Civil rights activist speaks out about injustices of prison system

Angela Davis, who spoke at the University YMCA on Friday, became the third woman to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List on Aug. 18, 1970. She was being held accountable for the bloody aftermath of a California courtroom’s hostage situation and an ensuing shoot-out with police — but she wasn’t even there.

She would stay at friends’ homes to avoid the FBI agents, and at night she’d be back on the move. The FBI found and arrested her in New York City in October 1970.

But while she was in jail, an international movement rallied to set her free.

She would later be released in February 1972 thanks to that movement. Because of her past and the people she knew who were in prison wrongfully, she has tried to change the prison system ever since. She spoke in Lazter Hall at the University YMCA on Friday about her past and problems with the prison system as part of this fall’s Friday Forum lecture series Rethinking Security: Beyond Mass Incarceration.

“I can actually remember being run off the freeway in Southern California because I had put a bumper sticker on my car that said ‘black is beautiful.’ That was in those days — I was a graduate student,” Davis said. “I can reflect.”

She named off people who had served time under false charges over the years — names that keep her passionate.

According to Global Research’s website, about 2 million people are in jail in the U.S., a number unmatched by any society in human history. The U.S. has more people behind bars than any other country in the world and holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners; only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the U.S. Davis said the number of jails in the country has been rapidly increasing since the war on drugs.

“We see the increasing profitability in imprisonment,” Davis said. “The tendency is to assume that there are so many people in prison because these people commit crime. And then I have to ask, what about all the people who are not in prison who commit crime and who commit the same crimes as the people who are in prison?”

Though Davis’ case in the early ‘70s was able to gain enough attention to force the court into giving her a chance at proving her innocence, many others are not as lucky. University YMCA Executive Director Mike Doyle said that Davis’ fame can help make forgotten stories better known.

“Someone like Angela Davis draws attention to these things that are very real around us that sometimes we don’t hear about or don’t pay attention to,” he said.

Doyle mentioned that he had been particularly moved by Darrell Cannon’s story — a story that he feels went unnoticed for years. Cannon shared his story at the YMCA’s Sept. 6 Friday Forum, explaining that, in 1983, he had been tortured by three Chicago Police officers into confessing to a murder he did not commit. The officers took Cannon to an isolated area.

“They told me, and I quote, ‘Nigger, look around, nobody is going to see or hear anything that happens to you today out here,’” Cannon said at the forum.

Then they dragged him out of the cop car and onto the ground. One of the officers turned around with a shell and a shotgun in his hands. Cannon said he thought the shell was being loaded into the barrel, so when the officer turned back around and pulled the trigger, he thought he was dead.

“When I heard the trigger click, in my mind, I actually thought he was blowing the back of my head off,” Cannon said.

Even with these threats, Cannon refused to talk. But things got worse.

“The man took out an electric cattle prodder. And he turned it on,” Cannon said. “And he stuck me with that electric cattle prodder in my genitals. And he kept shocking me. And he kept shocking me. After a while, I was ready to say anything.”

It would take Cannon 24 years to prove his innocence and regain his freedom.

“I spent … nine years in solitary confinement, where my bed was a concrete block with a thin mattress on it,” he said.

Despite Cannon’s experiences, he said most police officers are very good at what they do. He said the three white officers have not made him feel any hatred toward whites.

“He doesn’t hold any malice in his heart. He’s very much like Nelson Mandela,” Doyle said. “They’re powerful stories. I think one of the things is there are people who struggle with those kinds of experiences, unfortunately, all the time in the United States.”

Despite many of these stories being overshadowed by what Davis calls “dominant ideologies,” she said she has seen a change in people’s attitude toward how prisoners are viewed.

“I can remember when those of us who call ourselves prison abolitionists were considered to be absolutely out of our minds,” Davis said. “We were crazy radicals. Many people were so influenced by dominant ideologies that they could not understand what they had in common with people who were spending so many years of their lives behind bars.”

Stanton can be reached at [email protected]