In 1980 and 1984, Davis ran for Vice-President along with the veteran party leader of the Communist Party, Gus Hall. However, given that the Communist Party lacked support within the US, Davis urged radicals to amass support for the Democratic Party. Revolutionaries must be realists, said Davis in a telephone interview from San Francisco where she was campaigning. During both of the campaigns she was Professor of Ethnic Studies at the San Francisco State University. In 1979 she was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union for her civil rights activism. She visited Moscow in July of that year to collect the prize.
Davis has continued a career of activism, and has written several books. A principal focus of her current activism is the state of prisons within the United States. She considers herself an abolitionist, not a "prison reformer," and has referred to the United States prison system as the "prison-industrial complex". Davis suggested focusing social efforts on education and building "engaged communities" to solve various social problems now handled through state punishment.
Davis was one of the primary founders of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to building a movement to abolish the prison system. In recent work, she argues that the prison system in the United States more closely resembles a new form of slavery than a criminal justice system. According to Davis, between the late 19th century and the mid-20th century the number of prisons in the United States sharply increased while crime rates continued to rise. During this time, the African American population also became disproportionally represented in prisons. "What is effective or just about this "justice" system?" she urged people to question.
Davis has lectured at San Francisco State University, Stanford University, Bryn Mawr College, Brown University, Syracuse University, and other schools. She states that in her teaching, which is mostly at the graduate level, she concentrates more on posing questions that encourage development of critical thinking than on imparting knowledge. In 1997, she declared herself to be a lesbian in Out magazine.
As early as 1969 Davis began publicly speaking, voicing her opposition to the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, and the prison industrial complex, and her support of gay rights and other social justice movements. In 1969 she blamed imperialism for the troubles suffered by oppressed populations. “We are facing a common enemy and that enemy is Yankee Imperialism, which is killing us both here and abroad. Now I think anyone who would try to separate those struggles, anyone who would say that in order to consolidate an anti-war movement, we have to leave all of these other outlying issues out of the picture, is playing right into the hands of the enemy”, she declared. In 2001 she publicly spoke against the war on terror, the prison industrial complex, and the broken immigration system and told people that if they wanted to solve social justice issues they had to “hone their critical skills, develop them and implement them." Later, after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she declared, the “horrendous situation in New Orleans,” is due to the structures of racism, capitalism, and imperialism with which our leaders run this country.
Davis opposed the 1995 Million Man March, arguing that the exclusion of women from this event necessarily promoted male chauvinism and that the organizers, including Louis Farrakhan, preferred women to take subordinate roles in society. Together with Kimberlé Crenshaw and others, she formed the African American Agenda 2000, an alliance of Black feminists.
Davis is no longer a member of the Communist Party, leaving it to help found the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, which broke from the Communist Party USA because of the latter's support of the Soviet coup attempt of 1991. She remains on the Advisory Board of the Committees.
Davis has continued to oppose the death penalty. In 2003, she lectured at Agnes Scott College, a liberal arts women's college in Atlanta, on prison reform, minority issues, and the ills of the criminal justice system.
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At the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC Santa Cruz), she participated in a 2004 panel concerning Kevin Cooper. She also spoke in defense of Stanley "Tookie" Williams on another panel in 2005, and 2009.
As of February 2007, Davis was teaching in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
In addition to being the commencement speaker at Grinnell College in 2007, in October of that year, Davis was the keynote speaker at the fifth annual Practical Activism Conference at UC Santa Cruz. On February 8, 2008, Davis spoke on the campus of Howard University at the invitation of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity. On February 24, 2008, she was featured as the closing keynote speaker for the 2008 Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference. On April 14, 2008, she spoke at the College of Charleston as a guest of the Women's and Gender Studies Program. On January 23, 2009, she was the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Commemorative Celebration on the campus of Louisiana State University.
On April 16, 2009, she was the keynote speaker at the University of Virginia Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies symposium on The Problem of Punishment: Race, Inequity, and Justice. On January 20, 2010, Davis was the keynote speaker in San Antonio, Texas, at Trinity University's MLK Day Celebration held in Laurie Auditorium. On January 21, 2011, Davis was the keynote speaker in Salem, Oregon at the Willamette University MLK Week Celebration held in Smith Auditorium where she declared that her biggest goal for the coming years is to shut down prisons. During her remarks, she also noted that while she supports some of President Barack Obama's positions, she feels he is too conservative. On January 27, 2011, Davis was the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration speaker at Georgia Southern University's Performing Arts Center (PAC) in Statesboro, Georgia. On June 10, 2011, Davis delivered the Graduation Address at the Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington. On May 12, 2012, Davis delivered a Commencement Address at Pitzer College, in Claremont.
On October 31, 2011, Davis spoke at the Philadelphia and Washington Square Occupy Wall Street assemblies where, due to restrictions on electronic amplification, her words were human microphoned.
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