In looking for someone to articulate the essence of the Black Lives Matter movement with clarity, credibility, and lived experience, as far as I was concerned, no one could touch 76-year-old Angela Yvonne Davis — activist, feminist, scholar, professor emerita at the University of California in Santa Cruz.
Nearly 50 years ago, she was being vilified as a Black militant and a Communist activist — and she was on the FBI’s “most wanted” list for criminal conspiracy, murder and kidnapping.
The charges were clearly trumped-up and, in 1972, after a harrowing 13-week trial, she was found not guilty. Since then, she has gone on to become an eminent academic, author and speaker who has a special insight into America’s racial injustices.
In recent weeks, images, phrases, and videos of her in the 1970s have gone viral on social media, because her message remains as relevant as ever. While a 2020 special issue of TIME magazine retrospectively named her the 1971 Woman of the Year, Professor Angela Davis has in fact dedicated her entire life to writing and teaching critical theory, helping a new generation to join the dots between racism, capitalism, sexism — and other ‘isms.
After months of pursuit, I was lucky enough to be able to interview the professor for Te Ao with Moana on Māori Television. Here’s an edited transcript of our kōrero.
Professor Davis, as a Black woman living in America, how safe do you feel?
Individually, I feel relatively safe, but I don’t think of myself as simply an individual. I identify with a large community of people who are very much subject to the structural racist violence of the police and of other institutions.
As I understand it, when the Black Panther movement started, one of its actions was to monitor and protest police brutality. Why does it continue?
You’re right. The Black Panther party emerged precisely because of its opposition to state violence and racist violence by the police. But the Black Panther party was not the first organisation to stand up against racist police violence. This goes all the way back to the era of slavery and the way in which law enforcement in the aftermath of slavery incorporated strategies of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organisations.
The history of the struggle for Black liberation has always involved challenges to state violence and particularly to violence by the police. It seems as if this may be the first moment when serious attention is being accorded to the need not simply to reform the police, but to reimagine what public safety and public security might look like.
That’s fascinating because we’ve just been having this discussion here in New Zealand. I interviewed our police commissioner recently, and we were talking about how you can put more Māori in the police or develop more culturally proficient protocols. How does that sit with you? More Black people in the police force, or punishing individual officers for their racist actions?
Officers need to be rendered accountable, but I think the larger question has to do with the structural racism that is embedded in the police. And, as a matter of fact, when it’s a Black police officer who kills a Black person, that is no less racist violence than if it had been a white police officer.
I’m remembering South Africa and the way in which the police forces of the apartheid era influenced the police that came after the downfall of apartheid. Even when you had a majority of Black police, they still engaged in the same racist strategies as the white police had before them. So I think one has to look at the structure, one has to look at the creation of something very new.
And it is such a big picture because the police are just one cog in a wheel of the courts, the whole corrections system. Have you seen a model or do you have some ideas about how to transform these different institutions?
This is a pivotal moment, and I think people all over the world are looking for possible models for inspiration, not only for the reimagining of what public safety means in terms of police forces, but also prisons.
Many of us have been calling, for a very long time, for the abolition of imprisonment as we know it. The abolition of the police is very much related to that long-term struggle with prisons. There are places that have been doing a much better job on this than the US. I think about Cuba and its community-based security. I think about the Scandinavian countries which have made all kinds of progress in their criminal justice systems.
But I think now we have to go further. We can’t be hampered by assuming that we have to replicate something that already exists in the world. We have to begin to think about the whole question more holistically, more broadly: what do we have to do in order to make prisons obsolete?
We can’t look myopically at prisons or myopically at the police. We have to look at the larger context. For instance, large numbers of people with mental disorders are killed by the police, because the police have no idea how to deal with those people.
Enormous numbers of Black women have suffered at the hands of police, too. How do we think about new institutions that would begin to, more effectively, do the work that police are not even trained for?
It’s such a huge conversation. And one of our great intellectuals in New Zealand, Moana Jackson, has been reviewing the criminal justice system here. And he says, after studying it for many years, that you can’t begin a conversation around decarceration without having a conversation around sovereignty. What do you think about that?
Oh, absolutely. I think what we’re witnessing now are the long-term consequences of histories of colonialism and slavery. And I think that whenever we say “black lives matter,” we have to think in the first place of Indigenous people, who were the very first to be the targets of racist genocide that was produced by colonialism.
So that when we say that we’re struggling for Black lives, it’s not just for Black people, it’s for a different framework, a different system, a different future. A future that involves all of us.
Where does that change come from? Does it come from above or from below?
I think change comes primarily from below. The civil rights movement was successful in this country only because vast numbers of people went out into the street. Change happens when people begin to rise up and say: “No, we want a different future.”
But change isn’t going to happen automatically as a result of demonstrations and protests. We have to be willing to do the often uncredited work of creating new institutions, of asking: “How does the education in this country continue to encourage racism? How will we address issues of health? How do we encourage people to think deeply about the impact of racial capitalism? How do we think about the connection with feminism?”
The feminism connection is important. Women have been the organising force in these recent struggles. Women are standing up for themselves. We want an end to misogynist violence and to the connection between white supremacy and patriarchy.
Don’t forget that trans communities are the targets of so much state violence. Black trans women are more likely to be targeted by police violence, by prison violence, by individual stranger violence, by intimate violence. And so it is up to all people who believe in justice to stand up and say no to the attacks on trans communities.
You know, looking here from New Zealand, America seems such a huge machine, with all the “isms” that you talk about: racism, sexism, capitalism, consumerism. Do you think America can be transformed?
I have to hope that that’s possible. Otherwise, all of the work that we’ve been doing is meaningless. And while there are certain aspects of this society that are very much the same as they were 20 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, that doesn’t mean that nothing has changed.
Many changes have occurred as a result of people standing up and struggling. Black people who never had the opportunity to attend university are now able to attend university.
Although there should be 100 times as many, what I’m saying is that we would not be where we are today had it not been for those who took up the struggle. I see myself as part of that larger community, the expression of the dreams of those who came before us. And this is how we have to think about the future. What we’re doing now will not only affect us, it will affect people for generations to come.
In the late 1960s, when the activist movements were burgeoning in the States and around the world, that inspired Māori and Polynesian activists here in New Zealand. One of our great leaders, Syd Jackson, said he believed that not only could we change the world, but we could do it overnight. How optimistic were you back then? And how does that compare to how you feel now?
Like Syd Jackson, I believed that the world was going to change, that revolution was on the agenda, and that we would soon not only eradicate racism, but we would also begin to end capitalism. Now I recognise that it was not nearly as easy as we thought it might be.
We didn’t see the revolution we wanted, but we radically transformed many things in the world. The world would not be what it is like today had not been for those struggles in the 1960s, struggles that had a feeling of urgency.
And I am so happy to see a renewed urgency among young people today, among the millions of people all over the world, including in New Zealand, who have gone out into the streets and claimed solidarity with the movement for Black lives. And, of course, the movement for Black lives is a movement for all people. The meaning of that slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” is precisely this: When Black lives finally matter in the world, then all lives will matter.
One of the things that you’ve said is that it’s not an enough to be not racist. You must be actively antiracist. What do you mean by that? What does that look like?
Everybody is so quick to say: “I am not a racist.” But that’s not even the question. The question is not whether individual people are racist or not. The question is about rooting out the centuries of embedded racism, structural racism, institutional racism.
We have long identified the police and prisons as the most dramatic examples of structural racism. In order to make a difference against racism in the world, people have to become actively antiracist. They have to stand up against racism, wherever they are.
In their workplaces? You’re talking about the structures and institutions that people work within, as opposed to simply attending the rallies?
Absolutely. And of course the protests and demonstrations will not go on indefinitely. They have to wind down. But, for now, they mark an intense, expressive dimension of our struggle. As the writer John Berger put it: “Mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution.”
But the real change happens when we begin to systematically look at the way in which institutions are organised. We look at the healthcare system and we ask: “Why is it that Black people, Indigenous people, Latinx communities are the ones who suffer most from Covid-19?”
Our schools are also full of structural racism. It’s not only a question of what is taught there. It’s also a question of the conditions of learning. And one of the most important demands that have emerged during this recent period is to get the police out of schools.
Police are in schools all across the country. They’re called “school resource officers.” What they do is they criminalise the actions of children who are just being children. And many of them end up going into juvenile justice for, like, not agreeing to put a cellphone down when the teacher says so.
We have to look at all of our institutions and to begin to reshape them. And I’m hoping that we’re moving in a socialist direction, because something has to be done about a system which allows a small number of people to control the vast majority of the planet’s wealth.
I know that for a long time you’ve been an academic and a public intellectual. What is the greatest gift that you believe a student can receive from a public intellectual?
I think it’s very important for teachers, professors, public intellectuals to participate in the process of educating the public. And when I say educating, I’m not talking about simply giving them facts. I’m not talking about giving them information or telling them where the information can be found. I’m talking about helping people to learn how to engage in a deep process of questioning.
I’m talking about critical engagement with the realities that surround us. How do we encourage people not to take anything for granted, and to also question that which we frequently assume is unquestionable.
This is why I think the trans movement is so important — because people, in learning how to question the gender binary, will also learn how to question other things they take for granted, such as racism, such as misogyny.
I think the greatest gift a public intellectual can offer is to convey the need to engage in a continual process of raising questions, developing critical awareness, encouraging young people to do that.
I recall Louis Farrakhan (the African American minister and activist) saying that there was a danger that the voices of powerful Black leaders who had died were being deified, while the revolutionary voices of those that are still living are marginalised. Do you have any thoughts around that?
That’s true to a certain extent, but what I would also do is question assumptions about the leadership we had in the past. We most often imagine leaders as charismatic male figures. So when people are confronted with other forms of leadership, they don’t get it. They ask: “Where is your current-day Martin Luther King? Where is your Malcolm X?”
What we’re witnessing now is the impact of an antiracist feminism movement, where we see huge numbers of Black women, women of colour, Indigenous women, Latinx women, white working-class women.
But we also see a leadership that is collective, that does not have to rely on charismatic individuals. And I am so impressed by that. This emerges from the Black Lives Matter movement, and I think this is what is being offered by the younger generation now.
Do you have a message for Māori and Polynesians? And there’s also a third culture here of immigrants and Africans who’ve been joining together in solidarity with what’s going on in the States, but who are also challenging systemic racism here in New Zealand. Do you have a message for our people here?
I visited New Zealand some years ago and was extremely impressed by the work that Māori people have done, the ways in which Māori people have been in the forefront of struggles against racism.
We would like to thank you for the consistent solidarity. I can remember solidarity during the period when I was in jail that came, that emanated, from Māori people. And now I see solidarity in the struggle for Black lives and against the horrendous racist murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey, Rashard Brooks, and all the others.
This is a global era. Global capitalism has made racism global, and therefore our struggles have to become more global as well. We have to reach out to each other. And it is a responsibility of people who are struggling for freedom here in the United States to express solidarity with Māori people, solidarity with Indigenous people in Australia, solidarity with Black and Indigenous people in Brazil.
We have to do this work that will allow us to come together and join hands and look toward a better future, towards saving the climate, saving the environment. All of us have a major stake in the struggle.
When you were in jail, the movements around the world were communities of solidarity. Is this still the case? How connected are activists now?
We are connected, if only because of the new technologies of communication. Social media allow us to become more connected to, and aware of, what is happening in other parts of the world — and internationalism, I think, is key. It’s true that we don’t have the same structures that we had at that earlier time.
There were communist parties all over the world, and I was the beneficiary of the solidarities that were generated by those parties, and then other radical formations, other political parties.
We don’t have the same structural elements as we had then, but we definitely have to stand together. Racism is a global phenomenon. It emanates from colonialism and slavery, and it has affected the entire planet. It has infected the entire planet. Only a global movement can eradicate racism.
And your leader in the White House, the American president. How does that work?
I don’t consider the person in the White House, the person who occupies the office of the president, my leader. The majority of people in this country don’t consider him their leader. And I think that his behaviour during this period has demonstrated that he is incapable of giving leadership for the future. He represents the past, which we are trying finally to overcome. We’re finally attempting to extricate ourselves from the white supremacy of the past, whereas he is holding on to that past.
I have to believe that he’s going to be ousted from office. I have to believe that if he does not resign before November, then we certainly have to use the electoral strategy of voting him out of office. And even though vast numbers of people, including myself, are not excited at all about the opposing candidate (Joe Biden), we have to vote for him.
Not because we think that he’s going to lead us to freedom. Not because he represents our interests. But because we have to affirm our own collective capacity to produce the pressure that is going to bring about change. And so the question this coming election is which candidate can be most effectively pressured into doing the right thing.
We’ve got an election coming up this year, too. We have more Māori in our parliament than ever, but there are still huge challenges, because we’re still talking about them being inside a party inside an institution, inside a system, and there’s so much pressure that is put on Māori inside the system. What are your thoughts around that? Where do you put that pressure?
I think the pressure has to be placed everywhere. And I don’t discount the contributions that people can make from wherever they stand. There’s often the assumption that all one needs to do is change the political framework, elect more people to office.
But that’s only helpful if one has a movement that is pressuring the people who represent them to assume radical positions. So I see electoral strategy as part and parcel of a larger activist strategy to demand and then bring about change.
This interview was broadcast last week on Te Ao with Moana, which runs every Monday at 8pm on Māori Television. It’s been edited for length and clarity. (Updated 10am July 7 to correct transcript.)
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