Angela Davis: Not Just a Fair-Weather Activist
Outside the Marx Hotel in Syracuse, New York, on Friday, October 20, 2006, Angela Davis spoke at a demonstration against the United States’ occupation of Iraq. Syracuse activists stood in the freezing rain across the street from where the women’s studies department of Syracuse University hosted a three-day conference entitled “Feminism and War.” That Angela Davis braved the mud and rain to join the demonstration just minutes before she was to speak at the plenary session attests to her background as an activist-not just a professor, but a fighter who knows that struggle takes place in the streets. She warmed us with a message of support. “You are not fair-weather activists!” she said before inviting us to come listen to her speak inside. Because the chancellor of Syracuse University, Nancy Cantor, has been encouraging a relationship between the university and the local community, the conference was free to the public. I was among those who accepted her invitation.
Davis’s first words to the crowd of feminists were comforting. We don’t need to assign permanency to something simply because it is here, she said. Its being here, for example our fascist government, doesn’t mean it’s going to stay. I felt myself relaxing. A hero – my hero, once jailed, once pursued and persecuted by the FBI, maligned by a California governor no longer here (to prove her point) – was speaking. For at least the evening, I could forget the daily bombardment of propaganda and listen to this brilliant woman.
Condoleezza Rice and Angela Davis share more than you might think. Davis told us they were both born in Birmingham, Alabama; both had teachers in their families; both were affected by racism and sexism. But, Angela Davis put it this way, “Condoleezza ‘s life will end in triumph; I just see more struggle.” Hopefully, the comment was at least somewhat tongue-incheek. Angela Davis’s life is already a triumph and there is no doubt history will respect her.
Condoleezza is an enigma. She’s a powerful African- American woman, serving as spokesperson for a war criminal, a white man who seems intent on two things: owning the world and destroying human rights. How can a woman who lost a friend in 1 963 in the racist terrorist church bombing in Alabama now support the racist terrorism that the United States is perpetrating upon the people of Iraq?
Perhaps she is an example of what Angela Davis alluded to while talking about the usurpation of language, as in our new rhetoric of “democracy” (yeah, right) requiring us (the United States of all people-yeah, right) to “liberate” (yeah, right) the women of Iraq and Afghanistan. Women in the Mideast being “saved” while being terrorized. A soldier weeping because he’s experiencing “equality” at seeing a female soldier’s face blown off. “Democracy” under George Bush actually being an abominable violation of human rights. These were some of Davis’s examples of the new rhetoric of democracy.
Then she talked about “diversity.” She said this government might be the most “diverse” we’ve ever seen; our military is the most “diverse” it’s ever been; our prisons are “diverse.” We once talked about diversity with specificity, she said, but now it’s been colonized. It’s a word we use to hide behind. It leaves the structure of oppression intact. This stunned me: diversity, as a usurped word and concept, leaves the structure of oppression intact! And it is, going back to the question of Condoleezza, “difference that doesn’t make a difference.”
Davis talked about the accidental images of torture that have reached us and our reaction to them. We ask, how could this happen? What does this say about us and our democracy? But the questions are self-centered. Nor do they lead to action. She reminded us of the images of the My Lai massacre in 1968. Those photographs of the slaughter of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians provoked outrage and drastically reduced support for the war. She spoke of the context for reception of images. I wonder what our context is today. America has created a context not of repulsion to, but passive reception of the images. As Davis said, we are not encouraged to feel solidarity or empathy with the tortured. We’re encouraged to use those images a discussion point of the state of U.S. democracy. We’re encouraged to weed out the few bad soldiers that mar our otherwise clean and honorable military.
That’s because, Davis pointed out, America has never dealt well with the idea of collectivism or collective solutions. America encourages individualistic thinking. We want to court-martial a few soldiers, not the entire military. When speaking about violence against women, we want to talk about the acts of individual men. But the state also produces, endorses and commits violence. What about torture and sexual assault in our own prisons? In America, we don’t put the state on trial. What is the relationship, Davis asks and wants us to ask ourselves, between state-sponsored violence and the intimate violence against women? I would throw another question in: What is the relationship between state-sponsored terrorism and the uncontrolled appetite of our corporations?
We need to do a few things, Professor Davis said. We need to move beyond binary conceptions of gender. We need a “sustained critique of the methodology we use to resist war.” We need a “sustained critique of the tools we use to conceptualize change.” We don’t need to achieve a peace that is simply the equivalent of no war. Rather, we need to achieve “the restructuring of the culture” that created the war.
We think we live in the age of globalization. Money transfers everywhere, but when people move or try to move, they are branded the enemy. What about all the people our policies have displaced? How many Iraqis, Afghans and Lebanese are we planning to take in?
Yes, yes, yes! I wanted to shout every time she made another point. Since she came on the scene in the early 1970s, she has been challenging not only the power structure, but the way we think, act and formulate our methodologies within that power structure.
We’re depressed, Davis said toward the end of her talk. How could we not be? Homeland Security makes us feel we’re living in a fascist country. Even those of us “whose thinking was informed by Nixon as President and Reagan as Governor, could not have imagined the hegemony of ultraright-wing conservatism we have now, and that has produced a George Bush Junior.”
Professor Davis ended her talk with an appeal to all of us to read Assata Shakur’s autobiography. Homeland Security has put a one million dollar reward on Assata Shakur’s head. You can read more at www.assatashakur.org.
Angela Davis, back in the 1 97Os, was essential to my realization that, in the eyes of a fascist government, to quote J. Edgar Hoover talking about the Black Panthers, “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” was and remains freedom-loving people and their movements. That, my sisters, includes us.
ANGELA LOCKE is a writer and teacher in Syracuse, New York. This is her third piece for off our backs. She is happy to share her first name with a woman who has been her hero for over 30 years.
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