By Alexa Moreno Perdomo, Editorial Intern
Very few people have the ability to captivate a room full of people armed with smartphones, but it seemed to come naturally to Dr. Angela Y. Davis during her Feb 11 visit to Cal State University Dominguez Hills. And it was a pretty big room, too — the university gymnasium, crowded with hundreds of students, faculty, admirers and visitors drawn by the opportunity to listen to iconic 1960s and 1970s educator and activist speak about her work and how the struggles of the past are still relevant to the work necessary today.
Davis, a member of the Black Panthers Party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the US communist party during her 75 years, captivated the Dominguez Hills audience for almost two hours with an enrapturing verbal history about the struggles of oppression — from the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the election of Donald Trump as president.
“I want to suggest that the collective social, economic, political strivings that define the trajectories of Black history are the very same strivings that define the best possible future that this country and the world could hope for,” said Davis.
Whether it was the struggles of Native Americans against colonization or the struggles for women to be recognized for their efforts during the Civil Rights movement, Davis masterfully demonstrated how the yearning for freedom that defines Black history is fundamental to all.
Davis also emphasized the importance of acknowledging that the strivings of African-Americans have been directly aided by members of other social movements.
“Not all those participating in black struggles have been black,” Davis said, “Sometimes we think really simplistically and equate identity with politics.”
In the end, Davis used her speech to demonstrate how social justice movements have interconnected and why they must come together to create lasting change in society.
“We need to acknowledge the extent to which black struggles have always been intertwined with indigenous struggles for sovereignty, Latinx struggles against colonialism, Jewish struggles to seek refuge, Asian-American struggles against exclusion, and Japanese-American struggles against internment,” said Davis,who is becoming increasingly emphatic about the the importance of protesting Israeli occupation of Palestine.
A Reputation Earned
Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Davis felt firsthand the impact of racism against African-Americans. Her upbringing inspired her subsequent activism. Later in life, Davis joined the Black Panthers and an all-black branch of the Communist Party called the Che-Lumumba Club. Davis spoke out against the injustices and inequality she saw during that time.
Davis has had her share of controversies. As an educator, she has taught at many institutions, from San Francisco State University to Stanford University, eventually retiring from UC Santa Cruz after 15 years. But none have brought her as much attention as her hiring, firing, and rehiring by UCLA in the late 1960s. After Davis was hired as a professor, California Gov. Ronald Reagan petitioned the UC Board of Regents to have her removed from employment because of her ties to the Communist Party. Not one to allow herself to be silenced, Davis fought back and sued to have her position reestablished. She won.
Her work as an activist has also gotten her into trouble. In the 1970s, Davis spent 18 months in jail after evading the police for more than a month after being placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list in connection to the death of four individuals, including a judge. Although Davis was not present when the deaths took place, guns that were registered to her were part of a shooting in connection to the Soledad Brothers, a cause Davis had brought attention to. Charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping, Davis was eventually acquitted of all charges in 1972.
“Violence has never cured violence,” said Davis, describing her experience in jail. “Simply sending perpetrators to prison simply results in the further production and proliferation of violence. If we only punish the individuals, the structures remain intact and the violence continues…We need to seriously think about abolishing the prison and the apparatus of policing as we know it.”
Even at 75, Davis has still not left controversy behind. Recently, her support of Palestinians and condemnation of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank prompted certain individuals to accuse the activist of being anti-Semitic. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute subsequently rescinded their awarding of the 2018 Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award; however, Davis’ supporters fought back. After objections from the public and the resignation of three board members, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute honored Davis with the award.
Inspiration for a New Generation
While the audience at Cal State Dominguez included many older people, the vast majority were young and passionate individuals ready to take on the issues of today.
“Knowing Angela Davis and her past [and] everything she has done, it was very inspiring because she’s somebody that has been through the history that is [similar to] how it is today in the U.S.” said attendee Bivian Jimenez.
For Andrea Feo, a Cal State University Dominguez Hills graduate student, unity was the biggest takeaway of the night.
“A lot of times we hone in on one movement, but we need to spread that awareness to other issues.” Feo said. “We don’t rise if we don’t all rise together.”
Davis hopes to inspire new generations of activists to find their voices and “imagine a different world.”