Angela Davis, professor, thinker, activist, famed revolutionary, visited New York's Occupy Wall Street movement on Sunday afternoon. She spoke first to a densely-packed crowd seated on cold concrete at Washington Square Park, her talk over the People's Mic sounding like a litany.
"We say no to big banks. We say no to corporate executives making millions of dollars a year. We say no to student debt, we say no to evictions. We say no to global capitalism. We say no to the prison industrial complex. We say no to racism, we say no to class exploitation, we say no to homophobia, we say no to transphobia, we say no to ableism. We say no to military occupation. We say no to war."
But more than what we say no to, Davis and the crowd were interested in what we say yes to. She called on the occupiers to answer the question, "How can we be together in a unity that is complex and emancipatory?"
It is no surprise that as the Occupy movements have grown, questions of race and gender, of sexuality and of internal dynamics have come up, and police brutality and the prison system have been issues almost from the beginning, and so it was no surprise that many of the people who asked questions of Davis were interested in working through those issues.
To the question of the language of "occupation," Davis counseled protesters to be aware that the U.S. is behind military occupations in other countries that are brutal and oppressive, but argued it was also possible to use the word differently. "We turn occupation into something that is beautiful, that brings community together."
Many in the audience seemed to want advice from Davis, but she encouraged the movement to find its own answers. "We stand behind calls for…the decommodification of education, healthcare," she said, and noted that the movement's language carries with it the implicit promise of more work: "If we say we are the 99%, we have to commit ourselves to organizing the 99%"
Repeatedly, Davis stressed the need for inclusion, urging protesters to insist on inclusiveness, to make space for the most marginalized people in society, to hear their voices. To questions about political process, she got a laugh from the crowd when she said, "I agree with you that capitalism sucks," but she urged the crowd not to let another Republican become president even as she said that the two-party system was broken and called for growing the movement until even conservatives wanted to join it.
On a personal note–I saw Davis speak in 2007, during the early days of a long and messy presidential election, and though she urged the same commitment to struggle then, the smile on her face and her constant thank-yous to the crowd in Washington Square were miles away from her demeanor back then. I believed her when she called the movement "revolutionary"–which she did more than once, including in a mention of the general strike called for November 2 in her hometown of Oakland.
"That it seems to me is what this movement is about: freedom and the redefinition of freedom," she said.