All Quiet This Time
By Mary Daily
Published Dec 6, 2011 8:00 AM
Activist and scholar Angela Davis returns to Westwood more than 40 years after her turbulent UCLA experience.
"I guess I can say it's good to be back at UCLA, after many, many decades," said a smiling Angela Davis as she began her remarks recently at the Hammer Museum. The irony of the activist appearing as an invited guest was not lost on the overflow crowd. One of the most controversial figures of the turbulent 1960s, Davis, then in her 20s, was at the center of a heated drama that played out on the UCLA campus.
Now the influential 67-year-old scholar was speaking as part of Hammer Conversations, along with Robin Levi, the human rights director of Justice Now.
Throughout her career, Davis, the daughter of Alabama school teachers, has remained an outspoken advocate of the causes she embraces, promoting women's rights and racial justice. Her current work focuses on incarceration and the criminalization of communities most affected by poverty and racial discrimination. Her latest books include "Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons," "Torture and Empire" and "Are Prisons Obsolete?"
At the Hammer, she and Levi discussed the prevalence of violence against women throughout the world and the overcrowding and abuse in U.S. prisons. "One in 100 adults in the U.S. is in prison," she said, "and they represent 'the other one percent' – those at the bottom of the hierarchy." She stressed the urgency of "a national conversation about abolition of a prison system that tells you you're no good and strips your self-worth."
Davis observed prison conditions firsthand when she served jail time herself, following her days on the UCLA faculty. In 1969, after she was hired by the UCLA philosophy department for a one-year appointment with the possibility of a second year, the UC Regents learned she was a member of the Communist Party and tried to fire her. But her fellow faculty members and then-Chancellor Charles Young defended her right to academic freedom.
In the fall quarter she was allowed to teach a non-credit course only, so the Academic Senate asked all UCLA professors to withhold grades from students until Davis was "assured of her right to teach for credit." Credit was restored but the regents, led by Gov. Ronald Reagan, appealed.
The case was headed to the courts but became moot when Davis faced criminal charges in connection with an abduction and murder. In 1972, she was found not guilty. Although Reagan said she would never again teach in the UC system, she went on to earn tenure at the Santa Cruz campus, where she spent 17 years on the faculty. She is now a professor emerita of History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies.
At the Hammer, Davis advocated for "new models of democracy" and pointed to the "new activism" as a positive sign. Not surprisingly, she sympathizes with the "Occupy" protests and sees them as evidence that "the movement is returning. 'Occupy'," she said, "demonstrates that we can still do something. The situation is not hopeless."