Of all the provocative images that emerged from the counterculture era of the 1960s and 1970s, none was as compelling as that of a striking young philosophy professor, her hair fashioned in a perfectly coiffed Afro, with clenched fist held high in perhaps the ultimate symbol of Black militancy.
Aside from her forceful physical presence, Angela Yvonne Davis' radical politics and association with the Black Panthers and Communist Party drew the ire of none other than then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, who moved to have her unseated from her newly acquired professorship at UCLA in 1969. Subsequent links to radical factions, and her purchase of firearms used in a botched attempt to free best-selling author, convicted armed robber, and "Soledad Brother" George L. Jackson from a Marin County courthouse led to a warrant being issued for her arrest, her flight from authorities, and the consequential placement on the FBI's most wanted list.
In the saga that followed, she became a cause célebre for the fashionable left prior to and following her acquittal, after which she continued her career as an author, activist, and distinguished academic at scores of prestigious institutions of higher learning. (See Leo Branton Jr. on page 6).
In the years since, Davis has expressed regret about the commercialization of her likeness, equivalent to being "reduced to a hairstyle." This legacy notwithstanding, she continues to be a persuasive advocate for critical thought and social consciousness, with a particular focus on the ongoing global incarceration explosion.
This was one of the subjects she touched on in her recent address to a packed house as the latest speaker of the Urban Issues Breakfast Forum at the California African American Museum. Her appearance drew scores of Black folks who regard themselves as her contemporaries in that volatile era. One anonymous gentleman recalled that his own activism as a student at Howard University resulted in government scrutiny, which inhibited his pursuit of a law degree and legal career. The appearance of Davis is thus, an emotional touchstone and a form of generational transference for baby boomers of color.
As might be expected, such a crowd was more than receptive as she warmed to the contemporary topics of 21st-century abolition, economic subjugation, and mass incarceration. Using last year's motion picture, "Lincoln," as a topical benchmark, she noted that the 16th president's decision to end slavery was a choice rooted in political practicality rather than morality. This notion of convenience and pragmatism continues today as Davis, an avowed communist, laid the blame for society's ills at the feet of American capitalism and a mindset of profit above all. In short, Black people have become additional fodder for the nation's "disposable populations."
Davis says that a grim byproduct of this "lock-em up" mentality is often a massive layoff of a gainfully employed work force. Chronic joblessness means legions of the idle unemployed may be extra susceptible to the lure of illicit activity.
Referencing her own history, she suggested that Reagan, her old nemesis, perfected his repressive policies in California before applying them on a national scale during his presidency Davis said building upon the idea of practicality, some believe the solution to an influx of criminal offenders is to "make their punishment profitable," via the trend of prison privatization.