Fredericksburg, VA–Civil rights activist and former communist party vice presidential candidate Angela Davis delivered the keynote speech at the University of Mary Washington’s Black History Month commemorations Wednesday night, drawing a common thread between the black struggle for civil rights, the Occupy movement and oppressed people everywhere.
Her speech hit on a familiar mix of Marxist historicity, sophistry, and Foucauldian hocus-pocus common to thinkers of her ideological disposition. The Attica prison riot, for example, was not a riot at all, but rather an “experiment in democracy.” As for the penal system, rather than reform current racially-biased laws such as drug prohibition, Davis advocates the wholesale abolition of jails and prisons.
Not only that, but the “prison-industrial complex” and its “carceral technologies” have metastasized:
“I’m not only interested in abolishing jails and prisons largely because they present themselves as solutions to problems that they continue to replicate and reproduce. But I’m also concerned about the degree to which these carceral technologies bleed into what we consider to be the free world. What do schools look like in poor communities of color? Those schools increasingly have the appearance of jails and prisons.”
I wonder if she supports homeschooling. Probably not. As for unions, the traditional seedbed for leftism, “there has been a concerted effort to destroy the power of the labor movement, and especially public employee unions. You remember Wisconsin? And that was just last year. And it happened the same time as the uprising in Tahrir Square in Egypt.” Did you catch that transition? Those Egyptian activists overthrowing their corrupt dictator are kind of like overpaid teachers in Madison. Isn’t solidarity great?
Davis wasn’t about to let the audience get away with their standard understanding of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a mere civil rights hero. Instead, she focused on the more radical Poor People’s Campaign, on which King embarked near the tragic end of his life, observing that many of his techniques presaged the Occupy movement of today:
“When King was assassinated, it was during his participation in an effort to have a sanitation workers’ union recognized by the city of Memphis. The focus on poverty in that moment in 1968, the focus on organizing workers, represented what could have well become the future of the black struggle for freedom. When Dr. King was assassinated he was in the process of organizing what he called a poor people’s march. And when you go back and look at his description of that campaign it sounds very much similar to the Occupy strategies that developed last fall.”
“[King had] plans to create this massive revolution against injustice. He talked about bringing some 3,000 activists, trained activists to Washington, he talked about setting up tents and camping out in Washington, he talked about people coming up from the South, poor people who have never had the opportunity to have decent healthcare and he talked about them taking their children into hospitals in Washington and remaining there until they received attention from doctors and healthcare providers. If one reads through that lecture, one would say that he was calling for an Occupy movement in 1967-1968.”
She ended, predictably, with a qualified endorsement of the President’s reelection campaign:
“I want us to think of black history not simply as a history of the past, but also as a history of the present, and a history of the future.
Because we were so unaccustomed to the possibility that someone like Barack Obama who identified with the black radical tradition could be elected to the presidency of the United States of America, we completely forgot we were trying to elect a president. We thought we were electing someone who would lead us to freedom and not someone who would have to deal with the day to day activities of being the president of the U.S. Empire. I know that many people are disappointed, and I’m disappointed, because I would have liked to see a much better healthcare plan. I would like to have seen an end to the war in Iraq much earlier, and I would like to have not had to witness the troops going into Afghanistan. So there are many disappointments we might express.
Within a very short period of time, 900 cities across the country had Occupy encampments. Do you think this could have happened under George W. Bush? The reason I ask is there is not nearly as much excitement around Barack Obama’s campaign this time around, because the theme of hope doesn’t work in the same way it did then, but I think it is extremely important for us to figure out how to develop some excitement. Do we want Romney? Not only the 1 percent, the one one-thousandth of a percent?”
Afterward there was a short Q&A but I left after the first question because I know better than to stick around and hear a commie charlatan answer softball questions from a bunch of self-styled college activists about Troy Davis or the School of the Americas. The first question was about whether Gitmo should be shut down, and Davis’ answer (“it should”) exemplified how frustrating and obfuscatory left-wing ideology can be:
“The way in which Islamophobia was deployed to create this form of 21st-century racism that associated terrorism with people who practice Islam or are of middle eastern descent. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are symbolic of that. I think our task is to understand how these historical modes become articulated with each other. The anti-terror ideology would not have been so effective had not it been linked to anti-communism, and anti-communism is linked to racism. So you had racism and anti-communism, and then you also have this fear of the criminal, which was also articulated with racism.”
She’s not wrong about any of this, and I happen to agree with her conclusion as well. But the problem with Guantanamo is not that it’s a “symbol.” The problem is not some false consciousness foisted on the proletariat or Islamophobia or anything like that; it’s absurd to suggest that Gitmo should be closed because some racist in Mississippi is paranoid about having to file Sharia-compliant tax returns. The problem with Guantanamo is more real and all the more serious for it, it is a concrete matter of the integrity of the rule of law.
Beyond that, I was puzzled and a bit distressed that she could warn against the dangerous ways in which anti-communism and racism intertwined (very true) at the tail end of an hour-long speech arguing for the civil rights movement’s pride of place in the global proletarian revolution. Surely this too is exploitation, of a sort.