Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Feminist, communist, Black Panther, academic, Angela Davis

Written by Trish Elliott 
Act Up In Sask
Tuesday, 08 March 2011

Encountering Angela Davis is equal parts overwhelming and inspiring. Speaking at a packed University of Regina lecture theatre yesterday, Davis deftly drew the connections between militarism, fast food, prisons and education. And just when you think the world is heading to hell in a hand-basket, she reminded the audience of the historic power of links between global social movements.

The iconic American academic, feminist and freedom fighter stepped onto the stage to a prolonged standing ovation. What followed was an hour-long, mostly unscripted talk that ranged across the canvas of popular resistance. “Justice is indivisible,” she repeated several times, referencing the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Davis seemed well aware that her legacy stands her in danger of becoming the old radical who waxes on about past glory days. “Nostalgia is not an effective political strategy,” she pointedly admitted. Yet she is clearly concerned about the direction of today’s social movements.

“It is not enough for women to seek acceptance into the military. It is not enough for gays and lesbians to seek acceptance into the military,” she said. Instead, equal rights activists should critique “the machinery of death” that reaps enormous profits, just as early civil rights activists linked their struggles to multiple movements for justice and freedom.

“If we reflect on the black freedom movement, it involved far more than civil rights,” Davis said. Although raised in the crucible of the civil rights movement, her first demonstration was actually a ban the bomb march, she noted.

“I learned Palestinian solidarity from my Jewish friends and classmates, way back in the early 60s,” she added. People around the world felt they were engaged in one single struggle for human freedom, something she worries is lacking today.

The importance of solidarity is not lost on Davis, who was tried and acquitted as Black Panther sympathizer in 1970, one year after being fired from UCLA for being a member of the Communist Party. “I was charged with three capital crimes. If it were not for an enormous global movement that came to my rescue, I would probably still be in prison,” she said.

Today Davis still meets people around the world who vividly remember writing letters on her behalf, an act that helped “open their eyes to the possibility of global solidarity.” She worries that today people don’t feel the same potential empowerment, although the issues they face are in many ways “more devastating.”

The creeping corporatization of war, food, schools, prisons and hospitals form a single web, she said, pointing to examples such as Monsanto’s employment of Blackwater security forces as an example, and the Corrections Corporations of America – which runs immigration detention centres – helping draft Arizona’s anti-immigration laws. Looking at the fast food industry, she observed, “Health care corporations are profiting from diseases that people never should have had in the first place.” With this in mind, activists who challenge the privatization of the military must simultaneously challenge privatization across the board.

It’s a big task, and putting it on the shoulders of Barack Obama was wishful thinking, said Davis, who supported his election campaign. “We have to remind ourselves that Obama is the president of the United States, not a radical socialist leader,” she said. While some progress was made on health care reform, “if people were in the streets (protesting) we would have got something much better.”

She also observed that the election of an African-American president has unleashed a more open form of racism in the U.S.

Social movements are wrought with such contradictions and complications, she said. On a visit to the site of a U.S.-supported Colombian prison, she saw a “green desert” of sugar cane stretching to the horizon, where once there had been families growing all kinds of crops. The cane was being grown for biofuel, destined for the gas-tanks of eco-conscious U.S. consumers.

“If we’re aware of all the links and connections, we’re supporting a process that kills people,” she said, predicting that the children of displaced farmers were destined for the new prison.

Being a feminist has helped Davis come to grips with the idea that nothing is clear cut. “Feminist analysis is needed so we’re not frightened by the contradictions,” she said.

Back home in Oakland, prison abolition remains high on her agenda. A founder of the abolition group Critical Resistance, she arrived in Regina fresh from a March 4 street demonstration against new anti-gang laws that protesters say will further criminalize minorities. She did not seem one bit tired. A lifetime of pounding the pavement for freedom has left Davis looking amazingly energetic and youthful – hope of us all.


  1. Great account of the lecture!
    Well done, Trish,
    thanks to all for attending

  2. Yes, of course I remember Angelea Davis as the great reformer, radical and champion when I was in college, 1967-1972 at Cal State L. A. A very exciting time for freedom fighters, radicals, civil rights movements and other events that shaped America's history and future. Somehow, things became better for many people. Ms. Davis was greatly admired by many students and other who heard her speak and took her classes.
    Idelia Louise Moody, Gardena, California