Jim Dey: Tenured radical has more causes than time
Angela Davis is older and rounder now than she was in her prime. Her Afro isn't quite as large, and it's a different color than the jet black it was in the good old days.
But Davis showed Friday during a visit to Champaign-Urbana that she still has the same fire that she did when she was at the top of the FBI's most-wanted list, sought in connection with a shootout that left six people dead. Davis ultimately was found not guilty, but her stay in jail further stoked her anger at what she calls the "prison industrial complex" and many other things.
During separate appearances at the Independent Media Center and then at the University YMCA, the 69-year-old University of California professor emeritus denounced racism, sexism, capitalism, homophobia, transgender phobia, meat eaters, teachers who discipline their students, Israel's position on Palestine, enforcement of immigration laws, a "culture of amnesia," globalization and police officers in school.
Davis expressed her support for "activism and education," urged people not to think "so myopically about crime," and asked audience members to develop "egalitarian relations" with people behind bars. It was a heaping helping of radical chic, and her audiences loved it. Davis got two standing ovations (one coming, one going) from a crowd of 40 to 50 people at the IMC in downtown Urbana and one more from an overflow crowd at the University YMCA.
Most of those present were far too young to remember many of the references Davis made, including to her own trial, the Attica prison riot in 1971 and Kathy Boudin, a friend and fellow New Left radical now teaching at Columbia University in New York City.
Davis noted that the 70-year-old Boudin spent "over a quarter-century behind bars" but now is doing "amazing work" on prison reform issues.
Davis, however, neglected to mention why it was that Boudin was in prison, and her failure to do so undermines Davis' expressed desire to live in a "world without violence."
Boudin was a member of a prominent, wealthy family headed by New York lawyer Leonard Boudin. She fell into radical politics, joining with former University of Illinois-Chicago Professor William Ayers in a variety of criminal activities including bombings. While a fugitive, Boudin joined a group that robbed a Brink's armored car in 1984, stole $1.6 million and murdered three people, including two police officers.
Because of her family connections, Boudin received more lenient treatment than her co-defendants. That group includes her husband, David Gilbert, who remains in prison.
Apparently a Second Amendment enthusiast, Davis escaped a murder conviction stemming from a 1970 shootout. The bloodletting began when a man armed with a sawed-off shotgun purchased two days earlier by Davis invaded a California courtroom to arrange the escape of three defendants on trial. The gunman and the defendants then took the judge, prosecutor and three jurors hostage and attempted to flee. Six people were killed.
Authorities, however, couldn't prove Davis provided the weapons she purchased to the gunman, 17-year-old Jonathon Jackson. She was acquitted by an all-white jury.
On Friday, Davis touted a documentary made about her experience titled "Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners."
Her reference to her past prompted one audience member, retired Presbyterian minister Steve Shoemaker, to recall with fondness that he was among church members who contributed to the Angela Davis Defense Fund. Noting the Presbyterian Church had championed her cause, Shoemaker asked if Davis had become a Presbyterian. She said she hadn't.
Her brush with the law, however, is just a blip on the screen in Davis' long association with revolutionary politics.
She ran twice for vice president on the Communist Party ticket, was awarded the Lenin Prize by East Germany and spoke favorably of East Germany's effort to erase fascism. It was, however, communism that led to the demise of East Germany, which reunited with West Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Her support for communist governments, however, led to questions about her widely stated opposition to prisons. Famed Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn challenged Davis' veracity on the prison question, suggesting she's not opposed to locking up her ideological foes.
"Some Soviet dissidents — but more important, a group of Czech dissidents — addressed an appeal to her: 'Comrade Davis, you were in prison. You know how unpleasant it is to sit in prison, especially when you consider yourself innocent. You have such great authority now. Could you help our Czech prisoners who are being persecuted by the state?' Angela Davis answered, 'They deserve what they get. Let them remain in prison.' That is the face of communism," Solzhenitsyn said in a 1975 speech before the AFL-CIO.
Davis subsequently denied Solzhenitsyn's accusations.
That, however, is ancient hsitory. She has outlived many of her critics, including former California Gov. and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who called for her dismissal from the University of California faculty.
Now she's a professor emeritus, a lecturer, a folk hero, a relic of an earlier day many people have forgotten or didn't know existed.
Davis uses her platform to inveigh against anything and everything, collecting speaking fees even as she denounces the profit motive.
Black neighborhoods, she said, are "saturated by police" who arrest blacks while ignoring whites.
Teachers' main job is "helping their kids imagine the future," not correcting their bad behavior.
"When I was in school, we were always cussing out the teacher," she said. "Now you can get arrested for that."
The prison system "upholds our notion of gender in the larger society," asserting that male and female prisons leave no place for the transgendered.
"Where do gender nonconforming people go?" she asked.
"I could go on and on," said Davis.
She's not kidding. But time runs short, and Davis has to keep moving in her campaign against almost everything American society has to offer.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette or 351-5369.