Mumia & Angela Davis On Abolition Democracy And Community Courts

“Alternatives To The Present System Of Capitalist Injustice” is edited and compiled by Frances Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith. Inside there are essays dividing this book into chapters which compose its sections. One of these essay chapters is written by Mumia Abu-Jamal and Angela Davis. Entitled, “Alternatives To The Present System Of Capitalist Injustice”, they delve into an argument for a more communal system of justice and punishment.


Within this framework of discussion, they write:


Initially…we must consider the terms we are using, for the concept of “crime”, like much that we today take for granted, is a sociopolitical construct.

In the 1970s, “radical criminologists called the legal definition of crime into question and thereby opened to doubt the very scope of the field of criminology,” scholar David F. Greenberg wrote. Herman and Julia Schwendinger, he noted, “argued that to restrict research to violations of state-made law is to accept the definitions of harm and wrongfulness that the state asserts, and they urge their coworkers to redefine crime as a violation of human rights. These definitions are based on the conceptions of harm held by those who have the power to make law, and consequently, tend to exclude from scrutiny harms caused by the actions of the upper class.”


“Alternatives To The Present System Of Capitalist Injustice”, Mumia Abu-Jamal & Angela Davis, essay found in “Alternatives To The Present System Of Capitalist Injustice” pg. 60


States do not exist in a similar fashion to trees, cats, or even entire solar systems. That organic element of state organization is purely social interaction. Those social interactions are between humans. These humans tend to have personal definitions of harm centered around their enhanced positions of power. This quote from Herman and Julia Schwendinger could lend itself to narrow definitions of “human rights”. However, it could also be used to further indict powerful groups that hold sway over “justice departments” that violate human rights as they sanction state criminals.


Mumia and Angela continue their discussion as they write:

Social structures–courts, police, prisons, and so on–have within them a deep bias about what constitutes crime and what does not. Any social structure is a product of its previous historical, economic, and social iterations, and these previous forms significantly influence later forms. The present system, in addition to being increasingly repressive, is the logical inheritance of its racist, hierarchical, exploitative past–a reactive formation to attempts to transform, democratize, and socialize it.


For authentic democracy to emerge, “abolition democracy” must be enacted–the abolition of institutions that advance the dominance of any group over any other…As long as the prison-industrial complex remains, American democracy will continue to be a false one. Such a false democracy reduces people and their communities to the barest biological subsistence because it pushes them outside the law and the polity.

“Alternatives To The Present System Of Capitalist Injustice”, Mumia Abu-Jamal & Angela Davis, essay found in “Alternatives To The Present System Of Capitalist Injustice” pg. 61


Another set of brilliant points here. There is a deafening demand in this land for a nuanced understanding of democracy. This demand existed decades prior to George Bush or Donald Trump providing US citizens with a first-hand education in US Civics vis-a-vis this US electoral college. Democracy as an ideal is quickly confused for spectacle politics in this bipartisan forced selection of one of two evils from local elections to federal ones. This use of a lofty label, namely “democracy”, limits our ability to actually implement it. “Abolition democracy” as these two giants suggest, is sorely overdue. Abolish what exists presently. It exists due to what existed in this nation’s past. A fair and just system cannot define what is a criminal act if it is simply rich criminals with power to create more “criminals” of lower class strata.


Mumia and Angela extend their argument by stating:


What sociologist Loic Wacquant has termed the “penal state” is driving the profound social inequality and unparalleled repression that is the prison-industrial complex. Economic, political, and social forces have converged to create a system of vested interests to ensure its continued expansion and wealth.

In sum, the present system drains public resources to pursue a chimera of public safety when it is actually a legalized system of violence against unprivileged communities, who have been the historical bogeymen of the American body politic.

ibid., pg 62


The US federal system–a kind of dual sovereignty–owes much to the Iroquois Confederacy, or the Six Nations Confederacy, which compromised the Mohawks, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. The confederacy lasted for several centuries despite enormous pressure from the Anglo-Americans…Among the Native Americans of the Northeast, criminal justice was a communal concern.

ibid., pg 64


They state further:


Establishing community courts (especially ones composed of non-lawyers) would utilize these insights from traditional societies and thus mitigate the destructiveness inherent in the present corporate-type, assembly-line system that is breaking state budgets and individuals’ bodies and spirits on the anvil of so-called criminal justice.

Nor is this idea unthinkable within the current US legal system. In Pennsylvania, both the state constitution and state law provide for the establishment of “community courts” as a section of what’s termed the minor judiciary. One was opened in Philadelphia in 2002, becoming one of approximately thirty community courts in US cities (and fifty outside of the United States). Like its counterparts, the Philadelphia Community Court was empowered to use community service and other restorative sanctions to address “quality of life” offenses such as prostitution, drug possession, and theft.

ibid., pg 66


These paragraphs present their core suggestion as solution and part conclusion. This suggestion of “community courts” is not only an offered solution, but also a subtle face grab positioning our eyes on this system’s most pernicious concern: it is typically top-down, one-sided, and while sold as ‘of the people’, it is far from that. Juries composed of our “peers” are seldom fused in a way that suggests “a body of people sharing a common perspective with defendants and plaintiffs capable of understanding objective conditions that lead to particular decisions”.