Political activist and UC Santa Cruz Professor Emerita Angela Davis commands the spotlight in a riveting new documentary.
PLUS: UCSC’s Bettina Aptheker opens up about the political upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s—and today.
Angela Davis is not a human being who can be easily summed up in several sentences or paragraphs—books maybe, but, even then, capturing the political activist, scholar and author in the most comprehensive light is downright complex. That’s because Davis is an undeniably unique political creature, one who should be seen and heard to be fully absorbed and downloaded. Which is what makes Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, the new documentary about Davis and the turbulent political upheavals she faced during the late-1960s and ’70s, so inviting. In it, filmmaker Shola Lynch marks the 40th anniversary of Davis’ acquittal on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy with a historical vérité style of filmmaking to illuminate a side of Davis few may have seen (or can recall), and captures the events that thrust the woman into one of the most fascinating orbits of notoriety and political intrigue of the 20th century.
In collaboration with UC Santa Cruz’s Digital Arts New Media (DANM) program, the documentary is slated for two screenings (May 28 and 30) at Nickelodeon Theatres in Santa Cruz. Within the film, Davis recounts the politics and actions that not only labeled her a terrorist but managed to launch a worldwide lobby for her freedom as a political prisoner. The documentary was a hit at the Toronto Film Festival—Variety called it “an impressive act of research, editing and period re-creation.”
While the work could be considered delicious manna for the mind, the events it captures—specifically Davis’ history—seem to offer a vibrant look at an era best not forgotten and showcases a kind of people whose fierce tenacity (some would argue) failed to transfer effectively into the next few generations. Does the film suggest that that kind of tenacity could, in fact, help resuscitate the stilled hearts and deadened gaze found in today’s walking dead? Perhaps. But maybe it’s best to address past events before making that leap.
Things that happened: During the 1960s, Davis became politically active after attending Brandeis University, where she eventually studied philosophy and was drawn to Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. It was Marcuse who may have influenced Davis to study abroad in then-West Germany’s Institute for Social Research, undoubtedly an ideal place to soak up the German student movement, which was in full swing at the time.
When Davis returned to America, Marcuse became her doctoral advisor at UC San Diego. But something shifted dramatically for Davis in the late ’60s. She had morphed into a prominent activist and radical feminist with close ties to the Black Panther Party and the Communist Party USA. In fact, Davis has been quoted as saying: “The only path of liberation for black people is that which leads toward complete and radical overthrow of the capitalist class.”
By the time 1969 rolled in, Ronald Reagan was governor of California and had begun tightening his grip on UC’s Board of Regents. Davis, who had moved on to UCLA’s Philosophy Department, was about to receive a major blow: The university gave her the boot—at the time, officials claimed it was for her connection to the Communist Party USA. The action triggered significant response from professors and African-American students who insisted Davis, also an African-American, was fired because of her race. By fall of that year, a judge smacked down a ruling that the Regents could not fire Davis because of her affiliations. She went back to work.
But it did little to stop the ripple effect Reagan’s initial actions generated. Apparently, the Regents were not finished with Davis, who continued to speak out on a variety of political issues. In June of 1970, she got the ax once again for using what the Regents dubbed as “inflammatory” language in some of her speeches.
All of it was enough to fuel protest, but a few months later, something happened that would forever change Davis’ life: The Soledad Brothers trial.
At the time, Davis strongly supported three prison inmates (John W. Cluchette, Fleeta Drumgo and George Lester Jackson) of Soledad Prison called “the Soledad Brothers,” although the three were not related. The men were accused of murdering a prison guard in the aftermath of the deaths of several African-American inmates that had been killed in a fight by another guard. But the heated debate of the time centered around the possibility that these prisoners were being used as scapegoats, in part, due to political work within the prison.
It was in August of 1970 that 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson, George’s brother, entered a Marin County courtroom significantly armed. He gave the black defendants on trial several weapons and managed to take Judge Harold Haley, the prosecutor, and three female jurors hostage. Police shot at the vehicle Jonathan was using as a getaway, and Haley, a juror, the prosecutor, and the three defendants were killed in the incident.
In a significant twist of fate, Davis was brought up on several charges, including murder, for her alleged part in the incident. Earlier, Davis had become friendly with Jonathan Jackson, then a teenager—he had worked security for her at rallies. It was Jonathan who obtained guns that were registered in Davis’ name without her knowledge. This included the sawed-off shotgun that had been used to kill Haley.
There was also news that officials discovered several letters Davis allegedly penned to one of the defendants (George) in jail. All of this spawned a wild array of bold headlines and a bona fide witch-hunt for Davis, who was charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder in the death of Haley. On Aug. 18, several days after a warrant for Davis’ arrest was issued, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover placed Davis on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list—making her the third woman to hit the list in its history.
Suddenly a fugitive, Davis fled California for fear of not receiving a fair trial. After the FBI found her in New York several months later, President Richard M. Nixon praised the FBI on its capture of “the dangerous terrorist.” She spent several months in jail and later appeared before a judge to announce she was innocent of the alleged involvement in the shootings. But it did little to change things—initially. What followed was a massive outpouring of support and rally cries for justice. The world took notice.
By February of 1971, hundreds of committees sprouted around the country—and many in other countries as well—to help free Davis from prison. (The National United Committee to Free Angela Davis stood out prominently, which UCSC’s Bettina Aptheker, a longtime friend and supporter of Davis’, notes in her book, “The Morning Breaks.” See sidebar.) Unrelenting, this united force captured the attention from many sides and, in 1972, the state released Davis from county jail and all charges were dropped.
The combination of public outcry and Davis’ unwavering veracity gave birth to a compelling legacy. But beyond the events of the ’60s and ’70s, Davis has remained vocal on a number of significant injustices. Over the last 25 years, she has also proven herself to be a prominent lecturer around the globe—all 50 states and various venues throughout Europe, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Caribbean. As prolific as she is outspoken, her nine books till political soils otherwise left forgotten. (Take note of “Angela Davis: An Autobiography”; “Women, Race, and Class”; “The Meaning of Freedom” and “Are Prisons Obsolete?”) But “rising up,” apparently, is in Davis’ blood. For more than a decade, she has spoken out about and shed light on a term she helped usher in to the mainstream: the Prison Industrial Complex, which, by simple definition, revolves around the swift, perhaps hasty, expansion of the U.S. inmate population and all the political influences, racial issues and big business intertwined within it. (According to recent estimates, there are currently around 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States.)
While the documentary Free Angela has brought Davis back into the public eye, earlier in May she generated buzz—in an odd moment of déjà vu—when she spoke out against the FBI’s sudden placement of exiled former Black Panther Assata Shakur on its Most Wanted Terrorists list. Davis shared with news program Democracy Now! that the move was politically motivated. “It seems to me that this act incorporates or reflects the very logic of terrorism,” Davis told the news outlet. “I can’t help but think that it’s designed to frighten people who are involved in struggles today. Forty years ago seems like it was a long time ago. In the beginning of the 21st century, we’re still fighting around the very same issues—police violence, healthcare, education, people in prison.”
Back home in Santa Cruz, most people may already know that Davis first began teaching at UC Santa Cruz in 1991 and that the courses she taught in the History of Consciousness department were significant and memorable. She is now Distinguished Professor Emerita.
In our GT interview, Davis speaks of the documentary, which was produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, as well as her earlier influences. She also opens up about an era long gone and ponders what’s different (and the same) today as opposed to the late ’60s and ’70s. Not to be left out: She reveals some sobering news about the ongoing push for social justice. Read on …
Greg Archer: I’m curious … when watching the documentary, what are some of the things that go through your mind? It’s your life up there.
Angela Davis: First of all, the only reason I agreed to participate in the making of the documentary was that I thought it might be important for people today to get a sense of being involved in a struggle that seemed unavoidable. Even though I was innocent, we were up against the most powerful forces in the world. Richard Nixon was president. Ronald Reagan was governor [of California] and J. Edgar Hoover was the director of the FBI. I thought it might be important to witness how the movement emerged, swept the entire country and involved people all over the world. So, today, looking back at the images, especially with people involved in various parts of the world—Europe, Africa, Asia—it’s brought back a lost memory. I should say, watching this film, I learned aspects about my case, 40 years later, of which I had little information in those days. For example, I did not know at that time how the FBI finally caught me when I was underground. As a result of the research that filmmaker Shola Lynch did, I learned exactly how the FBI managed to catch me. What’s most important is that this is a documentary and the archival material that she was able to unearth.
From the outside looking in, most people would believe you are a strong, resilient human being, and I’m sure there were many influences in your life. But growing up, whom might you note as some of your most significant influences? Who helped shape you?
Well, that is, of course, an answer [that] would take days to answer. But I would say I was influenced and shaped by forces and many different people. My family. My mother [Sallye Davis] was an activist and, in many ways, I walked the path that she first created by becoming involved in movements. She was active in the Southern Negro Youth Congress. Then of course, I was influenced by Herbert Marcuse, who was my most important mentor, both in terms of my academic work and in terms of my activism. I studied with him at Brandeis University. I traveled to study in Germany, where he himself was born, and I studied with him at UC San Diego. But I would say that the most important influences have always been collective influences. I have always been led to some movement, some organization, whether it was the Black Panther Party, of course the Communist Party, or organizations that I work with today, including critical resistance beyond the Prison Industrial Complex. I feel most at home when I am working with others. But the campaign for the demand around my freedom, which was depicted in the documentary, was a campaign whose most influential characters were the people who did the work. I happened to be the beneficiary of that campaign but I am not the most important figure. The most important figures are the hundreds of thousands, the millions of people, who joined together in a demand for social justice.
When you look back at that time period, what do you see? What is so different now? What is the same? We’re in a different era and yet …
Maybe I’ll first answer that question with what is the same. Unfortunately, too much is the same. The issues we addressed then—the issue of racism, the issue of police violence, the issue around political prisoners. As a matter of fact, I was absolutely astounded that 40 years after Assata Shakur was arrested, she is placed on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list. And this happened on May 2 this year. What is the message in that? But in the work that has been done over the last four decades … what is different is that young people who are involved in these struggles today have very impressively taken the message of what we’ve learned. What is different, I think, is the sense of connectiveness of the struggles. We now know that we can’t take on issues such as racism separately from sexism, separately from homophobia, separately from the campaign for economic justice, separately from environmental justice. So, I think we’ve learned a great deal. And we are in a much better position to effectively address these issues. That is what allows us to continue to eradicate the forces of inequality and injustice.
People view you as an icon. Is that a big weight to carry?
Well, yes. People may still see me as an icon, but I don’t see myself as an icon. Again, I see myself as a beneficiary of the struggle for which vast numbers of people themselves deserve the credit. On the one hand, I understand how it might be important to create figures and symbols, but on the other hand, I see myself as another participant. So, I don’t feel overburdened by the weight, because I myself know that I could never live up to all those expectations. But then again, I know that those expectations come from communities and they are about people—masses of people. They are about a collective struggle.
If there is one thing we could be doing more of today, what do you think that is?
I think we could be doing more organizing; creating real movement. And when I say real movement, I mean movement that brings people together in a kind of permanent sense of community. I know that we have the ability to mobilize in ways that we could have never predicted 40 years ago. We are currently organizing a petition to President [Barack] Obama to overrule the decision to put Assata Shakur on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Terrorists list. Within a couple of days, we can gather thousands of signatures and that would have been unheard of 40 years ago. So, I think we have to learn how to go further than participate in the globalization that happened as a result of the force of social media. We have to learn to pervade a sense of community that counteracts the messages that we receive about individualism—neo liberal individualism. And how we build those communities is up to young people today. And for those of us who are older, we need to trust younger people to do more creative, more innovative formations that will help us feel as if we are part of a vast global movement for social justice.
>>Learn more about Angela Davis by visiting her author’s page on Amazon.com.
>>The documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners screens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 28 and Wednesday, May 30 at Nickelodeon Theatre. Tickets must be bought online in advance at Tugg.com/events/3717. The May 28 is confirmed. A threshold of pre-sales must be met to guarantee the May 30 showing. Tugg.com does not charge credit cards until the threshold is met.
UCSC’s Bettina Aptheker on Angela Davis and the Signs of the Times
Well known and respected for her breadth of work and teachings in UCSC’s Feminist Studies Department, Bettina Aptheker, a longtime friend and supporter of Angela Davis, was a significant force in the 1960s and ’70s, helping fuel the civil rights and antiwar movements. She had also been diligent in feminist studies for nearly 40 years. As an advocate for the defense in Davis’ trial in the early ’70s, she shared her insights of the events in her book, “The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis.” Here, she opens up more about those tumultuous times and much more.
You have said the film ‘Free Angela’ is terrific. Why is that?
It’s a very complicated case. That’s one thing. For a filmmaker to figure out how to tell [this], in this documentary with the kind of archival footage she has, is just astonishing. Angela told me that it was very expensive, which is why it took so long to finish the film—to raise the money for the archives. The other interesting thing about this film was that there is no overall narrator. It’s done from interviews from archival footage. So you are figuring out what happened; what took place in the trial. A lot of people explaining it to you are people who were there. It’s a very interesting technique.
You worked for the defense during that trial.
Angela and I have known each other our whole lives. We were childhood friends and that’s because our parents knew each other. And we go back now 50 years. I think our first memory of each other was about 8 years old. We were active together in Brooklyn, when she was in high school during our first days of the Civil Rights movements—the sit-ins at Woolworth’s and we were in a sit-in at Woolworth’s in Brooklyn as a sympathetic boycott to get people not to shop there. So that’s a long time. We lost touch with each other when we went to college. When she was first fired at UCLA in 1969, because of being a member of the Communist Party, I was a fairly well-known activist by then because I had co-led the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in ’64 and ’65. So I went down to L.A. to help her with that case, which she eventually won. She was reinstated. And then when this happened in August of 1970, I just knew that if and when she was arrested, I would drop everything.
When you think of Angela and the type of person she is, what comes to mind? What is it about her, do you think, that many people have remained so intrigued with?
Well, at the time, she was in the party, that was true, and she was also working with The Black Panthers … and that was headline news. She was opposed to the war in Vietnam. If you ask me about her, what I see is a person who is an exceptionally brilliant, functionally brilliant and relatively shy personally. And very, very kind. When you think about how busy she is and all that is going on, she’s a terrific friend.
I’m curious to get your thoughts about the world we’re living in now, compared to the world you both were living in back then.
[Laughs} Well, everything is relative. That’s another thing about these times. It’s so contradictory. You know, the time Angela was arrested, Nixon was in the White House, and you see it in the film—he congratulates the FBI for capturing a dangerous terrorist, Angela Davis. And that’s where this case started, with the president of the United States assuming her guilt, and the governor of California was Ronald Reagan. So, that’s where we started. We started this defense with the assumption of guilt, and the level of hostility was astonishing, when you think back on it. Well, that’s not uncommon now in terms of how people perceive others. … It’s kind of interesting that they were using the term terrorist for Angela all those years ago, when now, it’s a term that has its own currency. We dehumanize people. The other thing is the level of interior intrigue and wars. We just get more sophisticated at it. There are a lot of the same things going on now that were going on then.
As a culture, do you feel we are rising up enough? In protest?
I think it’s very uneven. I think people had enormous hopes for President Obama, most of which were very unrealistic, especially in the first term. It was enormous hope. If you paid attention at the time to who his advisors were when he was running his first campaign … I used to joke with my students that he and Hillary Clinton divided up the advisors who had been Bill Clinton’s advisors. That should have been a clue that the guy was not the radical or the change agent that he was portrayed to be. And it has been a heck of a lot better in many domestic areas than it would have been … so I don’t regret his election or having supported him. It’s not about that. It’s about the kind of illusions we have.
What’s the biggest misconception about the Communist Party USA?
It’s kind of ironic, in the time period in which this film is set … J. Edgar Hoover was head of FBI and they portrayed the Communist Party USA as larger than life, more dangerous than it ever was; there was so much Communist fear. I mean, you could substitute the term ‘terrorist’ for Communist today. It was used the same kind of way—this kind of boogey man; this kind of terrifying creature; the whole build up around the Cold War and justifications for doing anything around the world to save us from Communism. The Communist Party I was in in the ’60s, most of the people I encountered were very sincere, very much wanting social justice and peace, very dedicated to working to that end, and they contributed a lot to very different social movements. And given our small size, we did some amazing things. In my experience, it was a valuable experience. I learned a lot about organizing. I learned a lot about racism. That’s really where I was educated on the subject of racism and the history of African-Americans and immigration issues and so on. The other thing is, Angela helped create a huge mass movement around the prison system. She really started that.
Do you feel this documentary is coming out at the right time?
I think everybody will look at it and see it in a number of ways. A few things: I think it’s wonderful for the new generation—kids I am teaching now. Very few of them have heard about Angela Davis and most of them don’t know a thing about the ’60s. Some people have never even heard of her. Considering the international icon she was and is, it’s astonishing. Nothing’s taught about it, even if you are in school. There’s no awareness about it or the injustice of the system. And that’s about prison reform, and mass incarceration, which has gotten worse since that time period—worse and worse. Now, we’re talking two million people. It’s unbelievable, especially in California. The disproportionate people of color who are in prison has nothing to do with criminality and everything to do with social containment, and so much money we have put into the prison system. When you think about California, for example, California spends more on its prisons than it does on all of its education combined. We are 41st in public education. We used to be first. The University of California system used to be a premier system, unrivaled in the world. And when you think about what the priorities have been and what we’ve suffered in terms of prison and construction of prisons, and what we pay the guards … it is criminal, actually. And what it does to human beings. Most of the people in prison have not committed violent crimes. On the contrary, most of them have not been convicted by a jury. Everybody cops a plea. We think people have trials and get convicted but that is a tiny, tiny percentage of people in prison. Most of them are in there for drugs and drug-related crimes. And we have built this image of a criminal, which is highly racist. You see the same thing in this film, which was not as massive as it is now, but you see the beginnings of it. | Greg Archer
Bettina Aptheker is a professor of Feminist Studies at UCSC. She is the author of “Tapestries of Life: Women’s Work, Women’s Consciousness and the Meaning of Daily Experience,” “Intimate Politics” and “The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis.”
Photos courtesy of Codeblack films