Mass Incarceration, the Democrats, and Angela Davis

Don't Be Fooled; and Don't Let Others Be Part of Fooling You

May 19, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


The following is an excerpt from an important talk from the Revolutionary Communist Party, "Where We Are in the Revolution," that is being presented in a number of cities during the month of May.


Around mass incarceration and criminalization, there is beginning to be a different, more combative mood. This has been building for a while, and our Party along with others has been part of building that. And now, suddenly, the Democrats—after at least 25 years of outdoing the Republicans in carrying out the imprisonment of masses of Black and Latino youth and the stripping away of legal rights to appeal, of outdoing the Republicans in lecturing these youth on "no excuses," of indulging in those infamous racist code words "tough on crime,"—have come to pose as "very concerned about mass incarceration." They will promise you everything in order damp down your resistance and lead you on a road to nowhere. Don't be fooled; and don't let others be part of fooling you on this. This is a critical juncture.

As one example of how NOT to understand what these rulers are doing and the real dangers involved in that, I want to talk about Angela Davis, who was recently on Amy Goodman speaking about mass incarceration. She said, speaking of Obama's sudden "interest" in mass incarceration, that:

It's pretty unfortunate that Obama has waited until now to speak out, but it's good that he is speaking out... I think ... after this world-historic election that took place, we went home and decided that this one man in Washington would carry the ball for us, not recognizing that, actually, he was the president of the imperialist, militarist United States of America. And I think that we might have had more victories during the era of Obama's administration had we mobilized, had we continually put pressure on him, and also created the possibility for him to take more progressive stances.

This is exactly the kind of thinking that has eased the way into the horror of the past 40 years. This is a false path—it is dangerous, but it doesn't necessarily appear that way, so let's break it down.

First of all, the only reason Obama is "speaking out" is both because other countries are increasingly using the outrage of mass incarceration to neutralize the U.S. claims to being a great champion of human rights AND because there is an increasing frustration among not only Black people but many other people who had invested hopes in Obama. If he didn't "speak out" he risked losing control of "the Democratic base"—that is, the oppressed masses they are in charge of misleading and controlling.

Second, what is this "speaking out"? Is he calling on people to move heaven and earth to end this outrage, or to at least protest? No. This "speaking out" has taken the form, in his White House speech of February 27, of, when you drill down to the essence, blaming Black people for supposedly not being good parents—and here I have to say it takes some gall to lock millions of men and thousands of women away on drug possession charges for years and years, hundreds of miles away from their impoverished kids, who don't have the money to get to you or even call you... or to put poor Black women in situations where they are forced to work without money for childcare, thanks to Clinton's ending of "welfare as we know it," often battling eviction if not outright homelessness at the same time... and then to turn around and blame them for supposedly not being good parents. So, no, it's not "good" that he's "speaking out."

Third, the main "world-historic meaning" of Obama's election was the way in which all too many progressive people willfully deluded themselves and others into a "feel-good narrative" about what that election was going to mean and why those who choose the nominees (and no, it's not you and me) settled on Obama—precisely as a "trump card" to bring back the millions who had begun to lose their "faith in America" through the Bush years.

And, oh yeah, not everyone "didn't recognize" that Obama was imperialist and militarist—we for our part not only recognized it but insisted on spoiling everyone else's fantasy—everyone else's "narrative"—by refusing to stop telling that "inconvenient" truth. If you're finally going to admit that now, then at least tell it like it really is, which is that he is a war criminal. Words like "imperialist" and "militarist" are not meaningless buzzwords designed to show that you're with it, they have a specific meaning—it means that someone is the head of a system which is characterized by the attempt to dominate as much of the world as possible and to do so by means of military violence or the threat of such violence. Imperialism and militarism are not a set of policies or attitudes which can be switched on or off or somehow mitigated depending on who is at the controls: they describe a SYSTEM. If someone is the head of that system then it means that every calculation he—or she—makes is based on advancing the interests of that system. What Obama decides to do or not do about mass incarceration is based on that, including whether by doing a few half measures or even just talking some stuff he can prevent people from rising up or, if they do begin to stir, derail that into channels that are harmless to the system and which do not, in fact, even begin to touch mass incarceration and because of that end up discouraging and demobilizing people. We didn't "forget" that and neither did some other people, and we didn't "go home"—we joined together to FIGHT these outrages, taking arrests around stop-and-frisk, supporting the heroic hunger strikers in the California and other prisons, we worked with the people's neighborhood patrols to stop illegitimate and illegal abuse under color of authority, and so on.

If we end up aiming our struggle at "creating the possibility for Obama to do better," we are no better than calves clamoring to get into the veal pen because we'll get more food, and hoping that the farmer won't take us to the slaughter house. This October—when the Stop Mass Incarceration Network has called for a month of resistance—and in the time leading up to it, even as it has ways for many, many people to join in from many different points of view, has to also burst the bonds of respectability, it has to find the ways to take people in America out of their comfort zone and confront them with the reality of what they are letting happen and make clear that there are people increasingly determined NOT to put up with it any longer! And you can't really do that if you're thinking about "creating space for Obama." Guess what—he doesn't want that space. And he'll tell you, like he called the immigrants' rights activists to the White House this spring and demanded that they back off their protests. If you really understand that Obama represents a system—a system that admits that it is on track to imprison one-third of the Black male babies born in any given year... a system that really does have NO right to rule, no legitimacy whatsoever just based on that alone... then act on that belief, and bring it out to others. Be part of weakening that wall, don't follow people who try to patch up the cracks in the wall and paint over the rust.


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