By Ken Stone
One-time UCLA professor Angela Davis says she had the life knocked out of her when “Don what’s his name?” was elected president.
But the 73-year-old icon of human and prisoner rights — who did “everything I could” to prevent the election of Donald Trump — told a worshipful audience Wednesday at Southwestern College that she was happy to witness “this upsurge in resistance” across America and the world.
“And this resistance has been led by women,” she said to cheers in the nearly packed gym hosting an estimated 1,900 people. “When women rise up, that means everyone rises up.”
Forty-seven years after the FBI placed her on the Ten Most Wanted List, author and activist Davis topped the most wanted autograph list following an hourlong talk and 27-minute Q&A with students.
Davis, a former UC San Diego graduate student (“many memories attached to this area”), smiled through a critique of capitalism and “structural racism” as befit her Marxist roots. In 1969, she was an acting assistant professor in UCLA’s philosophy department — fending off efforts to fire her for communist ties.
But the biggest cheer of the night came during a riff on “abolition feminism” when she said: “Women do most of the work — and the men know it.”
She recalled the Washington Women’s March, where she spoke and where “we were pressed so close together that we could not move.”
Not a single incident of violence occurred at that Jan. 21 event, she said. “Nobody started a fight. This is what women’s leadership is all about.”
Often academic in tone, the talk drew knowing assent the first time the UC Santa Cruz professor emerita used the word “intersectionality” — her appeal that all struggling peoples see their fight as part of a connected community of plights.
She repeated her decades-long appeal to end the “prison-industrial complex,” a term she popularized, and startled many in the audience with the assertion that a third of all incarcerated women in the world are in U.S. lockups.
She praised President Obama for having commuted the sentences of leaker Chelsea Manning and 1980s Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera.
But she said: “I’m actually quite angry Obama didn’t sign a clemency petition for Leonard Peltier,” the American Indian Movement member who denies killing two FBI agents during a shootout on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. She called Peltier a political prisoner.
Introduced as one of the world’s few “long-distance intellectual freedom fighters,” Davis spoke as part of the Chula Vista college’s “Cultivating Courageous Conversations” series at the invitation of Janelle Williams, the school’s professional development coordinator.
As an icon of the radical 1960s and 1970s, Davis didn’t disappoint. (She joined the Black Panthers and twice ran for vice president on the Communist Party USA ticket.)
She called for the abolition of the current education system (while urging free public college tuition for all races, sex identities and even those of any immigration status).
After noting a federal judge’s action to freeze the latest executive order banning travel from six mainly Muslim nations, Davis led the audience in an Ides of March chant: “No ban, no wall, sanctuary for all.”
She connected Trump’s call to double the number of daily internment beds for undocumented immigrants (“No human being is illegal,” she said) to the movement toward private prisons and the racism she said birthed them.
In fact, the promised topic of her talk — “Education or Incarceration” — wasn’t broached until 34 minutes into her remarks on a portable stage with lights shining in her eyes. (She didn’t see the audience until a 5-minute book-signing period.)
Davis said America’s failure to educate everyone was a purposeful way to feed the prison-industrial complex and boost capitalism.
“There’s a reason why we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said.
She blasted globalism — which she defined as companies exploiting cheap labor of union-deprived workers overseas — as an ironic form of illegal immigration in reverse.
“By the way,” Davis said, “this is how Trump made his money,” while mocking his jobs promise to miners and autoworkers. “The reason people voted for Trump is they could not see the connections” that economic justice for immigrants is their fight as well.
“We’re all affected by the same forces,” she said, and later placed the blame for Trump’s election on an Electoral College built specifically to give slave states bigger clout in the presidential selection process.
She decried the “terrible deterioration of our educational system. … There can be no liberation without education.” She said schooling should focus on fostering creative imagination and “learn how to ask a question” rather than merely train people for jobs.
“We have to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable,” she said.
Finally she touched on the Black Lives Matter movement — a reason for a recent trip to London and Belfast.
“You say Black Anything and it scares people,” she told an audience that included the Rev. Shane Harris of the National Action Network, Lemon Grove Mayor Racquel Vasquez, San Diego Unified school board member Sharon Whitehurst-Payne — all African-American — and several other local college district trustees, including San Diego’s Maria Nieto Senour.
“They’ve been saying All Lives Matter forever,” Davis said. But when society agrees to say that black lives truly matter, “then all lives will matter.”
During the question period — with time for only seven — several audience members noted Southwestern College’s involvement in helping inmates at Otay Mesa’s Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility.
One even raised the issue of the “loophole in the 13th amendment,” which aimed to abolish slavery but arguably moved it from the plantation to the prison.
“Imagine a society that no longer needs prisons,” Davis said. “Let’s have a serious conversation about the abolition of prisons.”
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