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Angela Davis inspires Simmons audience

Vekonda Luangaphay
Angela Davis inspires Simmons audience
Political activist Angela Davis chats with audience members Feb. 6 at Simmons College. Photo credit Keesa McKoy

Political activist Angela Davis urged a Simmons College audience last week to gain a deeper understanding of the socio-historical conditions blacks face and to explore parallels between the black struggles in the United States and social movements around the world.

“We don’t know how to talk about slavery. Except, perhaps, within a frame work of victim and victimizing,” Davis told an audience of about 550 academics and activists, who convened in a Simmons gymnasium Feb. 6 to listen to the scholar deliver a keynote address.

In recent years, Davis has been best known for advocating for gender equality, prison reform and ending racial discrimination. In the 1970s, Davis was an iconic figure in the black power movement and a member of the Black Panther Party, who advocated against police repression and in favor of reforming the prison system.

In her keynote, Davis said that to get rid of racist state violence, people need to change the socio-power structure. Doing so involves reflecting on world history, and building transnational solidarity by giving support toward other countries’ social issues, to gain sympathy and world empathy.

Although Davis said she does believe that those who commit a crime should be held accountable, she doesn’t feel the prison system works.

“The majority of people in prison are there because society has failed them; because they have no access to education, jobs, housing or healthcare. But it also doesn’t work for those who do the repressive work of a state,” she said.

Davis reminded the audience that even police officers who act unjustly also come from failing societal structures, an outcome of poor human patterns in history.

“How is it possible to solve this massive problem of racist state violence by calling upon individual police officers to bear the burden of that history?” she asked the audience rhetorically. She said progress in eradicating racism involves evaluating human behaviors beyond the scope of a primary focus on perpetrators.

“The conviction of one or two or five or ten, or a hundred, or a thousand individual perpetrators of racist state violence is not necessarily going to transform the structural character of that violence,” she said, eliciting audience applause. “We have to embrace projects that address these social and historical conditions that enable these individual patterns.”

Roots of oppression

Davis said that the contemporary social structure in the U.S. is rooted in the nation’s genocidal colonization of Native Americans.

“Often we assume that we can tell the story of slavery by only attending to particular conditions suffered by people of African descent. I don’t think we can tell the story of slavery and its impact without also simultaneously telling the story of the genocidal colonization of Native Americans,” Davis said, then gave a moment for the applause echoing in the gymnasium to fade out. “We cannot truly tell what we consider to be our own story without knowing what we often consider to be other stories. And often what we consider to be other stories are our own stories.”

Davis urged those in attendance to view oppression in the United States in the context of centuries of human colonization and oppression. The understanding is to help give potential to finding efficient solutions to break these patterns that encourage racist state violence.

“Personally, I am aware that I would not be standing here this afternoon if it had not had been for a vast solidarity movement from literally all over the world,” Davis said. In 1970, there was an international solidarity campaign to release her from trial after a plan to free three inmates resulted in a kidnapping and a shooting, for which Davis was later found not guilty. “My life was saved by that movement,” she said.

Davis pointed out that Frederick Douglass travelled outside U.S. to gather support and that Malcolm X travelled to the Middle East. She then talked about her recent travels to Italy, Turkey and England, where she found people talking about the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer in August 2014.

“I don’t know whether we are always conscious of the degree to which solidarity has come to us from other places in the world.” she said. “Too often we don’t ask ourselves, ‘How do we reciprocate?’ We tend to think of ourselves as the center of the world.”

However, Davis sees potential in achieving transnational solidarity with today’s World Wide Web connections, which help young activists have easy access to stories across distance and time.

There was a point in her speech when Davis started to say, “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” and the audience couldn’t keep from chanting along with her.

“Social media has been flooded with messages of solidarity from people all over the world. And I think it is important for us to acknowledge that, particularly when it has been a question of supporting what we often call the black liberation struggle, that support has come from all over the planet, historically,” Davis said.

Many in the audience said they were inspired, and passionately shared their thoughts.

Lyra de Castro, 20, a junior at Simmons College majoring in sociology with a focus on social work and political science, said she was inspired by Davis’ message of reciprocating the global support that the U.S. receives.

“There is a global support for ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the movements that are growing in the U.S., but we should be conscious of the movements that are growing in other areas of the world,” she said.

Professor Gary Bailey, who has been teaching for 17 years at Simmons College School of Social Work and the School of Nursing and Health Studies, and also is a social worker himself, expressed a similar sentiment.

“Many people of the U.S. only think we’re the center of the universe, and we forget that there were people who were doing the ‘Hands-up, don’t shoot,’ in solidarity in Hong Kong while they were in the midst of their own protest. We forget that there were people in Gaza who were doing the ‘Hands-up, don’t shoot’ not because of the resistance, but because they were in solidarity. We forget that we also have to be in solidarity,” he said.

Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey said he agreed with Davis’ point about reforming the prison system.

“It costs us more than $45,000 a year to incarcerate someone,” he said. “Why not use that money to educate that person, why not use that money to provide decent housing, decent employment opportunities for the person rather than wasting that resource and wasting opportunity to engage people who can really uplift our society, who can be productive members as a society, who can raise their families. And I believe that would be a much more effective approach than the warehousing of human beings, allowing them to waste away.”