In this interview, Angela Davis, and activist, teacher, author, and icon of the Black Power movement, talks about the linkages among global struggles. Touching upon black feminism, the importance of the collective, Palestine, the prison-industrial complex, and much more, Professor Davis expounds on the role that the people can and should play. A shorter version of this interview was first published in The Nation.
Frank Barat (FB): You often talk about the power of the collective and stress the importance of movements. How can we that power in a society that promotes selfishness and individualism?
Angela Davis (AD): Since the rise of global capitalism and related ideologies associated with neoliberalism, it has become especially important to identify the dangers of individualism. Progressive struggles—whether they are focused on racism, repression, poverty or other issues—are doomed to fail if they do not also attempt to develop a consciousness of the insidious promotion of capitalist individualism. Even as Nelson Mandela always insisted that his accomplishments were collective, always also achieved by the men and women who were his comrades, the media attempted to sanctify him as a heroic individual. A similar process has attempted to disassociate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from the vast numbers of women and men who constituted the very heart of the mid-twentieth century US freedom movement. It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever expanding community of struggle.
FB: What is left today of the black power movement?
AD: I think of the black power movement—or what we referred to at the time as the black liberation movement—as a particular moment in the development of the quest for black freedom. In many ways it was a response to what were perceived as limitations of the civil rights movement: we not only needed to claim legal rights within the existing society, but also to demand substantive rights—jobs, housing, healthcare, education, etc.—and to challenge the very structure of society. Such demands—also against racist imprisonment, police violence, and capitalist exploitation—were summed up in the ten-point program of the Black Panther Party (BPP).
Although black individuals have entered economic, social, and political hierarchies (the most dramatic example being the 2008 election of Barack Obama), the overwhelming number of black people are subject to economic, educational, and carceral racism to a far greater extent than during the pre-civil rights era. In many ways, the demands of the BPP’s ten-point program are just as relevant—or perhaps even more relevant—as during the 1960s, when they were first formulated.
FB: The election of Barack Obama was celebrated by many as a victory against racism. Do you think this was a red herring? That it actually paralyzed the left for a long time as well as African Americans involved in the fight for a fairer world?
AD: Many of the assumptions regarding the significance of Obama’s election are entirely wrong, especially those that depict a black man in the US presidency as symbolizing the fall of the last barrier of racism. But I do think that the election itself was important, especially since most people—including most black people—did not initially believe that it was possible to elect a black person to the presidency. Young people effectively created a movement—or one should qualify this by saying that it was a cybermovement—that achieved what was supposed to be impossible.
The problem was that people who associated themselves with that movement did not continue to wield that collective power as pressure that might have compelled Obama to move in more progressive directions (e.g., against a military surge in Afghanistan, toward a swift dismantling of Guantanamo, toward a stronger healthcare plan.) Even as we are critical of Obama, I think it is important to emphasize that we would not have been better off with Romney in the White House. What we have lacked over these last five years is not the right president, but rather well-organized mass movements.
FB: How would you define “black feminism”? And what role could this play in today’s societies?
AD: Black feminism emerged as a theoretical and practical effort demonstrating that race, gender, and class are inseparable in the social worlds we inhabit. At the time of its emergence, black women were frequently asked to choose whether the black movement or the women’s movement was most important. The response was that this was the wrong question. The more appropriate question was how to understand the intersections and interconnections between the two movements. We are still faced with the challenge of understanding the complex ways race, class, gender, sexuality, nation and ability are intertwined—but also how we move beyond these categories to understand the interrelationships of ideas and processes that seem to be separate and unrelated. Insisting on the connections between struggles and racism in the US and struggles against the Israeli repression of Palestinians, in this sense, is a feminist process.
FB: Do you think it is time for people to disengage completely from the main political parties and from this concept that our “leaders” call representative democracy? Engaging in such a corrupt and rotten system, governed by money and greed only, gives it legitimacy, right? What about stopping this charade, stopping voting and starting to create something from the bottom up that is new and organic?
AD: I certainly don’t think existing political parties can constitute our primary arenas of struggle, but I do think that the electoral arena can be used as a terrain on which to organize. In the US, we have needed an independent political party for a very long time—an antiracist, feminist workers party. I also think you are absolutely right in identifying grassroots activism as being most the important ingredient of building radical movements.
FB: The Arab world has gone throughout tremendous changes in the last few years, with ongoing revolutions taking place in many countries. How important is it for people in the West to understand the complicity of our own governments in sustaining Arab dictatorships?
AD: I think it is entirely appropriate for people in the Arab world to demand that those of us in the West prevent our governments from bolstering repressive regimes—and especially Israel. The so-called “war on terror” has done inestimable damage to the world, including the intensification of anti-Muslim racism in the United States, Europe, and Australia. As progressives in the Global North, we certainly have not acknowledged our major responsibilities in the continuation of military and ideological attacks on people in the Arab world.
FB: You recently gave a talk in London about Palestine, G4S (Group 4 Security) which is the biggest private security group in the world, and the prison industrial complex. Could you tell us how those three are linked?
AD: Under the guise of security and the security state, G4S has insinuated itself into the lives of people all over the world—especially in Britain, the United States, and Palestine. This company is the third largest private corporation in the world after Walmart and Foxcomm, and is the largest private employer on the continent of Africa. It has learned how to profit from racism, anti-immigrant practices, and from technologies of punishment in Israel and throughout the world. G4S is directly responsible for the ways Palestinians experience political incarceration, as well as aspects of the apartheid wall, imprisonment in South Africa, prison-like schools in the United States, and the wall along the US-Mexico border. Surprisingly, we learned during the London meeting that G4S also operates sexual assault centers in Britain.
FB: How profitable is the prison-industrial complex? You often have said it is the equivalent of “modern slavery.”
AD: The global prison industrial complex is continually expanding, as can be seen from the example of G4S. Thus one can assume that its profitability is rising. It has come to include not only public and private prisons (and public prisons, which are more privatized than one would think, are increasingly subject to the demands of profit) but also juvenile facilities, military prisons, and interrogation centers. Moreover, the most profitable sector of the private prison business is comprised of immigrant detention centers. One can therefore understand why the most repressive anti-immigrant legislation in the United States was drafted by private prison companies as an undisguised attempt to maximize their profits.
FB: Is a prison- or jail-free society a utopia, or is it possible in your opinion? How would that work?
AD: I do think that a society without prisons is a realistic future possibility, but in a transformed society, one in which people’s needs, not profits, constitute the driving force. At the same time prison abolition appears as a utopian idea precisely because the prison and its bolstering ideologies are so deeply rooted in our contemporary world. There are vast numbers of people behind bars in the United States—some two and a half million—and imprisonment is increasingly used as a strategy of deflection of the underlying social problems—racism, poverty, unemployment, lack of education, and so on. These issues are never seriously addressed. It is only a matter of time before people begin to realize that the prison is a false solution. Abolitionist advocacy can and should occur in relation to demands for quality education, for antiracist job strategies, for free healthcare and within other progressive movements. It can help promote an anti-capitalist critique and movements toward socialism.
FB: What does the booming of the prison-industrial complex say about our society?
AD: The soaring numbers of people behind bars all over the world and the increasing profitability of the means of holding them captive is one of the most dramatic examples of the destructive tendencies of global capitalism. But the obscene profits obtained from mass incarceration are linked to profits from the health care industry and from education and other commodified human services that actually should be freely available to everyone.
FB: There is a scene in “The Black Power mixtape,” a documentary film about the Black Panther/Black Power movement that came out a couple years ago, where the journalist asks you if you approve of violence. You answer, “Ask me, if I approve of violence! This does not make any sense.” Could you elaborate?
AD: I was attempting to point out that questions about the validity of violence should have been directed to those institutions that held and continue to hold a monopoly on violence: the police, the prisons, the military. I explained that I grew up in the US South at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was permitted by governments to engage in terrorist assaults against black communities. At the time I was in jail, having been falsely charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy and turned into a target of institutional violence, I was the one being asked whether I agreed with violence. Very bizarre. I was also attempting to point out that advocacy of revolutionary transformation was not primarily about violence, but about substantive issues like better life conditions for poor people and people of color.
FB: Today, many people think you were part of the Black Panthers, and some even think that you were one of the founding members. Could you explain, exactly, what was your role, your affiliations at that time?
AD: I was not a founding member of the Black Panther Party. I was studying in Europe in 1966, the year that the BPP was founded. After I joined the Communist Party in 1968, I also became a member of the Black Panther Party and worked with a branch of the organization in Los Angeles, where I was in charge of political education. However at one point the leadership decided that members of the BPP could not be affiliated with other parties, at which point I chose to retain my affiliation with the Communist Party. However, I continued to support and to work with the BPP. When I went to jail, the Black Panther Party was a major force advocating for my freedom.
FB: Coming back to your answer about violence, when I heard what you said in the documentary, I thought about Palestine. The international community and the Western media always are asking, as a precondition, that Palestinians stop the violence. How would you explain the popularity of this narrative that the oppressed have to ensure the safety of the oppressors?
AD: Placing the question of violence at the forefront almost inevitably serves to obscure the issues that are at the center of struggles for justice. This occurred in South Africa during the anti-Apartheid struggle. Interestingly Nelson Mandela—who has been sanctified as the most important peace advocate of our time—was kept on the US terrorist list until 2008. The important issues in the Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination are minimized and rendered invisible by those who try to equate Palestinian resistance to Israeli apartheid with terrorism.
FB: When were you last in Palestine? What impression did your visit leave on you?
AD: I traveled to Palestine in June 2011 with a delegation of indigenous and women of color feminist scholar/activists. The delegation included women who had grown up under South African apartheid, in the Jim Crow South, and on Indian Reservations. Even though we had all been previously involved in Palestine solidarity activism, all of us were utterly shocked by what we saw and we resolved to encourage our constituencies to join the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and to help intensify the campaign for a free Palestine. Most recently some of us were involved in the successful passage of a resolution urging participation in the Academic and Cultural Boycott by of the American Studies Association. Also members of the delegation were involved in the passage of a resolution by the Modern Language Association censuring Israel for denying US academics entry to the West Bank in order to teach and do research at Palestinian universities.
FB: There are various means of resistance available to people who are oppressed by racist or colonial regimes or foreign occupations (i.e., Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions), including through the use of armed force. Nowadays, the Palestine solidarity movement has committed itself to the route of non-violent resistance. Do you think this alone will end Israeli apartheid?
AD: Solidarity movements are, of course, by their very nature non-violent. In South Africa, even as an international solidarity movement was being organized, the ANC (African National Congress) and the SACP (South African Communist Party) came to the conclusion that they needed an armed wing of their movement: Umkonto We Siswe. They had every right to make that decision. Likewise, it is up to the Palestinian people to employ the methods they deem most likely to succeed in their struggle. At the same time, it is clear that if Israel is isolated politically and economically, as the BDS campaign is striving to do, Israel could not continue to implement its apartheid practices. If, for example, we in the United States could force the Obama administration to cease its eight million dollars-a-day support of Israel, this would go a long way toward pressuring Israel to end the occupation.
FB: You are part of a committee for the release of Palestinian political prisoner Marwan Barghouti and all political prisoners. How important is it, for justice to prevail, that they are all released?
AD: It is essential that Marwan Barghouti and all political prisoners in Israeli jails are released. Barghouti has spent over two decades behind bars. His predicament reflects the fact that most Palestinian families have had at least one member imprisoned by the Israeli authorities. There are currently some 5,000 Palestinian prisoners and we know that since 1967, 800,000 Palestinians—forty percent of the male population—have been imprisoned by Israel. The demand to free all Palestinian political prisoners is a key ingredient of the demand to end the occupation.
FB: You said during a talk at London Birkbeck University that the Palestine issue needed to become a global one, a social issue that any movement fighting for justice should have in its program or agenda. What did you mean by that?
AD: Just as the struggle to end South African apartheid was embraced by people all over the world and was incorporated into many social justice agendas, solidarity with Palestine must likewise be taken up by organizations and movements involved in progressive causes all over the world. The tendency has been to consider Palestine a separate—and unfortunately too often marginal—issue. This is precisely the moment to encourage everyone who believes in equality and justice to join the call for a free Palestine.
FB: Is the struggle endless?
AD: I would say that as our struggles mature, they produce new ideas, new issues, and new terrains on which we engage in the quest for freedom. Like Nelson Mandela, we must be willing to embrace the long walk toward freedom.