In the final column on the life, politics and activism of Angela Davis, we look at her contributions to theory and practice.
Angela Davis is still active to this day, and her politics continue to be shaped by having once been a member of the Communist Party. Being a revolutionary socialist and a member of an organisation enabled Davis to recognise and analyse racism beyond her own experience. The party had been key in developing her understanding of the role of oppression within capitalism, placing it within the context of class and capitalism.
As I touched on in the first column, it was when she read the Communist Manifesto as a young woman that she began to find answers to the dilemmas which had plagued her. The most poignant aspect was identifying the means to overthrow the rotten system of capitalism that feeds racism and other forms of oppression that had defined her life.
Davis has always been an excellent example of how to combine theory and practice. She has written several incredible books, including the classic Women, Race, and Class. There she writes in detail about the experience of black women in America and the hidden history of struggle. She attempts to explain the importance of class as not just another form of oppression but as a means of power and strength. The book doesn’t fully develop an analysis of how oppression fits within capitalism, but it is well worth revisiting, and has been reprinted numerous times since it was first published in 1981.
Women, Race and Class has been attributed as one of the first books to describe intersectionality, although it was written before the term was coined and there were several earlier books about the experience of black women.
Intersectionality has now become a popular concept, with US congresswoman Ilhan Omar describing herself as an intersectional feminist. The foundation of the concept is based on the recognition that individuals can face multiple oppressions that can intersect, making something new.
However, there is a tendency among those using this concept to treat class as simply another form of oppression, instead of recognising exploitation as a potential source of power. The concept can therefore remain descriptive, not providing a means of dismantling these oppressions.
In her book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, Davis writes of the solidarity and support tweeted by Palestinians to protesters in Ferguson as part of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of Michael Brown by a police officer.
With people in Ferguson seeing the militarisation of the police force, it was possible to make a link to the brutality that Palestinians faced at the hands of Israeli soldiers. Davis identifies the possibility of unity between oppressed groups.
Her uncompromising support for Palestinians has seen her come under pressure in recent years. In October 2018 the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute announced it was to award Davis with the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. In January 2019 this was criticised by the mayor and by a local Holocaust education group because of Davis’s vocal support for Palestine and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the Institute rescinded its offer of the award. Following a public outcry on Davis’s behalf, the Institute issued a public apology and reversed its decision later that month.
Alongside her support for Palestinian rights, Davis has been vocal and active on many issues. In the run up to the December 2019 UK general election she was one of many to sign a letter of support for Jeremy Corbyn.
In January 2017 she was the honorary co-chair of the Women’s March in Washington, DC, that saw hundreds of thousands of women out on the streets — and millions across the world — against the inauguration of president Donald Trump.
In 2003 she stood with the millions who protested against the Iraq war, just as she had stood years ago against the Vietnam War. She is a consistent fighter for trans rights.
Her activism today focuses on the US prison system, which she refers to as the prison-industrial complex. She is campaigning for its abolition instead of reforms, arguing for a better means of solving social problems than simply imprisoning people, especially in a system that disproportionately imprisons black and Hispanic men.
She advocates the need to focus on why and how people find themselves in trouble, calling for changes in the education system and dealing with the poverty and social problems these communities face.
Davis has also been vocal about her politics. Even when her view is dramatically different from the dominant ideas in the wider movement, she has expressed a desire for unity at the same time as pointing to the importance of class. She remains an icon and an inspiration.