An Evening Out: Noam Chomsky and Prison Abolitionists



I attended a talk on Saturday featuring Noam Chomsky.  The events of the night were more than I expected, so I decided to write a two-parter.  This week will feature the evening as a whole, and I will also write a post just about hearing and seeing Chomsky speak and post it in a couple of weeks.  I just don’t want to be too deep for too long right before Christmas.


When I saw the chance to attend a talk featuring Noam Chomsky, I just had to take advantage of the opportunity.  The world renown social and political critic keeps his speaking schedule close to the vest, so when he was listed as appearing at the Berkley School of Music’s Performing Arts Center, I was so there.  He was appearing with activist and UC- Santa Cruz professor Angela Davis, of whom I knew little about (ok, I never heard of her before, but I figured if she’s appearing with Chomsky, she’s gotta be cool). The evening was slated to begin at 7:00, so I figured we’d hear some mentally stimulating discussion, some questions from the audience, and we’d be out of there by 9 at the latest.  I even joked to Sarah, “The guys like 80. This isn’t the Boss we’re seeing.  I’m pretty sure we’re not looking at a four hour set complete with the “Twist and Shout” => “E Street Shuffle” encore.” Only when I was handed my program did I realize I was mistaken. (all the info I had was on this web page

 A few community organizations in Boston sponsored the event to raise awareness and support for the abolition of prisons. The beginning of the night definitely put me out of my comfort zone.  The first speaker started things off by doing a little call and response with the audience.  Call: “Back up Back up!”  Response: “We don’t need ’em need ’em! Those dirty-ass cops have got to go!”  I did not know how to feel.  I’m no fan of the po-po, but I’m not angry enough to start yelling in the streets about them.  What occurred to me while hearing this (and other stuff along the same lines), is that I can’t really weigh in on this issue either way. I couldn’t think, “Oh my goodness!  Do you believe this?! What kind of…” but, also, my fists were not in the air yelling “power to the people!” either. I thought first of all, “Damn it must suck to be this pissed off at the people who are supposed to protect you,” and if what I have heard (not just from the news, tv, movies, etc) is true about the police policies in certain Boston neighborhoods, I might be shouting in the streets, too, but I don’t KNOW, so I didn’t feel right joining in.  It was really hard and strange to be in a situation and not know how to feel.

As the first hour went by, I heard more and more about the prison-industrial complex, something I firmly believe is there (which is why I am SO glad New Hampshire lawmakers have killed a proposal to privatize our prisons), unjust imprisonment, and a spoken word performance by a group of teen students enrolled at The City School (a sponsor of the event).  The performance was extremely intense and powerful, and all I could think was, “My teen years were a little different than these kids’.”  I would be interested to see just exactly how many factors impacting the life of a teenager need to be different in order to create the gap between the “driving around from Mobil to St. Tim’s and back” teen and the “get up in front of a couple thousand people and pour your heart out about how 200 years of oppression and inequality are about to stop because you and your friends are so smart and intense” teen.  How many things are different in those two people’s lives?  1,000? 200?  5,827? 

Sidebar: Not only am I little surprised at the length and subject of the evening (but I was not having a bad time, really, I was just listening to a point of view I never hear), but it was SO DAMN HOT!!! in that auditorium.  A couple times during the main discussion, I lost the speakers’ line of thought cause I was wiping sweat from my forehead and/or complaining inside my head.

The “main event,” as I mentioned, featured Chomsky and Davis, each speaking for about ten minutes, followed by a discussion moderated by Vijay Prashad (another guy I assumed was cool, but never heard of before, and was in fact knowledgeable and entertaining).  I’ll get in to all things Chomsky at a later date, but Angela Davis had some very good points, and some things I just did not dig.

I like ending on a good note, so first, the not so good stuff…  Well, I’m trying to think of how to put it, but I guess it was all connected (like the emergency doors in Total Recall).  Davis was saying that violence on all levels is intertwined (war, gender, prison, race).  If you have war, you will have violence in everyday life, therefore have prisons, which help create spouses/ partners that bring that violence into the home.  I love this line of thinking.  If an elected government has a militant attitude towards relationships at home and abroad, there will be more people in prison and more wars.  I hope I’m quoting her correctly, “Institutional violence leads to personal violence, which causes a need for instant solutions.”  Makes perfect sense.  She then started saying how spousal violence makes its way into the home, mostly in male dominated households, and that partly because of this, marriage is an institution whose effectiveness we need to evaluate as a society.  Being happily married, I did not join the applause when this was said, and I rehashed it with Sarah after in case I missed something.  We reached the conclusion that either we both missed something, or she pushed her logic to the extreme.

One part that left a sour taste in my mouth was during the discussion of Palestine (of which I know about as much as the average somewhat intelligent person).  Davis called it an open-air prison, was very critical of US-Israeli relations, and said as long as the US is engaging in these types of actions, we will never have peace.  What was left out of the discussion by both speakers was the acknowledgement as to why Israel was established in the first place (reparations for the Holocaust).  Then, later, when discussing how to start a social movement, Davis said that the dissemination of information is critical, because if people simply don’t know about something, they can’t do anything about it.  I just felt it was a little hypocritical to leave a major detail out of one subject, and talk about the need for information in another.  I hope I don’t sound like I’m trying to pull a “gotcha” on Chomsky and Davis, because I totally am not.  I am just fighting the urge of agreeing with everything I heard just because the people speaking were well respected and everyone around me agreed with what they said.

I have the feeling that I am not doing the night justice here (no pun intended).  It’s really hard to describe all different topics and angles that go into a big, intense issue like this.  Of course we need prisons, and of course no one REALLY likes the fact that we do.  Davis did make the point that stuck with me most from the night.  I will paraphrase because I didn’t write it down.  She asked us to think about the slaves and sharecroppers way back when.  Was there any chance anybody thought there would be a black President, ever?  Absolutely not, but people worked for a little bit of change, and other people worked for a little more change, and as the generations continued to work for change, things that seemed preposterous years and years before are in fact reality.  Some seriously long-viewed thinking is definitely needed regarding prison abolition.  While I’m no “abolitionist,” and I know the view is SUPER-DUPER liberal, I think it’s worth some thought about the root causes of why we need them.


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