- Angela Davisworld-renowned abolitionist, author, activist and distinguished professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
A web-only discussion with Angela Davis, the world-renowned abolitionist, author and activist. Davis reflects on her remarkable life and struggles ahead. Davis recently released a new edition of her 1974 autobiography, first published and edited by Toni Morrison nearly 50 years ago. The book details Davis’s early life, from growing up in a section of Birmingham, Alabama, known as Dynamite Hill due to the frequency of bombings by the Ku Klux Klan, to her work with the Black Panther Party and the U.S. Communist Party. It also follows her 16-month incarceration, during which she faced the death penalty and was eventually acquitted on all charges, which influenced Davis’s focus thereafter on transforming the criminal justice system and building a movement for abolition.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We’re joined by Angela Davis, the world-renowned abolitionist author, activist, distinguished professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, author of many books, including co-editor of Abolition. Feminism. Now., jointly authored with Gina Dent, Erica Meiners and Beth Richie. Also a new updated edition of her autobiography is out, Angela Davis. She’s also the author of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, another book, Are Prisons Obsolete? and Women, Race and Class.
So, Angela Davis, you’re in New York holding big event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on the republication of your autobiography from 1974. I’m wondering if you can reflect, in this 40 years since then, on what you think has changed for the better and what work needs to be done?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, thank you for the question, Amy. You know, a great deal has changed. And I don’t think we should underestimate the changes that have happened, even though the structural transformation that we need with respect to issues of racism, misogyny, homophobia, economic exploitation, all of that, continues to exist.
But I think it is important for us to recognize that precisely as a consequence, as a direct consequence of the activism of vast numbers of people, things have changed in this country. We’ve changed the way in which we think about racism, for example. And, of course, the more recent period, in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, in conjunction with the pandemic, vast numbers of people have learned how to think about racism as structural in character, and not as an individual defect or a character flaw. And I think this is major. And we need to just celebrate that and build on that.
But, of course, as we know, you know, given the continued influence of capitalism, racial capitalism, the real changes that we need in order to create better lives for people, not only in this country but all over the world, are still to come.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to 1971, before you wrote your autobiography. You were on the FBI 10 Most Wanted list. You were then arrested. You were put on trial. You were acquitted by an all-white jury. And if you can talk about that period of time, how it shaped you? You would then become a renowned professor at UC Santa Cruz. And just for young people especially, who are so clearly eager to hear your whole life story, as we saw on Thursday night in Rockland County — it was young high school people, particularly women, who had invited you — tell us that story, in a nutshell, if you can.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, you know, as I always try to point out, the story is not important because of the individual at the center of it, myself. The story is important precisely because of the fact that we were facing what appeared to be an insurmountable opposition. And even though vast numbers of people believed in my innocence, they did not believe that it was going to be possible to effectively challenge, as I was saying last night, the person who was the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, or the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, or the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. And so, the most important lesson from that era was that it is possible to achieve the impossible if we stand together, if we organize, if we refuse to back down.
And I think those students last night learned an important lesson about not buckling, about not backing down in the face of the kinds of threats that were forthcoming in connection with my visit. And I have to say, Amy, you know, I can’t believe that these conservative forces continue to try to use my situation as a way to address current issues. And they absolutely lie. As a matter of fact, you know, one of the things they were saying was that I was involved in the Brink’s robbery in Nyack. And I guess, by now, I shouldn’t be surprised.
AMY GOODMAN: And they said you were involved with the Communist Party, which you were, were involved with the Black Panthers, which you were.
ANGELA DAVIS: Yes, yes, absolutely, absolutely. And I pointed out last night — when they accused me of being radical, I pointed out that I’ve always aspired to be radical, particularly if one defines radical etymologically, which means root — that is, to understand the root of the matter and not remain at the surface or at the level of appearance.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to go back in time. When you were in that courtroom, you were charged, wrongly, with saying that you had tried to get guns into a courtroom to free a defendant, the Jacksons. It was both Jacksons then? George Jackson? Or —
ANGELA DAVIS: No, it was George Jackson. And Jonathan Jackson actually went into the courtroom with guns that were registered in my name.
AMY GOODMAN: But you were acquitted of this. When you were awaiting trial, can you talk about what — well, at the time, you didn’t know this famous singer — Aretha Franklin offered?
ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah. Well, I found out that Aretha Franklin had offered to pay my bail. And, of course, I was utterly moved. I didn’t think bail was going to be set. I didn’t think it was going to be even necessary, because of the fact that I was charged with three capital crimes. And during that time, capital offenses were nonbailable. And it was only because of the campaign against the death penalty in the state of California, that was for a moment successful, when the death penalty was temporarily abolished in California, that I became eligible for bail.
And, you know, although Aretha was not in the country and was not able to actually produce the funds, Roger McAfee, who was a white farmer from Fresno, California, came up with the — with his property. He used his farm to support my bail. And I should point out that he became the target of a great deal of Ku Klux Klan harassment and violence, as his animals were actually killed by the Ku Klux Klan as a consequence of that. You know, I —
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to interject here that newly declassified documents show the FBI monitored Aretha Franklin for years. The New York Times writes, “The file noted that a Communist newspaper carried a story about Franklin in 1972, after she and Sammy Davis Jr. headlined a concert in Los Angeles that raised $38,000 for the legal defense fund of scholar and Communist activist Angela Davis, who was on trial on charges of kidnapping and murder.”
ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah, that was — that was a remarkable period. And I continue to think it’s relevant to share this with young people, because, again, this was an instance in which people did the kind of grassroots organizing that involved, eventually, people like Aretha and Sammy Davis Jr., believe it or not, and huge numbers of artists and musicians, but also teachers and unions. It was a remarkable effort, even if I take myself out of it. And this is why I think it’s important to share that story today, not because it has to do with me, but because it has to do with what is possible if people do unite and organize and fight for justice and freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to talk about how that discussion is being cracked down on now. In Part 1, we discussed this, but I wanted to go back in time. First, last night, Thursday night, this remarkable scene unfolding, just north of New York City, in Nyack, in Rockland County. And I’m reading from The Journal News. This is how they reported what happened.
“Activist and educator Angela Davis came to Rockland after all Thursday evening, meeting with North Rockland teens — and hundreds of others — after a planned school-sponsored event unraveled amid criticism that she was too 'radical' for the county and its children.
“The event finally took place at Pilgrim Baptist Church, with about 500 people crowded in. There was no prior publicity, a strategic move, organizers said, after the North Rockland school district and then, quietly, St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill pulled out of hosting the civil rights activist because of protests.
“When Davis appeared, before she reached the podium, her audience burst into applause and gave her a standing ovation.”
So, Angela Davis was introduced by the North Rockland High School senior Anaya Willis with the student group called VOICE that invited Davis to speak.
And I have to say that as I read all of this about what happened last night, it brought me back three years ago to February of 2019, when, Angela Davis, you returned to your hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, after an originally planned visit to receive the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, when it was canceled after the institute withdrew the award when the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center sent a letter urging the board to reconsider honoring you due to your support of Palestinian rights. At the event — so, that was canceled, that honoring, but they came under so much pressure that people resigned from the board of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The mayor was involved. When you came into town — though they eventually did give you this award, so horrified at what had happened. They rescinded their rescission. The event that you held was — thousands of people came out to. And I just wanted to play this moment when you were introduced by Princeton professor Imani Perry, also from Birmingham.
IMANI PERRY: So, let’s begin with how we got here today. You were to receive a humanitarian award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. That award was rescinded, before being reinstated. But when it was rescinded, the people of Birmingham, Alabama, immediately responded.
ANGELA DAVIS: You know, I have never loved Birmingham as much as I love Birmingham at this moment.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Angela, how often does this happen to you, where, ultimately — I want to be very clear — you got the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. The institute backed down. They were deeply shamed. People left the board. This kind of grassroots response, saying, “You got to tell the truth. We want to hear the truth.”
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, you know, I can’t even count the number of times this has happened. And usually it is resolved as a direct consequence of the work that is done by people at the grassroots level.
Yeah, Birmingham was amazing. And I was especially impressed that huge numbers of Black people showed up, including the mayor, who helped to organize the counter event. But also there were large numbers of progressive Jewish community members who were involved. As a matter of fact, there was even a Shabbat that was done in my name. And as a result, I think that was, for that moment, a major breakthrough.
Although I have to say that even when we experience these minor victories, if we don’t continue to do the work to protect them, then we end up facing exactly the same kind of negative response, both with respect to the ongoing struggle for justice for Palestine, the effort to counteract those who argue that to be a supporter of BDS is tantamount to being antisemitic. That is an ongoing fight. And I really appreciate the program you did, Amy, on Shireen Abu Akleh and her assassination by the Israeli army. We cannot stop when we achieve these momentary victories. And the case of Palestine is a perfect example.
But also, of course, the students in Rockland County and the community members, families, community members who support them will have to continue. And I was impressed by the fact that last night the students seemed really inspired and seemed to recognize that they did not have to back down when they were confronted with the kinds of threats that were forthcoming in relation to my visit.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of students not backing down, Angela Davis, you’re a longtime professor of the University of California system. This week, two major stories in higher education: the challenges to Biden’s limited student debt relief and the blossoming graduate student strike across the UC system. You have signed on to a letter of faculty members employed by the University of California expressing solidarity with the largest university strike in U.S. history. You’re saying that you will honor the picket line in full, and you will not replace struck labor. You’re urging the UC Senate faculty colleagues to join you in solidarity with the strike by honoring the picket line. About 100 — 300 professors and staff signed this. Can you talk about what’s happening not only in California right now at UC and why you think this is so important, but also the whole student activism and debt movement?
ANGELA DAVIS: Absolutely. You know, student loan debt is an abomination. I would begin by saying that no one should have to pay to get an education. This is a consequence of the impact of capitalism and racial capitalism on the way our lives are structured.
The fact that graduate students have organized themselves into quite powerful unions is a very good sign, and their connection with the labor movement. As we know, one of the characteristics of this era is the decreasing power of the labor movement due to all of the union-busting policies of major corporations and of the government. So, I think that, particularly during this period, we are going to have to attempt to bring the labor movement into the social justice movement.
I have to say that I’m really proud that I’m an honorary member of the ILWU, the International Longshore Workers Union, and have participated and supported the ILWU around a whole range of issues — the strike at the docks in Oakland, but also their social justice efforts against racism.
So, this is what we need. This is precisely what we need. And I’m so happy that graduate students in the UC system have taken the initiative. And this has been building for a while, I should say, Amy. They’ve been organizing over the last years in ways that have been very evident, and it brought large numbers of students into that movement.
AMY GOODMAN: As a person who considers yourself an abolitionist, one, I don’t think we can say enough at this point about what that exactly means, but then I also wanted to go to what’s happening in the Bay Area, where you live, San Francisco approving the use of killer robots, robots that shoot.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, yeah, and in that connection, I have to say that I was very much involved in the effort to prevent the recall of Chesa Boudin, who was attempting to bring more progressive strategies into the DA’s Office, including prosecuting police, including guaranteeing that the trend toward racist-inspired mass incarceration be deflected in ways that would guarantee the decreased number of people behind bars. And so, of course, he established a new and progressive no-cash-bail policy and a whole number of other issues. But yeah, San Francisco. I live in Oakland. I live across the Bay. And we have problems with the Oakland police, as well.
But this, these killer robots, you know, this is an indication of the fact that whenever we appear to be moving in a progressive direction — abolitionist discourse becomes mainstream, people begin to talk about alternatives to policing, people begin to present other strategies for addressing issues of safety that do not involve the intervention of armed humans — you know, all of this is bound to provoke a reaction. And we’re seeing the reaction not only in San Francisco but all over the country. This is only an indication that we have to redouble our efforts to protect the victories that we have won and to continue to move forward in an abolitionist direction, which means not so much the destruction of existing institutions — although it does mean that — but it means reimagining the way our societies are organized, and asking the question of what kind of society would we need in order to guarantee that we no longer depend on these institutions of repression and violence and racism.
AMY GOODMAN: So much requires learning about history. And I am wondering, as a professor, as a citizen of this country, as an activist, if you can talk about the laws that are being enacted around the country, whether we’re talking about what has been framed as the “don’t say gay” laws of Florida, talking about gender, gender identity, sexuality in classrooms, seen as a true attack on LGBTQ rights, and also the Stop WOKE Act in Florida, that is limiting how schools in Florida can teach about slavery, racism and gender. And put that all together with the whole attack on women’s reproductive rights, the whole attack on — well, the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the period we’re in right now?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, Amy, I think it’s really important to distinguish between the laws that are being passed, the decisions by the Supreme Court, representations of the power of conservative groups. I think it’s important to distinguish between that and what is actually happening in this country and in the world, the fact that we are moving in a progressive direction, the fact that the majority of people in the U.S. are willing to stand up for women’s reproductive rights, and that decisions by the Supreme Court do not reflect the changes, the ideological changes, that have happened in this country. You know, I see all of these developments as a reaction, as an effort to turn back the clock, as an effort to deter those who are attempting to steer the country and the world in a progressive direction.
You know, I do think that we need to — here in the U.S., we need to become less provincial. We have to kind of deprovincialize the ways in which, as inhabitants of this country, we often think only about the U.S., and we don’t recognize the importance and the impact of what is happening around the world. The defeat of — the recent elections in Brazil, in the defeat of Bolsonaro, the election of Lula, for example, is an example — is a prime example of the ways in which we can be inspired by developments in other countries. You know, what is happening in Iran, the upsurge of women’s activism as a response to the killing of Mahsa Amini. You know, I think this is precisely the moment to encourage the kind of internationalism that will help us to move through this period of reaction on the part of those who don’t want the country and the world to move forward.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Angela Davis, we want to thank you so much for spending this time with us. Angela Davis, the renowned abolitionist, author, activist, distinguished professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, author of so many books, including Abolition. Feminism. Now., jointly authored with Gina Dent, Erica Meiners and Beth Richie; a new updated version of her autobiography, Angela Davis; also author of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, Are Prisons Obsolete? and Women, Race and Class, among others. Thanks so much for spending this time with us. We’re going to link to your whole event last night in Nyack, New York, that was started by high school students just wanting to hear Angela Davis speak. And we’re going to link to what happened in 2019, when you came home to Birmingham, Alabama, where thousands came out to hear you. Angela, thanks for being with us.
ANGELA DAVIS: And thank you, Amy, for inviting me.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion with Angela Davis, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.