Dr. Angela Davis: “Racism, Militarism, and Poverty: From Ferguson to Palestine”

On January 19, during the 34th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at UNC, Dr. Angela Davis gave a lecture she called “Racism, Militarism, and Poverty: From Ferguson to Palestine.”  In the 1970s, Dr. Davis’ face became a recognizable symbol of Black Power after she was falsely jailed on charges of conspiracy in relation to the Jackson case and her Communist affiliations.  Since then, she has worked tirelessly as a prison abolitionist, scholar, and grassroots organizer for Black liberation.  For many UNC students the chance to see such a legendary figure was an incredible opportunity.  Tickets sold out quickly and students lined up outside of Memorial Hall hours ahead of time to see her.

(http://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/larb-channels/pop-politics-angela-davis-nina-simone-bob-dylan/)

For those who were unable to attend the lecture, here’s a summary of some key points.

1. The “very special context” of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2015.  

2014 was a year in which words like “police brutality” and “black bodies” became prevalent in the mainstream media.  We’ve all heard the names of victims like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, but there has been no institutional change.  Our attention to these issues as a nation is important, but in many ways it is very far behind.  As Dr. Davis pointed out in a recent interview, “There is an unbroken line of police violence in the United States that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, [and] the development of the Ku Klux Klan.”  This long history demands attention and reflection.

Consider, for a moment, the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing.  On September 15, 1963, a bomb planted by members of the KKK went off in a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls: an eleven-year-old, and three fourteen-year-olds.  During her lecture, Davis urged the audience to remember the names of these four girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair. The names and pictures of these girls became a focal point for the Civil Rights Movement.  Their murder became a symbol for Black resistance.  When asked in 1972 interview how “violence” and “confrontation” could exist in revolutionary action, Davis recalled the way that the Black community in Birmingham organized armed patrols to protect themselves after the 1963 bombing.  “That’s why,” she continued, “when someone asks me about violence, I just, I just find it incredible. Because what it means is that the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”

(http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/randall/birmingham.htm)

The tragic deaths of these four girls spurred even more passion in a movement that was already active in the South.  Today, the murder of Black citizens is once again inciting a movement in America.  In large cities like New York and Washington DC, people are shouting, “No justice! No peace!”  In the words of Eric Garner’s mother, “This is a history-making moment.”  The legacy of the Civil Rights Movement can be witnessed in the mass mobilization of people demanding change in our police system.

2. Martin Luther King Jr. and Activism Today

2015’s MLK Day also followed the release of the film Selma, which tells the story of King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.  Angela Davis praised the film for providing a glimpse at the heroism of everyday people, especially women.  (She also acknowledged Selma’s snub at the Oscars, saying that after 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture last year it’s “back to the white norm.”)  The film also offers us a chance to clearly see the era of the Civil Rights Movement connected with present day.

Davis also reflected on a speech titled “A New Sense of Direction,” given by King in 1968 to the staff of the Southern Leadership Conference.  Davis recited a particular passage from the speech that focuses on Youth and Social Activism:

“It is ironic that today so many educators and sociologists are seeking new methods to instill middle-class values in Negro youth as the ideal in social development. It was precisely when young Negroes threw off their middle-class values that they made a historic social contribution. They abandoned those values when they put careers and wealth in a secondary role, when they cheerfully became jailbirds and troublemakers. When they took off their Brooks Brothers attire and put on overalls to work in the isolated rural South, they challenged and inspired white youth to emulate them. Many left school, not to abandon learning but to seek it in more direct ways. They were constructive school dropouts, strengthening society and themselves. These Negro and white youths preceded the conception of the Peace Corps, and I think it is safe to say that their work inspired its organization on an international scale.”

In this speech, Davis sees reflected an image of youth today.  Beginning with the election of President Obama in 2008, the young people of our generation were shedding the apathetic reputation of our predecessors.  The first Black man was elected president, a victory that young people refused to believe was impossible.  In this victory, Davis says there was “global euphoria; we could sense a unity of people all over the world,” from Africa to Asia.

Davis went on to speak about Occupy Wall Street, which in 2011 taught us to imagine movements in a different way.  Critics accuse Occupy of being a failure because there was no individual leading the people with a precise set of demands.  Rarely before had anyone seen such a large movement that claimed no central leadership.  However, it succeeded in commanding the attention of the nation.  It was a mass of people radically critiquing capitalism and calling for accountability from the government and financial institutions.

In the summer and fall of 2014, cities across the nation took to the streets announcing that they refused to accept police violence against Black victims.  The failure to indict perpetrators, like Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown case, has caused nationwide outrage.  Though Davis understands this anger, she questions our “tendency to individualize what are examples of structural racism.”  Justice is not simply served when individual perpetrators are indicted or even convicted for their crimes.  Activism must focus on the larger picture.  Injustices must be challenged on a global scale.

3. The connection between Ferguson and the Middle East

One of the greatest points Davis made in her lecture centered around the idea that the activist community must “globalize our vision.”  Injustices around the world are often connected with one another.  During the summer of the past year, hostilities flared up once again between the state of Israel and Palestinians on the Gaza strip, which resulted in the killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians.  After Michael Brown was murdered on August 9, it didn’t take long for protesters in Palestine to show signs of solidarity with protesters in Ferguson.

(http://www.afsc.org/friends/ferguson-i-am-reminded-palestine)

Much like in America, race and ethnicity are determining factors when it comes to justice in Israel.  Arabs are often treated like second class citizens.  One blogger for the Huffington Post described the experience, writing, “Imagine walking down the street and seeing a police officer, someone who is supposed to protect you, and knowing that he sees you as a threat.”  Compare this description with the experiences of those who have tweeted the hashtag #AliveWhileBlack and you can see the connection between Ferguson and Palestine.  While white Americans are taught to trust the police, Black Americans must live in fear of being racially profiled, mistreated, and even murdered by law enforcement.  Blacks and Palestinians have an important shared experience as members of minority groups in societies where their lives are threatened by those who purport to serve and protect them.

Furthermore, Davis pointed to the militarization of the police in the U.S. and its relation to the War on Terror (a complex issue worth further reading).  Since the 1990s, Federal programs have given the surplus of weapons produced during the “War on Terror” in the Middle East to police departments throughout the country.  Even campus police departments have been the recipients of The Department of Defense Excess Property Program.  When the Ferguson police department tried to quell the response of protesters, they showed up in armored vehicles and full combat gear with tear gas and rifles with rubber bullets.  As pictures circulated around the internet, many commented that the police looked more like an invading army than local police officers.  In a further connection to Palestine, it has been revealed that the former county police chief, Tim Fitch, was among one of the 15 Americans that received counter-terrorism training in Israel three years ago.  In this culture of militarization, civilians are not treated like citizens, they are treated like enemies of the state.  The dream of the American democracy promises that people can challenge their government without fearing for their lives.  Yet it is clear to see that, even in the modern era, the American justice system has failed to live up to this ideal.

4. The conflation of radicalism and terrorism

As the militarization of the police force increases, we also see the continued attempt to link radical freedom movements with terrorism in order to discredit them.  In her lecture, Davis spoke of her colleague, Assata Shakur, an activist and former Black Panther party member who was falsely charged with murder of a police officer and sent to prison in the 1970s until her escape.  In 1984, Shakur was granted political asylum from Cuba and has lived there ever since.  However, in 2013, the FBI put Shakur, a woman now in her mid-sixties, on their Ten Most Wanted Terrorist List.  (You can see Davis and Shakur’s attorney speak more about this in a video here, from an interview on Democracy Now).  For many, Shakur is a Black liberation hero who fell victim to the racist power structure in America. The American government, however, continues to see her as a terrorist threat.

Davis continued that our evaluation of “terrorist actions” must critically examine the lives of violent perpetrators.  In the recent case of Charlie Hebdo, there was much focus given to the lives of the journalists murdered but very little discussion of the perpetrators, other than their ties to Islam.  One question that was not asked by the mass media, was what kind of lives were the perpetrators living?  Anti-Muslim sentiments in France have had a long history and Muslims, much like in Israel, often experience life as second class citizens.  While it is always important to acknowledge the loss of lives, it is vital that we examine the circumstances that produce violence.  Davis related this idea to the way we understand the violence that is visited on the bodies of women, saying  that “targets of state violence can often be the perpetrators of interpersonal violence.”  Men oppressed by a racially discriminatory system may channel their powerlessness against the women closest to them.  It is reported that “Black women are almost three times as likely to experience death” as a result of domestic violence than white women.  For this reason, it is important that the discourse on interpersonal and domestic violence includes a nuanced discussion of both race and gender.  Similarly, the prevention of terrorism requires an understanding of intersectional issues.

5. Moderation is not an option.

Though “radical” may be a dirty word to some, Davis assured us that now is not the time for moderation.  To be a radical is to demand change where change is needed and to demand it immediately.  In the weeks since Davis’s lecture, some students at UNC have taken this message to heart.  Protests aimed at renaming Saunders Hall, which was named after a founding member and Grand Dragon of the KKK in North Carolina, have called attention to the racist history and present of our school.  Though protests on this issue have been occurring since 2001, there has been little change from the administration.  The school has repeatedly refused Black students the dignity of an academic space free of white supremacist celebration.  Now the famous words of Civil Rights Activist Fannie Lou Hamer can be heard echoed in the outcry of those who are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  As Davis urged us in her lecture, “we can no longer be moderate.”  UNC students can no longer suffer half-hearted attempts to placate their righteous indignation, like the Unsung Founders Memorial which stands less than a hundred yards away from a memorial dedicated to the preservation of the “Anglo Saxon race.”  As students demand change, it is important that this vision be shared globally.  Too often, institutions carrying racially violent histories will continue to marginalize and suppress the voices of those who call for reflection and change.  This holds true from Ferguson to Palestine and even our home in Chapel Hill.  Now is not the time to accept things as they are.  Now is the time to shape our new world.

 About the Author: 

Jennifer Waldkirch is a Senior double majoring in History and Studio Art.  She enjoys studying the history of the American South and is particularly interested in the way racist revisionist historical narratives have helped to create our current culture and political climate.  She was last seen talking about the Civil War at way too many parties.

Jennifer Waldkirch is a Senior double majoring in History and Studio Art. She enjoys studying the history of the American South and is particularly interested in the way racist revisionist historical narratives have helped to create our current culture and political climate. She was last seen talking about the Civil War at way too many parties.