building of the revolutionary society after the seizure of power.

I was most concerned with the transformations that had occurred with respect to the position of Black people. The total picture was overwhelmingly positive, but we detected vestiges of cultural racism which have to be combated, of course, in order to insure the continued success of the revolution. Cubans, both Black and white, were very receptive to our comments which were often critical in this regard. Learning from the Cuban variety of prerevolutionary racism which was certainly much less ingrained in the institutional and psychological makeup of Cuba under the puppet regimes of North American imperialism than is the US variety, it became obvious that we would have to wage a relentless battle against racism at all times and on all levels. The Cuban experience was very invigorating. The people's day-to-day achievements as well as the problems they confronted in constructing socialism in their country through identification with all struggles against US imperialism, particularly with the militant fights of Africans in America, all this infused me with more determination to return home and help to advance our struggle to higher planes.

Could you tell us, Angela, what led you to join the Communist Party here in the United States?

My decision to join the Communist Party emanated from my belief that the only true path of liberation for Black people is the one that leads toward a complete and total overthrow of the capitalist class in this country and all its manifold institutional appendages which insure its ability to exploit the masses and enslave Black people. Convinced of the need to employ Marxist-Leninist principles in the struggle for liberation, I joined the Che-Lumumba Club, which is a militant, all-Black collective of the Communist Party in Los Angeles committed to the task of rendering Marxism-Leninism relevant to Black people. But mindful of the fact that once we as Black people act out to destroy the capitalist system we would be heading in a suicidal direction if we attempted to go at it alone. The whole question of allies was crucial. And furthermore aside from students, we need important allies at the point of production. I do not feel that all white workers are going to be inveterate conservatives. Black leadership in working-class struggles is needed to radicalize necessary sectors of the working class.

The practical perspective of the Che-Lumumba Club is based on an awareness of the need to emphasize the national character of our people's struggle and to struggle around the specific forms of oppression which have kept us at the very lowest levels of American society for hundreds of years, but at the same time to place ourselves as Black people in the forefront of a revolution involving masses of people to destroy capitalism, to eventually build a socialist society and thus to liberate not only our own people but all the downtrodden in this country. And further, recognizing the international character of the revolution especially in this period when the battle against our homegrown capitalists is being carried out all over the world, in Indo-China, Africa and Latin America. My decision to join the Communist Party was predicated in part on the ties the party has established with revolutionary movements throughout the world.

How do you see the relationship of Blacks and whites in terms of united struggle here in this country? Do you think that Black-white unity is possible and if so, on what grounds?

Well, the point has been made often that the Black people acting alone are capable of overthrowing the capitalist system in this country. If we organize ourselves correctly, this position continues, we can unleash enough violence to bring the country to its knees; we can destroy it entirely. Perhaps this is true, I don't know — but nonetheless, I think there is a fundamental fallacy in the notion of revolution that's implied in this position, for the essence of a successful revolution in this country will not be the destruction of the country but rather the destruction of institutions which deter the people from having access to their own creations. And no one can deny that the genesis of US capitalism was inextricably bound up with the exploitation of slave labor. Black people created the basis for all the wealth and riches accumulated in the hands of a few, powerful families in this country today. We therefore have a right to this wealth. Therefore, our fundamental strategy ought to consist not in destroying this wealth, but rather in abolishing the property relations which allow those few to hoard wealth while the masses of Black people eke out their existence at an extremely low economic level. We must destroy the institutions in which racism and exploitation are crystallized and project at the same time new institutions which will allow us to be free.

But while the former position — the one that says Black people can destroy the country acting alone — bases its activity on military strategy alone, the latter position of course will have to call for political strategy in the context of which perhaps military tactics will play a subordinate role together with all the varying tactical considerations we decide will best carry us to victory. Now starting with the assumption that we African men and women, super-exploited over the centuries in all and sundry forms, want total liberation from capitalism, we must inevitably draw the conclusion that our thrust toward liberation must be organically bound up with the movement involving large numbers of white people who through a socialist revolution will liberate themselves. And particularly whites at the point of production, for after all we want to take over, not destroy, the production apparatus in order to revolutionize the relations of production so that the people who work that apparatus collectively receive the fruits of their labor. This is the only way we as Black people can come into our own and this is the only way the masses of white people can cease to be puppets for the ruling class. But we can never lose sight of the fact that insofar as the oppression of Black people is concerned, the majority of whites in this country has been deluded not only in the sense of accepting the racist policies of the capitalist class and its government but they've also actively perpetuated racism to the degree that it has become absolutely imbedded in the social fabric of this country. Therefore, the whole problem of Black-white unity is a very tenuous one under these circumstances and precisely because of the all-pervasive nature of racism, the issue of Black-white unity can be resolved only by recognizing the necessity for Black people to provide the leadership for the total struggle.

Black-white unity with Black people in the forefront — because the phenomenon of racism and super-exploitation under capitalism has not only placed Black people at the very lowest plane of the social order but it has also paralyzed the ability of whites to struggle in a radical fashion. The reactionary tendencies of many trade unions are directly proportional to their inability to transcend their own racist policies. Black people, on the other hand, have unfolded in response to our oppression an increasingly revolutionary understanding as well as an increasingly militant practice to rid ourselves of our oppressors. In order for Black-white unity to become a reality it will be imperative for whites to acknowledge the central necessity of combating racism on all levels. It will be imperative for whites to accept the leadership of Black people.

Do you think it is possible to beat back and defeat the Nixon administration’s attempt to drive the country to the right?

First of all, if we attempt an objective appraisal of conditions in this country, I'm convinced that we will not infer that fascism in its full maturity has descended upon us. This evaluation, however, does not indicate that we now live within the confines of a perfect bourgeois democracy — by no means. This country is galloping at high speed down the path leading to South African-type fascism. The very fact that political prisoners are rapidly increasing in number and are emerging as a central focus around which masses of people are mobilizing is indicative of the fascist tendency of the time. And we should never forget that fascist tactics have been employed against Black people, Black communities, for centuries. Fascist tactics of repression should, however, not be confused with fascism. To do so would be to obfuscate the nature of our struggle today — for once we have acknowledged the existence of a mature fascism our struggle takes on a purely defensive character and virtually all of our energies are concentrated on the task of defending ourselves from the onslaught of oppression, for the circumstances surrounding our existence have so degenerated that we have lost all possibility of movement; that the only alternative for organizing is the clandestine type. Conditions in this country have not yet deteriorated to that level. We still retain a slight degree of flexibility. Therefore, we must continue to make use of the legal channels to which we have access which of course does not mean that we operate exclusively on the legal plane. At this point, the underground movement has its role to play also. The important thing is to realize that we must do everything in our power to consolidate and solidify a mass movement devoted to struggling not only against repression but with the positive idea of socialism as its goal, This means, of course, that we assume an offensive rather than a defensive posture.

As an active campaigner for the freedom of political prisoners before your own arrest and now as a political prisoner yourself, how do you see this fight in its relation to the movement as a whole?

The movement which is beginning to crystallize around political prisoners is extremely important on a number of different levels. Under fascism such a movement would be virtually impossible, relating to what I said before. At this juncture the success of that movement will be determined not only by its ability to secure the release of political prisoners, but perhaps more important by its ability to expand into a movement geared to overthrow the system itself.

It is important in this connection to realize the Black political prisoner is very often a communist, whether she or he be a member of the Communist Party, as I am, or an independent communist such as George Jackson [brother of the slain Jonathan Jackson and a prisoner in Soledad]. The meaning of scientific socialism and therefore the underlying reason for many of the frameups of Black revolutionaries must be revealed to the masses of people, particularly Black people. And eventually the fight around political prisoners will become one of the many components out of which a mass, socialist-inspired movement for liberation of Black and white will emerge.

This means people must begin to understand not only that George Jackson and the other Soledad Brothers have been falsely accused of killing a prison guard of that ‘correctional facility’ as it's called, but that George was singled out because he is a Black communist and in fact, he had been previously compelled to do 10 years for a crime which ordinarily entails no more than two years by the oppressive California parole board precisely because of his politics and his efforts to persuade his fellow captives to enlist in the struggle for Black liberation, to enlist in the struggle for the destruction of capitalism.

To move to another level on which the light around political prisoners must be waged, we must also link up the circumstances leading to the frameup of so many Black revolutionaries with the generalized genocidal attack on our people and thereby relate the issue of the political prisoner to the concrete needs and interests of Black people.

For it is not often that one encounters in any Black ghetto in this country a family that has not experienced some immediate contact with the corrupt judicial system and a repressive prison apparatus. It is not only impossible for a Black revolutionary to get justice in the courts, but Black people in general have been the victims rather than the recipients of bourgeois justice.

Therefore, a major focus of the struggle around political prisoners ought to be offensive rather than defensive in character and should consist in placing the bankrupt judicial system and its appendages, the jails and prisons, on trial. We must lay bare the whole system and concretely associate the movement to liberate political prisoners with the grass-roots movements that are exploding in the dungeons all over this country.

The press, as you know, has vilified David Poindexter and some of this feeling has been picked up by sections of the left. Can you say something about David Poindexter?

The bourgeois press will always resort to the most devious means of discrediting those who rebel against the establishment. They consciously contrived an image of David Poindexter as the ‘mysterious companion’ implying often that, in fact, it might have been this man about whom nothing was known who turned me in. Those individuals on the left who drew such conclusions allowed themselves to be led into a trap set by agents of our enemy. I insist that David Poindexter should be admired for his acts, for he put his life on the line in order to assist me to escape my executioners. And I ask this question, how many of those who have criticized him would have been willing to go so far?

How do you see the women's movement? Also, do you consider it to have a special role for Black women?

Let me begin by saying this: no revolutionary should fail to understand the underlying significance of the dictum that the success or failure of a revolution can almost always be gauged by the degree to which the status of women is altered in a radical, progressive direction. After all, Marx and Engels contended that there are two basic facts around which the history of mankind revolves: production and reproduction. The way in which people obtain their means of subsistence on one hand and in which the family is organized on the other hand. Further, if it is true the outcome of a revolution will reflect the manner in which it is waged, we must unremittingly challenge anachronistic bourgeois family structures and also the oppressive character of women's role in American society in general. Of course, this struggle is part and parcel of a total revolution. Led by women, the fight for the liberation of women must be embraced by men as well. The battle for women's liberation is especially critical with respect to the effort to build an effective Black liberation movement. For there is no question about the fact that as a group, Black women constitute the most oppressed sector of society.

Historically we were constrained not only to survive on an economic level as slaves, but our sexual status was that of a breeder of property for the white slave master as well as being the object of his perverse sexual desires. Our enemies have attempted to mesmerize us, to mesmerize Black people, by propounding a whole assortment of myths with respect to the Black woman. We are inveterate matriarchs, implying we have worked in collusion with the white oppressor to insure the emasculation of our men. Unfortunately, some Black women have accepted these myths without questioning their origin and without being aware of the counterrevolutionary content and effect. They're consequently falling into behind-the-scenes positions in the movement and refuse to be aggressive and take leadership in our struggle for fear of contributing to the oppression of the Black male.

As Black women, we must liberate ourselves and provide the impetus for the liberation of Black men from this whole network of lies around the oppression of Black women which serve only to divide us, thus impeding the advance of our total liberation struggle.

There is much to be learned from the progression of George Jackson's ideas around the issue of Black women. His book [‘Soledad Brother’] ought to be read from that perspective. Unfortunately a letter to me that dealt extensively with the transformation he had experienced himself with respect to Black women was not among the few that were published in the book. Perhaps it can be published at a later date.

Can you describe how you are being treated in the Women's House of Detention?

This is a prison and the atrocious conditions that characterize virtually every American prison are present in this place. Rather than start with the specific treatment I have been receiving, I would like to delineate the circumstances under which all of us are compelled to exist.

First of all, the prison is filthy. It is infested with roaches and mice. Often we discover roaches cooked into our food. Not too long ago, a sister found a mousetail in her soup. A few days ago I was drinking a cup of coffee and I was forced to spit out a roach.

Roaches literally cover the walls of our cells at night, crawling across our bodies while we sleep. Every night we hear the screams of inmates who wake up to find mice scurrying across their bodies. I discovered one in bed with me last night in fact.

The medical conditions here are abominable. The doctors are racists and entirely insensitive to the needs of the women here. One sister who is housed in my corridor complained to the doctor not too long ago that she had terrible pains in her chest.

After which the doctor suggested to her that she get a job without once examining her. It was later discovered that the sister had tumors in her breast and needed immediate hospital attention. This is indicative of the way we are treated here.

We spend most of our time in either 5 x 9 cells with filth and concrete floors or outside on the bare corridors. We are not even allowed to place blankets on the floor where we must sit to protect ourselves from the filth and the cold.

To talk a little about the library, they have a collection of adventure stories and romances which they have designated the library. It is important to realize that although the prison population is 95 per cent Black and Puerto Rican, I found only five or six books about Black people and literature in Spanish is extremely scarce.

I could go on and on but perhaps now I will turn to the specific kinds of treatment I have been receiving myself. I am convinced that the authorities in this place have been instructed to make life as difficult as possible for me, probably in order to convince me to stop fighting extradition.

Of course after the courts overruled them and they were compelled to release me from solitary confinement and 24-hour guard, they had to seek other ways to assert their dominance.

Unlike the other women who are being held for trial, I am forced to wear institutional clothing. They say I am a high security risk and they want to make it difficult for me to escape.

They refuse to permit my attorneys to give me legal material unless they first read it over, demonstrating that they have no respect whatsoever for the confidentiality which is supposed to exist between lawyer and client.

I could continue to enumerate a hundred little things that have been done in the hope of breaking me but I continue to give notice to them that there is absolutely nothing they can do to break my determination to keep struggling.

The only way they can accomplish this is by taking my life and then they would have to face the wrath of the people. The same holds true for Ericka, Bobby, George, the Soledad Brothers, etc.

What is your relationship with the other prisoners?

I have never encountered such an overwhelmingly warm and cordial welcome. Obviously the reason why the prison authorities isolated me was the enthusiastic welcome I received. Each time I go from one area of the jail to another, the sisters hold up their clenched fists and convey expressions of solidarity.

While I was in solitary confinement, the sisters on the floor conducted demonstrations in my behalf. When I embarked upon a hunger strike, many of them joined.

After I was transferred into population, some of the sisters on my corridor, with whom I had spent a great deal of time, were helping me answer letters from the outside. They were all immediately transferred to another floor but we still find ways to communicate with one another. I have already mentioned the state of the so-called library. After many requests and arguments, I was told that if books were sent directly from the publishing company I could receive them.

Now the authorities allow me to bring up five of these books at a time per week. The sisters are immensely interested in the reading material I receive — everything from George Jackson's prison letters to works by Lenin. The books circulate all over the floor and are the occasion for many a discussion. Since the authorities have indicated that they are totally insensitive to the desires of the inmates, I would hope that brothers and sisters in the streets take it upon themselves to donate relevant literature to the library here.

Women’s House of Detention

New York

October, 1970


[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
If They Come in the Morning
The trial of Angela Davis is remembered as one of America's most historic political trials, and no one can tell the story better than Davis herself. Opening with a letter from James Baldwin to Ange...

Filed under: black-lives-matter, policing, prison