On Thursday night, students gathered both virtually and in Fountain Square to listen to Dr. Angela Davis discuss abolition and the activism of Northwestern students currently seeking to abolish the Northwestern Police Department. Her voice echoed through the streets of downtown Evanston.
“The campaign that you are now organizing against the police on the campus of Northwestern is so important – get the police off campus,” Davis said, prompting cheers from students gathered.
On the 32nd day of Northwestern Community Not Cops’ daily actions, about 50 students gathered to see the projection of For Members Only’s State of the Black Union with Davis. The abolitionist, well-known for her book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, called in from Oakland, California, which she noted was home to the Ohlone Tribe.
“Abolition, as you know, is not primarily about the negative act of elimination and revocation. It is about recreation, it's about rebuilding, reimagining,” Davis said. “We do not get rid of the old and assume that the new has to be constructed on the same foundation as the old. We create new foundations, new footprints, new societies.”
After being introduced by members of FMO who explained the goals of their organization and NUCNC, Davis spoke for about 15 minutes before African American Studies Professor kihana miraya ross joined to moderate a Q&A. After the Q&A with ross, members of FMO directed audience questions to Davis.
During the Q&A, ross posed a question to Davis about “the sacrifices that students are making” currently and asked her advice on how they can continue to do so in the face of “fear of brutalization.” Davis, who was arrested in 1970 and imprisoned for over a year before being acquitted in 1972, spoke to the sense of community that helped get her through her time in prison, including her time in solitary confinement and her fear that she would be sentenced to death.
“I know that it's not because I'm exceptional. It's not because I have this intrinsic courage. It is because of the fact that I've always felt myself a part of a larger community,” Davis said. “So my advice is to create community, strong community and recognize that you are never alone. And that if you are afraid, you are afraid together, and being together gives you more strength and more courage.”
At Fountain Square, some of those walking through downtown paused to listen, and drivers peered out their windows. Police cars were parked on adjacent streets and would occasionally drive by, a significant reduction in police presence compared to Monday night, when over 60 police officers in riot gear met students who gathered in the same spot to eat breakfast food and read abolitionist literature.
ross also asked Davis about how accountability works in a future without the current policing and prison systems.
“Others have developed new paradigms and urged us to think not about retributive justice, not about justice that is punitive, but about justice that will help us, that will help repair our relations to each other,” Davis said. “But it's not going to happen overnight, because the ideology of retribution and punishment is so deeply embedded not only in our institutions, but in our own emotions and the way in which we perceive the world.”
In the lead up to Davis’ talk, NUCNC led a series called “Y’all Better Not Embarrass Me In Front of Angela Davis,” dedicating an hour each day from Nov. 8-11 to discussing transformative justice, policing, the history of prison abolition and abolition vs. reform. The conversation of policing as not only an institution but also an ideology came up in the series’ second day.
When asked about the increasing diffusion of abolitionist discourse into the mainstream, Davis mentioned that she never thought that she would live to experience it.
“It's kind of weird, but it's beautiful, because so many of us never expected that we would actually inhabit a moment like this,” Davis said, laughing on screen, as students gathered in Fountain Square laughed too. “One of the things that I've always said for years and decades, is that we always have to act as if it's possible to radically transform the world, even though it may not be transformed.”
Since the June 3 petition demanding the abolition of NUPD, students have criticized what they perceive as administrators' lack of preparedness to substantially discuss the topic of abolition during Community Dialogues and emphasis on reform and diversity and inclusion training. Davis mentioned her own frustration with these practices.
“For 50 years, at least, we've been talking about the fact that racism is systemic. It doesn't matter how many individuals attend unlearning racism workshops,” Davis said to student cheers. “As long as we don't address the ways in which it is embedded in our institutions, there won't be change.”
*Article thumbnail courtesy of Olivia Lloyd/North by Northwestern