The 1970s were a tumultuous time in America, with the war in Vietnam taking shape, the rise of U.S. counterculture, a tumble in trust in the government following Watergate and a rapidly changing U.S economy. Having only recently come out of the civil rights era, the country was left to reckon with the echoes of slavery and discrimination, a job that is not entirely finished even today. The Black Panther movement, based on the armed self-defense of Black Americans, raised questions about whether the White American majority could respect the rights of the Black Panthers to peacefully protest and exercise the same rights as other political organizations. Tensions flared frequently as the American public bristled at the contentious, sometimes confrontational Marxist philosophy of the Panthers, especially as violence between police and Panther members broiled.
This movement quickly spawned several similar organizations, based either on the principles of Marxism, feminism, Black empowerment or some combination of the three. Among the figureheads of these movements, Angela Davis stood out as a controversial but important symbol of Black feminism. On Saturday, March 6, the Hope College Student Activities Committee and Women’s Empowerment Organization hosted a film screening about the life and controversy of Angela Davis, entitled “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.” The film was shown in the Schaap Auditorium of BSC with limited seating available by registering ahead. The film, one hour and 42 minutes in length, was followed by a brief discussion of the importance of freedom of expression in the U.S. and the failures of high school education to cover important historical topics such as the era of the 1970s.
The film began by describing the early life of Angela Davis and her rise to academic fame. Angela attended Brandeis University and earned a degree in philosophy. Davis studied abroad in France during her time at Brandeis, and shortly after graduating she studied in Germany for post-grad work. During her time there, she visited East Germany, which was then controlled by Soviet Russia. She learned there about the east German worldview and came to believe they were dealing with the after-effects of fascism much better. This experience, combined with her participation in socialist extracurricular groups and her studying under Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcus, led her to take up communism.
Upon her return to the U.S., she became an acting professor of philosophy at UCLA, as well as a member of the Communist Party USA and the Black Panthers. She was fired quickly thereafter for her participation in the Communist Party, and when reinstated by order of a judge, she was again fired for “inflammatory language.” Governor Ronald Reagan was one of the notable persons involved in her firing, a staunch opponent of the development of communism in higher education.
The film then transitioned to Davis’s political activism, which primarily began with her support for “The Soledad Brothers,” three inmates convicted of murdering a guard in Soledad Prison. She expressed support for the men and believed they were innocent. She also developed a fascination with and an emotional attachment to one prisoner in particular, George Jackson. This came to create issues, the first of which being her acquaintance with his brother, Jonathan Jackson. In August 1970 Jonathan led a botched attempt to free several Black prisoners from a courtroom in Marin County, California. The attempt left three prisoners and a judge dead, and several others injured. Immediately Davis came under suspicion as a co-conspirator, with several of her firearms having been found at the scene. Davis went into hiding and evaded police capture until October.
The rest of the film covered her time in prison, in which she was placed in solitary confinement. She was held on three separate accounts related to the failed escape attempt, any one of which would have earned her the death penalty. During this time she met with George Jackson, and the two shared intimacy. This led to heartbreak for Davis as George Jackson later attempted a violent prison break, which led to the deaths of several corrections officers and prisoners, himself included. Sickeningly, during Davis’s own trial, the prosecution suggested she assisted Johnathan Jackson because she felt an overwhelming passion for George Jackson that drove her to supply his brother with weapons.
The death penalty was banned in California and Davis was subsequently allowed bail. This was a key asset to her as she was able to play an active role in her own defense, eventually being acquitted and released. Her case sparked a global movement to reevaluate the conditions in which political prisoners are held and helped spawn the budding Black feminism movement.
The Anchor spoke with Maria Seidl, a junior studying history and sociology, and Elli Stuk, a senior studying psychology and sociology. The pair remarked that this is the first in a film series covering topics related to National Women’s History Month. Seidl commented, “When we think of feminists, we think of white, skinny, beautiful feminists who go on TV and talk about hating men, and that’s not at all what feminism is, it has roots with Black women and the abolition movement . . . now we’re seeing the hope for more inclusive feminism.” Stuk followed up by saying, “This movie deals with a lot of complex issues, not only of race and gender but also political affiliation and social injustice in general. And like Maria said, a huge thing now with the third wave of feminism is intersectionality . . . and I think Angela Davis is a prime example of that.” During the Q&A, the duo also commented that you don’t have to be a “raging communist” to care about the rights of political prisoners.
Thank you to SAC and WEO for hosting the event. Students are encouraged to keep an eye on the upcoming film events to attend those as well!