Angela Davis: 'I Don't See Myself As An Icon'

Angela Davis: 'I Don't See Myself As An Icon'
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Lending Her Voice

Angela Davis

Angela Davis is undeniably one of the more unique creatures to emerge out of the turbulent political waters of the latter part of the 20th Century. Which is what makes Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, the relatively new documentary about Davis and the upheavals she faced during the late-1960s and '70s, so inviting. In it, filmmaker Shola Lynch marks the 40th anniversary of Davis' acquittal on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy with a historical vérité style of filmmaking to illuminate a side of Davis few may have seen (or can recall), and captures the events that thrust the woman into one of the most fascinating orbits of notoriety and political intrigue.

The documentary, which Variety called "an impressive act of research, editing and period re-creation," has been generating buzz at screenings as it continue to pop up around the country, particularly in university towns. One, in particular, is a collaboration with UC Santa Cruz's Digital Arts New Media (DANM) program-- two screenings (May 28 and 30) will take place at Nickelodeon Theatres in Santa Cruz. Davis is a UCSC Professor Emerita. in the film, she recounts the politics and actions that not only labeled her a terrorist but managed to launch a worldwide lobby for her freedom as a political prisoner.

While the work could be considered delicious manna for the mind, the events it captures--specifically Davis' history--seem to offer a vibrant look at an era best not forgotten and showcases a kind of people whose fierce tenacity (some would argue) failed to transfer effectively into the next few generations. Does the film suggest that that kind of tenacity could, in fact, help resuscitate the stilled hearts and deadened gaze found in today's walking dead? Perhaps. But maybe it's best to address past events before making that leap.

Things that happened (and this is for the benefit of the twentysomethings out there yearning to absorb something more than, say, 140 characters on Twitter): During the 1960s, Davis became politically active after being drawn to Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who eventually became her doctoral advisor at UC San Diego. By the time the late '60s rolled in, Davis had morphed into a prominent activist and radical feminist with close ties to the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party USA. In fact, Davis has been quoted as saying: "The only path of liberation for black people is that which leads toward complete and radical overthrow of the capitalist class."

Enter Ronald Reagan. He was governor of California in 1969 and had begun tightening his grip on UC's Board of Regents. Davis, who had moved on to UCLA's Philosophy Department, received a major blow when the university gave her the boot--at the time, officials claimed it was for her connection to the Communist Party USA. The action triggered significant response from professors and African-American students who insisted Davis was fired because of her race. By fall of that year, a judge smacked down a ruling that the Regents could not fire Davis because of her affiliations. She went back to work.

But it did little to stop the ripple effect Reagan's initial actions generated. Apparently, the Regents were not finished with Davis, who continued to speak out on a variety of political issues. In June of 1970, she got the ax once again for using what the Regents dubbed as "inflammatory" language in some of her speeches.

It was enough to fuel more protest, but a few months later, something happened that would forever change Davis' life: The Soledad Brothers trial.

At the time, Davis strongly supported three prison inmates (John W. Cluchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Lester Jackson) of Soledad Prison called "the Soledad Brothers," although the three were not related. The men were accused of murdering a prison guard in the aftermath of the deaths of several African-American inmates that had been killed in a fight by another guard. But the heated debate of the time centered around the possibility that these prisoners were being used as scapegoats, in part, due to political work within the prison.

It was in August of 1970 that 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson, George's brother, entered a Marin County courtroom significantly armed. He gave the black defendants on trial several weapons and managed to take Judge Harold Haley, the prosecutor, and three female jurors hostage. Police shot at the vehicle Jonathan was using as a getaway, and Haley, a juror, the prosecutor, and the three defendants were killed in the incident.

In a wild twist of fate, Davis was brought up on several charges, including murder, for her alleged part in the incident. Earlier, Davis had become friendly with Jonathan Jackson, then a teenager--he had worked security for her at rallies. It was Jonathan who obtained guns that were registered in Davis' name without her knowledge. This included the sawed-off shotgun that had been used to kill Haley.

There was also news that officials discovered several letters Davis allegedly penned to one of the defendants (George) in jail. All of this spawned a flood of bold headlines and a bona fide witch-hunt for Davis, who was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder in the death of Haley. On Aug. 18, several days after a warrant for Davis' arrest was issued, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover placed Davis on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list--making her the third woman to hit the list in its history.

Suddenly a fugitive, Davis fled California for fear of not receiving a fair trial. After the FBI found her in New York several months later, President Richard M. Nixon praised the FBI on its capture of "the dangerous terrorist." She spent several months in jail and later appeared before a judge to announce she was innocent of the alleged involvement in the shootings. But it did little to change things--initially. What followed was a massive outpouring of support and rally cries for justice. The world took notice.

By February of 1971, hundreds of committees sprouted around the country--and many in other countries as well--to help free Davis from prison. (The National United Committee to Free Angela Davis stood out prominently, which UCSC's Bettina Aptheker, a longtime friend and supporter of Davis', notes in her book, "The Morning Breaks.") Unrelenting, this united force captured the attention from many sides and, in 1972, the state released Davis from county jail and all charges were dropped.

The combination of public outcry and Davis' unwavering veracity gave birth to a compelling legacy. But beyond the events of the '60s and '70s, Davis has remained vocal on a number of significant injustices. Over the last 25 years, she has also proven herself to be a prominent lecturer around the globe--all 50 states and various venues throughout Europe, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Caribbean. As prolific as she is outspoken, her nine books till political soils otherwise left forgotten. (Take note of "Angela Davis: An Autobiography"; "Women, Race, and Class"; "The Meaning of Freedom" and "Are Prisons Obsolete?") But "rising up," apparently, is in Davis' blood. For more than a decade, she has spoken out about and shed light on a term she helped usher in to the mainstream: the Prison Industrial Complex, which, by simple definition, revolves around the swift, perhaps hasty, expansion of the U.S. inmate population and all the political influences, racial issues and big business intertwined within it. (According to recent estimates, there are currently around 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States.)

While the documentary Free Angela has brought Davis back into the public eye, earlier in May she made headlines--in an odd moment of déjà vu--when she spoke out against the FBI's sudden placement of exiled former Black Panther Assata Shakur on its Most Wanted Terrorists list. Davis shared with news program Democracy Now! that the move was politically motivated. "It seems to me that this act incorporates or reflects the very logic of terrorism," Davis told the news outlet. "I can't help but think that it's designed to frighten people who are involved in struggles today. Forty years ago seems like it was a long time ago. In the beginning of the 21st century, we're still fighting around the very same issues--police violence, healthcare, education, people in prison."

I recently caught up with the ever-busy Davis. Here, she speaks of the documentary, which was produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, as well as her earlier influences. She also opens up about an era long gone and ponders what's different (and the same) today as opposed to the late '60s and '70s. Not to be left out: She reveals some sobering news about the ongoing push for social justice. Read on ...

Greg Archer: I'm curious ... when watching the documentary, what are some of the things that go through your mind? It's your life up there.

Angela Davis: First of all, the only reason I agreed to participate in the making of the documentary was that I thought it might be important for people today to get a sense of being involved in a struggle that seemed unavoidable. Even though I was innocent, we were up against the most powerful forces in the world. Richard Nixon was president. Ronald Reagan was governor [of California] and J. Edgar Hoover was the director of the FBI. I thought it might be important to witness how the movement emerged, swept the entire country and involved people all over the world. So, today, looking back at the images, especially with people involved in various parts of the world--Europe, Africa, Asia--it's brought back a lost memory. I should say, watching this film, I learned aspects about my case, 40 years later, of which I had little information in those days. For example, example, I did not know at that time how the FBI finally caught me when I was underground. As a result of the research that filmmaker Shola Lynch did, I learned exactly how the FBI managed to catch me. What's most important is that this is a documentary and the archival material that she was able to unearth.

Greg Archer: From the outside looking in, most people would believe you are a strong, resilient human being, and I'm sure there were many influences in your life. But growing up, whom might you note as some of your most significant influences? Who helped shape you?

Angela Davis: Well, that is, of course, an answer [that] would take days to answer. But I would say I was influenced and shaped by forces and many different people. My family. My mother [Sallye Davis] was an activist and, in many ways, I walked the path that she first created by becoming involved in movements. She was active in the Southern Negro Youth Congress. Then of course, I was influenced by Herbert Marcuse, who was my most important mentor, both in terms of my academic work and in terms of my activism. I studied with him at Brandeis University. I traveled to study in Germany, where he himself was born, and I studied with him at UC San Diego. But I would say that the most important influences have always been collective influences. I have always been led to some movement, some organization, whether it was the Black Panther Party, of course the Communist Party, or organizations that I work with today, including critical resistance beyond the Prison Industrial Complex. I feel most at home when I am working with others. But the campaign for the demand around my freedom, which was depicted in the documentary, was a campaign whose most influential characters were the people who did the work. I happened to be the beneficiary of that campaign but I am not the most important figure. The most important figures are the hundreds of thousands, the millions of people, who joined together in a demand for social justice.

Greg Archer: When you look back at that time period, what do you see? What is so different now? What is the same? We're in a different era and yet ...

Angela Davis: Maybe I'll first answer that question with what is the same. Unfortunately, too much is the same. The issues we addressed then--the issue of racism, the issue of police violence, the issue around political prisoners. As a matter of fact, I was absolutely astounded that 40 years after Assata Shakur was arrested, she is placed on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list. And this happened on May 2 this year. What is the message in that? But in the work that has been done over the last four decades ... what is different is that young people who are involved in these struggles today have very impressively taken the message of what we've learned. What is different, I think, is the sense of connectiveness of the struggles. We now know that we can't take on issues such as racism separately from sexism, separately from homophobia, separately from the campaign for economic justice, separately from environmental justice. So, I think we've learned a great deal. And we are in a much better position to effectively address these issues. That is what allows us to continue to eradicate the forces of inequality and injustice.

Greg Archer: People view you as an icon. Is that a big weight to carry?

Angela Davis: Well, yes. People may still see me as an icon, but I don't see myself as an icon. Again, I see myself as a beneficiary of the struggle for which vast numbers of people themselves deserve the credit. On the one hand, I understand how it might be important to create figures and symbols but on the other hand, I see myself s another participant. So, I don't feel overburdened by the weight, because I myself know that I could never live up to all those expectations. But then again, I know that those expectations come from communities and they are about people--masses of people. They are about a collective struggle.

Greg Archer: If there is one thing we could be doing more of today, what do you think that is?

Angela Davis: I think we could be doing more organizing; creating real movement. And when I say real movement, I mean movement that brings people together in a kind of permanent sense of community. I know that we have the ability to mobilize in ways that we could have never predicted 40 years ago. We are currently organizing a petition to President [Barack] Obama to overrule the decision to put Assata Shakur on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Terrorists list. Within a couple of days, we can gather thousands of signatures and that would have been unheard of 40 years ago. So, I think we have to learn how to go further than participate in the globalization that happened as a result of the force of social media. We have to learn to pervade a sense of community that counteracts the messages that we receive about individualism--neo liberal individualism. And how we build those communities is up to young people today. And for those of us who are older, we need to trust younger people to do more creative, more innovative formations that will help us feel as if we are part of a vast global movement for social justice.

Read the entire article, including an interview with Bettina Aptheker, here. Learn more about Angela Davis here. .

Take note of other screenings of Free Angela & All Political Prisoners around the country here.

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