Minister Faust: The Angela Davis Interview

Click on THE TERRORDOME link at the left for the full audio programme.

To the nitwits of the click-and-quip mediacracy, the woman is summed up her iconic hairstyle, a hairstyle once called “a natural” and then an “Afro” before the concept-clippers truncated the consciousness behind the cut into the slangism “fro.”

But Dr. Angela Yvonne Davis, former fugitive, former member of the Communist Party, former potential denizen of death row, and very current human rights activist, is far more than a copywriter’s cute coiffure clichĂ©. To millions, the author-intellectual Davis is a living hero from an era in which too many firebrands were extinguished all-too violently.

Born 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, young Davis took her parents’ social justice activism to her marrow, joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a teenager. A brilliant young student, she travelled at age 16 to Germany where she studied at the Frankfurt School under the guidance of German philosopher and critical theorist Theodor Adorno. While studying at the Sorbonne in 1963, Davis received word that two of her friends had been murdered. Rosamond Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, whom Davis described as being like sisters to her, were among four African American girls butchered by White extremists in the Birmingham church bombing.

Upon her return to the US, Davis graduated with her B.A. magna cum laude. Upon earning her Master’s Degree, Davis began teaching in California’s public university system, where she earned the wrath of then-governor Ronald Reagan for her association with the revolutionary Black Panther Party and her membership in the Communist Party; Reagan’s government attempted to have her fired. But that case of political repression disguised as employment harassment would soon to prove to be the least of her problems.

Davis was linked romantically to George Jackson, a Gramsciian "organic intellectual," author of Soledad Brother, hard-time prisoner and “Field Marshall” for the BPP. In 1970, Jonathan, Jackson’s younger brother, attempted to free his brother from a Marin County courthouse; his bungled operation led to his own death, the deaths of three other African Americans and a white judge. Accused of having supplied weapons to her paramour’s brother, Davis herself became a fugitive, and at age 26 became only the third woman in US history to be placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.

On the run for weeks, living in and out of safe houses until she was finally caught and imprisoned awaiting trial, Davis conducted a first-hand analysis of the interior of what she would later call the US “prison-industrial complex.” A black star on Richard Nixon’s and Ronald Reagan’s enemy list, Davis faced execution by toxic gas; having become an international cause celebre, Davis eventually won acquittal and her own freedom, but refused to walk away from the horrors she’d seen behind bars for the last (and nearly the final) sixteen months of her life.

As arguably the lead advocate for prisoner rights in the United States, Davis entered electoral politics as the US Communist Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1980 and 1984, and published books on a variety of topics, including An Autobiography, Women, Race & Class, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday and the recent Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire - Interviews with Angela Y. Davis. Today she teaches in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, inside the very state system Reagan swore would never employ her again. She continues to lecture widely, and is a mainstay on the modern enemies-lists of American arch-conservatives.

“Racism endures,” said Davis, speaking with me via telephone from her California home on Monday, when I asked her about the barriers between White and Black that exist even inside the pro-democracy movement, barriers which kept mobilisations such as the 1999 Battle of Seattle and the peace movement almost exclusively White, even though global trade deals and American wars disproportionately harm communities of coloured people.

“[In] the current times, in the US, Canada and elsewhere in the world such as in France, it is important to make racism a centre of our conversations and our activism. Many of us have come to the conclusion that the struggle against racism ended with the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, but as a matter of fact, although [racist] laws ... have been eradicated, racism is very deeply embedded in the institutional structures of our respective societies—otherwise, how can one explain why some communities are tracked in the direction of imprisonment, and others [towards] education?

"For intellectuals, activists, workers and cultural producers, a major challenge of this current period is to acknowledge the extent to which we’re all influenced and shaped by the persistence of racism in the world. The figure of ‘the terrorist’ that serves as the justification for so much violence in the world is a racialised figure. I want to urge people to think about the connections between the figure of the ‘terrorist,’ the ‘communist,’ the ‘criminal,’ that is also racialised. These conceptualisations need to be organically incorporated into our work, whether it’s intellectual, cultural, activist, trade union or anti-globalisation work.”

Speaking in Edmonton next Tuesday, Davis will be trailing recent celebrity American speaker Bill Clinton who spoke here on March 9. Clinton’s star in the African-American heavens continues to shine despite his disastrous legacy: signing a telecommunications which further concentrated (and Whitened) US media ownership; furthering draconian drug laws which put more non-violent offenders behind bars while shutting down rehabilitation programmes; ensuring that the US would not intervene to end the 1994 Rwandan holocaust; and conducting a 1998 terrorist bombing of Sudan which destroyed the Shifa medicine factory, whose loss, according to Noam Chomsky, likely led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Despite this catalogue of crimes, African American literary Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and comedian Chris Rock went so far as to call Clinton “America’s first Black president.” Davis says little to defend the man.

“It’s about sensibility,” laughs Davis. “There can be no doubt the Clinton introduced Black people to direct involvement in [US] government in a way that no other president had done. It’s not that difficult for me to understand that Black communities would feel far more connected to a person like Clinton than to a person like George Bush. But this isn’t to say that the fact that Bill Clinton likes jazz and has Black friends and has gospel performances at his inaugurations and so forth, [can] in any way ... provide a justification for the particular policies he proposed during his administration. His role in the expansion of the prison population, the role he refused to play in eliminating certain [pro-incarceration] sentencing practices ... and the war in Iraq, of course, is linked to the Clinton administration.”


sondjata said…
Great interview. Listened on the weekend. Another great show.

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