Scholar Angela Davis, an iconic activist for the abolition of prisons, shared her decades of experience on Monday with leaders of the “Family Defense Movement” — a small-but-growing community of advocates opposed to the very foundations of the child welfare system.
During a virtual live-streamed conference, Davis told New York City activist Joyce McMillan she sees parallels between the U.S. prison system and the system responsible for investigating child abuse and neglect allegations and overseeing children placed in foster care: A system that disproportionately affects Black families.
“It’s clear that slavery has not been abolished in the 21st century — we’re still attempting to do the work of getting rid of the ways in which racism has infiltrated all of the major institutions in the society,” Davis said. What’s needed, she added, are new institutions that no longer rely on “carceral logic.”
The event, titled “Freedom to Dream: A Future Without Family Policing,” was moderated by McMillan, founder of the advocacy group JMacForFamilies. Davis cited the work of University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts, whose 2022 book, “Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families — and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World,” explores similar themes. In the book, Roberts noted that “foster children are taken into custody at rates of 576 per 100,000, while the rates of adults being incarcerated are 580 to 100,000.”
Structural racism rooted in repression connects the two, said the 78-year-old Davis, a former longtime professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She appealed for a new society that disavows the child welfare-to-prison pipeline and tackles social, economic and political inequality.
In her writing and editing of nine books, Davis has long pushed back against what she described as the prison-industrial complex, and her views have influenced worldwide social movements for decades. She is also a prominent target for conservatives, including far-right activists’ recent efforts to roll back Black history lessons in schools.
During the 2020 protests over the police killing of George Floyd, Davis — a larger-than-life figure among Black Power activists and more recently Black Lives Matter activists — became a renewed source of inspiration for the family defense movement. That movement, led by women who have been investigated by the child welfare system, have staged street protests and launched new organizations and campaigns highlighting the significant overrepresentation of Black children in foster care. They also focus on the lack of due process protections they say parents of all races face in the nation’s family and dependency courts.
Some of these activists adapted Davis’ call for prison abolition to the child welfare system. In her recent book, Roberts cited Davis in describing those positions as “not only, or not even primarily, about abolition as a negative process of tearing down,” but “also about building up, about creating new institutions.”
One abolition-focused group that sprang up in 2020 was the #UpEND movement, whose founders include the University of Houston social work scholar Alan Dettlaff and the legal advocate Kristen Weber. They hosted this week’s event that centers on exposing racism “in how families are surveilled and separated,” and what actions can be taken to “imagine care differently.” The convening aims to improve “the safety and well-being of children, youth and families in their communities,” calling on those “who recognize the urgency of ending the harms done to Black, Native and latinx families by the family policing system.”
Organizer Mariame Kaba, founder and director of Project NIA, a grassroots organization seeking to end youth incarceration will give a Tuesday keynote address.
In her talk, Davis emphasized the importance of including the perspectives of all marginalized groups when formulating a new vision of society — including women, and transgender and gender non-conforming people. Her 2003 book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” argued that mass incarceration has had little to no effect on crime rates, and generated massive profits off Black and impoverished people. This early work laid the foundation for her current, more expansive scholarship.
“If we look at the marginal population,” Davis said, “then we get a fuller sense of the work of the carceral system, and how it affects everyone of all genders.”
Listen to the full conversation here.