The second floor of the University Student Commons hosted a mass of faculty and students waiting in winding, sold-out lines to hear Professor Angela Davis, Ph.D., — the legendary activist, educator, scholar and writer — speak in the VCU Commonwealth Ballroom on Feb. 24.
The event, “An Evening with Angela Davis” was hosted by VCU’s Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMSA) as part of the Black History Speaker Series. The event opened with an introduction from graduate student Selamawit Hailu, who succinctly described Davis’ vast accomplishments.
Davis first gained national recognition for her activism during her time with the Black Panther Political Party (BPP) in the 1960’s. She gained international recognition in the early 1970’s when she was was arrested and jailed for 18 months after being placed on FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List.
During the latter incident, Davis was accused of providing guns to the Soledad Brothers — an incident invoking three BPP members who incited riots, killed a prison guard, and then later, also killed a judge. Davis was later acquitted and released from jail.
“It’s very interesting isn’t it that certain aspects of black freedom have been assimilated into the narrative of the struggle of democracy in the United States, yet extremely important movements and processes have been entirely marginalized,” Davis said when told VCU had not commemorated the 50 year anniversary of the BPP in October.
In the 50 years since the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party (BPP), Davis has established herself to be one of the world’s leading social justice activists.
“I should say that many people assume I was a leader of the Black Panther Party,” Davis said. “It’s really conflated – somehow that happens when you try to recapture history. But I was a member of the Black Panther Party, I wasn’t a leader of the Black Panther Party.”
Davis said she was first exposed to the Black Panther Defense Party in 1967, when she saw the now-iconic image of 400 black men and women armed in front of the Alameda courthouse in San Francisco during the trial of Huey Newton. At the time, Davis was studying in the Frankfurt School at the Goethe University in Germany.
“I asked myself, ‘why am I here in Europe?’ There’s a revolution going on,” Davis said to a cheering audience. “Everyone wanted to be part of the Black Panther Party in that moment.”
Despite her activism and belief the world has changed in many ways, Davis reiterated that “plus les choses changent, plus elles restent les mêmes,” meaning: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Davis is currently a Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California Santa Cruz, where she has been teaching since 2002, and the author of 10 books. She has also taught across the U.S. and throughout Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe – including parts of the former Soviet Union – and Latin America.
She works toward the elimination of mass incarceration, has fought against apartheid in South Africa, worked alongside the Chicano movements, is at the center for multiple anti-war efforts, is an expert in Feminist Theory and, in the past few years, has continued along the politically-controversial path of uplifting organizations focused on what she called “Black-Palestinian solidarity.”
Throughout her lecture, Davis made clear the role of BPP and other radical political organizations are crucial to the development of mainstream norms of basic equal rights, but she emphasized to the audience that it is irresponsible to only consume the romanticized notions of the BPP.
Davis eventually left the BPP when she was forced to choose between the organization and the Communist party. Davis became a student and proponent of Communism while in Europe and continues her belief in socialist, though less communist-based, ideals. Davis said she also struggled with the gender imbalance within the BPP.
In the past 50 years, the mistreatment many male leaders inflicted on women – ranging from abuse to documented serial rape, as in the case of Eldridge Cleaver – has put a massive stain on the value of the organization, and is in-part why it is still so heavily stigmatized.
“If you ask who does the fundamental work of building movements, you’ll discover, almost always, it’s women,” Davis said. “The majority of the members of of BPP were women, but when it came to the public speaking roles, men assumed it was their prerogative.”
Davis explained she wasn’t inditing men as men, but rather “inditing the system of gender superiority to which some men did not dissent.”
The struggle of gender balance, among other issues lead to, as Davis succinctly put it, “SNCC (the coalition between Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and BPP) falling apart because some of the guys couldn’t deal with the fact that women were insisting on a leadership position.”
Davis pointed out it wasn’t strictly a gender struggle in a traditional binary structure, but moreso the issue of gender in the context of race.
Later, when Davis was asked during a Twitter Q&A about how women of color could address the systems of gender devaluing in social justice movements, she emphasized the important role of men in the movement to use their privilege positively and convince other men to come out in support.
At one point, Davis asked all the men in the room to stand up – around two dozen among nearly 200. She then personally encouraged the men to do their part in addressing the gender disparity and lack of recognition women receive in social justice movements.
Davis’s decades of experience in direct social justice action has made her an advocate of the invention of new methods of civil and political resistance.
She specifically referenced the the response in Ferguson, following the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown at the hands of white law enforcement, as marking a massive change in the movement for black resistance.
“We can’t fight the police with the weapons they have,” Davis chuckles, “I’m sorry but we don’t have any tanks. The militarization of the police points that we need a very different approach.”
Davis closed her lecture with words of encouragement, offering an optimistic take on the rise of President Donald Trump, xenophobia and various legislation curtailing the rights of black Americans, other minorities and the LGBTQ community.
“I’m really excited for the next four years,” Davis said, “because when the future appears to be most low, compels you to reach deep down and discover reservoir of strength you did not know you had, and I think that is what is happening in this country right now.”
Siona is a senior majoring in political science with a concentration in international relations and a double minor in media studies and Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. She is heavily influenced by her family’s immigrant background and often writes about the intersection of politics with identity. Siona is an advocate for grassroots activism and political movements, and her dream job involves multimedia-based investigative journalism. She has a plethora of life goals but is only focusing on two right now: learning as many languages as possible and perfecting her Instagram aesthetic. [email protected]