If our Lives are Black. On Angela Davis and Gina Dent’s conference at La Maison de l’Amérique Latine, Paris
On November 25, the first-floor room where Angela Davis and Gina Dent were set to speak was already completely full an hour before the conference began. Keeping places proved to be a difficult task given that the ground floor room, where one found a screen and speakers for those who couldn’t make it to the first floor, was filled just as quickly, making any passage towards the hallway leading to the stairs rapidly impossible and turning the security personnel into improvised police so as to contain the crowds.
Trump’s victory in the presidential election was still fresh enough for it to occupy a good part of Angela Davis’s intervention. Despite the sadness and vulgarity of such a subject, the room was subjugated by her skillful elegance honoring everything with a precision and calm difficult to find elsewhere. One must be weary of exoticism, above all in politics: the political problems of another country can seem better analyzed and more interesting than our own, especially if the speaker is a star of the radical milieu and she is irresistibly charismatic. Yet what was most seductive about Davis and Dent’s approach, which they unfolded in tandem before the Parisian public at the Latin American House, was something that is not practiced enough in France: intersectionality. That is, the art of linking aspects of reality that present themselves as if disconnected and making them meet on the plane of struggles.
Angela Davis invited the audience to consider mass incarceration and the racist violence of the police as technologies of social exclusion, not as flaws in the system or emergency solutions to some critical situation. The constellation she mapped out was at once lightning quick and complex: the movement for black lives includes Black Lives Matter and they are neither identitarian nor attempts to construct a new universality. To say that black lives matter, those lives that are most subjected to abuse and oppression, is another way of saying that all lives matter. But this move towards universality is not anodyne. One must beware of universalisms constructed upon the implicit contempt for those they claim to include, of any unified point of view that silences specific differences. This is the crux of an identity politics that hides behind neutrality. Abolitionist feminism can get us out of this impasse because it addresses, in a non-assimilatory way, problems like the prison industrial complex and the structural racism of a punitive justice system that represses and mutes any contradictions linked to racial discrimination. In so far as the police and the judicial system are concerned, racism is systemic (recently, the tragic case of Théo L. has lengthened an already obscene list of affronts made by French police). It’s not a question of reforming these systems by deciding on a new set of criteria for who goes behind bars to be abused by a police officer who cannot act in an acceptable way.
It’s there that the revolutionary poetics of the thought laid out by Davis and Dent reveals its inspiring power for us all: we have to change our concept of “security”—they said—to no longer base it on violence, but rather on guaranteed housing, on free access to medical and psychiatric care and education, on protection from religious persecution and homophobia, on the protection of immigrants. In our time, these problems are at the heart of civil rights, those of the United States and elsewhere. Davis brought up the happy exception of American sanctuary cities that try to protect the undocumented from police persecution. She ended her talk by citing an open letter James Baldwin wrote her in prison, titled “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis”:
The will of the people, in America, has always been at the mercy of an ignorance not merely phenomenal, but sacred, and sacredly cultivated: the better to be used by a carnivorous economy which democratically slaughters and victimizes whites and blacks alike. But most white Americans do not dare admit this (though they suspect it) and this fact contains mortal danger for the blacks and tragedy for the nation (…) If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.
Gina Dent quickly followed suit, giving us other keys to understanding abolitionist feminism. This way of thinking is one that seeks independence from the forms of subjectivation inseparable from the industrial prison complex. One thing that we can at least find on a surface level—she says—is the fact that the movement for black lives, and Black Lives Matter, is a feminist movement and it’s for this reason that they don’t have leaders. Every figure who speaks in the name of the collective is questioned with the skepticism towards hegemony that comes from the feminist tradition. Identity is mobilized in a way that is non–identitarian: struggles around work, immigration and sexuality are always connected on the planes of justice and racism silently traversing them. The very term “abolitionist feminism” lifts a word from anti-slavery movements and this isn’t by accident. Prison abolitionism doesn’t propose getting rid of prisons to then leave society unchanged. The fear that the abolition of prison stirs—Dent explains—is indeed the horizon that prevents us from thinking otherwise. It’s up to us to disentangle crime and punishment from one another because punishment is not the consequence of crime. It also doesn’t produce the results it’s supposed to (reducing recurrence rates, discouraging criminality, reintegration into the world of work). The penalization of sexual violence, often hailed as a victory of feminism, must also be rethought through the prism of this new concept of security—one that doesn’t mean more police on the streets. While interpersonal violence is important, it’s necessary to keep state violence in mind. The solution to sexual violence doesn’t lay in growing incarceration rates but in the prevention of interpersonal violence (not only against women, but also against the LGBT community). At its core, abolitionist feminism concerns itself with colonialism as a philosophy and worldview. Indigenous feminism and popular sovereignty—central to Dent’s research—are essential to the abolition of the industrial prison complex. How do we think of land? The Sioux struggle at Standing Rock was mentioned as an example, as was the support that Black Lives Matter brought to the movement for the Palestinian cause, which is an important
step forward towards the internationalist position of a black movement.
Perhaps the most important question raised in the discussions that night is how one might define a political gnoseology.
Attention paid to opinion manipulation methods and learning processes for understanding mass reality has multiplied in scale since the results of the American elections. To get us out of the philosophical paradox of critiquing the very tool used to formulate the critique, Dent warns, we must make a shift at the very interior of our forms of rationality, especially in the way we have thought within the limits of capitalist rationality. Because this rationality is not only an abstract vision of the world but the base for a very concrete production of hegemony, rife with its own proof-less truths, as Trump has shown us.
The same regime shift in thinking pertains to prison: we have to stop imagining prisoners as bearers of prison culture—she says—because prison culture belongs more to the state than the individuals who are subjected to it. In the same vein secularity is preferred to secularism, given that the latter can signify the implicit dominance of one religion over another or the covering up of forms of intolerance (Davis cited the French laws banning the veil). From this problem flows many questions: if national identity must be considered first, what do we do if every form of identity preceding national belonging is perceived as threatening? What if the mode of temporality of the religion I practice is inconsistent with the mode of temporality of the state? Not wanting to cite Samuel Huntington and the clash of civilizations, Dent mentioned instead Spivak’s concept of worlding. In our society competing universalities—or worldings of the world—often coexist inside the same body. Abolitionist feminism must attack the suppression of specific differences and it must resist the secularisms that hide the forms of culture that they impose. It must resist anti-racisms that view instances of racism in isolation, enacted by one social group against another, and remain blind to its systemic expressions. It must resist the complex but sometimes distracting interplay of identity categories in the social.
Questions mostly came—paradoxically—from the Americans in the audience. They ranged from veganism to the exclusion of banlieue populations, touching on the immense challenges faced in this historical moment by attempts at resistance and building political momentum. A young African American woman expressed her distress at the election results and described her worry and confused urgency to do something without knowing how. Davis responded brilliantly: as someone who has spent decades in many different types of activism, I suggest that you find the activism that you are passionate about, not for example, volunteering because you think you have to. Liberalism caused us to fold back into our individualities, but individuals best express themselves in communities and the only way to get us out of this situation is to construct communities as intensively as possible and to do it in a way that brings us the most satisfaction. It’s for you to know if you’d prefer to stay sat in meetings all night or to share your poems. Because the construction of communities has to leave space for people’s aesthetic desires.
Angela Davis ends the debate on a hopeful note surpassing every imaginable optimism. We cannot start from the assumption—she warns—that we just have to bring down Wall Street to immediately experience utopia.
The case of South Africa makes clear the fact that we must first imagine the life we would like to live and speak about that, even if we will never experience it. We must imagine for ourselves new temporalities that can in turn reflect a new relation with Earth, with history and with the future. Personally, perhaps because I have grown older, I feel less and less concerned by what happens in my own lifetime. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the importance of the work that is done and that will allow another world to be ushered in. Even if we will not be witness to this world, we will have a spiritual presence like so many others who have struggled in the past.
Translated from French by Anna De Filippi
-  Cf. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/01/07/an-open-letter-to-my-sister-miss-angela-davis/ ↩
-  Certain positions of abolitionist feminism come very close to those of the Italian feminist movements for “delegislation.” Cf. especially The Milan Women’s Bookstore, Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990). ↩
-  For example, The New Yorker recently published two articles on these questions: in the February 6, 2017 issue James Surowiecki’s “Why Trump’s conflict of interest won’t hurt him” and in the February 27, 2017 issue Elisabeth Kolbert’s “Why facts don’t change our minds” with the subtitle “New Discoveries of the human mind show the limitation of reason.” ↩