After more than 50 years, Angela Davis is still instantly recognizable around the world as the face of revolution. But at 78, she has come to terms with her image. When asked to comment on her likeness appearing on posters and murals, she said: “I felt really uncomfortable, and that’s because I think I expected to find myself in these images. Now I look at them and I see all the millions of people who have come together to take part in a struggle.”
For half a century, Davis has been sounding the alarm. In 1972, she said: “Racism is indeed the main problem facing the people of this country, and the threat of fascism is growing. And in 1979, she told a crowd in Florida, “There is a proliferation of police assaults on the black community all over the country.”
She kept sounding the alarm, like when she addressed the Women’s March in 2017: “Those who still defend the supremacy of white male hetero-patriarchy better watch out !”
She embraced the advocacy of speaking out. “Of course I like being a revolutionary,” she said in 2006. “I like being radical, it’s important to be radical.”
The roots of this radicalism go back to his upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama. “I grew up in a world entirely organized according to the dictates of white supremacy.”
Correspondent Lilia Luciano asked, “I understand you grew up on a street known as Dynamite Hill, because of the number of terrorist attacks when black families moved into this community?”
“My earliest memories are the sounds of dynamite,” Davis said. “And then also, the fear of seeing my father pull out his gun when we thought the Ku Klux Klan might attack our house.”
A Phi Beta Kappa at Brandeis University, Davis did graduate work in Germany and San Diego. At the age of 26, she was an assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA. She had joined the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party – and that made her a target of California Governor Ronald Reagan. The University of California board of trustees fired Davis in 1970.
She said at the time: ‘When the Regents finally decided to fire me, I said it was obvious there was racism involved.’
Davis told Luciano, “The very first press conference I held immediately after I was fired from UCLA, I think my eyes were wide open and my knees were shaking under the table. And today the people look at that and they’re like, ‘Oh, you were so much more militant back then. And I said, ‘No, I was just scared!'” she laughed.
A year later, a bloody siege of the Marin County Civic Center courthouse in San Rafael, Calif., drew worldwide attention, even though she wasn’t there. An attempt to free the so-called “Soledad Brothers” (a group of inmates accused of killing a prison guard) ended in a shootout. By the end, Superior Court Judge Harold Haley was dead, along with one of the attackers and two of the inmates.
The weapons used in the attack were attributed to Davis; she said she bought them for her security team after receiving death threats.
She went into hiding. The FBI put Davis on its 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list.
Luciano asked, “Why did you run?”
“I had no choice,” Davis replied. “All my comrades and friends and I were aware of how people who tried to surrender to the police were killed.”
The FBI caught up with her at a hotel in Manhattan. She was sometimes placed in solitary confinement, while protesters around the world called for her release. Then she was extradited to California.
Davis was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and murder. She risked the death penalty.
An all-white jury deliberated for 13 hours before delivering its verdict on June 4, 1972: Davis was acquitted on all counts.
“It was only then that I realized I had a future ahead of me,” she said.
Davis toured the United States, as well as the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union. She will leave the Communist Party twenty years later.
“When I left the Communist Party, I made it very clear that even though I am no longer a communist with a capital C, I am still a communist with a small c,” she said. “Historical experiences do not necessarily produce what we want them to produce.”
The 16 months in prison before his acquittal had given Davis a new commitment: “I came to see my incarceration as a gift, seeing the way other women in prison were treated. It really solidified what I think it was my calling.”
Since then, she has devoted her life to the question of prisons – not by reforming them, but abolish their.
Luciano asked, “There are words like ‘defund’ or ‘abolish’. At the same time that they elevate a cause, they also create such division. Why not advocate for reform?”
“Well, I really try to learn from history,” Davis said. “So if someone were to argue that ‘abolition is too strong a term’, I would remind people that in the days of slavery there were those who made the exact same argument.”
The United States has four percent of the world’s population, but 20 percent of the world’s prisoners, according to the ACLU.
Thirty-eight percent of the US prison population is black, according to the US Census Bureau.
Luciano asked, “What does a world look like after prison?”
“My question would be, what should a world be like that would not require persistent police interventions and imprisonment?” Davis replied. “We need better education. We need a better health care system. We need a better world! So abolition pushes us to broaden and broaden our very vision. “
Angela Davis is still writing, still teaching. And after 50 years of fighting the same battles, it may seem that the more things change, the more the causes remain the same.
But she remains energetic and optimistic.
“There are so many issues that you’ve fought against that seem relevant; you were fighting against them 50 years ago,” Luciano said. “How not to lose hope?
“No change is possible without hope,” she replied. “No movement is possible without hope.”
A hope reflected in his November 1972 speech at California State University Fullerton: “We must walk with the unshakeable confidence that we will win our fight for a new society, our fight for a society where freedom, justice, equality, abundance, dignity and happiness belong to all.”
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Story produced by Alan Golds. Publisher: Ed Givnish.