Angela and Ilhan: birds of a feather

Angela Davis in her youth

In June 2016, as we reported here at the time, Angela Davis was celebrated by a feminist art center at the Brooklyn Museum for being “first in her field.” What field would that be? Diehard Communism? As a young woman she joined the American Communist Party and studied at Humboldt University in what was then the Soviet puppet state of East Germany, and has remained a devotee of Marx and Engels ever since. Or is her field domestic terrorism? In the incident that made her famous, she bought a bunch of guns that were used several days later by some pals of hers who invaded a courtroom, took the judge, prosecutor, and three jurors hostage, and ended up in a shootout with cops in which the judge was killed, the prosecutor paralyzed for life, and one of the jurors injured – the perpetrators’ goal having been to compel the release of Angela’s then husband, a Black Panther, Communist, and armed robber named George Jackson, from Soledad State Prison.

Arrested for her role in this atrocity, Davis, despite massive evidence against her, was acquitted by a jury that was plainly swayed by dishonest propaganda that painted her as a victim of racial prejudice.

Angela and Fidel

Thus began her career as a public figure – specifically, as a full-time critic of democratic capitalism, booster of Communism, and outspoken anti-Semite. She palled around with Fidel Castro in Cuba and accepted the Lenin Peace Prize in Moscow. She publicly supported the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. Twice in the 1980s, she ran for Vice President of the United States on the Communist Party line. Meanwhile she pursued an academic career, and the American university having undergone a political sea change in the 1960s and 70s, her hard-line Communist credentials only helped her advance: from San Francisco State, where she taught Ethnic Studies, she proceeded to UC Santa Cruz, where she taught in the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies departments and was appointed to the UC Presidential Chair in African American and Feminist Studies. The website of Santa Cruz, where is now listed as a “Distinguished Professor Emerita,” provides a sugarcoated version of her criminal past and calls her “a living witness to the historical struggles of the contemporary era.” Nor has her fanatical Communism kept her from being a darling of the American left, which has promoted her tirelessly as a heroine of rights for women and black people.

She stood with Fidel. She stood with Brezhnev. Now she stands with Ilhan.

Which brings us to her latest activities. On April 30, Davis joined “scores of other black women” at a Capitol Hill rally in support of Ilhan Omar, the hijab-wearing, Somali-born freshman Congresswoman from Minnesota. As the website of the left-wing TV/radio program Democracy Now put it, Omar had “been at the center of numerous right-wing attacks since taking office.” Translation: since her election in November, Omar had made a series of chillingly anti-Semitic comments, and a great many decent-minded people had had the audacity to take offense. There had been an effort to pass a resolution condemning her, but members of her own party had circled the wagons and rewritten the resolution so that it made no explicit mention of Omar and was at least as much a statement about “Islamophobia” as about anti-Semitism. Speaking to Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, Davis maintained that Omar had been “targeted because she is an immigrant, because she is Muslim, because she is a courageous, bold black woman who speaks out in defense of Palestinians.” She added: “I am extremely proud that finally we’ve elected someone to Congress who speaks out in such a powerful way on behalf of black women, on behalf of Palestinians, on behalf of all people who are oppressed.” Birds of a feather flock together.

Angela (gray hair) seated behind Ilhan at the big rally

Davis’s support for Omar made headlines. The Huffington Post, describing Davis as a “civil rights icon,” whitewashed the comments that had gotten Omar in trouble and took Omar’s word for it that she had received a mountain of death threats. At The Nation, one Rebecca Pierce celebrated Davis and her confreres for creating “a force field of support” around Omar “in the face of Islamophobic incitement from the Trump White House.” UPI bought the death-threats claim too, running a piece under the headline “Activists rally in support of Rep. Ilhan Omar after death threats.”

As for the rally itself…well, stay tuned. We’ll get to that on Thursday.

Angela Davis, first in her field

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Angela Davis (center), with Gloria Steinem and Elizabeth Sackler

In early June, the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art –which is named for the historian who is the current president of that museum – presented Angela Davis with the 2016 Sackler Center First Award, which honors “women who are first in their fields.”

Who is Angela Davis? Her name may mean nothing to most younger Americans. To those over a certain age, however, she’s a very familiar figure.

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Davis in her heyday

Born in Alabama in 1944, Davis joined the American Communist Party at an early age. While studying at the University of Frankfurt, she took part in activities sponsored by the radical Socialist German Student Union and attended May Day celebrations in what was then East Berlin. She later joined the Black Panthers and received a doctorate in philosophy from Humboldt University, also in East Berlin. She went on to teach at UCLA, where the regents fired her in 1969 because of her Communist Party membership. Rehired by the university on orders from a judge, she was fired again after using “inflammatory language” (such as calling the police “pigs”) in several speeches.

Then she became world-famous. It happened like this.

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George Jackson

Davis was in love with, and secretly married to, a gangster named George Jackson, who, like her, was a Communist and Black Panther leader. After he committed five armed robberies, he was caught, tried, convicted, and incarcerated at Soledad State Prison in California. The Black Panthers later published a collection of his prison letters; Davis, for her part, spearheaded an effort to secure his release, along with that of two fellow Marxists who were also confined at Soledad. The men were collectively known as the Soledad Brothers. 

On August 7, 1970, Jackson’s 17-year-old brother, Jonathan, entered a Marin County courtroom in which another punk, James McClain, was on trial for murdering a prison guard. Jonathan brought with him plenty of weapons, which he handed to McClain and to two other convicts who were present in the courtroom as witnesses. Jonathan and the three jailbirds then took hostage the presiding judge, Harold Haley, a father of three, along with the prosecutor and three of the jurors. 

- - Group leaves the the Civic Center with a shotgun taped around Judge Harold Haley's neck. The inmate at left, James McClain, was fatally wounded in the van as it attempted escape. (IJ photo/Roger Bockrath)
James McClain (with gun, left), Jonathan Jackson, and comrades leave the the Marin County Civic Center with Judge Haley and other hostages (note the shotgun taped around Haley’s neck)

Jonathan and the convicts took their hostages out of the courthouse and drove off with them in a van. Jonathan’s goal was to hijack a plane, fly the hostages to Cuba, and exchange them for his brother’s freedom. But he didn’t get that far. At a roadblock, he and his pals got into a shootout with police. Jonathan, Judge Haley, and the two convicts were killed; the prosecutor was paralyzed for life; and a juror was injured. It was soon discovered that some of the guns Jonathan had brought into the courtroom had been purchased by Davis only days earlier. Charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder and placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, Davis took it on the lam; after a few months underground, she was tracked down by cops at a Howard Johnson’s motel in Manhattan.

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Davis is taken into custody

Meanwhile George Jackson had died. Using a gun smuggled into his cell (he was now at San Quentin), perhaps by his lawyer, Jackson, in consort with six fellow prisoners, took three guards hostage, bound them, and cut their throats. Jackson was then shot to death trying to make his escape. His comrades in the American Communist Party described it as a “murder.”

As for Angela Davis, she went on trial. Among American Communist leaders, there was disagreement about what position the Party should take on her case. For some, her actions were a bridge too far. For others – well, we’ll get around to that tomorrow.