Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Most Wanted

Recently I was google image searching women who had been famously arrested for an art project and I found myself totally enamored with Angela Davis and also wondering "why did all the black panther women look like supermodels". I figured I'd add a little more substance to my understanding of Angela Davis, so I read her autobiography and have been listening to recordings of her more recent speeches on my ipod. I still haven't figured out why Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver, Assata Shakur, Elaine Brown and the rest are all so coincidentally stunning but I have been obsessively absorbing all info I can on their lives. If anyone knows of a book about the women in the black panther party could you please let me know. It seems like there should be a book on the topic since despite the struggle for equal rights racially many of the women found themselves struggling for equal footing within the party because of their gender.
Anyhow, back to Angela. Usually when I read an biography I do this annoying thing where I measure myself next to them like "oh good they didn't really hit it big till 32... i still have more time". I know this is ridiculous. It became embarrassingly so reading Angela Davis's bio because she'd pretty much surpassed me in all ways before the age of 17.

Angela Davis grew up on "Dynamite Hill" in Birmingham, Alabama. The 'hill' earned its name due to the constant bombings of homes, churches, and other places in an effort to keep the black community in its place. Though her parents barely scraped by as a teacher and a service station operator they were politically active. One of my favorite stories she tells of this period is how she and her sister would pretend to be French, and would go to stores in Birmingham speaking the basic French they learned at school. After receiving the best of service from shop keepers who usually made black customers wait in the store room , the girls would drop their French, laugh in the shop keepers face, and run off.
In her junior year, Angela was accepted to the American Friends Service Committee which placed southern black students in integrated northern high schools. Angela moved to New York and lived with a host family while attending the Elizabeth Irwin High School in the village. The school was very radical and it was there that Angela became familiar with socialism and communism.
Next Angela went to Brandeis University where she studied philosophy under Herbert Marcuse, made friends with the 2 other black students she could find, and did summer study programs in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Finland. After attending political youth festivals in Europe she was investigated by the FBI for having communist ties. She spent her junior year in Paris where she became more active in communism and found out about the KKK's bombing of a church in Birmingham, where many of her childhood friends were killed. After graduating from Brandeis Magna Cum Laude she returned to Germany to do graduate work in philosophy under Theodor Adorno. However, with the Black Panther Party and the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee picking up at home, Angela was eager to return to her own country and its struggles. She returned and received her masters from the Univ. of California, San Diego and then returned to Germany to get her PhD.

While back in California, Angela became involved with the Black Panther Party, the Communist Party (which, thanks to Gov. Reagan lost her her job at UCLA), and quite a few other controversial organizations. Since first meeting many of the Panthers at a conference in London, Angela was a prominent organizer in their movement. While many members of the party were more interested in the idea of organizing Angela had the experience and the education to know how to actually organize in a positive way.

This section of the bio helped me understand a couple things I hadn't before. Firstly, that community organizing is an incredibly difficult and precise skill - the ability to organize an entire day of NON-VIOLENT rallies in response to police shootings of members of your community, and to do that while the guys in your group are complaining that the women keep hogging the responsibility and emasculating the guys. Secondly, reading about the epic amounts of police brutality put into perspective the LA riots that were happening when I was a kid. I realized that those who were rioting in response to the Rodney King beating were children at the time that the Black Panthers took up guns to defend themselves from the daily deaths of their loved ones at the hands of the police.

So during this time many of the Black Panthers began carrying guns. There were two different Panther organizations and after being held at gunpoint by a member of the opposite faction, Angela decided to carry a gun as well. She received constant death and bomb threats at her job at UCLA and even her landlord, an unstable man pushed by the stress of the situation, at one point tried to kill her. Many of the guns owned by the Black Panthers had been registered in her name. When a 17 year old Panther, Jonathan Jackson, held up a court trial and attempted to kidnap the defendant but consequently killed the judge, it turned out that the gun had been registered to Angela Davis. Jonathan Jackson and the defendant also died in the shoot out. For two months Angela evaded the warrant for her arrest on the charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide. She became the third woman ever to be on the FBI's most wanted list, and at the young age of 26. Of course this makes me think "I'll be 26 in a few weeks and what have I done with my life"????

I think the time Angela spent in prison was probably some of the best time her fellow prisoners ever knew. She started exercise and martial arts classes and brought as many books as possible in to the prison library. She even set up a bail program for fellow prisoners- they would have to be elected by their fellow prisoners and once out they would work with the fund to raise bail for other women.

My mind was totally blown by the way both defense and prosecution conducted Angela's trial. Prosecution attempted to prove that Angela had been so in love with Jonathan Jackson's brother, George, a prisoner in Soledad Prison, that she had been driven by her female irrationality to help his brother try to free a fellow prisoner. Now Angela was pretty into George Jackson, they were penpals and he seemed pretty smokin' from how she described him but the idea that this would have driven her to concoct a ridiculous escape plan for some other prisoner is both sexist and insane. Angela's defense on the other hand sought not only to prove her innocence but also to prove the innate racism of the system and sexism of the prosecution. Eighteen months after her capture she was proven innocent and acquitted of all charges.

Angela Davis's autobiography, much like her defense in court, refuses to be a token memoir of one gifted black woman. She writes " with a little twist of history, another sister or brother could easily have become the political prisoner whom millions of people from throughout the world rescued.." After being freed Angela moved to Cuba for a while and then in 1980 and 1984 ran for Vice President on the Communist Party ticket. She is no longer with the Communist Party having left to form the Committee's of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. She has worked for years to expose the "Prison Industrial Complex" arguing to reform our countries system of racially driven punishment and encouraging social change in education and community engagement to make punishment less necessary. In 1997 Angela Davis came out as a lesbian to Out Magazine and since then has been speaking more about LGBT issues and rights. She remains the Presidential Chair and professor with the History of Consciousness Department at University of California, Santa Cruz and director of their Feminist Studies department.

I recently listened to a great speech she gave at Barnard College. She's such a genius. In the question/answer segment she takes 5 questions at a time before she answers them. They have a podcast you can subscribe to with a bunch of great speeches. I really recommend downloading the ones that sound good on itunes. In keeping with Angela Davis's desire to not be taken as a token I'll be doing a couple more posts on women in the Black Panther Party. Stay tuned!

Here is a recent segment with her on Inside USA... the guy interviewing her has really annoying hand motions.


Ahma Daeus said...


Even if one does not ask or pretends not to see the rope and the flashing red flag draped around the philosophical question standing solemnly at attention in the middle of the room, it remains apparent that the mere presence of a private “for profit” driven prison business in our country undermines the U.S Constitution and subsequently the credibility of the American criminal justice system. In fact, until all private prisons in America have been abolished and outlawed, “the promise” of fairness and justice at every level of this country’s judicial system will remain unattainable. We must restore the principles and the vacant promise of our judicial system. Our government cannot continue to "job-out" its obligation and neglect its duty to the individuals confined in the correctional and rehabilitation facilities throughout this nation, nor can it ignore the will of the people that it was designed to serve and protect. There is urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of indifference, apathy, cynicism, fear, and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.

My hope is that you will support the National Public Service Council To Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) with a show of solidarity by signing "The Single Voice Petition"

Please visit our website for further information: http://www.npsctapp.blogspot.com

–Ahma Daeus
"Practicing Humanity Without A License"...

nan said...

Thanks for educating me. Reading your articles on women reminds me of how much more each of these women is than the simple cardboard cut out that media portrays them as.

Anonymous said...

Amen. A man who does not get big wood looking at Angela Davis must be dead.