Seven Stories Press (2005)
Reviewed by Dylan Powell
Angela Davis is an icon of the highest sense, an icon critical of their own iconic status. From her rise as a critical socio-political force in the late 1960’s to her still defiant role as an activist-academic, Davis is a great example of protracted struggle met with theory and praxis. A long time critic of the prison industrial complex, and founder of the term, Davis critiques the expansion and perpetuation of prison industry as an insider and outsider; her activism with the Black Liberation Movement led to Davis’s own experience as a political prisoner (Marin County Courthouse Incident) and her subsequent grassroots work with Critical Resistance, an organization she co-founded, attempts to place pressure back upon the Prison Industrial Complex.
Davis “Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons and Torture” works as a great reflexive piece, placing Davis’s past work and life in focus with her critiques on the prison industrial complex. Building off of critiques from anti-slavery figures like W. E. B. DuBois, who Davis gives a nod to in using the term “Abolition Democracy,” as well as prison intellectuals like Antonio Grasmci and George Jackson, Davis makes a compelling argument for the prison industrial complexes post-slavery ascension as a new arm of racial oppression. Expanding that critique as an arm of American Empire, Davis also is exceptional in applying these ideas to ways in which exporting prison systems mirror domestic repression, be that based upon gender, race, class, etc.
The most exciting parts of the short book come when Davis is dealing with these intersections and highlighting the prison industrial complex as a fluid oppressor. The ability to move seamlessly between critiques of repression is something which sets this book apart and which places the critique in a liberatory context; combating the prison industrial complex is about more than liberating one specific community.
Conversely, her caution to those advancing a critique of privilege in society is paramount, “The challenge of the twenty-first century is not to demand equal opportunity to participate in the machinery of oppression.” The book continues this reflexive tone throughout, recognizing the frameworks of structural oppression, but also vigorously investigating the ways in which we internalize and perpetuate those same structures.
The most obvious critique of the book is its length. A small book of a mere 131 pages does not do this book enough justice. The interview style of the book is also sometimes straining in awkward push and pull as one would like to see some ideas touched on more, only to have the focus moved in another direction. It’s somewhat of a positive though that the major critique is one of breadth and format. It is the strength of the ideas that highlight these weaknesses.
In the end we are left with a strong impression of the foundations and extensions of this critique of the prison industrial complex, both personal, domestic and abroad. Because of its style and length, it may be better suited for an introduction to the prison industrial complex, however, with that said it is a very strong introduction.