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Angela Davis, Still Agitating for Freedom

In the decades prior to the civil war in the United States the movement to abolish slavery grew more and more popular. Historically known as the abolitionist movement, there were numerous writers in its ranks. Some of the most powerful, radical and clearest writing came from black writers like Frederick Douglass. The same can be said about the more recent incarnation of that 19th century movement — the black liberation movement. One of the greatest of this later group is Angela Davis. Her text Women, Race and Class remains crucial to any complete understanding of US society and how gender, skin color and economic class helps construct and determine one’s life in the United States. Part history, philosophy and economics, this classic text is premised on the understanding that all struggles for freedom are part of the greater struggle for liberation.

Davis first published that book in 1981, almost ten years after she was acquitted in California of charges related to the 1970 Marin County escape attempt related to the trial of the Soledad Brothers. She continues to speak, write and organize today. In recent years, much of her focus has been on the use of prisons to control populations and turn a profit. Going beyond the demands of many in the movement against mass incarceration, Davis is part of the most radical trend of this movement—the prison abolition movement. This element challenges the entire concept of imprisonment and points to its historical use to keep so-called surplus populations out of sight and under control. This understanding is not new, but is recently coming into popular conversation. Indeed, George Jackson, one of the aforementioned Soledad Brothers, was but one of many radicals who drew a convincing line from the slavery of Black people in the US to the modern prison system. Since Jackson’s murder in 1971, this relationship has become even clearer as millions of Black men are put through a legal and prison system its own statistics prove is intentionally targeting them.Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 12.43.15 PM

Davis has a new book out. Titled Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, it is a short collection of essays, speeches and interviews from the past few years. Predominantly concerned with police brutality and the prison abolition movement, Davis and the editor Frank Barat have put this collection together in a way that emphasizes the connections between the struggle against police murders of civilians (especially Black men) in the US, the Palestinian freedom movement, and the Black liberation movement. The reader is presented with a history of the 1960s and beyond, the nature of Israel’s occupation, a detailed discussion of Black resistance to the police state and a look at a potential future. Eloquent as always, Davis uses the language to get across a militant and radical message. Inside the discussions, the reader discovers Davis perception of the Obama presidency in the context of history. Crucial to this last item is her explanation of how the Black freedom movement became the civil rights movement, replacing revolutionary demands for liberation with more moderate demands asking for the same limited rights the majority white population already had been granted. Not only did this transition effectively end the possibility of genuine liberation for Black men and women, it would create a similar limited realization of freedom for women, gays, Latinos, and others seeking liberation in the US. Instead of the Ten Point Program of the Black Panthers being addressed, Black Americans saw some of their own make it into the white man’s world, with one even elected to the White House. Instead of women being liberated and enabled to live their own lives as they wish, women saw the Hilary Clintons and Madeline Albrights of the world get to the pinnacles of power, gays and lesbians for marriage equality. Davis is careful to acknowledge that these are all important gains, but are simply not enough.

Informing Davis’ conversation and her general approach to the questions raised herein is what is known as feminist methodology. Essentially, this is an analytical approach that considers the connections between sometimes disparate and traditionally separated phenomena, personal, cultural, and political. A word currently used to describe the basics of this approach is intersectionality. In other words, instead of traditional hierarchies that place concepts into rows and steps of importance, these various thoughts and realities are perceived in a pattern that is more holistic and something like a web. Davis herself defines the methodology thus: Feminist approaches urge us to develop understandings of social relations, whose connections are often initially only intuited. (108)”

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle is a significant book. Its appearance at this time can only help social justice activists further inform and consider the issues of our time. For those who are curious but hesitant of taking action, Davis’ text could easily be the spark necessary to light that proverbial fire. The embers of the struggle for liberation reignited in the United States by the resistance in Ferguson and beyond are given substantial fuel within these pages. High school and college classrooms would do well to include at least some of the book’s text in their discussions. Those of us no longer in school should do our best to get the message out. With this book, Angela Davis has given us another tool for liberation.