Essence music festival declares Peace is power

HOUSTON — Another Katrina survivor arrived here in July: the annual Essence Music Festival, sponsored by the magazine of the same name, which had to be relocated to the Reliant Center because of continuing adverse conditions in New Orleans.

The festival theme was “A call to action to secure our youth” with an opening seminar called “Peace is power.” The festival ran for three days, with all-day seminars and top musicians and other artists performing in the evening. Speaking and performing was a who’s who of African American political, religious, cultural, educational and business leaders.

Inside there were many vendors selling a variety of products and a huge sign overpowering all others reading “An American Revolution.” It was an advertisement for Chevrolet, of course. I found it ironic that GM uses this phrase to promote their product. They must feel it’s an important part of people’s consciousness in the U.S.

Entering the event, I noticed Army recruiters had a huge display outside the building. This was evidently not enough, so they also had a huge booth near the area where the seminars were held. I reflected on the parasitic nature of the recruiters who prey on African American youth trying to avoid incarceration, street violence and unemployment.

This was one of the themes that author and professor Angela Davis developed in her talk at the festival. “People who don’t want to be part of the gang violence in Houston become part of the gang violence in Iraq,” she said.

Davis, who currently teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has a long history of radical, progressive activism. I have been an admirer of hers for 30 years, and found her talk inspiring. Close to 5,000 people were present for her remarks.

Connecting the dots, Davis noted that while there has been a rapid expansion of the prison-industrial complex, concurrently there has also been a rapid decline in education and health care in the U.S.

She linked these trends to globalization, especially how capitalists are “seeking ever higher profits at the expense of people’s lives.” She mentioned that the crisis in immigration leads to “walls and weapons,” that prisons are used to “keep people out,” and that, along similar lines, prisons are used as “a weapon against the Black community.”

She decried the devastation of racism in the prison system. About 13.5 million people spend time in prison over the course of one year in the U.S.; we imprison the largest proportion of our population compared to any country in the world.

“What kind of democracy is this?” she asked. Davis pointed out that Black people are five times as likely as whites to be imprisoned, and women are the fastest growing sector of the prison population.

Davis added that what is occurring in New Orleans is a microcosm of what is happening throughout the rest of the country.

The message given to youth, she said, is: “You are trash. We will dispose of you. We will put you in a toxic dump.

“There is no future for the youth of our country with imprisonment,” Davis said. “We need to bring a halt to this spiral.”

Prisons, she said, are a breeding ground for violence, mental illness and dangerous, contagious diseases. Prisons “don’t solve the problem of poverty,” she said. Moreover, “We have become the prison guard of the world.”

“The daily torture in domestic prisons has led to spectacular torture at Abu Ghraib,” she said. “The sexual coercion of women in prisons made it possible for sexual coercion to be a major component of the military prisons.”

Arguing that the majority of people incarcerated are not convicted of a violent act, Davis made the case to abolish prisons as the “dominant mode of punishment.”

“What are alternatives to prison?” she asked, and then proposed that some of the $60 billion spent on corrections each year be spent on education instead.

People got to their feet and applauded as she shouted, “Education, not incarceration! End mandatory sentencing!”