I wasn’t seeking fame. I wasn’t seeking notoriety. I just wanted to be a teacher and an activist.
These were the simple desires of Professor Angela Davis, born in 1944. She has written prolifically on feminism, race, freedom and, through her work at Critical Resistance, challenges the penal system as well as wider modes of oppression. This questioning is still extremely pertinent today in light of the ongoing challenges of racist state violence in the US.
Davis was born in the Southern state of Alabama, when racial segregation was still enforced and her mother was involved in communist-inspired groups. She said of this time that “in a sense learning how to oppose the status quo was a question of survival”. Davis was accepted onto a programme placing black Southern students into integrated Northern schools, where she became more formally active in communist organisations.
1963 was a momentous year for her. While a freshman at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, Davis attended the World Festival of Youth and Students in Finland. On her return, aged nineteen, the FBI interviewed her about the Communist-sponsored festival. 1963 was also the year a KKK member bombed a Church in Birmingham, Alabama killing several of Davis’ personal acquaintances.
Following further study in North America and East Berlin she became acting assistant professor in philosophy at the University of California, LA, in 1969. The then California governor Ronald Reagan urged the board to fire her due to her Communist affiliations. After initially resuming her post, only a year later she was fired for “inflammatory language” such as “her repeated characterizations of the police as ‘pigs.’”
1970 would also prove a turning point in Davis’ life. Not only was she fired from her job on political grounds but she was charged with murder. On 7th August Jonathan Jackson, a 17-year-old African-American took hostages and two black convicts from a courtroom. This resulted in the deaths of the three black men and a judge after a police shoot-out. The firearms used by Jackson were allegedly registered in Davis’ name. She was quickly put on the FBI’s most wanted list and found some days later in New York City. After declaring her innocence there was widespread organisation for her release with 200 committees created in the US and 67 abroad. With lack of evidence to convict her, the all-white jury eventually came to a not guilty verdict and she was released in 1972.
Following her release, Davis continued engaging with communist thought and activism in general. She visited Cuba and strongly believed that it was racism-free because of its socialist state. In 1979, she was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, which she received from the USSR.
Her writings on prisons can be considered thought-provoking studies into the value of the penal system. She claims the greatest flaw of the prison is that it “materially and morally impoverishes its inhabitants” and critiques the state for pumping money into caging convicts rather than tackling the interlocking problems of poverty, racism and class bias. “By segregating people labelled as criminals, prison simultaneously fortifies and conceals the structural racism of the U. S. economy.” Davis fears that the already marginalised are pushed even further into desperation and fall into a “vicious cycle of punishment.” She co-founded Critical Resistance in order to abolish the “prison industrial complex”.
Although Davis was involved with two organisations that were considered extremely radical during the 70s – the Communists and Black Panthers – her writings are still valuable today. In 2014, Davis noted that while “racist state violence” has been continuous in the history of African-Americans, it has been particularly remarkable during the presidency of Barack Obama. She interprets the global response to recent racist police brutality as demonstrating an increasing awareness of the unrelenting nature of racism in the US when it is supposed to be fizzling out. Davis even believes that the ‘elements for a global movement against racism’ exist.
Davis claimed “I think the importance of doing activist work is precisely because it allows you to give back and to consider yourself not as a single individual who may have achieved whatever but to be a part of an ongoing historical movement”. Important as movements are, she is an extraordinary individual. She was a communist in the US during the Cold War; a Black Panther when the FBI Director had deemed it “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”, and is still someone who seeks to counter all forms of oppression, to ensure that “everyone learns how to respect the environment and all of the creatures, human and non-human alike, with whom we cohabit our world.”