Imagine there are no prisons; it may be hard to do.
Yet that is exactly what social activist Angela Davis challenged an audience of about 725 people to do Monday night at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.
The program’s topic was “Mass Incarceration: The Prison Industrial Complex.”
Older Americans may remember Davis as an attractive, young, black radical with a huge Afro. She has been an outspoken advocate for social justice and equality since in the late 1960s. She was a member of the U.S. Communist party and a member of the Black Panthers.
Now 70 years old, it soon became obvious age has not dulled her radical edge.
She is a lecturer and a professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where she teaches courses on the history of consciousness and feminist studies.
She also is the author of eight books, including “Are Prisons Obsolete?” and a founding member of Critical Resistance, a national organization dedicated to the dismantling of the prison industrial complex by “challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.”
Davis shared Lehigh’s stage with Nas, introduced as one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. His musical career has spanned more than 20 years.
He has released 10 studio albums and sold more than 25 million records worldwide and received 11 Grammy nominations.
Perhaps to the disappointment of his many fans in the audience, Nas did not perform.
The audience was racially mixed and young, probably mostly Lehigh students.
Nas had his arm around Davis when they walked on stage together.
Joining them was Dr. James Peterson, director of Africana Studies and associate professor of English at Lehigh.
With Peterson serving as moderator, the three of them sat in a living room setting, complete with a carpet and coffee table, on the stage inside Baker Hall in Zoellner Arts Center.
The enthusiastic people in the audience applauded so frequently that they sometimes drowned out the speakers while they still were talking.
Their discussion lasted less than 40 minutes, not enough time for an in-depth exploration of the prison industrial complex and possible alternatives to it.
But Davis repeatedly stressed the key alternative is education.
The final 30 minutes of the program was set aside for people to ask questions.
Peterson called Davis “a revolutionary activist” and “arguably the greatest activist of the 20th century,” which generated cheers and applause.
Nas told Davis he was honored to be sitting with her, because “you’re my hero.”
She in turn praised Nas, saying it is through culture that most people develop their political consciousness “so thank you for your work.”
Peterson said both Davis and Nas have addressed prison issues in their work from the very beginning, through his music and her social activism. Both said they have friends in prison. And, while she only touched on it briefly, Davis has been in jail.
What’s wrong with prisons
Peterson described mass incarceration as “the practice of incarcerating large amounts of American citizens, mostly people of color, mostly poor folk, people who have substance abuse problems, etc.”
He said the war on drugs obviously is directly connected to mass incarceration.