The REAL Reason Why Angela Davis' BCRI Award Was Rescinded

Photo Source:  APB Speakers

Photo Source: APB Speakers

You may have heard that the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute just rescinded the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award from Angela Davis. Queen Davis was shocked and issued this response. The question that lingers - Why is Angela Davis’ support for Palestinian human rights so threatening that it would force the BCRI to rescind this honor?

The answer, in my opinion, lies in Angela Davis’ ability to make the important connections between the Military and Prison Industrial Complexes in the US with similar oppressive forces in places like Israel. Specifically, she has cogently illustrated, in her recent book, how the Black Lives Matter movement and Palestinian human rights are intrinsically linked. THIS is the nucleus of the perceived threat.

In the same way that MLK Jr. was silenced killed after his Beyond Vietnam speech and Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN for his support of Palestine, those in power of the aforementioned Complexes have historically *tried* to silence, criticize or blacklist respected Black activists who cross the respectability politics line so these important connections do not get incorporated and accepted into mainstream thought . . .

In 2016, Angela Davis wrote, “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, And the Foundations of a Movement”. Her editor, Frank Barat, reached out to my friend, Chaumtoli Huq, the founder of Law at the Margins and asked if the blog would do a book review. Chaumtoli reached out to me and asked if I was interested in doing the review and I said, “YES, of course!”

I am reposting, Lessons Learned From Angela Davis’ Book: Freedom Is A Constant Struggle below since the Lessons are so salient in this current political moment.

(reposted from Law at the Margins)

For those who stand up to the ills of today and seek language to connect and grow interrelated mass movements, look no further than Angela Davis’ new book, “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, And the Foundations of a Movement”, published by Haymarket Books. The book, a collection of essays and speeches, serves as both antidote and affirmation for movement builders. Davis urges the reader to focus on and understand the interconnectedness of seemingly unrelated movements in order to build well-organized mass movements that stand in solidarity with each other for lasting social change and freedom.

As a first-generation-Indian (Gujarati)-Muslim-American-intersectional feminist-movement lawyer, I deeply related to and gleaned new insights from this book. I am rooted in the understanding that the freedom and liberation of the communities that I am a part of are directly wrapped up with and contingent upon Black liberation and freedom. What I value about this book is that it is written in an accessible manner and provides concrete tools for the reader to enact change. The 4 most salient themes in the book are as follows:

The Power of Well-Organized Mass Movements over Individualism

Davis writes, “Progressive struggles . . . are doomed to fail if they do not also attempt to develop a consciousness of the insidious promotion of capitalist individualism”. What she is highlighting is the flawed focus on change through symbolic individuals under neoliberalism that eclipses structural inequalities. Davis juxtaposes Darren Wilson (lone perpetrator) and Barack Obama (lone liberator) to illuminate how individuals are purposefully elevated in order to disassociate them from the scores of people who were part of their movements – and actually built those movements. For Wilson, the “identifiable racist”, who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Davis opines that by simply enacting revenge and expecting individual police officers to “bear the burden” of history would actually maintain the status quo. Putting Wilson in jail and throwing away the key just obfuscates and masks the real culprit – systemic and racist state violence.

On the flip side, Davis highlights the flaw of those who criticize Obama for not bringing progressive change into government. According to Davis, it is the people, not government, who can effectuate systemic change. Davis asserts that we have not lacked the right POTUS, instead we have lacked well-organized mass movements. Those who rallied behind Obama’s elections failed to continue to wield their collective power in order to move in progressive directions. His supporters did not collectively protest the military surge in Afghanistan or the closure of the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Imagine if they had…

Davis offers two pieces of advice to movement builders in their effort to chip away at individualism: i) Teach, learn, and disseminate the socio-historical conditions and foundations of structural inequalities in movements through advocacy and organizing; ii) Focus on grassroots organizing that involves the most affected. For example, if prisoners are treated like objects of charity by academics, lawyers and policy-makers, where conferences are held about them and not with them, we not only defeat anti-prison work, but constitute the prisoners as inferior in the process of working to defend their rights.

Build Transnational Solidarity Between US Movements and Related International Movements

Davis’s book hinges on the parallels of the struggles in Ferguson and Palestine to illustrate the necessity of transnational solidarity between movements. At one point Davis is “critical in a friendly way” of Michelle Alexander’s important book “The New Jim Crow” for not incorporating a global framework. Davis suggests that without this global understanding, it is difficult to understand the apparatus that has produced mass incarceration in the US. She specifies that if an activist wants to abolish the prison-industrial complex in the US it is a necessity to realize the interrelated need to abolish apartheid and end the occupation of Palestine. Davis connects these movements by examining the concerted global strategy to deal with disposable populations from the Global South that involves putting them in a “vast garbage bin” (prison) and creating an “ideological illusion that the surrounding society is safer and more free”.

Davis importantly draws the connection between US law enforcement agencies and the Israeli military. The Israeli military, which leads a regime that occupies a population and condones apartheid, has trained and continues to train US sheriffs, police chiefs, and FBI agents on combating terrorism. When we challenge the Israeli military, it affects what happens in over-policed communities in the US, since US police departments are now equipped with military equipment and receive training from the Israeli military.

We witnessed the power of transnational solidarity when young Palestinians noticed the familiar CTS tear gas canisters that were used on Ferguson protestors. Palestinians tweeted messages such as, “Don’t Keep much distance from the Police, if you’re close to them, they can’t tear Gas. To #Ferguson from #Palestine”. Davis was injected with real hope for change in the aftermath of Ferguson when Black organizers traveled to Palestine to strengthen the foundation of an organized transnational mass-movement that combats the military-industrial and prison-industrial complexes, in concert. She urges movement builders to build and strengthen these solidarities.

Be Cautious When the Word “Terrorist” Is Used

Davis uses her personal account of growing up in Birmingham, Alabama to unpack how “there is almost always a political motivation” when the word terrorist is used (or not used). The multitude of bombs that were used to destroy Black homes, churches, and lives while Davis was growing up were never described as acts of terror. Yet somehow communities of color have endured centuries of unacknowledged terror, at the hands of those in power, which has shaped the history of the US.

Davis illustrates how Assata Shakur’s 2013 retroactive placement on the FBI international terrorist list is one of the most insidious uses of the word “terrorist”, because it is used as a tactic to deter mass-movements from growing. Shakur was a major influence for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was organized and created by radical Black women . . . in 2013. In labeling Shakur as a “terrorist”, the FBI is purposefully trying to dissuade the “grandchildren of Assata’s generation . . . to turn away from the struggles to end police violence, to dismantle the prison-industrial complex, to end violence against women, to end the occupation of Palestine, to defend the rights of immigrants”. Davis puts the onus on organizers and movement builders to uncover and explain these divide and conquer strategies.

Photo Source: Shepard Fairey

Photo Source: Shepard Fairey

The Role of Radical Women of Color in Movement Building

Davis weaves “radical women-of-color feminist theories and practices” throughout the book in order to underscore how these perspectives uniquely explore connections that are not readily apparent. In addition, she utilizes intersectional feminist analysis to argue that feminism is not just about gender equality or even gender. Instead, it is about combating the destructive forces of capitalism, racism, and colonialism while advocating for economic and substantive freedoms such as affordable housing, healthcare, free education, and ending police brutality. Mass movements do require strategizing, organizing, mobilizing and consensus building. But what they no longer require are messianic, charismatic, male leaders who promise political salvation for deference. An example of an exemplary movement is the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was co-founded by three radical Black women.

I took note when she warns the reader in Chapter 8 of feminisms that are too attached to objects. For academics this would be objects of study and for activists this would be objects of organizing. If one becomes too attached to existing objects or categories, we will not allow for flexibility and space for new categories and spaces for liberation. She challenges us to not assimilate trans women into an existing category. Instead, the category may have to change “so it does not simply reflect normative ideas of who counts as women and who doesn’t”.

Angela Davis firmly states, “[ev]ery change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements”. If you look deeper, it is evident that it was not individuals such as Abraham Lincoln, MLK, Jr., Barack Obama, or even herself who demanded change – well-organized mass movements always did. The title of her book suggests that new solidarities between young organizers have created the foundation of a (new) movement. Davis believes that the future lies in young people and the young generation is informed by feminism and anti-racist struggles in a way that Davis’s generation was not. It is in this collective that Davis “find[s] reservoirs of hope and optimism”. So too, do I.

Do you think BCRI was justified in rescinding Angela Davis’ civil rights award?