In a Women’s History Month special, we speak with author, activist and scholar Angela Davis. For more than four decades, Davis has been one of most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States. An icon of the 1970s black liberation movement, Davis’ work around issues of gender, race, class and prisons has influenced critical thought and social movements across several generations. She is a leading advocate for prison abolition, a position informed by her own experience as a fugitive on the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list more than 40 years ago. Davis talks about the “fascist appeal” of Donald Trump and explains why she is not officially endorsing any candidate in this election. “I believe in independent politics,” she says. “I still think that we need a new party, a party that is grounded in labor, a party that can speak to all of the issues around racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, what is happening in the world. We don’t yet have that party.”
AMY GOODMAN: In this Women’s History Month special, we turn to the author, the activist, the scholar Angela Davis. For more than four decades, she’s been one of the most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States. An icon of the '70s black liberation movement, Angela Davis's work centers around issues of gender, race, class and prisons, and has influenced critical thought and social movements across several generations. She’s a leading advocate for prison abolition, a position informed by her own experience as a fugitive on the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list more than 40 years ago.
In 1944, Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama. The city would become known as “Bombingham” as a result of so many Ku Klux Klan bombings. In 1963, the Klan blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four girls and injuring 22 others.
I spoke to Angela Davis this month just after Donald Trump initially waffled over his refusal to condemn an endorsement by David Duke, the prominent white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, it didn’t really surprise me. We’ve seen the development of a kind of a fascist appeal over the time that Donald Trump has been attempting to achieve the Republican nomination. But I can say that it would have been extremely difficult to imagine someone like this having a legitimate claim to the Republican nomination even at the time that—when we thought that it was—it was totally amazing that George W. Bush might eventually become the president of the U.S. But I think this is an indication of the extent to which conservatives and the Republican Party have been creating this base that can, indeed, serve as support for someone like Donald Trump.
AMY GOODMAN: And what the Ku Klux Klan means? It’s hard to ask that question, because you think everybody knows, but I think it’s very important to talk about their historical significance and the violence that they wrought.
ANGELA DAVIS: And, of course, we’re still today witnessing the legacy of the Ku Klux Klan today, which isn’t to say that the Ku Klux Klan has been put to rest. That organization still exists. But the Ku Klux Klan, of course, evokes the racist, terrorist, violent history of—associated with the era following slavery up to the present. It doesn’t seem to me to be a question whether one would disavow the Ku Klux Klan. But, of course, the extent to which Donald Trump was beating around the bush, seemingly in an effort not to alienate those who might support the Klan today, is an indication that he is helping—
AMY GOODMAN: And it was right before Super Tuesday, which had a number of Southern states. And when he came out in the debate to say he was disavowing, that was after Super Tuesday.
ANGELA DAVIS: And it’s interesting, of course, that he won precisely those states below the Mason-Dixon Line that historically have been associated with that kind of violent racism.
AMY GOODMAN: So let’s go from the Republicans to the Democrats. During a recent private Hillary Clinton fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina, right before the South Carolina primary, a Black Lives Matter activist named Ashley Williams held up a banner reading, quote, “We have to bring them to heel,” which was a reference to controversial statements Hillary Clinton made in 1996 about some youth whom she called, quote, “superpredators.” Williams then confronted Clinton, saying, quote, “I am not a superpredator.”
ASHLEY WILLIAMS: I’m not a superpredator, Hillary Clinton.
HILLARY CLINTON: OK, fine. We’ll talk about it.
ASHLEY WILLIAMS: Can you apologize to black people for mass incarceration?
HILLARY CLINTON: Well, can I talk? OK, and then maybe you can listen to what I say.
ASHLEY WILLIAMS: Yes, yes, absolutely.
HILLARY CLINTON: OK, fine. Thank you very much. There’s a lot of issues, a lot of issues in this campaign. […]
ASHLEY WILLIAMS: I know that you called black youth superpredators in 1994. Please explain your record. Explain it to us. You owe black people an apology.
HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I’ll tell you what, if you will give me a chance to talk, I’ll—I’ll tell you something. You know what? Nobody’s ever asked me before. You’re the first person to ask me, and I’m happy to address it, but you are the first person to ask me, dear. Um, OK, back to the issues.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Hillary Clinton saying, “You were the first person to ask me about this,” speaking to Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Williams, who confronted Clinton at a private fundraiser. So Ashley was then escorted away. Williams says a friend contributed $500 so she could attend the private event. The protest was in response to these controversial comments Hillary Clinton made while speaking at Keene College in New Hampshire in 1996.
HILLARY CLINTON: They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators—no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s what she said in 1996. On Super Tuesday, Hillary Clinton was confronted by a young Somali-American woman during a campaign stop at a coffee shop in Minneapolis who asked Clinton about her superpredator comments. The quiet back-and-forth ended with Clinton growing frustrated and telling the young woman, quote, “Well, why don’t you go run for something then?” Angela Davis, if you could respond? There’s so many different things.
ANGELA DAVIS: I think it’s really wonderful that Black Lives Matter activists are participating in this electoral period in this way, forcing candidates to speak on issues about which they might not speak. And, of course, Hillary Clinton should have said, “Well, I was wrong to use the term 'superpredators.' What I know now, I didn’t necessarily know then.” There are many ways in which she could have disavowed it. And we know, of course, that the Clinton administration was responsible, at least in part, in large part, for the buildup of what is now called mass incarceration with the passage of the 1994 crime bill. It seems to me that if she’s interested in the votes of not only African Americans and people of color, but of all people who are progressive and attempting to speak out against the racism of overincarceration, she would simply say, “I was wrong then,” that “superpredator” is a racially coded term. It’s so interesting that she is—she tends to rely on a kind of universalism that prevents her from acknowledging the extent to which racism is so much a force and an influence in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, in primary after caucus after primary, when there’s a large African-American population, she wins that vote over Bernie Sanders.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, of course, if we look at the historical situation, we know that her husband, Bill Clinton, was extremely popular in black communities all over the country and one of the most popular presidents in the—before Obama, perhaps the most popular president in the history of the country, except perhaps Abraham Lincoln.
AMY GOODMAN: What did Toni Morrison call him? Our first black president?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, but she did not exactly say that. What she was referring to was the fact that he did acknowledge black culture in ways that other presidents had not. And in a sense, you can say that there was a conscious appeal to black communities in ways that—I think, that his wife, Hillary Clinton, is not capable of developing. But yeah, I think we find ourselves in a very difficult situation, with Bernie Sanders being the alternative and, of course, Bernie Sanders as—declaring himself a socialist and raising a whole number of absolutely important issues and putting pressure on her. And that’s good. But I think, on the one hand, you have a candidate who is so reluctant to address racism, at one point she said, in response to the slogan “black lives matter,” “all lives matter.” But, of course, if all lives did matter, then we would not have to say that black lives matter. And on the other hand, you have Bernie Sanders, who engages in a kind of economic reductionism that prevents him from speaking—from developing a vocabulary that allows him to speak in ways that enlighten us about the persistence of racism, racist violence, state violence.
AMY GOODMAN: What would you say Bernie Sanders should say that would satisfy you in how he understood the issue of racial and economic oppression?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I would think that he might recognize the extent to which capitalism is racial capitalism, as Cedric Robinson pointed out. Capitalism was built on slavery. And throughout the history of capitalism, we see the extent to which racism is intertwined with economic oppression. It seems that he does not have the vocabulary that allows him to acknowledge the role and the influence that racism has played historically. He thinks that economic justice will automatically lead us to racial justice.
AMY GOODMAN: Who are you endorsing?
ANGELA DAVIS: Endorsing? I don’t endorse. But let me say that, well, to be frank, I’ve actually never voted for one of the two-party—two major parties in a presidential election before Barack Obama. I believe in independent politics. I still think that we need a new party, a party that is grounded in labor, a party that can speak to all of the issues around racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, what is happening in the world. We don’t yet have that party. And even as we participate in this electoral process, as it exists today, I think we need to be looking ahead toward a very different kind of political process. At the same time, we put pressure on whoever is running. So I’m actually more interested in helping to develop mass movements that can create the kind of pressure that will force whoever is elected or whoever becomes the candidate to move in more progressive directions.