When honouring Angela Davis today we are not solely honoring her personal engagement. We also know her as a symbol of antiracist action, for the political and social struggle for an all - encompassing emancipation. It is thus we are also honoring all those who were and are active in these struggles. Today we honor the victims of right-wing terrorism here in Germany.
It is my belief that speaking about protest, resistance and liberation represents an appropriate honor. Indeed I am sure that these are the themes that affect Angela Davis and all the other unnamed.
The first time I heard about Angela Davis – and I am sure that’s how most of those here today heard of her – was in connection with a wave of protest and solidarity in the wake of her conviction and imprisonment. The campaign „a million roses for Angela Davis“ was instigated in the GDR. Throughout the whole world, not only in socialist countries people campaigned for her freedom. Many of us in the GDR thought we were the reason. But that was certainly over-exaggerated. But it would not to have done to underestimate the solidarity. It was due to the immense publicity that the courts were forced to adhere to proper judicial procedure.
But I would now like to return to my initial theme resistance, protest, and liberation.
Max Weber has defined predominance as the chance for a „command“ to be followed by a definable group. A definable group is sociologically speaking defined by its accepted institutionalization. Examples of powerful institutions are bureaucratic institutions, corporations, educational institutions, social conventions, clinics, the military apparatus and jails. Their continued establishment is stabilized without legitimization and is fruitless when lacking accreditative appreciation. Now appreciation might sound a good thing but often is not. There can be many reasons for appreciation: insight, tradition, charisma - but also force. The reasons underlining stable power relationships do functionally speaking not matter. Of sole importance is merely their stability.
Social critique imitates the situation in which a given person questions the legitimacy of a given power relationship, questions whether or not obedience exists rightfully or not. This questioning of power relationships results in critical theories. Social critique, may I add, is the effort to normalize gestures of intermission, of stepping out of immediate obedience. This is also how I have always interpreted Marx eleventh theses on Feuerbach: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it” This theory doesn’t just create a consciousness of the changeability of preconditions; its success is dependent on the evolution of a theory of the willingness to change. No form of social critique, especially not one purporting a dialectic character will ever live up to its purpose if it neglects to form sensitivity for social injustice.
I would like to illustrate this principle with an example: You will all remember how it was during segregation: There were signposts reading „for whites only“. Now I certainly won’t get anywhere if, as a Caucasian (White) I remind myself that I have no prejudices but then still seat myself on this bench. I’d just be playing the game. I can play the game in a racist system without even having whatever obscure preconceptions as to the presumed inferiority of humans with a different skin colour. And those black people who conform to the sign also play the game – even though they might want to sit on the bench in question. They may be playing the game against their own will but they still are contending to the rules. Here we are talking not about an explicit racist ideology but of a factual acknowledgement of a racist rule. This may be the result of pessimism or of the fear of repression; in other words due to a totally different reason, but it still upholds the racist structure.
And now we come to Rosa Parks’s act of civil disobedience. She refused to stand up from her (segregated) bus seat. In doing so she did more than to solely disturb the public order as her court sentence was phrased. She refused to continue to play within the rules of the system. We all know what serious consequences her one action eventually led to: an immense insurgency of strength into the black rights movement. Her act of civil disobedience encouraged so many more. In this one moment in which a woman gets convicted and pulled to court the complete craziness of the racist practice of a country whose self-esteem was based on the maxims of equal rights became publicly visible. This self-consciousness of liberation, of freedom, collided with the institutionalized racism in the USA, especially with its apartheid facets in the southern states. And as the country had fought against Fascism during World War II this contradiction was highlighted by the return of the black GIs to a country inherently racist.
This conflict between the pathos of liberty and daily discrimination has been present in the USA since the American Revolution. I would be the last in underestimating liberal values such as freedom and independence. But it is also not necessary to overestimate them. I would like to quote a passage from the Declaration of Independence of the USA: „We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.“ This conviction is held to be a self-evident truth, with no proof necessary.
Thomas Jefferson is considered the author of the Declaration. I imagine him sitting at his desk, searching fort he right words as he looks out at his slaves working his fields in Virginia. That’s why we shouldn’t underestimate liberalism. Of course he must have seen the conflict between equality and slavery. And naturally Jefferson’s defenders would probably say, „that’s how it was in those days.“
But lets turn it around: The phrase „that’s how it was in those days“ clearly expiates slavery as a form of exploitation morally acceptable in those days. Liberalism was an ideology of freedom not wishing to go too far. It was to leave the preconditions of exploitation untouched. The bourgeois liberators wished only to liberate the bourgeois existence. Which is why the perspective of abolishing slavery was postponed indefinitely. It is by the same means that liberalism is equally unequipped to critically attack the formations of the predominitional relationship of capitalist labor. The same applies to the patriarchal rule in the bourgeois family.
But yet the dominance of liberal ideologies can help make the inherent injurious discriminatory structures visible. That is the progressive function of liberalism. And the civil rights movement – in the end, successfully - appealed to this progressive moment.
However, the other aspect, the restrictive moments of liberalism brought forth a increase of scepticism amongst the black activists of the civil rights movement. And here is my explanation for this: After the abolition of slavery the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution guaranteed formal voting rights. But when the Northern troops were pulled back these rights were obliterated by the instalment of the so-called grandfathers clause – legislation that created new literacy and property restrictions on voting, but exempted those whose ancestors (grandfathers) had the right to vote before the Civil War. The intent and effect of such rules was to prevent poor and illiterate African American former slaves and their descendants from voting, but without denying poor and illiterate whites the right to vote. The terrorism exerted by the Ku Klux Klan strengthened these political intentions. It wasn’t until the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed that the black American population truly had voting rights. And to me it is more than plausible that this time span had, for many, lasted too long. And it also seems plausible to me that the antiracist struggle hat a few issues more to contend with. It is understandable that there was great contention against that legal ideology that had been directed against themselves – against a system made by and for the white population. The black population had to reassert their own strengths and form their own force against that system. It was thus the Black Power Movement and its military organisation the Black Panther Party emerged.
Quite a number of such impulses filtered back into the civil rights movement, which in turn became more radical. The rhetoric in the speeches held by Martin Luther King when he was older was indeed more radical. His intention was universal; he, too, was intent on finding answers to the questions of production and distribution of the wealth as he saw these being a fundamental source for comprehension of discrimination.
State apparatuses become nervous and even neurological when confronted with resistance that exceeds the dimensions of a garden party. Martin Luther King’s murder showed the security forces had reached the stage of hysteria. The measures taken against the Black Panther Party absolutely exceeded the boundaries of legitimacy. This overheated situation explains why a young woman, coincidentally black and a member of the communist party, with strong contacts to a imprisoned member of the Black Panther Party was not only observed by the FBI; it helps to elucidate the preconditions of how and why this young woman was confronted with such a hair-raising and threatening charge.
To begin with Angela Davis had done nothing more than to involve herself in the struggles of her times. She could have chosen to ignore these and pursue an academic career - a choice which at that time already seemed desirous. But to tread this more comfortable path would have meant quantiful repression.
Let’s start with her childhood:
Angela Davis grew up in the South of the USA, in Birmingham, Alabama. It was no childhood in the slums – she grew up in what we today would call black middle class neighbourhood. But the part of town her home was located in was called Dynamite Hill – named for the terror of the locally active Ku Klux Klan. When Angela Davis speaks of this period in her life she speaks of the sound of dynamite explosives. And she speaks of a contrast in experience: on one side of the road the children from white families, on the other the children from black families. And they never played together, they never went to the same schools, they never went to the same social affairs. They had nothing in common; they lived in two completely segregated worlds. Then, and this, too, is part of her childhood, she spent a summer in New York City with her mother – an eye-opening experience she describes as having been an adventure: in New York City people of many different heritages lived together. The children played together on the beach regardless of skin colour. She returned home with the insight that in this one country many different experiences were possible. Segregation no longer seemed a matter of course even though it seemed so in the South. Angela Davis’s family gave her the consciousness that it was necessary to struggle against racism, that racism was not tolerable. Her mother was active in organisations against racism, also in cooperation with members of the communist party. It was here she experienced the active role of women in struggles.
Her highs school days stanced out yet other lessons: she attended a private, not a state high school. The school had been an explicit educational project that was then closed down in the McCarthy era. But in this period there were many progressive teachers and these teachers continued the project privately. Financial aid granted by the American Friends Service Committee, a humanitarian Quaker organisation, enabled Angela Davis to attend this school. It was here that she came into contact with Marxism and became politically active.
Her university studies encompassed two stays in Europe: Her studies in Paris deepened her academic desire to pursue philosophy. Back in the USA she studied under Herbert Marcuse who enabled the contact that led to her second phase of studies abroad: she became a student in Frankfurt where she studied under his former colleagues, Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Jürgen Habermas. At the same time she was politically active, especially in the SDS. Angela Davis returned to the USA in 1967 to engage herself in the civil rights movement. She returned with valuable tools: the capabilities of reflexion as a means of achieving the goals set out.
I wish to illustrate this with the aid of two examples – one a very German one and one that Angela Davis herself often uses. Racism comes in many disguises. Now here my German example: A few years ago the Jewish congregation in Leipzig proposed to use their building also as a community center. This was too much for a number of neighbouring residents and they founded a committee to counteract this proposition. Not, as they insisted, because they were anti-Semitic but because they felt that such a center would have a negative effect on property prices, as a Jewish community center would invite criminally anti-Semitic activities. It was thus these residents clearly behaved in an anti-Semitic manner – they had made the existence of an anti-Semitic perspective to a behavioural factor in their relationship to Jews. In her biography Angela Davis illustrates this facet as what might be called demonstrative tolerance: “…look here – I have no problems in presenting myself with black Americans…” This only works as a demonstration of personal liberalism because of the underlining moment of structural racism.
This is an ideological discourse of immense ambition. But what does ideology really mean? Supra-phenomena such as one might presume if having read Marx only superficially? In which case, just a few exertions ought to suffice to overcome something as bothersome as racism. This would however entail the danger of giving in to a liberalist illusion. Or we start understanding ideology as something deeply engraved in society. A good example is to be found in Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism. The specific forms of labor are deemed tangible, but are indeed linked with the process of labor. I can repeat this presumed insight one hundred times a day – and still I subjectively catch myself calculating whether or not the price of a loaf of bread is justifiable. By continuing this I continuously reinforce the societal particle that constitutes the assumed value/worth of a single commodity. Adorno, often quite concise in his diction, says that commodities are or become their own ideology. If I comprehend ideology in the latter manner simple-minded enlightenment will not suffice. The transition to what Marx calls revolutionary practice becomes mandatory. Engels was a bit more reticent in his wording: he spoke of „upchurning practice“.
A model of racism aimed at the selfsame structures of society will always end up pointing out the necessity of enlightenment – of enlightenment which points out the detrimental wrongness in the elements of the structures of society.
Which is more that banal liberalism.
And if commencing from, shall I say, a materialistic viewpoint of ideology and society there is always the question to be posed of the relationship between capitalist exploitation, racism and questions of gender. Marxists have spent overtime, sometimes even superfluously so on these debates. The Left has always fought for the elimination of exploitation in whatever context it was to be found. Predominitional relationships are inherent in labor relationships as well as in subjection of women and in racist practices.
The uprisings in London and in other British cities, quite often incomprehensible for the Left here as political claims seemed lacking were the reaction to the killing of a migrant resident by a police officer – disquieting enough. What has gone unremarked by the German media is the fact that a number of deaths had occurred in the prisons of Ireland and Great Britain and that most of the deaths had been of migrants. The riots were thus the expression of many people that the State of Great Britain had become a repressive state in which certain rights are no longer respected.
Lets take another example. The boundaries of the EU are being enforced with considerable military effort. This ranges under the term “refugee defense“ – almost all of which is plainly inhuman; today I would like to concentrate on one example: the refugees are being denied the right to apply for asylum in the EU. Cynically speaking they are being denied the right of application – but not the right to the status of political asylum. At the same time the EU is supporting the influx of highly qualified foreign labor. When the fundamental rights of one group of migrants are sacrificed to economic calculation I would speak of a racist structure strongly linked with capitalist rationale of labor utilization.
In Germany we experienced a strange debate inspired by Sarrazins book. Right after the book had bee published the general public wasn’t really too upset – the basic tenor of the discussion was the idea „we should talk about problems“ My sarcastic reply to this was it is very easy to talk about problems as long as one doesn’t feel the need to talk about the reasons fort the given problems. The atmosphere however changed when people noticed how debasingly he spoke of Jews in the books – and the public began realizing how racist Sarrazin really is.
How is his to be explained? I believe this has to do with the antiquated definition of racism - maybe explicable in Germany. Here we had experienced a Nazi era. The racism practiced by the Nazis is no longer existent – in its place we now see a form of culturalism that propagates a so-called hierarchy of cultures. This term is scientifically useless, as Huntington’s „struggle of the cultures“ has shown. The term “culturalism” today has the same function of the older term “biological racism”: both entail exclusion and discrimination.
Angela Davis has as a theoretician continually examined the problems relating to these questions. And she has included a further problem: the function of prisons. Foucault brought new insights to the contemplation of institutions such as prisons showing the penance system as a regime based on system of disciplination, surveillance, of exclusion from society. Angela Davies has examined a further aspect: the subjection of prisons to capitalist utilization – prisons as a place in which commodities are consumed but at the same time are also a source of cheap labor. It is thus that she speaks of the prison industrial complex – the State has formally constituted a commodity demand as well as cheap production.
It seems plausible to me that her motivation here has biographical roots. Angela herself was imprisoned for 16 months before she was cleared on all accounts. She had already been active in the field of prisoner support – maybe even her most important field of political activity. Together with the Black Panther member George Jackson she worked on a book on his experiences in prison.
I mentioned earlier that Angela Davis could have taken a more comfortable road. Surely there were certain characterizations but they don’t predetermine or constrict choices. We all relate to institutions as they have related to us. This, among others constitutes freedom. In this sense freedom becomes the precondition of liberation. I read this sentence - that liberation is the prerequisite of freedom - in a work by Marcuse, one of Angela Davis’s academic teachers.
Dear Angela, out of your own free will you choose to struggle – a choice involving many high risks. This choice demanded virtue and courage. This is why I admire you; this is why we admire you.