Angela Davis "S.P.E.A.K."s to packed house

By Tom Lisi

On Wednesday life-long social activist Angela Davis addressed a packed audience in Kagin Ballroom, where she spoke passionately about everything from prison reform to what it feels like to be on the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted list. Davis was brought to Macalester as a part of a new speaker series called S.P.E.A.K., Students Participating, Engaging and Accessing Knowledge, sponsored by the Lealtad-Suzuki Center.Davis did not give a prepared lecture or speech. Instead, American Studies professor Dutchess Harris accompanied the renowned professor onstage and posed different questions to fuel the relatively informal conversation, in which audience members participated.

Tinbete Ermyas ’08 proposed the idea of developing a lecture series that would encourage more interaction between the lecture guest and the audience.

“I was disenchanted with the way speakers came to campus. They always gave canned speeches, and rarely engaged the audience,” he said. “The audience could take more ownership of what was being presented, and I thought an onstage interview like “Inside the Actor’s Studio” would be a good idea for that.”

The spontaneity of S.P.E.A.K.’s format allowed Davis to touch on a slew of issues such as race, gender, prisons, health care, education, environmentalis, capitalism, among other topics, which she insisted were all connected by the fight for social justice.

Davis’ presence in American social activism goes back to the Bay Area in the 1960s, when black power and anti-colonialism took center stage with alongside Vietnam War protests, and the emergence of the Black Panther Party. In 1969, California Governor Ronald Reagan removed her from the UC Berkeley faculty because she was a member of the Communist Party (she was hired to teach Marxist theory).

In her decades of scholarship and organizing, Davis has devoted much of her attention to the American prison system, of which she has personal experience. Davis told the story of when in 1970 she was accused of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy. After being the third woman in history to be on the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted List, she was found and arrested.

Davis credits her acquittal to the global “Free Angela Davis” movement. Harris said she was only three-years-old at the time of the movement, but recalled how her siblings were inspired and said that the early work of Davis as one of her own major inspirations.

Davis said her experience in a New York women’s detention facility inspired her to work for the reform of the American prison system.

Davis also spoke several times of “the prison industrial complex,” a concept that describes economic profit derived from cheap labor by incarcerated peoples. She pointed out that when she was in prison, there were roughly 200,000 people in U.S. jails and prisons; today there are 2.2 million people in jails and prisons. Davis continued by describing a new abolitionist movement that is working to reform prisons.

Throughout the evening, Davis urged her audience to think beyond the borders of issues such as feminism and racial equality, in what she called “a mandate to think things together that we normally think apart.”

At a time when the cross-cultural popularity of Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is becoming increasingly strong, Davis repeatedly criticized the notion of “color-blindness” in U.S. society.

“We are urged to imagine racial equality as color-blindness. We are told to repress race, which is apart of our shared cultural history,” she said.

Davis also noted the mobilizing effect Obama’s recent campaign has seemed to have on young Americans.

“It is really, really exciting to see so many young people participating in the electoral process,” she said. “I don’t think I have ever witnessed anything like it, but we tend to invest our enthusiasm and hope onto one individual into one person. ”

The Lealtad-Suzuki Center developed the programming and structure of Angela Davis’ appearance and other upcoming S.P.E.A.K. events. Karla Benson Rutten, director of the Lealtad-Suzuki center, said she was happy with the success of Wednesday night: “We wanted to get to know Angela Davis and get a sense of who she is as a person, and not just an icon.