About halfway through her lecture at Gonzaga University, Angela Davis asked if anyone in the audience was familiar with “the box.”
While the remark drew puzzled expressions from many in the audience, a few near the front spoke up to inform Davis that Gonzaga officials have been working to get rid of “the box.”
A moment passed before Davis – a civil rights icon, reputed academic and vocal opponent of the “prison-industrial complex” – explained that “the box” is a yes-or-no question that appears on many college application forms: “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
The box, Davis explained, can eliminate hope of redemption for the formerly incarcerated: “If you’re honest and say yes, then that means the end of a possible academic career.”
That was one of many justice issues that Davis touched on during her hourlong lecture Wednesday evening, which drew around 800 people to the third-floor ballroom of Gonzaga’s Hemmingson Center.
“It’s interesting, isn’t it? When one talks about a prisoner, the very first thing one wants to know is: What did he do? What did she do?” she said. “I mean, if we (all) had to introduce ourselves by telling what we have done, the bad things we have done, and if that were the way in which our identities were shaped for the rest of our lives, where would any of us be?”
Davis emerged as a prominent social activist in the ’60s as a leader of the Communist Party and affiliate of the Black Panthers. In 1969, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan attempted to have her barred from teaching at universities in California. The following year, she was targeted in an FBI investigation of an armed courtroom takeover that left four men dead; she had purchased some of the guns involved and was later acquitted of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy charges.
During Wednesday’s lecture, Davis said it had been a while since those features of her past drew controversy, but she alluded to posters that were recently distributed on Gonzaga’s campus calling attention to her one-time appearance on the FBI’s most-wanted list.
She began the lecture by discussing the recent focus on science, math, engineering and technology in institutions of higher education.
“I think that it is important to encourage the sciences, but within a framework that only the humanities can provide,” she said. “The recent marginalization of the humanities, the dwindling support for the humanities, especially within research institutions, has helped, I think, to provoke a crisis in democracy. Democracy is impossible without humanistic inquiry.”
On the topic of mass incarceration, she said it’s important “to examine how the institution of the prison became a structure, an apparatus that allowed many of the historical forms of racism not only to survive but to flourish.”
She also dismissed the notion that the United States ever evolved into a society free of racial disparities. While Barack Obama was president, she said, a prisoner told her, “It may be true that there is one black man in the White House, but there are over a million black men in the big house.”
Such insights, she said, have been integral in her academic work at the University of California. She has written more than a dozen books spanning issues of feminism and misogyny, Marxism, popular music, mass incarceration, racism and African American history.
“I’ve learned, doing this work, that the knowledge produced by prisoners themselves has been foundational,” she said, “both for our activism against mass incarceration and for the emergence of new academic fields.”
Davis expressed hope that Americans are beginning to address pervasive racism in the country’s culture and institutions.
“Since 2012, and the racist killing of Trayvon Martin, public consciousness regarding racism has deepened, I believe,” she said.
And she urged people to stand up to the Donald Trump administration through social activism.
“I want to suggest that the election of Trump was in part a reaction to important achievements associated with radical activism over the last period,” she said. “We don’t have to assume that we must come to a standstill now because of the backwardness and intransigence of the present administration. That administration represents a past from which we have to try to extricate ourselves.”