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.

Expanding this concept from state to federal level, the next logical progression is international in scope.

The average American is unaware of how pervasive this issue is, she says, partially because of an overall shortsightedness as it relates to the world’s problems.

To illustrate this, Davis referenced the global security conglomerate G4S, the largest employer in South Africa (its crown jewel being the Mangaung Correctional Centre, the second largest private prison in the world), with operations in more than 100 other countries. Much of its recent growth is concentrated in unstable (or, for the euphemistically inclined, “developing”) countries; the prison “culture” is being exported to South America, with construction under way on a massive correctional facility in Colombia.

Davis touched upon a recent trip to Israel and Palestine, a place where G4S figures prominently. She said that apart from the chance to reconnect with several comrades in solidarity from her days as a fugitive and prisoner, she was confronted by the plight of the on-going tension between Israeli and native Palestinians.

For Davis this was a revelation, because she discovered segregation in some ways more rigid than the pre-civil rights era of her youth. Aside from the more well-publicized occupied areas, she discovered Palestinian motorists were required to have special license plates.
Davis acknowledges the significant milestones achieved in America’s recent history, but cautioned against complacency. To drive home the prohibition against smug self-satisfaction, she paraphrased a quote from one of her correspondents, a man still stifled by the yoke of incarceration:
“There may be a Black man in the White House, but there are a million Black men in the Big House.”