There is a fascinating interview with Professor Angela Davis, former Black Panther and once one of America’s “ten most wanted”, in today’s Guardian “G2″section that covers a number of historical topics and reminds us yet again – if we needed reminding – how alive history still is today. The main focus of the interview is the continued incidence of police violence against African Americans – the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the choking of Eric Garner in New York city being the two most recent cases and the cause of ongoing nation-wide protests. For Davis, events such as these are part of a line of violence that can be drawn back to the days of slavery and the post-Civil War rise of the Ku Klux Klan and widespread lynching in the American South in the late-nineteenth century. Institutionalised racism is ingrained not just in police forces but also in the American (and some might argue, British) legal system as a whole. Davis refers to a “prison industrial complex” and the disproportionate number of black men in prison, the greater length of prison sentences, and the higher number of African Americans (and Hispanics) on death row, bears her out.
Such issues were very much the focus of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, and Davis’s involvement with the party led to her being implicated in an attack on a California court house in 1970. Davis became a fugitive but eventually was jailed before being acquitted of all charges. She became an international heroine for those on the left – she was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union and featured in Songs by the Rolling Stones and John Lennon among others. She later stood as the vice presidential candidate for the American Communist Party. Her own life story is an important part of the history of the 1960s and the struggle against a predominantly white judicial, legal, and police system.
It may be that Davis epitomises some of the contradictions too of the sixties and seventies – while she might not have been a “terrorist”, some others associated with the Panthers clearly were, involved in plane hijackings, bank robbery, and the assassination of police officers. She has also been criticised for turning a blind eye to the realities of the Soviet system where secret police, show trials, and labour camps were a part of history. Nonetheless, Davis, who is a distinguished academic who has held positions at UCLA and elsewhere and has written a number of works on race and feminism, still has insightful observations to make on present-day situations, often informed by her own life experiences.