Dr. Angela Davis has been waiting several decades for an eruption of radical activism in this country. Perhaps the wait is over.
Last Thursday evening, Jan. 28, hundreds of 5C students and faculty filed through Scripps’ Garrison Theater doors to hear the renowned revolutionary, social activist, prison reform advocate, and scholar weigh in on campus climate, racial tensions, and education.
Nearly an hour before the event began, the theater buzzed with people. It seemed Davis’ reputation preceded her, and that her life of activism, radicalism, and the movement that emerged in demanding her freedom years ago now held more relevance with students than ever before.
Thursday evening’s program was the first of an ongoing pilot series at Scripps, hosted by the newly founded Scripps Presents and organized in collaboration with the Alexa Fullerton Hampton ’42 Endowed Speaker Fund and the Scripps Communities of Resources and Empowerment (SCORE) center.
Entitled “Radical Acts: A Conversation with Angela Davis,” the event was facilitated by KPCC investigative reporter Annie Gilbertson, who kicked it off by asking about Davis’ thoughts on campus activism.
In bridging the gap between her activism in the 1970s and present-day activism, Davis began by contextualizing her own history. “I was charged with three capital crimes: murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy,” she said. “That was a moment when nobody believed it was possible to win. Even people that knew I was innocent. We were facing the most powerful forces in the world.”
Before she ever stepped foot on UCLA’s campus as an incoming educator in 1970, Davis was fired for her ties to the Communist Party, the irony of which was that she had initially been hired in large part for her training in Marxism and communist theory.
“The fact that I belonged to the Communist Party seemed to be of little concern to anybody,” she chuckled. “Until Ronald Reagan decided he wanted to use that.”
In 1975, Davis’ arrival in Claremont stirred the pot once again when the 5Cs hired her as a visiting faculty member. The schools received angry letters from wealthy alumni and benefactors who threatened to discontinue their financial support should Davis remain employed. The schools later agreed to “minimize” Davis’ presence on campus, negotiating that she would only be able to teach 26 students in her weekly seminar.
Davis, who celebrated her 72nd birthday Jan. 26, remained as outspoken as ever on Thursday. Raised by an activist mother, she explained that even at a young age, she never accepted the way things were supposed to be. “[Empathy] is an important quality to have in people who want to change the world,” she said. “I never had the opportunity to cultivate that kind of individualism.”
Given the amount of race-related activism last semester, Davis’ anecdote about her struggles with racism during her time attending an “integrated school” that she described as having “not too many people of color” evoked an overwhelmingly spirited response from audience members with several students shouting, “Same!”
Other highlights included her call for a “thoroughly transformed” education system and the protection of affirmative action, which she sees as compensation for years of racial injustice. “Education should be a right,” she stated. “Not just a formal right, not just an abstract right, but it should be a substantive right.”
Her words struck a particular chord with Pamela Ng SC ’16. “As young folks both implicated in and working to change the system we are in,” she explained. “It’s important to look at the larger picture and at history to see where we are and where we need to go.”
Nicole Rufus SC ’16, who introduced Gilbertson, was disappointed by the journalist’s facilitation. “I felt she was condescending at many points,” said Rufus. “I don’t think the facilitation led to a fluid conversation.” Many students felt similarly, particularly about Gilbertson’s remark on Davis’ privileged “ticket out of the segregated south.”
“Honestly, I thought she was bored the whole time, she wasn’t engaged,” said Rahel Kemal PZ ’18 “She kept checking her phone for the time, it was ridiculous. They could have done better.”
At one point, one student shouted that Gilbertson should “stop interrupting [Davis.]” A few moments later, many students shouted in agreement.
When the floor opened for questions, audience members eagerly grabbed for the microphone. One student described the “exhaustion” she felt during the demonstrations that prompted the resignation of Dean of Students Mary Spellman last November. She asked how to maintain herself emotionally and physically as an activist.
This, Davis explained, is a protracted struggle. She stated that many things cannot be achieved over night, and she praised young people for their “urgency of wanting to see the [change] now.” She further explained that this quality is “what makes young people the natural leaders of revolutionary movements.”
With that in mind, Davis advised that it’s occassionally necessary to take a step back, rest, and reflect. “It’s important to try and transform yourself and your comrades into the community that you are actually fighting for,” she said. “So it makes no sense to wear yourself down.”
Many students expressed their appreciation of Davis’ words and for what she represents given the current climate. “It was really empowering. It helps me as an artist continue what I’m already doing. Whatever challenge that I face, the small bumps will help me grow,” said Reynaldo Culannay PZ ’17.
Ng agreed, “She dropped so many truths. It’s really hard to count.”
On the interchangeable role that she plays in relation to students on campus today, Davis stressed that she’s not the one with all the knowledge. “You have to figure it out for yourself, and I have a lot to learn from the way you figure it out.”