Angela Davis: America's Most Wanted

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In the second of three columns looking at the life, politics and activism of Angela Davis, we hear how her arrest made her an international symbol of resistance

It’s 1969, and Angela Davis is now an assistant professor at the University of California in Los Angeles. Unfortunately for Davis, the Governor of California at the time was Ronald Reagan who, alongside the university’s senior management, embark on a witch hunt against her.

They first tried to to fire her on the grounds of being a member of the communist party, but a judge dismisses the case; but not before more than 1,500 students attend her lectures out of solidarity.

Neither Reagan nor the board stopped there. They tried once again to get her sacked, this time because of the language Davis used during her lectures in which she had repeatedly referred to the police as pigs. This time Reagan and Co are successful.

Outside of academia, Davis became an activist within the local community and the wider movement. She became a strong supporter of the three prison inmates of Soledad prison, also known as the Soledad Brothers, who had been accused of killing a prison guard, Opie Miller.

The killing had followed a riot in the prison’s yard during which Miller had shot and killed three black prisoners and wounded a white one. Three days later, and following Miller’s exoneration by an all-white jury, the guard’s beaten body was found at the bottom of a tower in the prison wing that held George Jackson, a leading member of the Black Panthers, Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette. All three were accused of his murder.

Davis became implicated in an attempt to free one the brothers, George Jackson, when she provided some of the weapons used by George’s brother Jonathan and two Black Panthers in a raid on the Marin County courthouse in California on 7 August, 1970.

The raid ended in a gunfight with police in which the presiding judge, Judge Harold Haley, was killed alongside Jonathan and the two panthers. A lawyer was seriously injured, and a juror suffered a bullet wound.

Davis went on the run, and in her absence judge Peter Allen Smith charged her with “aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder in the death of a judge”, and issued a warrant for her arrest. Little was said about the killing of the three panthers.

Four days after the shoot-out Davis was on the FBI’s most-wanted fugitive, and on 13 October she was captured by FBI agents in New York City. US president Richard Nixon congratulated the FBI on the “capture of the dangerous terrorist Angela Davis”. On 5 January, 1971, she appeared at Marin County superior court where she declared herself as innocent.

She was to spend 16 months on remand, 15 of them in solitary confinement, segregated from other prisoners at a women’s detention centre. She records in her autobiography the enormous lengths that the prison authorities took in order to keep Davis separated from other inmates, exposing the level of fear about her ability to mobilise and raise consciousness across the prison.

Her imprisonment led to the organisation of movements for her release, not only in the US but across the world. Famously Aretha Frankin had already offered to post bail for her during her trial. John Lennon and Yoko Ono contributed a song, Angela, as did several other musicians. These artists’ works reflected the powerful movement taking place on the ground.

On 4 June, 1972, after 13 hours of deliberation, an all-white jury returned to deliver a verdict of not guilty. Although the guns used in the assault were under her name, this was judged as insufficient to establish her role in the plot to release George Jackson.

Sometimes people ask today how Davis was able create such a huge campaign for her freedom across the world. But Davis’s arrest occurred only a year and a half after Martin Luther King Jr had been the assassinated, launching enormous ghetto riots across the US. Her arrest also occurred when the state was set on an all-out persecution of the Black Panther Party, to which Davis was closely associated.

This involved raids on Panther offices, infiltration by police agents, the assault and imprisonment of members and the murder of key figures such as Huey Newton and Bobby Hutton.

There was a heightened level of anger within the African American community and Davis’s freedom was a victory for everyone. She became a symbol of the struggle at that time, and still is today.

In the next and final column I will look at how Davis developed her own contributions to the theory and practice of socialism and revolution in the modern world.