Movements make change happen, says Angela Davis
May 26, 2017
Movements matter and they do make a difference, scholar and political activist Angela Davis reminded delegates at the opening of the just concluded Canadian Labour Congress constitutional convention in Toronto.
She said that movements organized by vast numbers of people around the world proved that she was innocent of serious charges levelled against her in 1970.
Firearms that Davis owned were used by a teenager to seize control of a California courtroom and arm Black defendants while holding the judge hostage. In the ensuing shootout with police, the judge and three men were killed.
Becoming just the second Black woman to be placed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) top ten Most Wanted Fugitive List, she was arrested two months later and charged with aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder in the judge’s death.
With a worldwide movement advocating for her release, an all-White jury found Davis not guilty.
“I have long considered myself a friend of the labour movement in Canada and this goes back to the period when I was facing the death penalty and huge numbers of people here in Canada were involved in the campaign,” she said. “Oftentimes, people ask me how I would like to be remembered and my response is, ‘I really don’t care how people remember me as an individual’.
“But I do want people to remember that at the time when I was facing the death penalty, Richard Nixon was the president, Ronald Reagan was the governor and J. Edgar Hoover was the FBI head. And, although many people recognized that I wasn’t guilty, their response was that there is no way that we will defeat these most powerful men in the world. The movement that was organized by people around the world proved them wrong and that’s a lesson that I think we need to remember.”
As someone who for the most part of her life has been associated with communism and labour and who recognizes that nothing happens without working people’s contributions, Davis knows there is no progressive or radical future without the working class.
“Workers render everything possible,” she said. “At the same time, I think that we have to acknowledge that historically, the working class has often declared its unity even as it has engaged in practices of exclusion vis-à-vis Black workers, workers of colour and women workers.”
Against a backdrop of American president Donald Trump’s history of misogyny, sexism and harassment and women workers being systematically denied their rights to regular pay and regular working hours, Davis maintains that women are on the rise.
“There is a reason for that,” she noted. “When people are being marginalized for so long, it is inevitable that there will come a time when they demand recognition. The labour movement is transforming and the sectors of the labour force that are growing are those that involve work that has traditionally being done by women. This is work that has traditionally being called reproductive labour and it seems not to matter because the capitalist doesn’t care about how it is that the workers gets reproduced in order to produce and exchange value for him.
“I want to suggest that we re-think this whole notion that there is a hierarchy of labour and that those who do the reproductive work like the cleaning and the cooking don’t really matter because that is work without which no other work is possible.”
Davis, who four years ago delivered the inaugural address at McMaster University to launch the Centre for Scholarship in Public Education, pointed to “The Fight for 15” movement that emerged in 2012 to illustrate her point that women are paving the way for change.
Starting with just a few hundred fast food workers in New York City striking for $15 an hour and union rights, the movement has evolved into an international lobby in over 300 cities on six continents.
“That is one of the most important labour struggles today and it’s the women who are in the forefront of the struggle for a living wage and it’s largely women of colour,” said the former Black Panther member and activist during the Civil Rights movement.
Davis said the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful because of the central role played by Black women domestics.
“These women were not isolated or hidden as the job usually dictates,” said Davis who was fired from her post in the University of California at Los Angeles’ philosophy department, only to be reinstated by a California Superior Court judge. “Rather, they forged this powerful community of struggle. Oftentimes, when we applaud the accomplishments of the Black freedom movement in the United States, we only think about individual figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and perhaps Rosa Parks. But it was these domestic workers and Black women who worked in White homes cooking and cleaning. They were the ones who refused to ride the buses and they are the ones responsible for that victory…Almost every Black person of my generation has family links to domestic workers as one of the many ways in which slavery tried to reinvent itself. My mother would not have been able to attend high school or college had she not worked as a domestic.
“There are many such stories and if one looks at the extent to which domestic workers efforts to organize and fight back were thoroughly intertwined with the Black liberation movement, this helps us to understand not only the ways in which women organizing efforts can create better conditions for themselves and their sisters, but rather how the movement of those who are at the very bottom of the economic hierarchy can leverage larger and radical changes in our world. This was not the feminism that Hillary Clinton was referring to. Hers was a glass ceiling feminism. She was only interested in penetrating the ceiling which means that she was already way up at the top.”
In the last two decades, Davis has advocated for a movement against the prison industrial complex which she claims is a failed experiment in democracy and an institution of racial injustice where the majority of inmates are Black.
The University of California Santa Cruz professor emerita said it’s impossible to understand the dynamics behind the rapid growth of the prison population without considering the impact of structural racism and the profit-generating role of the prison industrial complex.
“To understand how it is that such a thing became possible, one has to recognize the impact of global capitalism,” said Davis. “The massive number of people in prison has a great deal to do with the shifts of capital into profitable sectors and the migration of corporations to other parts of the world where the labour movement is not well organized which is the same thing Trump tries to talk about. But he’s yet to acknowledge that he made his millions precisely as a result of that process and then he represents himself as the saviour to people who are suffering and have no jobs and those who are working two or more jobs.”
A film on her life, “Free Angela All Political Prisoners’, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival five years ago.