It was winter 1972. Angela Davis had been in prison since her arrest on conspiracy charges in Fall of 1970. The charges were related to the August 7, 1970 shootout at the courthouse in Marin County after George Jackson’s brother Jonathan led an attempt to free his brother. According to the police, Angela had supplied the guns and this made her culpable.
My sister and I headed downtown Frankfurt with a friend of ours from school. I’d been posting leaflets about the rally we were heading to for a few weeks all over school and the Post Exchange. Angela’s sister, Fania, was speaking at Offenbacher Halle that evening. It was part of her international tour in support of the movement to get her sister free. Speaking of sisters, my sister didn’t usually go to political events–she didn’t like their adversarial nature. It’s not that she didn’t agree with much of what was said, she just didn’t like the way it was said. Angela’s plight was somehow different.
We got to the hall well before the speeches were to begin It was already full. German communists were selling their wares and the Frankfurt branch of the International Black Panthers were distributing their newspaper, The Voice of the Lumpen. I saw some GIs that I knew and we talked with them for a couple minutes. They gave me a few copies of the local GI underground paper Fight Back to leave at strategic locations around the base. This was the best method to distribute the paper (which was just a mimeographed six-sheet affair), since the military higher-ups did not like its content and were likely to confront anyone they found passing it out.
The speakers began. There were a couple Germans who spoke first. I did my best at translating their words and then Fania was introduced. To be honest, I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember the energy in the hall. It reminded me of a rock concert. She spoke for almost an hour and the energy just grew more and more intense. Afterwards, there was a small march. My sister and I caught the streetcar and went home.
Eventually, the jury rejected the prosecution’s argument and agreed with Angela’s contention that the guns used in the shutout that were registered to her were used without her knowledge. Like other political prisoners then, her freedom was directly related to the large, popular movement that was organized against the war and for civil rights. It was a broad coalition of various forces that was led by people with a clear internationalist, anti-capitalist and anti-racist analysis. The leading forces knew that they wanted nothing short of her freedom and they knew that the movement making that demand must encompass a critique of the society that had imprisoned her. Like the movement against the US war in Vietnam, the only consistent and most relevant critique was one that was also radical–in that word’s basic sense.
Most often, that critique sprang from youth. Perhaps this is because the young have no time for what older folks call tact, which I often felt was code for compromise. As I’ve aged, I have come to learn the value of compromise but have developed even greater disgust for those that confuse (intentionally or not) compromise with surrender. It is that latter group who have helped us sink to where we are now. In twelve-step jargon, such people are called enablers. This is what too many of those in my generation have become–co-dependents that enable the abusers to wreak havoc and hell on the people of the world. All in the name of democracy and freedom, yet really only for the most base reasons known to humanity–greed and power.
This weekend, the new North American SDS is meeting in Chicago. Sure, it’s just one more organization that’s out there, but that’s a good thing. Without organization, we will continue to founder. Despite the cynicism of some elder radicals and activists, there is a need to turn the world on its head. So, no matter what those older folks might tell those of you in the youth movement against war, racism, and global capitalism, don’t always be nice! Don’t be stupid and reckless, either, but don’t always be nice. You could end up like Bill Clinton, who might be a nice guy to party with (and pretty damn smart, to boot), but whose love of compromise has made him a man without principle. Leave the tact to someone else.
Sometimes the direct approach goes a long way towards making your point. A radical critique expressed through the energy of youth is what the movement to take our world back from the forces of greed and war needs.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This piece was originally written for POLITIXX, a journal put together by a couple of SDS members from Rhode Island.