7 things I learned from Angela Y. Davis’s “Freedom Is A Constant Struggle”
I may be late to the game, but this month, I was introduced for the very first time to the thoughts and writings of Angela Y. Davis.
Angela Davis is an African-American political activist, academic, and author of over ten books on class, feminism, race, and the US prison system.
Ideologically a Marxist, Davis was a longtime member of the Communist Party USA and became involved in numerous causes, including the campaign against the Vietnam war. She is also known for her advocacy for the liberation of Palestine.
Her 2015 book, titled “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement” is a collection of some of her essays, interviews and speeches. I found it to be an excellent introduction to Davis and her thinking, as well as an interesting, accessible, insightful read on a variety of issues from racism to feminism, the Black freedom movement and its connection to the liberation of Palestine.
Here are some of the most important things I took away from the book.
1. That the struggle for Black liberation is closely intertwined with the struggle to free Palestine
Around the world, there is a rich history of struggle against racism and oppression, and we have to recognize the intersectionality between these struggles.
International solidarity is crucial. To stand for the rights of Palestinians to their land is to stand for the rights of indigenous or black people in the US, is to stand against apartheid in South Africa. All struggles against racism and oppression are one.
Just as the struggle to end South African apartheid was embraced by people all over the world and was incorporated into many social justice agendas, solidarity with Palestine must likewise be taken up by organizations and movements involved in progressive causes all over the world… This is precisely the moment to encourage everyone who believes in equality and justice to join the call for a free Palestine.
And also it might be important to point out that the Israeli police have been involved in the training of US police. So there is this connection between the US military and the Israeli military. And therefore it means that when we try to organize campaigns in solidarity with Palestine, when we try to challenge the Israeli state, it’s not simply about focusing our struggles elsewhere, in another place. It also has to do with what happens in US communities.
Davis draws particular attention to the connection between the Ferguson protests and Palestine.
Palestinian-Americans’ involvement in the Ferguson protests was complemented by expressions of solidarity with Ferguson from Palestinian activists in the West Bank and Gaza. The Ferguson struggle has taught us that local issues have global ramifications. The militarization of the Ferguson police and the advice tweeted by Palestinian activists helped to recognize our political kinship with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement and with the larger struggle for justice in Palestine. Moreover, we have come to understand the central role Islamophobia has played in the emergence of new forms of racism in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
2. That movements for change are about collective leadership, not single charismatic individuals
Davis emphasizes that, contrary to popular narratives, change is the result of collective work, and not a few prominent individuals.
It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.
As an example, Abraham Lincoln is often portrayed to have ended slavery and freed four million slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. However, as Eric Foner points out in The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, the proclamation left perhaps 750,000 slaves in bondage. This popular narrative about the end of slavery produced by Abraham Lincoln erases the agency of Black people themselves. It is the rebellion of slaves over hundreds of years prior to and after the proclamation which resulted in their emancipation.
Another example is the attempt to disassociate Martin Luther King from the vast numbers of people behind the freedom movement.
A similar process has attempted to disassociate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the vast numbers of women and men who constituted the very heart of the mid-twentieth-century US freedom movement.
3. That change is a longterm process, and that’s okay
It’s still necessary to work towards change, even if we never get to see it happen in our own lifetimes.
Oftentimes people say, ‘well, if it takes that long, I’ll be dead’. So what? Everybody dies, right? And if people who were involved in the struggle against slavery — I’m thinking about people like Frederick Douglass, or Ida B. Wells in the struggle against lynching — if they had that very narrow individualistic sense of their own contributions, where would we be today? And so we have to learn how to imagine the future in terms that are not restricted to our own lifetimes.
4. That there is a difference between impact and outcome
Though it’s easy to feel discouraged when we see movements like Occupy Wall Street or the Egyptian revolution of 2011 fail to produce tangible results, we need to remember the difference between impact and outcome.
Let us not forget the impact of Tahrir Square and the Occupy movement all over the world… Oftentimes people argue that in these more recent movements there were no leaders, there was no manifesto, no agenda, no demands, so therefore the movements failed. But I’d like to point out that Stuart Hall, who died just a little over a year ago, urged us to distinguish between outcome and impact. There is a difference between outcome and impact. Many people assume that because the encampments are gone and nothing tangible was produced, that there was no outcome. But when we think about the impact of these imaginative and innovative actions and these moments where people learned how to be together without the scaffolding of the state, when they learned to solve problems without succumbing to the impulse of calling the police, that should serve as a true inspiration for the work that we will do in the future to build these transnational solidarities.
The Occupy movement made it possible for us to talk about capitalism in an open, public way, in a way that had not been possible since the 1930s. And so I think we need to celebrate this new possibility and recognize that we still inhabit a political space created by the Occupy movement. We shouldn’t take the position that now that the tents are gone nothing is left. There’s a great deal left.
5. That feminism is not just about gender equality — it’s a system of thought that must also include an awareness of capitalism
Feminism involves so much more than gender equality. And it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism — I mean, the feminism that I relate to. And there are multiple feminisms, right? It has to involve a consciousness of capitalism, and racism, and colonialism, and postcolonialities, and ability, and more genders than we can even imagine, and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name.
In this sense, Davis considers raising awareness to the connection between the struggles of people of color the US and the struggles of Palestinians against the Israeli occupation a feminist process.
6. That the prison system is not concerned with rehabilitation, but rather it is a global business profiteering from racism and colonialism worldwide, from the US to South Africa and Palestine
The global prison-industrial complex is continually expanding, as can be seen from the example of G4S…
[Group 4 Security (G4S)] is the third-largest private corporation in the world after Walmart and Foxconn, and is the largest private employer on the continent of Africa. It has learned how to profit from racism, anti-immigrant practices, and from technologies of punishment in Israel and throughout the world. G4S is directly responsible or the ways Palestinians experience political incarceration, as well as aspects of the apartheid wall, imprisonment in South Africa, prison-like schools in the United States, and the wall along the US-Mexico border. Surprisingly… G4S also operates sexual assault centers in Britain.
7. That we need to be optimistic about the future
When asked if we should remain optimistic about the future, Davis responds:
I don’t think we have any alternative other than remaining optimistic. Optimism is an absolute necessity, even if it’s only optimism of the will, as Gramsci said, and pessimism of the intellect. What has kept me going has been the development of new modes of community. I don’t know whether I would have survived had not movements survived, had not communities of resistance, communities of struggle. So whatever I’m doing I always feel myself directly connected to those communities and I think that this is an era where we have to encourage that sense of community particularly at a time when neoliberalism attempts to force people to think of themselves only in individual terms and not in collective terms. It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.