Can a small group of students advocating for change really make things happen? One group of U-M students thinks so, and they hope to gather support for their cause by bringing Angela Davis to Ann Arbor for the 27th Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium.
Angela Davis, Distinguished Professor Emerita from the University of California, Santa Cruz, spoke about “Impediments to the Dream: The Prison Industrial Complex and the Dream” on January 21, 2-4 p.m., in the Michigan Union Rogel Ballroom. Her talk was live streamed to the Union Pendleton Room, the Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery, the Duderstadt Center Conference Room 1180, and the Detroit Center. Davis signed copies of her latest book, The Meaning of Freedom, which was released in August.
The plan to bring Davis to campus was initiated by the student group Students Organizing Against Prisons (SOAP), whose mission is to mobilize student support for local and statewide campaigns to abolish the “prison industrial complex—a system of social control that reinforces the subjugation of marginalized communities in the interest of those with social, economic and political power.” To launch this effort, SOAP, which was founded in January 2012, decided to focus on inviting a prominent guest to address to the issue. “We wanted a big speaker,” says Eli Day, one of the group’s founders, and Angela Davis was the obvious choice.
Davis, political activist, scholar, and author was a leader in the Communist Party USA and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and rose to national prominence when she was charged with kidnapping and murder for allegedly having purchased weapons that were used in the commission of those crimes. After 18 months of confinement, and with overwhelming public support, she was acquitted; her experience as a prisoner led her to found Critical Resistance, an organization seeking to “build an international movement to end the prison industrial complex.”
Davis remains committed to prisoner rights, a cause that aligns with SOAP’s effort to build a future in which prisons aren’t necessary anymore. Day says he realizes this goal makes them sound like wild-eyed radicals, and he acknowledges that “it won’t happen anytime soon.”
SOAP member Korbin Felder explains, “We’re taking small steps toward eventual prison abolition.” Felder works on a voter registration initiative, encouraging formerly incarcerated people to vote, and Day on a Ban the Box project to convince organizations to remove questions such as “Do you have a criminal history?” or “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” from employment forms.
But the group sees raising awareness of the issue as crucial to its mission. They pitched their plan to invite Angela Davis to campus to the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA), which connected the group with the University Library and its Martin Luther King Day Committee.
Darlene Nichols, Diversity Librarian and chair of the MLK Day Committee, says, “It’s inspiring to collaborate with an extremely motivated group of students like SOAP, along with a diverse range of campus organizations, to bring Angela Davis to campus for Martin Luther King Day.”
The program was sponsored by the University Library, the School of Information, University Housing, the Law Library, the Bentley Historical Library, the Center for Campus Involvement, the Global Scholars Program, the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives, MESA, and of course SOAP, where the idea was born.
For more information about SOAP, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org. This student organization seeks advice from various community activists and formerly incarcerated individuals. It meets every other week, and while most of its nine members have family and friends who have been incarcerated, according to Day the only membership requirement is “a commitment to justice and human rights.”