I was lucky enough to see Angela Davis speak at San Jose State a few days ago. What an amazing woman. Also, I thought, an excellent speaker: careful and deliberative in her word choice, which I appreciate, and her commentary was interesting and thought-provoking and even amusing throughout. I forgot to bring something with me to take notes on, but when I got home afterwards I figured I’d do my best to write up a summary, both to help myself retain it and to detail it for those who might be interested.
The bulk of her talk centered on social justice and organizing, with a particular focus on the evolution of our understanding of freedom. She stressed the importance of always allowing for our notion of what freedom means, and who is worthy of it, to be challenged and expanded. In fifty years, will we look back on this period and wonder how transpeople, or immigrants, or the disabled, could have been treated—even by social justice activists!—as less worthy of that freedom? How can we ensure that our movements are truly all-encompassing and continue to evolve with our understanding of equality?
She mentioned that her generation tends to look down on today’s youth, to condemn them for their apathy, for their lack of involvement and organization and activism. But she continues to place her faith in the younger generations; she contrasts their greater understanding of the connections between racism and homophobia and sexism and all forms of oppression with that of the activists of the 60s, who had a much more limited view of who truly deserved civil rights. She’s also impressed by the tech-savviness of the younger generation, by their utilization of the internet and social networking as powerful organizing tools. She feels that young people are still passionate and motivated, but that their activism simply looks different from what her generation might expect.
My friend Juliet, who saw the talk with me, pointed out that Davis remains “the inveterate optimist”. Powerful interests have tried to silence and intimidate and imprison her; she’s been targeted by counter-intelligence programs, fired for her political associations, even put on trial for murder. But she’s still an idealist. And her idealism isn’t blind, but rooted in pragmatism and an understanding of history.
She used Obama’s election to illustrate the danger of blind idealism. So many pinned their hopes and dreams on his election, which she believes is characteristic of the American desire for messiah figures. We designate and elevate one particular charismatic individual and wait for him (always a him) to effect change, rather than acknowledge that, historically, change has come from the unnamed organizers and activists and citizens, those forgotten by the historical record. Martin Luther King, Jr. may be the name most associate with the civil rights movement, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful as a result of the collective actions of female service workers. How many of their names can we recite now? But we need to acknowledge them, not least because we need to remember that the poor and the powerless have agency, and that, collectively, they can challenge even the most powerful interests.
But once we’d elected Obama, we felt we’d earned the right to rest on our laurels, no additional action needed. We waited—avidly, impatiently—for him to dispense justice and realize equality. And what did he do? Increased troop presence in Afghanistan. And where was the outrage? Where were the protests and the marches? We had failed to hold our messiah accountable.
And, in the end, “What good is it to have one black man in the White House when we still have a million black men in the big house?” Davis spent some time discussing the prison industrial complex, which is self-perpetuating insofar as it devours the resources that could be used to prevent the future incarceration of young people who can see no future for themselves. She allowed that there is a need to remove from society those criminals who have committed acts of violence, but this, of course, excludes the majority of the incarcerated. She cited a fairly alarming statistic: eighty percent of the women in prison are there on drug-related charges. She then flatly stated, to wide applause: “They should all be released. Now.”
She mentioned that prisoners are often voracious readers; as she put it, this is often the first real chance many of these men and women have to truly live a life of the mind. She contrasted this to the reality of university, particularly graduate, education. Today’s graduate students feel intense pressure, almost from the beginning of their studies, to market themselves, to publish, to professionalize and monetize their academic path. A main culprit of this shift has, of course, been the privatization—and subsequently the increased costs—of education. Education is now financed by sizable loans which need to be repaid; students therefore see themselves as, primarily, future members of the workforce. Thus has education become a commodity. She commended the success of the March 4th protests, particularly the use of the internet to broaden the scope of the movement from the local to the national stage, and shared a pretty amusing anecdote about how, when she was a young activist, a planned national protest had to be cancelled because the group didn’t have enough money to make the long-distance calls needed to organize the demonstrations.
Many of the questions posed after the discussion were quite thought-provoking. One questioner challenged her on whether we can really hold students accountable for (what some see as) their lack of activism given the barrier she’d mentioned. If students are expected to focus so heavily on professional development (and on working to pay their way through school), is it therefore fair to judge them for their inability to devote themselves to political activism? She clarified that she intended not to reproach younger generations, but to acknowledge the difficulties they face. And she believes they’ve risen to the challenge in their own ways, by changing the feel of activism from something deadly serious to something fun and accessible, something that incorporates art and music and humor and joy. She implied that youth has something to teach even the most hardened civil rights veterans: “After all, we told you to give up on the idea of electing a black junior Senator named Barack Hussein Obama to the White House.”
Another questioner asked how he could ensure that he avoided abusing the power he’d been bestowed through his activist work. She answered that the truly effective leaders are those who have scrupulously represented their constituencies, who have remained connected to the desires of the people. The abuse of power can be avoided by working closely with the groups one represents, by truly hearing and respecting their voices, by allowing oneself to be challenged and informed and changed by their struggle.
Another questioner, Fred Hershaw (whom she knew personally and described as one of the activists most dedicated to securing her freedom during her trial), drew a parallel between the Dred Scott decision and the current rhetoric around immigrants’ rights, and she acknowledged the similarity and briefly discussed the new immigration bill in Arizona and its function as a justification for racial profiling. “What does it mean for a person to be illegal? And we’re all immigrants. We’re all motivated by a desire for a better life.” And, as she pointed out, most immigrants are simply fleeing the poverty in their own countries, the poverty which exists as the grim offspring of NAFTA and global capitalism. Immigrants’ rights, in her view, is the most important civil rights movement of our generation.
If I’d had the guts, I would have asked her about the issues Brownfemipower discussed in her post on Feministe, about the convergence of sexual violence and our designation of certain bodies as “illegal”, particularly as it relates to the law in Arizona. This new legislation has particularly ominous implications for immigrant women, who face the threat not only of racial profiling but also of sexual assault and rape by law enforcement, and I would have been interested to hear her thoughts on how feminist and anti-racist organizations can best address that. But, alas. I was too intimidated.
I think I’ve summarized her talk fairly well here, though I’m sure I left some important things out. I didn’t really add any of my own commentary, so it’s fair to assume that everything written above (save the paragraph preceding this one) originated with her comments, though obviously I paraphrased like crazy. At any rate, I hope that this will be interesting reading to some!