Angela Davis

Speech delivered at the Embassy Auditorium, June 9, 1972

Angela Davis
June 09, 1972
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It's really a wonderful feeling to be back among the people. [applause, cheers] To be back among all of you who fought so long and so hard, among all of you who actually achieved my freedom. And I really wish you could have been there in the courtroom at the moment when those three "not guilty" verdicts were pronounced, because that victory was just as much yours as it was mine. ["Right on!" applause] And as we laughed and cried, these were expressions of our joy as we witnessed what was a real people's victory and in spirit you were all there at that moment.

Over the last few days I've been literally overwhelmed with congratulations and expressions of solidarity, whether it's been in meetings or on the streets or in restaurants; in the black and brown communities in northern California, wherever I've gone I've been greeted with hugs and kisses and it's really been beautiful. Even in a city like San Jose, among the white population, many many people have come out and have congratulated me and have told me that actually, they were behind us all the time. [applause] And during these last days I have sensed a real feeling of unity and togetherness and a kind of collective enthusiasm which I have rarely experienced on such a massive scale.

And in the midst of all of this it's sort of difficult for me to grasp that I am the person around whom all of this enthusiasm has emerged. Yet because of it I feel that I have a special responsibility – a special responsibility to you who have stood with me in struggle. But sometimes I have to admit when I'm off by myself and I reflect on everything that has happened over the last two years, I really wonder whether or not I will be able to meet the role which history has cut out for me, which you have cut out for me, but I promise I am going to try. That, I promise. [applause]

When it all started – and I'm speaking of myself – when I experienced the first stirrings of a commitment to the cause of freedom, the last thing I envisioned at that time were ambitions to become a figure known to great numbers of people. At that time I was simply aspiring to do everything I could to give my meager talents and energies to the cause of my people; to the cause of black people and brown people; and to all racially oppressed, and economically oppressed people in this country and throughout the globe. But history doesn't always conform to our own personal desires. It doesn't always conform to the blueprints we set up for our lives.

My life, and the lives of my family, my mother, my comrades, my friends, has really been drastically transformed over the last two years. For what happened was that as our movement – and particularly our movement right here in Los Angeles, our movement to free political prisoners, our movement to free all oppressed people – as that movement began to grow and become stronger and develop in breadth, it just so happened that I was the one who – one of the ones who was singled out by the government's finger of repression. It just so happened that I was destined to become yet another symbol of what the government intends to do – what the government in this state would do to every person who refuses to be its passive, submissive subjects. [applause]

But then, but then came the surge of a massive popular resistance, then came thousands and thousands and hundreds of thousands of people who were rising up to save me as we had tried to rise up and save the Soledad Brothers and other political prisoners. And what happened was that the government's plan, the government's project of repression fell apart; it backfired. The government could not, through me, terrorize people who would openly demonstrate their opposition to racism, to war, to poverty, to repression.

And on the contrary, people let it be known that they would not be manipulated by terror. They would stand behind all their sisters and brothers who had been caught in the government's web of repression. I was one of those who was entrapped in that web. And the thousands and millions of people throughout the world came together in struggle and saved me from the fate the government had planned as an example to all of you who were disposed to resist. You intervened and saved my life, and now I am back among you, and as I was wrested away from you in struggle, so likewise I return in struggle. [applause] I return in struggle with a very simple message, a very simple message: We've just begun our fight. [applause] We've just begun.

And while we celebrate the victory of my own acquittal, and also of the release on appeal of a very beautiful brother from a Texas prison. I don't know if you know him, his name is Leotis Johnson. [applause] He was a SNCC, SCLC organizer in Texas and was framed up on a marijuana charge. He was released just a few days ago after having spent four years, four years in a Texas prison. [applause] We have to celebrate that victory, too, but as we celebrate these victories, we must also be about the business of transforming our joy, our enthusiasm into an even deeper commitment to all our sisters and brothers who do not yet have cause to celebrate.

And as I say this, I remember very, very vividly the hundreds of women who were with me in the New York Women's House of Detention, most of them black and brown women, all of them from the poorest strata of this society. I remember the women in the sterile cells of Marin County Jail, and the women in the dimly lit, windowless cells in Santa Clara County. There is still the savage inhumanity of Soledad Prison. One Soledad brother, our brother George, has been murdered. The two who survived were recently acquitted, but hundreds more are awaiting our aid and solidarity.

There are hundreds and thousands of Soledad Brothers, or San Quentin Brothers, or Folsom Brothers, of CIW sisters, all of whom are prisoners of an insanely criminal social order. So let us celebrate, but let us celebrate in the only way that is compatible with all the pain and suffering that so many of our sisters and brothers must face each morning as they awake to the oppressive sight of impenetrable concrete and steel. As they awake to the harsh banging of heavy iron doors opening and closing at the push of a button. As they awake each morning to the inevitable jangling of the keepers' keys – keys which are a constant reminder that freedom is so near, yet so far away. Millenniums and millenniums away.

So let us celebrate in the only way that is fitting. Let the joy of victory be the foundation of an undying vow; a renewed commitment to the cause of freedom. For we know now that victories are possible, though the struggles they demand are long and arduous. So let our elation merge with a pledge to carry on this fight until a time when all the antiquated ugliness and brutality of jails and prisons linger on only as a mere, a mere memory of a nightmare. For our vow will be fulfilled only when we, or our children, or our grandchildren will have succeeded in seizing the reins of history, in determining the destiny of mankind and creating a society where prisons are unheard of because the racism and the exploitative economic arrangement which reproduces want for the many and wealth for the few will have become relics of a past era. [applause]

It has been said many times that one can learn a great deal about a society by looking towards its prisons. Look towards its dungeons and there you will see in concentrated and microcosmic form the sickness of the entire system. And today in the United States of America in 1972 there is something that is particularly revealing about the analogy between the prison and the larger society of which it is a reflection. For in a painfully real sense we are all prisoners of a society whose bombastic proclamations of freedom and justice for all are nothing but meaningless rhetoric.

For this society's accumulated wealth, its scientific achievements are swallowed up by the avarice of a few capitalists and by insane projects of war and other irrational ventures. We are imprisoned in a society where there is so much wealth and so many sophisticated scientific and technological skills that anyone with just a little bit of common sense can see the insanity of a continued existence of ghettos and barrios and the poverty which is there. [applause]

For when we see the rockets taking off towards the moon, and the B-52's raining destruction and death on the people of Vietnam, we know that something is wrong. We know that all we have to do is to redirect that wealth and that energy and channel it into food for the hungry, and to clothes for the needy; into schools, hospitals, housing, and all the material things that are necessary [applause], all the material things that are necessary in order for human beings to lead decent, comfortable lives – in order to lead lives which are devoid of all the pressures of racism, and yes, male supremacist attitudes and institutions and all the other means with which the rulers manipulate the people. For only then can freedom take on a truly human meaning. Only then can we be free to live and to love and be creative human beings. [applause]

In this society, in the United States of America today, we are surrounded by the very wealth and the scientific achievements which hold forth a promise of freedom. Freedom is so near, yet at the same time it is so far away. And this thought invokes in me the same sensation I felt as I reflected on my own condition in a jail in New York City. For from my cell I could look down upon the crowded streets of Greenwich Village, almost tasting the freedom of movement and the freedom of space which had been taken from me and all my sisters in captivity.

It was so near but at the same time so far away because somebody was holding the keys that would open the gates to freedom. Our condition here and now – the condition of all of us who are brown and black and working women and men – bears a very striking similarity to the condition of the prisoner. The wealth and the technology around us tells us that a free, humane, harmonious society lies very near. But at the same time it is so far away because someone is holding the keys and that someone refuses to open the gates to freedom. Like the prisoner we are locked up with the ugliness of racism and poverty and war and all the attendant mental frustrations and manipulations.

We're also locked up with our dreams and visions of freedom, and with the knowledge that if we only had the keys – if we could only seize them from the keepers, from the Standard Oils, the General Motors and all the giant corporations, and of course from their protectors, the government – if we could only get our hands on those keys we could transform these visions and these dreams into reality. [applause] Our situation bears a very excruciating similarity to the situation of the prisoner, and we must never forget this. For if we do, we will lose our desire for freedom and our will to struggle for liberation.

As black people, as brown people, as people of color, as working men and women in general, we know and we experience the agony of the struggle for existence each day. We are locked into that struggle. The parallels between our lives and the lives of our sisters and brothers behind bars are very clear. Yet there is a terrifying difference in degree between life on this side of the bars and life on the other side. And just as we must learn from the similarities and acquire an awareness of all the forces which oppress us out here, it is equally important that we understand that the plight of the prisoner unfolds in the rock-bottom realms of human existence.

Our sisters and brothers down there need our help, and our solidarity in their collective strivings and struggles in the same elemental way that we all need fresh air, and nourishment and shelter. And when I say this I mean it to be taken quite literally, because I recall too well that in the bleak silence and solitude of a Marin County isolation cell, you, the people, were my only hope, my only promise of life.

Martin Luther King told us what he saw when he went to the mountaintop. He told us of visions of a new world of freedom and harmony; told us of the sisterhood and brotherhood of humankind. Doctor King described it far more eloquently than I could ever attempt to do. But there's also the foot of the mountain, and there are also the regions beneath the surface. And I am returning from a descent together with thousands and thousands of our sisters and brothers into the ugly depths of society. I want to try to tell you a little something about those regions. I want to attempt to persuade you to join in the struggle to give life and breath to those who live sealed away from everything that resembles human decency.

Listen for a moment to George Jackson's description of life in Soledad Prison's O-Wing: "This place destroys the logical processes of the mind. A man's thoughts become completely disorganized. The noise, madness streaming from every throat, frustrated sounds from the bars, metallic sounds from the walls, the steel trays, the iron beds bolted to the wall, the hollow sounds from a cast iron sink, a toilet, the smells, the human waste thrown at us, unwashed bodies, the rotten food. One can understand the depression felt by an inmate on max row. He's fallen as far as he can get into the social trap. Relief is so distant that it is very easy for him to lose his hopes. It's worse than Vietnam. And the guards with the carbines, and their sticks and tear gas are there to preserve this terror, to preserve it at any cost."

This in fact is what they told us at the trial in San Jose. I'd like to read a passage from our cross examination of one Sgt. Murphy, who was being questioned about San Quentin's policy about preventing escapes.

"Question: 'And to be certain I understand the significance of that policy, sir, does that policy mean that if people are attempting to escape, and if they have hostages, and if the guards are able at all to prevent that escape, that they are to prevent that escape even if it means that every hostage is killed?

"Answer: That is correct.

"Question: And that means whether they're holding one judge or five judges, or one woman or twenty women, or one child or twenty children, that the policy of San Quentin guards is that at all costs they must prevent the escape. Is that right?

"Answer: That also includes the officers that work in the institution, sir.

"Question: Alright. Even if they are holding other officers who work in the institution, that should not deter the San Quentin correctional officers from preventing an escape at all costs. Is that right?

"Answer: That is correct.

"Question: In other words, it is more important to prevent the escape than to save human life. Is that correct?

Answer: Yes, sir.' " ["Ooh! Right!" applause]

You can find this in the official court records of the trial. This Sgt. Murphy told us that day why San Quentin guards were so eager to pump their bullets into the bodies of Jonathan Jackson, William Christmas, James McClain, and Ruchell Magee even if it meant that a judge, a D.A., and women jurors might also be felled by their bullets. The terror of life in prison, its awesome presence in the society at large, could not be disturbed. Murphy called the prison by its rightful name. He captured the essence of the sociopolitical function of prisons today, for he was talking about a self-perpetuating system of terror. For prisons are political weapons; they function as means of containing elements in this society which threaten the stability of the larger system.

In prisons, people who are actually or potentially disruptive of the status quo are confined, contained, punished, and in some cases, forced to undergo psychological treatment by mind-altering drugs. This is happening in the state of California. The prison system is a weapon of repression. The government views young black and brown people as actually and potentially the most rebellious elements of this society. And thus the jails and prisons of this society are overflowing with young people of color. Anyone who has seen the streets of ghettos and barrios can already understand how easily a sister or a brother can fall victim to the police who are always there en masse.

Depending on the area, this country's prison population contains from 45 percent to 85 percent people of color. Nationally, 60 percent of all women prisoners are black. And tens of thousands of prisoners in city and county jails have never been convicted of any crime; they're simply there, victims – they're there under the control of insensitive, incompetent, and often blatantly racist public defenders who insist that they plead guilty even though they know that their client is just as innocent as they are. And for those who have committed a crime, we have to seek out the root cause. And we seek this cause not in them as individuals, but in the capitalist system that produces the need for crime in the first place. [applause]

As one student of the prisons system has said, "Thus the materially hungry must steal to survive, and the spiritually hungry commit anti-social acts because their human needs cannot be met in a property-oriented state. It is a fair estimate," he goes on to say, "that somewhere around 90 percent of the crimes committed would not be considered crimes or would not occur in a people-oriented society." In October 1970 a prisoner who had taken part in The Tombs rebellion in New York gave the following answers to questions put to him by a newsman.

"Question: 'What is your name? "Answer: I am a revolutionary. "Question: What are you charged with? "Answer: I was born black. [applause] "Question: How long have you been in? "Answer: I've had trouble since the day I was born.' " [applause]

Once our sisters and brothers are entrapped inside these massive medieval fortresses and dungeons whether for nothing at all, or whether for frame-up political charges, whether for trying to escape their misery through a petty property crime, through narcotics or prostitution, they are caught in a vicious circle.

For if on the other side of the walls they try to continue or to begin to be men and women, the brutality they face, the brutality they must face, increases with mounting speed. I remember very well the women in the house of detention in New York who vowed to leave the heroin alone which was beginning to destroy their lives. Women who vowed to stand up and fight a system which had driven them to illusory escape through drugs. Women who began to outwardly exhibit their new commitment and their new transformation. And these were the women whom the worst of the matrons sought out, to punish them, and to put them in the hole.

George Jackson was murdered by mindless, carbine-toting San Quentin guards because he refused, he resisted, and he helped to teach his fellow prisoners that there was hope through struggle. And now in San Quentin – in San Quentin's Adjustment Center, which is a euphemistic term for the worst of the worst in prison – there are six more brothers who are facing charges of murder stemming from that day when George was killed. There was Fleeta Drumgo, who as a Soledad Brother was recently acquitted from similar frame-up charges. There are Hugo Pinell, Larry Spain, Luis Talamantez, David Johnson, and Willie Tate.

As I was saved and freed by the people so we must save and free these beautiful, struggling brothers. [applause] We must save them. And we must also save and free Ruchell Magee. And Wesley Robert Wells, who has spent over forty years of his life in California's prison system because he refused to submit, because he was a man. We must save, right here in southern California, Gary Lawton. And Geronimo Ortega, and Ricardo Chavez. And all of our sisters and brothers who must live with and struggle together against the terrible realities of captivity.

My freedom was achieved as the outcome of a massive, a massive people's struggle. Young people and older people, black, brown, Asian, Native American and white people, students and workers. The people seized the keys which opened the gates to freedom. And we've just begun. The momentum of this movement must be sustained, and it must be increased. Let us try to seize more keys and open more gates and bring out more sisters and brothers so that they can join the ranks of our struggle out here.


In building a prison movement, we must not forget our brothers who are suffering in military prisons and the stockades on bases throughout the country and across the globe. Let us not forget Billy Dean Smith. [applause] Billy Dean Smith, one of our black brothers who is now awaiting court-martial in Fort Ord, California. In Vietnam, this courageous brother from this city – from Watts, in fact, I think – would not follow orders. For he refused, he refused to murder the Vietnamese whom he knew as his comrades in the struggle for liberation. [applause] He would not follow orders.

And of course in the eyes of his superior he was a very, very dangerous example to the other GI's. He had to be eliminated. So he was falsely accused with killing two white officers in Vietnam. In Biên Hòa, Vietnam. We must free Billy Dean Smith. We must free Billy Dean Smith and all his brothers and comrades who are imprisoned in the military. [applause]

We must be about the business of building a movement so strong and so powerful that it will not only free individuals like me – like the Soledad Brothers, the San Quentin Six, Billy Dean Smith – but one which will begin to attack the very foundations of the prison system itself. [applause]

And in doing this, the prison movement must be integrated into our struggles for black and brown liberation, and to our struggles for an end to material want and need. A very long struggle awaits us. And we know that it would be very romantic and idealistic to entertain immediate goals of tearing down all the walls of all the jails and prisons throughout this country. We should take on the task of freeing as many of our sisters and brothers as possible. And at the same time we must demand the ultimate abolition of the prison system along with the revolutionary transformation of this society. [applause] However, however, within the context of fighting for fundamental changes, there is something else we must do.

We must try to alter the very fabric of life behind walls as much as is possible through struggle, and there are a thousand concrete issues around which we can build this movement: uncensored and unlimited mail privileges, visits of the prisoners' choice, minimum wage levels in prison, adequate medical care – and for women this is particularly important when you consider that in some prisons a woman, a pregnant woman has to fight just to get one glass of milk per day. I saw this in New York. There are other issues. Literature must be uncensored. Prisoners must have the right to school themselves as they see fit. If they wish to learn about Marxism, Leninism, and about socialist revolution, then they should have the right to do it. [applause]

This is their right and they should have the full flexibility to do so. There should be no more "kangaroo courts" behind prison walls. [applause] There should be no more kangaroo courts wherein one can be charged with a simple violation of prison regulations and end up spending the rest of one's life there simply because the parole board would have it that way. [applause] And there must be an end, there must be an end to the tormenting, indeterminate sentence policy with which a prisoner like George Jackson could be sentenced from one year to life after having been convicted of stealing a mere $75. [applause]

For if you talk to any prisoner in the state of California and in other states where the indeterminate sentence law prevails, they will inevitably say that this is the most grueling aspect of life in prison. Going before a board of ex-cops, ex-narcotics agents, ex-FBI agents, and ex-prison guards and year after year after year after year being told to wait it out until next time.

These are just a few of the issues that we are going to have to deal with. And all of them, every single one of them, is the kind of issue which any decent human being should be able to understand.

The need, the very urgent need to join our sisters and brothers behind bars in their struggle was brought home during the rebellion and the massacre at Attica last year.

And I would like to close by reading a brief passage from a set of reflections I wrote in Marin County Jail upon hearing of the Attica revolt and massacre.

"The damage has been done, scores of men – some yet nameless – are dead. Unknown numbers are wounded. By now it would seem more people should realize that such explosions of repression are not isolated aberrations in a society not terribly disturbing. For we have witnessed Birmingham and Orangeburg, Jackson State, Kent State, My Lai and San Quentin August 21. The list is unending.

"None of these explosions emerged out of nothing. Rather, they all crystallized and attested to profound and extensive social infirmities.

"But Attica was different from these other episodes in one very important respect. For this time the authorities were indicted by the very events themselves; they were caught red-handed in their lies. They were publicly exposed when to justify that massacre – a massacre which was led by Governor Rockefeller and agreed to by President Nixon – when they hastened to falsify what had occurred.

"Perhaps this in itself has pulled greater numbers of people from their socially-inflicted slumber. Many have already expressed outrage, but outrage is not enough. Governments and prison bureaucracies must be subjected to fears and unqualified criticism for their harsh and murderous repression. But even this is not enough, for this is not yet the root of the matter. People must take a forthright stand in active support of prisoners and their grievances. They must try to comprehend the eminently human content of prisoners' stirrings and struggles. For it is justice that we seek, and many of us can already envision a world unblemished by poverty and alienation, one where the prison would be but a vague memory, a relic of the past.

"But we also have immediate demands for justice right now, for fairness, and for room to think and live and act."

Thank you.