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Truthdigger of the Week: Angela Davis, an Activist for the Ages

Posted on Mar 18, 2017

By Natasha Hakimi

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

When legendary civil rights activist and feminist intellectual Angela Davis took the stage in a packed auditorium at London’s Women of the World festival last week, she was greeted with a raucous standing ovation reminiscent of a rock concert.

Davis was introduced by WOW founder Jude Kelly with these words of Cornel West, written for Davis’ 2016 book, “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle”:

Angela Davis is one of the few great long-distance intellectual freedom fighters in the world. From the revolutionary mass movements of the 1960s to the insurgent social motion in our day, Angela Davis has remained steadfast in her focus on the wretched of the Earth. In stark contrast to most leftists in the academy, her structural analysis and courageous praxis have come at a tremendous cost in her life and for her well-being. As a new assistant professor of philosophy, she was demonized by Governor Ronald Reagan in California. The University of California Board of Regents stripped her of her academic position owing to her membership in the Communist Party. She was put at the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list, on the run from the police forces of the U.S. Empire, and incarcerated after her capture. Her grace and dignity during a historic court trial electrified the world. And her determination to remain true to her revolutionary vocation—in the intense international spotlight—has been an inspiration.

After the systematic state execution or incarceration of Black warriors and government incorporation of black professionals, Angela Davis still stands tall with intellectual power and moral fervor. During the thirty-year age of neoliberal rule, Angela Davis remained on fire for the freedom of the poor and working people. Her scholarship on women, workers, and people of color helped keep alive a radical vision, analysis, and praxis during the Reagan and Bush years. … She remains—after more than fifty years of struggle, suffering, and service—the most recognizable face of the left in the U.S. Empire.

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As Davis told the audience at the festival, portions of which you can watch in the video above, she has been an activist “literally all of [her] life.” And while other septuagenarians might want to step back from public service, she has continued to work into her 70s to promote a feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist vision of the United States and the world. Her persecution and imprisonment in the 1970s catapulted her into the public eye, and she has been a household name ever since. Yet Davis said she is simply an average being and that the “only reason people should remember” her is that supporters were able to form a global activist campaign that ultimately helped to free her.

Watching from the audience at the South Bank Centre, it was apparent to me that despite her being the author of more than a dozen books on activism, feminism, race, prisons, democracy and many other topics, many of which have helped shape important conversations we’re having today, Davis is incredibly humble. She is also generous, as was evident when she took question after question from adoring audience members who asked for advice about their own activist work. One woman, moved by Davis’ praise for her work calling attention to police detainee deaths in the United Kingdom, jumped onto the stage to embrace her—and was welcomed with open arms.

Davis spoke at length about issues facing the United States under President Trump (and said she doesn’t believe that “had Hillary Clinton been elected, we would have been in a substantially different situation”). Heartened by the “amazing” reactions she has observed since Trump’s election, Davis said, “I’ve never experienced, even during the height of radical movements during the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the kind of mandate for resistance that people are producing these days.”

And she is by no means on the sidelines of this resistance. Her book “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle” shows that Davis has kept up with new movements, exploring, for example, the resistance that emerged after the 2014 shooting death of black youth Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Mo., and how it relates to the struggles Palestinians face in the Middle East. Davis also supports the Black Lives Matter movement and met with several organizers of the U.K. branch of the activist group while she was in London for the WOW event. She understands, she said, the importance of experienced activists recognizing young people who are not only attempting to follow in their predecessors’ footsteps but also striving to shake off “regressive ideas” that sometimes become embedded in ideologies.

“The most important learning I do,” Davis told the audience, which was mixed in both age and race, “is learning from young people.”

In one of Davis’ most moving responses to a question posed by Kelly, she called for “more profound ways of thinking how to move forward” that do not use white hegemonic powers as the “standard” to aspire to, but instead recognize and honor the experiences of those who have been oppressed by a capitalist, patriarchal system.

“Somehow or another, we always use as our standard those who are the center of the structures we want to dismantle,” Davis said as the South Bank Centre auditorium exploded in applause. “And so, why would women want to become equal to men? Why would black people and Latinos and Arabs and Muslims want to become equal to white people? Why would the LGBTQ community want to become equal in the context of heteropatriarchy?”

As I wrote in a piece earlier this week, Davis is a proponent of inclusivity, and the quote above is an example of her dedication to an intersectional feminism. And while she welcomes progressive men into the conversation, she insists that they take part in feminist movements—and asked the men in the audience to stand up and applaud the women present. 

Offering a blueprint for activists on effective conversations on race and gender, Davis warned against the dangers of assimilating into “a white supremacist society without thinking about what it is we need to do in order to transform that society.” She then offered some hope to modern activists engaged in the kind of struggles to which she has dedicated her life:

“I think that maybe now we are finally beginning to get it. I hope we are. Yes, we always have to believe that ultimately we will be able to change the world,” Davis told the hall filled with people she said she hoped were activists. She pointed out we are not “going to immediately witness the consequences of the work we do. … In 2017, as we try to generate powerful resistance movements against Islamophobia, to protect undocumented immigrants, to protect the rights of trans people … we are drawing upon forces and we are drawing upon energies that have been created over decades.

“So now we are, in a sense, reaping the fruits of the work [of] people, activists like ourselves … just as we are creating the terrain for something that may happen 50 years from now. I like to think that today we are living the imaginings of those that have been long gone. We are living the world they wanted, and therefore we can expect that others will be inhabiting a world that we imagine.”

For her unfailing service to dismantling systems of oppression, her lifelong activism despite huge personal cost, and her dedication to supporting new movements and encouraging younger generations of activists, Angela Davis is our Truthdigger of the Week.


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