Angela Davis presents on past activism work

Courtesy of California State Fullerton

On the evening of April 2, students and faculty alike crowded into the Agnes Flanagan Chapel for an event organized by the Prison Abolition Club (PAC) to kickstart the Third Annual Transformative Action & Abolition Symposium. This year’s theme, “Regroup and Restore,” addressed activist burnout, long-term advocacy and sustainable forms of commitment to social change. Dr. Angela Davis, a renowned civil rights activist, advocate of prison abolition and former member of the Black Panther Party visited Lewis & Clark for the fourth time in the past 50 years to speak at the symposium. 

The event, titled “A Conversation with Angela Davis,” explored a number of thought-provoking questions that were passed in on notecards by students in attendance.

Davis, who is recognized internationally for her activism and scholarship, rose to national fame in 1969 after being fired from her position as a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles for her involvement in the Communist Party, though she was eventually reinstated. In 1970, she was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, went into hiding and was arrested under false charges of kidnapping and murder. 

Over the course of her 18-month incarceration, she became the subject of an international campaign entitled “Free Angela Davis.” Her imprisonment garnered mass political and cultural attention and contributed to a growing global movement against political violence and the prison-industrial complex. Public figures, artists and organizers mobilized in support of her release, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who wrote “Angela,” and the Rolling Stones, who wrote “Sweet Black Angel,” each in 1972. 

To this day, she continues to advocate for prison abolition, the dismantling of oppressive political and social institutions, anti-war efforts and LGBTQ+ rights, among many other anti-racist and anti-capitalist causes. She holds the title of Distinguished Professor Emerita in the Humanity Division at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

LC has previously invited Professor Davis to speak on three different occasions: In 1981, she opened for a forum on “Education and the Struggle Against Racism;” in 1984 she presented on “Equality and Quality: Obtainable Goals of the U.S. Educational System” and in 2001 she gave the keynote address at the 20th Annual Gender Symposium.

Natalie Connelly ’26, chair of PAC and co-chair of the Transformative Action & Abolition Symposium, introduced and moderated the event, beginning with a land acknowledgment. 

LC Dean of Equity & Inclusion Danielle Torres, spoke to the many accomplishments and ever-evolving impact of Davis’ work throughout the years. She expressed her personal admiration and gratitude for Davis’ willingness to contribute her knowledge and expertise to the LC community once again and share her wide-ranging perspective with today’s students.

“The work of a true revolutionary is nuanced, courageous, deep, complex and wide,” said Torres.

Connelly welcomed Davis to the stage for a thoughtful discussion.

Davis shared that she was impressed by the extent of social change she has witnessed in her lifetime, recalling that, back during the Freedom Movement, commonly known as the Civil Rights Movement, she and her fellow participants did not expect to see the fruits of their labor within their lifetimes.

“How would I have responded thirty years ago if someone had told me there was a prison abolition club at Lewis & Clark?” asked Davis, chuckling to herself. “I’m kind of amazed at that.”

The first question from the audience asked what young activists misunderstand most about her work.

“The fact that so many things are attributed to me as an individual,” responded Davis. “It’s all about attempting to create more space for love, happiness … It’s all about creating a new world.”

Davis discussed the interconnectedness of all social movements and forms of oppression and the longstanding existence of abolitionist movements.

“Prison abolition coincides with the emergence of prison itself,” said Davis, before briefly touching on the emergence and evolution of the modern prison system. “The Quakers themselves invented the penitentiary … The Quakers thought that if you give people the opportunity to reflect on what they’ve done, to live a quiet life, they would be reshaped.”

She mentioned Charles Dickens as an early figure who questioned the function of solitary confinement in rehabilitating society and preventing crime. 

Connelly mistakenly prefaced a question about civic engagement and voter abstention with the remark that Davis had endorsed Joe Biden for the 2024 presidential election. “I did?” Davis responded, chuckling. Davis gently corrected Connelly, detailing how she urges voters to vote against the Republican candidate, who Davis refused to name.

Davis then noted the importance of elections and voting in paving the way for more diverse leaders in the future, again emphasizing that she does not support the current president and has not, nor ever would, endorse candidates of either of the two major political parties.

“I do believe that elections are meaningful, not in the way that they are representative, (but in the) broadening of the terrain,” shared Davis. “Because it may help us create more space for the kind of radical activism that really brings about change in the world.”

Another student’s question led to a conversation about ethics, values, consistency and reckoning with oneself. Davis shared a past experience in which she grappled with the loss of a close friend who was killed in the midst of a petty crime. During this time, Davis explained how this experience made her question her beliefs surrounding the death penalty up to that point and reflect on her anger towards the person who committed the crime. While she is opposed to the death penalty, she had to reckon with her own emotions due to her personal loss.  

“The ethic of abolition really helps us to recognize the extent to which we are part of something larger … Our emotions are not even our own,” said Davis.

Connelly shared an example of how she approaches the daily practice of prison abolition within her own life and as a leader in PAC. She connected the significance of conflict resolution skills in one’s personal life to one’s ability to engage in meaningful and productive conversations on a larger scale.

Davis agreed on the importance of humanity and social connection in fostering societal growth. She noted the absurdity of isolation as a tenet of the prison-industrial complex when, in an ideal world, people who have committed crimes are given the opportunity to engage with their community, with art, with literature and with outlets to find meaning in the world.

“We tend to imagine these institutions abstractly,” she said. “We need to open all the prison gates and let them out … The overwhelming result would probably be that large numbers of incarcerated people would be given the opportunity to work on the problems in the so-called ‘free world.’”

Davis described an example of how to solve a problem without relying on a legal system or pre-established systems of punishment in response to crimes. She told a story about her cousin who was incarcerated for a significant portion of his life. Once he was out of prison, he bought himself a car, and then shortly after the purchase, his car was completely totaled by a drunk driver. This drunk driver was a lawyer, who did not want to lose his license, and her cousin just wanted a new car. The two agreed not to report the incident to law enforcement, instead deciding that they could figure out the situation on their own terms. 

Davis’ cousin told the drunk driver that he would need to do two things: The former would be replacing the totaled car and the latter would be attending a weekly meeting of men who had killed people drunk driving and had been imprisoned for manslaughter. The situation was resolved without involving legal institutions or incarceration, and Davis shared that the drunk driver did attend every meeting, and that she was certain he would never drive drunk again.

“Here we are in the 21st century, still addressing the failure to conceptualize abolition,” said Davis. 

Davis continued discussing the questions at the heart of building a just and democratic future.

“How can we guarantee that we will create a society in which these systems of oppression are obsolete?” asked Davis. “Given all the pain and suffering, how will we create a world in which people will get to experience happiness and joy?”

The importance of creating and finding happiness was a topic posed to Davis for commentary towards the end of the conversation. 

“What I find so remarkable about the Black liberation struggle is it has also been a moment that has produced beauty and creativity and art … music of liberation, of freedom, that looks forward,” said Davis. “If we’re not enjoying ourselves, even in the course of serious fumble, something is wrong.”

The PAC symposium had many more events throughout the week that focused on how to engage with the sustainability of activism.

“You cannot figure out how to address really drastic and serious acts of harm if you’re unsure how to recognize when/how/what harm looks like in your life,” Connelly said via email. “The best way to start cultivating these ideas, and to unlearn our learned assumptions about crime and punishment is to start with conflict resolution. With people you love, and people you don’t … You’ve got to start somewhere, and the most accessible way is through conflict resolution and interpersonal problem-solving.”

The PAC hosted other events throughout the week including Postcards for Palestine, Art for Social Change x PAC Open Studio, Student Presentations, Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement (IME) x PAC Patch-Making Workshop. 

PAC’s final events of the symposium are today, April 5. There will be an Open Heart Open Minds Screening and Panel from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers and a Center for Social Change and Community Involvement x PAC Incarcerated Pen Pal Writing Workshop from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. in Fowler 244. You can contact the PAC at if you are interested in learning more.

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