Angela Davis Speaks Out on Prisons and Human Rights Abuses in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Thursday, December 28th, 2006http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/12/28/1450208
Scholar and former prisoner Angela Davis was in New Orleans this month to speak out against human rights violations and demand amnesty for those imprisoned during Hurricane Katrina. We hear from her keynote address at the event "Amnesty for Prisoners of Katrina: A Weekend of Reconciliation and Respect for Human Rights." [rush transcript included]
Former Senator and Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards has entered the 2008 presidential race -- one day earlier than he intended. On Wednesday, Edwards’ campaign inadvertently posted the news of his candidacy during a test-run on its website. Edwards had intended to make the announcement today during a speech in the 9th Ward district of New Orleans.
Scholar and former prisoner Angela Davis was also in New Orleans recently. Her visit to the city was in recognition of International Human Rights Day. After Hurricane Katrina hit, many in New Orleans were arrested for looting, left to drown in locked jail cells and held past release dates. As many as 85% of defendants in the 3,000 criminal court cases still pending in New Orleans qualify for representation by a public defender. An untold number of them have yet to see a lawyer.
Angela Davis went to New Orleans to speak out against human rights violations and demand amnesty for those imprisoned during Hurricane Katrina. She gave the keynote address at a series of events organized by the prison-abolition group - Critical Resistance. "Amnesty for Prisoners of Katrina: A Weekend of Reconciliation and Respect for Human Rights" - took place in New Orleans earlier this month. In her speech Davis referred to Merlene Maten - a 73-year-old New Orleans grandmother - who spent 16 days in prison for allegedly looting $63 worth of food from a deli a day after Hurricane Katrina hit. Here is an excerpt of Angela Davis’ speech.
- Angela Davis. Activist, author and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent books are "Abolition Democracy" and "Are Prisons Obsolete?"
ANGELA DAVIS: I wanted to—I wanted to focus our attention for a minute on three cases, three incidents in this country recently. I’m talking about the shooting of that young brother, Sean Bell in New York on the mother of his wedding. The 50 gunshots that the police admit were shot that day? I am talking about what’s his name Michael Richards. Did you see—did you see, did you all see it? Cause you can actually go on line and you can see it. It was much, much worse than anything I had ever imagined. Okay, I’m not going say anything, because that was really upsetting, and he says, I don’t know where it came. [laughter]
And then there’s another instance I wanted to mention. And that involved, it’s something that happened in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. And it involved a Kenyan writer by the name of N’ Gugi Wa Thiong ’o. Now, I don’t know how many of you have read his work, but he is one of the most revered writers in Africa, on the continent of Africa. He has published -- maybe some of you know his--have heard of his book, Decolonizing the Mind? Okay, that’s N’ Gugi Wa Thiong ’o. He just published a new book which is really great. I'm reading it now, it’s called, Wizard of the Crow.
He’s been on tour with that book and came to San Francisco from Irvine, California, where he’s now teaching. And was staying in a hotel, Hotel Vitali, which is one of those boutique hotels. You know one of those kind of swanky, sort of small hotels. But, Random House was paying for it, right his publishing company. And, so he’s sitting there one morning, reading the newspaper and this employee of the hotel walks over to him and says to him, I am sorry, but only guests are allowed to use this space. Now Gugi is, I think he is—he’s probably about 64 or 65. He may have had a sweatshirt on, you know. But, if a white person had a sweat shirt on, nobody would ever assume that he wasn’t or she wasn’t registered in the hotel. And so Gugi said, he says to the guy, what makes you so certain that I am not a guest at this hotel? And the employer wouldn’t listen to him. And he said he said it again and finally, they had to go over to registration.
And, well now there’s a big campaign and the hotel manager has apologized, this is San Francisco after all. And you know this boycott of the hotel got started really quickly on the internet. And so, the manager is saying he will donate money to anti-racist organizations, and he will do this and he will do that. [laughter] But, the thing is, I spoke to Gugi about this. And he said, I kept asking him what makes you so certain? Because I saw this absolute certainty.
Now, the man didn’t say "you’re black." He didn’t say, you know, black people don’t belong here. He was just certain the he could look at this man and tell that this man didn’t belong there. Just like the cops who shot Sean Bell could look at this young brother and his friends in the club and he could tell that they dealt in drugs, they were criminals, that they deserved to be shot.
VOICE FROM AUDIENCE: They felt threatened.
ANGELA DAVIS: Exactly. So, I want us to think about this certainty. This self certainty as a way in which racism expresses itself. It doesn’t have to be about the fact that the person—or it doesn’t have to be-- there doesn’t have to be anything explicit about the race of the person. It’s just, I know you should not be here. It’s like your sheriff said when Nagin accepted the prisons and hospitals and a couple of other categories from the evacuation order, apparently, at the press conference, the Sheriff, Gusman, was asked to answer the question as to why the prisoners were exempted and he said, we need to -- something to the effect, we need to keep them here because that is where they belong. This is where they belong. They are prisoners, this is where they belong.
So, I want us-- I want us to think about this question of racism and this self certainty. I want us to ask, where--where does racism live today? Where did it reside in the past? And, how do we identify those spaces the are so haunted by racism today? So, we can actually talk about migrations of racism. Cause, you know, we used to be able to understand it. We used to say exactly what was racism, what wasn’t. And now, it’s not that easy. And that is because racism itself changes. It--it moves, it travels, it migrates, it transmutes itself.
Now, when Hurricane Katrina struck, over 6000 human beings were locked up in Orleans Parish Prison. And you know, that this is one of the largest city jails in the country. And, so actually, I have this quote that Sheriff Gusman said. When it was announced by the prisons would not be evacuated he said, we are fully staffed, we are under our emergency operations plan, we’ve been working with the police department, so we are going to keep our prisoners where they belong.
And this is that same certainty, the certainty of racism, the certainty that appears to be colorblind, but is actually where attitudinal racism has migrated. I think we can discover racist attitudes in that certainty. Orleans Parish Prison was where prisoners belonged under any and all circumstances. The belonged out of sight, away from view. As one of the children said who was removed their from the juvenile facility, we were "treated like trash." Sheriff Gusman was saying, basically, prisoners belong in a trash can with the top closed shut.
And so there was this disaster within a disaster. As the ACLU, National Prison Project put it, a disaster that we could not see. A disaster that went unrecognized because few people thought that prisoners deserved to be treated as human beings. Because few people recognized prisoners as having rights, as having human rights. And so prisoners were locked in their cells and the flood waters were rising and there was no way to get them out. There was no clean water, they were forced to drink water with feces floating around in it.
We heard about the horrible conditions at the superdome and at the convention center and they were horrendous. And it’s interesting that both of those places were considered to a certain extent, places of incarceration for a largely black population. But we did not hear about the people being forced to remain in the flooded spaces of the OPP. We did not know that children had been taken there. And, if you look at the ACLU's report called Treated--I think it’s called Treated Like Trash.
VOICE FROM AUDIENCE: Abandoned and Abused.
ANGELA DAVIS: Abandoned and Abused. If you look at the ACLU’s—No I’m talking about—I’m not talking about the ACLU. You’re right. That’s the report about OPP. I am thinking about the juvenile -- that was called Treated Like Trash.
And then of course another 700 or so people were arrested during the hurricane, and Merlene Maten was one of them. And then they called Burl Cain, you know I was shocked that he was still the Warden of Angola. You know, cause I saw The Farm that documentary and I read Tom Burgess book, God of the Rodeo. And read about the way in which Burl Cain tried to get him to share the profits from the book with him before he would agree, you know, before he would sign the consent form. Well, anyway, yeah. If any of you know anything about Burl Cain, you know that, well, at least in that documentary, he gave the impression that one of his favorite activities was conducting executions at Angola. But, holding the hands of the people who were being killed in order to usher them on their way to god. I mean, I know some people in Louisiana are -- [laughter] anyway, okay don't let me get started there.
But yeah, Camp greyhound when he came to run the jail that they called camp greyhound because they turned the greyhound bus station into a jail, right. And when I heard about that, I immediately thought about Guantanamo. I immediately thought about camp x-ray in Guantanamo. It seems that the authorities here were more concerned with questions about confinement and control, and law and order, and with security in the negative sense; more attention was devoted to possible breaches of the law than to anything else. And, in this sense, you might say that what we saw during Katrina was a local manifestation of the military practices and policies guiding the bush administration's approach to Iraq. [applause]
And to the whole so-called War on Terror. Just as anyone who looks Arab or Middle Eastern or who was known to practice Islam is a potential terrorist? A potential enemy combatant? You know, think of all the people who are still locked up in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and all these prisons all over the world because they are suspected of being enemy combatants. Just as Merlene Maten, was suspected of being a looter, because she is black and—