"I don’t believe my principles have changed over all these years. Nor my political commitment," affirmed Angela Davis, one of the most famous political activists of the 1960’s and ‘70s, an iconic figure for her strongly revolutionary discourse and membership in the Black Panthers. She was attending the Toronto International Film Festival for the premiere of the documentary Free Angela and all Political Prisoners.
Directed by Shola Lynch, the film relates Davis’ ordeal 42 years ago, when she was charged with conspiracy in the kidnap and murder of Judge Harold Haley from the Marin County courthouse in California. She was finally acquitted despite the pressure brought to bear by Ronald Reagan, state governor at the time.
A fugitive from justice, which she logically mistrusted, Angela Davis was placed on the list of the FBI’s 10 most wanted fugitives at 24 years of age, until her detention in October of 1970. An international campaign was launched for her release, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono among her supporters.
"I never sought that degree of public exposure and it was something very difficult to accept then," Davis recalls in an exclusive interview with Página/12, in a Soho Metrotel suite in Toronto. "But at the same time I was aware that it was something I was going to have to learn to live with. And of course, I was going to try and use it, not so much on my own behalf but for so many people who had no voice at that time."
Are you referring to your comrades in the Black Panthers?
Exactly. Because the national campaign for my freedom originally started under the slogan "Free Angela Davis," but I thought it should be "Free Angela Davis and all political prisoners," which is the phrase that Shola Lynch has chosen for her documentary.
In the film, you mention that the triple death sentence the prosecution asked for was not so much directed at you personally but at the movement that you embodied. Can you expand on this idea?
I very quickly realized that all this fury directed at me went beyond my figure and my personal situation. First, because they couldn’t kill me three times over. I also realized how serious the whole situation was. They were determined to kill the embodiment of this imaginary enemy. And I was the incarnation of that enemy, as an African American, a woman and a communist. When the FBI started to hunt me down, they took advantage by incarcerating hundreds of young black women like me. They took advantage of the situation to try and instill fear in the entire black community.
What has changed since then?
I believe many things have changed. And I think they changed to a large extent thanks to our struggle. When I had the opportunity to go to university, I was one of the extremely few black women who were fortunate enough to do so; today it’s not remotely like that, although it has to be recognized that there is still an enormous disparity between the number of white and black students. What really distresses me is that at that time, when we were fighting for the liberation of all political prisoners in particular and against the prison institution in particular, we were surprised by the number of imprisoned people there were in the country, but today, in the United States, there are many, many more people behind bars. There are two and a half million people in prison in my country today. One out of every 37 adults is under the control of the penitentiary system, which is an extremely high percentage. It is the country with the highest prison population in the world.
To what do you attribute that?
To poverty figures, without any doubt. The majority of black youth are unemployed. It is obviously a political problem and also one of racism. It is true that textbooks no longer openly express racism as was the case before and that officially, there is no racial segregation, but in many senses the situation is worse today than half a century ago.
Even with an African-American President, like Barack Obama?
Yes, it’s sad to say it, but things are worse with an African-American president in the White House. That’s the irony. Because half a century ago, it would have been unthinkable that a black man could be president of the United States, something which is now possible. But it also has to be said that nobody in the White House is concerned that one million black men are in prison. And this is directly related to the complete dismantling of the social welfare system and the de-industrialization the country is experiencing, with the consequent job losses.
Before, the black population had sources of work in the steel industry, in the automobile industry and many others which have now moved to other countries where the labor force is much cheaper. I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and the steel industry there was the main source of work. It still is, but with many fewer jobs than before. And if we add to that the lack of social support, the lack of education, the lack of a good public health system, prison becomes the solution by default of all the social problems which are not being politically addressed.
Speaking of prisons, why do you think that Obama didn’t keep his promise to close Guantánamo prison?
That’s what he should have done right at the start. In many senses we have to say that the so-called "war on terror" overtook him. But we also have to recognize that the main reason why he hasn’t closed Guantánamo is because we didn’t take to the streets to demand it. In many cases, the people who voted for Obama, didn’t remain united and alert. A movement should have been created behind this issue to keep up the pressure to close Guantánamo prison. And also to create a better public health system, better education, et cetera, et cetera. And that is still what we have to do.
For the next elections?
Absolutely. We have to go out to occupy spaces, acquire a dimension of what it is possible and necessary to do. (Excerpts from Página 12, all quotes translated from the Spanish)