By Sasha Rivera '19
Many students at Scripps College are familiar with renowned activist Angela Davis, as her book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” was one of the required readings for Core I. On Thursday, Jan. 28, members of the Claremont Consortium and the Claremont community were able to meet the author in person through the Scripps Presents conversation series, where she was interviewed at Garrison Theater by the KPCC radio station reporter Annie Gilbertson.
Davis is an American political activist, author, and scholar. She became a prominent figure in her radical activism during the 1960s as a leader of the Communist Party USA; she also was heavily involved with the Civil Rights Movement and had close ties with the Black Panther Party. One of her main causes is abolition of the prison-industrial complex, for which she founded the organization, Critical Resistance. Davis also made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List as a result of the 1970 armed take-over of a Marin County courtroom, for which she was arrested, charged, tried for and acquitted of conspiracy. She is currently a retired professor from University of California, Santa Cruz.
One of the first questions Davis answered was about the parallels between college students’ activism today and student activism when Davis was in college. The renowned activist explained that it is quite similar because students today are grandchildren of the activists from her youth. She explained that the parents of current students had not been involved with activism as strongly because her generation, the grandparents, had imposed too much pressure on them.
“We have this amazing energy on campuses all over the country…I kept believing there would be this radical eruption on campuses,” Davis said, describing how she had waited for many years to see the type of activism now coming from colleges finally surface.
When asked about when she was fired from UCLA before she even began teaching, Davis clarified that she was hired because she was trained in Marxism and its theories. It was known that she was a member of the Communist Party, but no complaints had surfaced until Ronald Reagan became governor of California. After a judge ruled that she could not be fired simply for political affiliations, Davis taught for a year until she was fired again for “unprofessorial behavior,” or her activism on behalf of political prisoners.
When asked about how she became Communist, Davis replied that she went to a liberal, slightly integrated high school in New York where female students were actually allowed to wear pants, which was unheard of at the time. One of her teachers was a Marxist and she read The Communist Manifesto in class. From then on, Davis became involved with communist activism organizations.
Davis also discussed her inspiration to become an activist for social change. Early on, Davis said, her mother encouraged her to be a part of making change, and she would often share money with other children at school who couldn’t afford meals.
“I grew up with a sense of empathy…empathy encourages people who want to change the world,” Davis said.
The conversation turned to the topic of affirmative action and its effectiveness. Davis criticized the enrollment criteria for college campuses, and said that affirmative action was compensating for centuries of oppression and was only a small step that should have been taken years ago. She described affirmative action as “a little bit of action that is slightly affirmative.” Davis said that the education system overall had to be transformed, that “without education there can be no liberation…Education should be a substantive right. Education should be free. It should not be a commodity.”
Davis then discussed the prison-industrial system, its abolition and the consequences of mass incarceration. Davis believes that imprisonment must be eradicated and that justice must be reimagined. She stated that mass incarceration and criminalization have not changed the rates of crimes like gender violence; rather, they have led to more prisoners who are victims of structural racism.
“If not prison, then what?” Gilbertson asked, mentioning prison realignment and California’s attempts in prison reform. Gilbertson repeatedly interrupted Davis mid-answer, which led to protest from audience members who demanded that the reporter let Davis speak. When Gilbertson’s interruptions ended, Davis criticized the reforms and prison realignment, claiming that jails are far worse than prisons. “One could open the gates of all the prisons in this country and our world would not be that different,” said Davis.
The final interview question for Davis was if she had any advice for the student activists at the Claremont Colleges. Davis replied, “Take advantage of the fact that you are in an institution like this. You will never again have the chance to devote your time to reading and critical thinking. This knowledge can be used to take up transformative action. Be active.”
After the interview portion of the evening, Davis took a few questions from the audience. The first asked about advice she had for young black artists and writers.
“Writers and artists are so important to revolution. Without them there can be no fundamental radical change,” Davis replied.
The following audience member brought up last semester’s protests and solidarity march on the campuses; she asked how she could incorporate self-care while balancing academics and activism. In her response, Davis stressed the importance of sometimes stepping back and shifting gears to focus on knowledge, rest, and reflection because “one can’t always be active at the same intensity.”
The last audience question focused on her involvement with and activism for Palestine. Davis recounted how during the time when she was imprisoned, she received a solidarity message from Palestinian prisoners. Then, she discussed the importance of the camaraderie between the Black Lives Matter movement and Palestine, as well as how Palestinians were some of the first to tweet messages of support for protesters in Ferguson. Davis emphasized the importance of supporting Palestine and concluded, “International solidarity has to be key in the struggles against injustice.”