"There are never any guarantees, but it is important to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world."
Erin Aubry Kaplan: Great, so this is I guess the moment some of us have been waiting for. We’re going to have a conversation on stage with Angela Davis and Reverend James Lawson. And before we get into that, I just want to remind folks that 20 minutes after the program, you still – the auction will be open for another 20 minutes after the end of the program, so there’s a lot of fabulous stuff there still to bid on. So could we please have you all come up?
You all settled in? Okay. Well let’s just get right into it. We’ve talked a lot this evening about Occupy – the Occupy movements. It started in New York and it’s spread everywhere, and so I just want to ask both what is really going on in the world right now? Just a little question, you know?
James Lawson: What’s going on in the world?
The Struggle of the 99%
Kaplan: Yeah, as it relates to the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement is actually taking the world by storm. So in terms of the Occupy movement, what’s at stake here? What are the challenges, the opportunities, and critically how can we make it clear, or clearer, that the struggle for the 99% is also the struggle for racial and economic justice? Either one of you can start.
Angela Davis: Do you want to start?
Lawson: Go ahead.
Kaplan: We can flip a coin.
Davis: Well, I have had the opportunity of visiting four Occupy sites, yes. One in Philadelphia, two in New York, one in Oakland. And I’m not sure whether it is possible to answer that question so straightforwardly.
Kaplan: You don’t have to be straightforward, you can…
Davis: Well, what I would say is that there’s an enormous amount of energy. There’s an enormous amount of excitement, and (2:30) while the 99%, it is a fiction to respond to, but it’s a fiction that is useful, and it is one that we should take up and re-craft. My message at all of the Occupy sites is something like this: (3:00) It is important that this 99% slogan is an inclusive slogan. It’s quite different from the way we are accustomed to building separate movements and then finding ways to create what we generally call coalitions and alliances. So this 99% slogan is inclusive from the outset, but we have to be aware of the extent (3:30) of which it is shot through by difference and racial difference and economic difference.
I was saying at a critical resistance benefit last night in Oakland that if we assume that the top tiers of the 99% can provide the strategy during this time, then we are mistaken. (4:00) It would make far more sense to start with the bottom tiers, and that would help us address racism. That would mean that the struggle to abolish the prison industrial complex would have to be central in this movement of the 99%. Yes, you can applaud. But just one more thing. (4:30) I marched on Wednesday to the port and it was so exciting to see so many thousands and thousands of people, and it was multi-racial, it was multi-generational, it was multi-gender, multi-sexual, multi-everything.
And I ran into many people of my generation who experienced the movement 40 years ago. (5:00) And without exception, people were so happy. They were saying it’s happening. Finally, it’s happening.
An Emerging Movement
Kaplan: Then do you – I’m sorry – do you think it’s happening? Do you think we are going towards a movement that will become change? I know knowing is a crystal ball, but does this feel really, really different than movements you’ve experienced in the past? (5:30)
Davis: Well you know there are never any guarantees. In the late 60s we struggled passionately, and we thought we were going to make a revolution. We were persuaded that we were going to bring radical transformations to this society. We didn’t win the revolution we thought we were fighting, (6:00) but we did manage to revolutionize society.
So I would say there are never any guarantees, but it is important to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. (6:30)
Kaplan: And so people are acting as if, right now. They are. Okay.
Davis: Well I want to hear from Reverend Lawson.
Lawson: Well, I agree with much of what you say Professor Davis, especially from the perspective that this is something that no one predicted was going to occur, and especially from the perspective that there’s extraordinary energy such as we (7:00) have not seen for quite some time. And also that there seems to be, within the organization – in all of the Occupies – there seems to be an effort to organize in a fashion that will judge the ways in which we are largely organized within our society.
However, I do not see it yet as having what it has to have. There’s time for that to happen. You have to remember that a lot of us – there are whole numbers of us who are following what we think to be civil resistance or non-violent resistance. There is a gathering literature on it, though that’s not yet within the academic world, especially the historians very much. (8:00)
But there are three things that are necessary to create a movement which causes the collapse of an authoritarian government in Poland or Yugoslavia or Egypt, and Egypt – the Cairo Spring in Egypt fulfilled this. There are three forces. First force we see in such efforts is that there is an escalation of unity of purpose. (8:30) I told the Boston Occupy group last week that your audience is not capitalism or the corporations. Your audience are the people of America who can have a different society, a different set of electoral prerogatives but cannot do it through the election system. (9:00) We need direct civil resistance in America as never before. Never before. It must happen.
But again, there is a sense of unity that develops, and if we speak to the full audience, that unity will develop and some of the issues you’ve said quite correctly are necessary. (9:30) Next thing is there has to be a plan. You can’t create a revolutional change, revolutionary change, without a strategy. It has to be both short-term and long-term. Cairo had that. The solidarity movement of Poland had it. The Chilean [Anti-Pinichade] movement had it.
And then the third thing is there has to be the emergence of a non-violent discipline. (10:00) That’s going on in the Occupy groups. They are trying to care for themselves. They are trying to build a community of care and concern. They’re trying to take care of each other. They’re trying to keep the camp of the Occupation group, the Occupy villages, cooperative, clean. Many of them recognize that the issue’s not fighting the police or throwing stones. This is critical because (10:30) the myth in the United States is that violence is the way you get change. Now the violence in our society and of our society, both the military violence, the domestic violence, the continued lynching of people in the prison systems by the police. That system of violence is causing our society to sink in greater and greater chaos and turmoil and confusion and animosity and division. (11:00)
The non-violent discipline is necessary because you cannot beat the enemy with the enemy’s theories and practices. You cannot do it. It pains me that the wisdom of the human race is that you cannot destroy evil, dismantle evil systems (11:30) by imitating them either in language or in theory or in practice. We must recognize and the movement must recognize, if it’s become a movement, a non-violent discipline, we do not have the power to beat the CIA or the National Guard (12:00) or the American Military, and therefore the movement has to be one that will challenge that power with surprise and with our bodies, as Angela has done so very, very well across the years. We have to find ways to create a new power, and the new power is the power of people who get engaged in a sense that we can have a different world (12:30) and a different nation and a different Los Angeles, and are willing to work on developing a plan and a strategy to make that happen, and then thirdly developing the kind of boot camp discipline that enables us to work as a people to make a change.
The other thing I would like to say is that in the United States, the progressive people of the United States have never produced in (13:00) the last 60 years a movement for social justice. And I mean by this primarily the white progressive people have not done it. Whether or not the Occupy campaign can become the campaign for that to happen, I don’t know. We produced the Tea parties, and we produced the conservatives who basically represent the resistance of the 60s (13:30) and 70s, but a movement of resistance has not effective change in the United States. It is the black movement that did that more than anything else in the 60’s in our country.
Davis: May I say something?
Kaplan: Yes, go ahead.
Davis: Reverend Lawson, I think that this is the movement, whether we call it a movement, (14:00) or this is the beginning of the potential for a movement that really should have happened in the immediate aftermath of the election of Obama. Because it seems to me the young people who flock to the Occupy sites are the same young people who refused to believe that it was impossible to elect a black man who identified (14:30) with the black radical tradition to the office of the president in this country. And I think that in our sense of disillusion, disappointment, we have forgotten what an incredible moment that was in 2008 when Obama was elected. (15:00)
And we’ve also forgotten that he was not a viable candidate until young people with all of the new modes of communication and social networks and so forth managed to create the foundation for a movement that said yes we can elect him. And it seems to me that what should have happened after the election was that that movement should (15:30) have crystallized, and we should have immediately gone out into the streets and called for free health care. We should’ve called for education. We should’ve called for not only an end to the war in Iraq, but we should’ve prevented the Obama administration from sending troops into Afghanistan. (16:00) So it seems to me that what we are witnessing today is what should have happened three years ago.
Kaplan: Then let me ask you both, why didn’t that happen? I agree with you. I think the election was an amazing movement, and it seems in retrospect, that’s leading to the revolution.
Davis: Because we projected our hopes and dreams onto this one individual. We thought Obama was going to bring us this radically (16:30) new feature, and many progressive and radical people felt exactly the same way. After he won, they all went home and relaxed.
Lawson: Yeah I think so, that’s right. And that’s the point I make. The Occupy movement represents the notion that an election is an inadequate way to create change. That only (17:00) the people can create change. No matter the stuff about the ballot box – and I was very lukewarm in the 60’s about voter registration, although I was registered to vote myself and I encouraged it, because I did not see it even then as the gateway to dismantle the systems of racism, segregation, of sexism, of economic exploitation and the violence. I did not think it could do it, (17:30) and it hasn’t done it.
Kaplan: Wow, okay. Let’s talk about prison abolition for a moment. We’ve touched on that a lot tonight. What does that really mean, prison abolition, and why is now the time to really care about shrinking the California prison system by building alternative ways to deal with harm and violence by bringing home political prisoners, etc. And I have to say I just heard, not in California but some other state, (18:00) they’re starting to release people who were convicted under the federal crack-cocaine laws. They’re not equal to the powder cocaine laws, but they’ve been reduced. So some time is coming off their sentences. They’re being lit out. I think it’s Virginia they’re starting to do that. But anyway, what about prison abolition? (18:30) How do you see it working or happening in the future, or now?
Davis: Well, it’s interesting, the demand for the abolition for prisons is almost as old as the institution of the prison itself. And certainly, I think it’s important to include the demand for the abolition of the death penalty. That is very much a part (19:00). And historically, prisons were supposed to be more humane than capital punishment or corporal punishment, but it quickly became clear that that was not necessarily the case. The civil death of prisons versus the corporal death of the capital punishment, or one can say the slow death (19:30) that is associated with prisons, people have been aware of these contradictions for decades and for a couple of centuries.
The solution has always been reform: prison reform. Those of us who consider ourselves abolitionists have worked hard to encourage (20:00) people to think critically about this notion of prison reform, and I can remember that I always used to be referred to as a prison reformer. And I had to say no, I am not a prison reformer, because prison reform, even though there are demands that one must make to guarantee that people who happen to be in prison are treated humanely (20:30) and can live lives that aren’t so thoroughly saturated with violence, at the same time prison reform in general is designed to create bigger and better and more persisting prisons.
And so here we are in the 21st century confronted with that major contradiction. We have (21:00) prisons that are now absorbing all of the resources of our societies that really should be going to schools and housing and healthcare and recreation, and also it serves as a place where we deposit those problems we don’t want to think about. And so why not try to solve the problems that send people to prison? From illiteracy (21:30) and poverty and lack of healthcare to the problems of violence, what causes people to do such terrible things to each other?
So it seems to me that we have to get rid of this institution that is this haven for the worst kinds of ideologies, racism and sexism, (22:00) misogyny and transphobia because the prison is also a gendering apparatus. The more we think about the impact of the prison system on the lives of everyone, regardless of whether they happen to have had the experience of going to prison, the more we realize that if we want to get rid of gender violence we’re going to have to get rid of prisons. If we want to (22:30) think about why it is that people who do not fall into one category or another, people who are not clearly male or female are marginalized and are treated as if they were not human beings? The prison system has a lot to do with that because there are only male prisons and female prisons. (23:00)
It’s one of the most violent apparatuses that maintains the binary structure of gender in our society. And I could go on and on. I could talk about the relationship of education to the prison system, and why in order to begin to build an educational system that values knowledge and that teaches children how to enjoy learning, we are going to (23:30) get rid of this prison system which after all in poor communities and communities of color becomes the model for education with the emphasis on discipline rather than on learning. So I could go on obviously for the next couple of hours talking about this, but I think everything points to the absolute necessity of abolishing prisons as (24:00) the dominant mode of punishment.
Lawson: Another part of this is that prisons themselves are a creation of the largely violent, sexist, racist society of which we are part of. Over half of the prisoners of our 2.3 or nearly 3 million people (24:30) there in prisons, and people who are caught up in the mechanisms of parole and probation and all of that, are people who if they had a good legal defense, probably would not even be there in the first place. We have to recognize that this is the effort really of – I will say it this way – (25:00) of a male-dominated system that has enjoyed the decimation of the Indian slavery of 250 years, [25:11] cruel law and practice and economic patterns of injustice, this is their way of continuing their racism in the world and in the United States.
It makes great sense to me too, also, that they should be abolished. (25:30) Many of the reasons people are in prison are for offenses that white peers across the country are not going to jail for.
Davis: You’re right. And I just want to add, the US attorney who was releasing some of these people – mostly black people – who had been sentenced for crack-cocaine (26:00) possession, he was asked why is there a disparity in the first place? He kind of hemmed and hawed. He said you go out because you can see the poor people in mostly black neighborhoods, it’s easier to go through, look at them, arrest them, send them to jail, whereas the big dealers, the big operations are behind closed doors. They’re not out and about. It’s much harder. That’s what he said.
But that also made me think about something that you said, (26:30) Professor Davis, about the issues of prison – how when you lock all these people up, you kind of lock the issue away. You don’t see it. And so, that’s what we do. We put the issues away, and the people in prison can’t speak. They’re locked away. And so it’d make perfect sense.
Kaplan: And also I think it’s important to recognize that prisons have become an alternative to housing and education (27:00) and jobs, exactly. It’s not accidental. It’s not accidental that it was the period of the 1980’s which saw the rise of global capitalism and the dismantling of the welfare state and structural adjustment in countries of the southern region. This is precisely the period during which prisons began to proliferate in this country (27:30) and by the 90’s you begin to see a similar kind of proliferation in countries throughout the world including, unfortunately, in Apartheid, South Africa.
And so you see, it seems to me that if we really want to safeguard the possibility of radical change, of new societies, we cannot allow this institution (28:00) to continue to do its damage. In South Africa now, with all of the problems that have emerged in the aftermath of the dismantling of Apartheid, the economic problems, etc, it has been so easy to borrow the rhetoric of law and order from the US and to use the apparatus of the prison to contain (28:30) problems that South Africa is going to have to deal with if they want to retain any hope for a better society. And in this place, which has placed the issue of a non-racist society, a non-sexist, non-homophobic society – the first country in the entire world to include that in its constitution (29:00) – it will also have to address the looming problem of the prison.
Art, a Catalyst for Social Change
Kaplan: Wow. Okay, well let’s talk about art. That’s kind of what we’re here today for, but let’s talk about political images. (29:30) What do you think we need to see today, and how are artists making art as a hammer to shape society as we put it? And how can we support political art, besides – we can’t just buy it. How do we really support it, and what does art need to communicate to inspire in society now? And I want to include Doug in this question about art. So I’ll open it up. (30:00) Not everybody at once.
Davis: So you’re raising this question? I don’t know whether we can say what we need to see. I would never tell an artist what he or she needs to create because it seems to me that art drives (30:30) movements for radical social change. Art helps us to find our way into new dimensions. Art helps to give expression to what might e considered impossible in the world that is. It shows us the possibility of a new world, and one of the things I’ve been doing at the (31:00) Occupy sites is to recall the slogans from the uprising in Paris in 1968.
There was some really, really wonderful slogans. One of them was “[French 31:15]”, all power to the imagination. And another one was “[French 31:28]”. (31:30) Be realistic, demand the impossible. And I think art helps us to negotiate our way through dimensions that we cannot yet articulate in the kind of expository language that we use. (32:00)
It’s always been my feeling that art, whether it’s visual art or whether it’s music – during the civil rights movement, it was music that really drove the movement, that really helped to create community. Whether it’s hip-hop, whether it’s film, (32:30) I think that many of the young people are out there trying to figure out where to go. And you’re right, it’s not a movement. There are no clear demands. But I don’t think there should be any demands right now.
Lawson: Give it time.
Davis: Yes. I think that’s what’s so important about this Occupy movement is people are learning how to be together – learning how to dwell in one place. (33:00) Some amazing things have happened, like amplification was taken away from them. And so just very quickly that developed the human mic, which is actually a pedagogical tool as well. It’s not only about voices being heard, it’s about people sharing each others’ voices and repeating each others’ voices. And at the (33:30) Wall Street site they took away the generators because the people who were participating in these Occupy movements, they have their iPads and their iPhones and their Android, and so the electricity was taken away. The generators were taken away because the police and the fire department said it was a fire hazard, and the very next day they had generators (34:00) that were run by bicycles – stationary bicycles.
I mean, it’s amazing some of the things that have happened. Somebody developed a new app for Android phones that’s call the I Got Arrested App. So you preprogram it with your lawyer’s name and all of the people you want to know, so that when you’re getting arrested all you do is push the center of the target (34:30) and all of these texts go out to everybody telling them that you got arrested. And one other thing, because in New York when I was at the site last week, I saw all of these garbage bags full of laundry. So I was asking the person who was walking with me, I said what’s all of that? He said that’s our laundry. (35:00) A commercial laundry has volunteered to come and pick it up and do the laundry. So I said so how are you going to find your clothes? There were maybe 100 garbage bags full of clothes. And so he said well, we just wear what fits us.
And you know, talking about a challenge to the (35:30) possessive individualism of capitalism, I think that people are learning how to be with each other in a very different way which will also help us to rethink what democracy is supposed to be about and to move away from simply electoral democracy to a democracy that is truly (36:00) multi-racial and multi-generation and multi- what did I say before? Gender and sexual and all of that. It’s really about an experiment in being together, and one of the things I said when I was at one of the sites was be attentive (36:30) to differences and I used a quote from [Audrey Lord], which is one of my favorite quotes and I’ve said it over and over again, in which she says that first of all, it’s not our differences that divide us. It’s our inability to respect and celebrate those differences. She pointed out that (37:00) differences should not be merely tolerated, but they should be a fund of polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. And so that was the message I tried to offer the Wall Street Occupiers. And I think that’s about the imagination and it’s about art. (37:30)
Kaplan: Right. What did you say, we’ll just wear what fits us? That’s a good slogan, I like that. That pretty much says it all. Reverend Lawson, have anything to add?
Kaplan: No? Okay. Doug? Please, yeah. You can have my mic.
Doug Minkler: Well I would just like to reiterate what I said about clarity. We take complex issues, we try and make them clear. It used to be when I was a very young man I saw things black and white. Now I see they’re quite complicated. So that’s one role of the artist. The second role that I’ve seen the artist play that has moved me is when we show visions of hope. (38:30) And that hope doesn’t have to be social realism. It can be humor. It can be an interesting way you draw. It can be audacity. Anything that demonstrates peoples’ willingness to struggle, these are the images that I think drive us forward, in opposition to those (39:00) terrible images that are branded in our mind of who knows what, the terrible images. I don’t know that they activate people. They’re happening and I’m not saying we should run from them, but I don’t know that they push us forward, so I’m just saying the ones that have moved me like the issue of Vietnam which was my war, was images of the people struggling. They weren’t going to take the occupation.
(39:30) Now it was a military struggle, which ended up lots of people dying, but it was the images of struggle that drove me to move beyond just an individualistic position of I don’t want to go to I think I want to support these people for what they’re fighting for. So that’s my two bits. (40:00) But I think we must not forget that if we’re going to have social movements, there must be a passion in us human beings to dismantle the wrong, to attack and struggle against the suffering of other people in our society and our world, and there must be a sense that the present injustices (40:30) can be corrected.
One of the issues in the United States is that so many of us American buy into the myths that we live by, especially the myth of our exceptionality as a people and violence, and the myth of male dominations and necessity of male hierarchical ways of structures and the rest of it, and so in fact we do not really (41:00) know ourselves as a whole people, and we do not know the depths of the pain in our land or the depth of the wrongs that are continuing to be perpetrated. And therefore we don’t respond to an Occupy movement very well because many of us (41:30) think those young people must be quite foolish. The movement that is called the civil rights movement, at least in the deep south, we may not – I say this all the time as I teach and lecture on it. We may not have known that much of what we were doing, but we knew that the Jim Crow racist system was an incredible injustice that the American people accepted as normalcy. (42:00) We knew that, and very often we stepped out to do something about it because we had that passion to see the wrong and to make a change.
If our nation is going to be healed as a people, there’s probably no difference between what happens in a person’s life. If a person needs healing, they must have some friends and neighbors (42:30) and medical help that will help them face the strangeness and the pain and the difficulty of what ails them, and then they must have the courage to march through that and seek hope, seek change, seek the healing. And I think that we in America could be healed of our diseases, but it cannot be done unless there are a lot of brave people who will at least look at the problem, whether it’s the (43:00) prison system, the racist system, the abominable continuation of what I say plantation capitalism in the United States.
Part of slavery and part of taking the land from the Indian to impoverish the Indian is the notion that people don’t matter, that they are property, they are less important. 50% or more of the jobs that the political parties and the capitalists (43:30) talk about having provided are jobs that do not allow people from their wages to support themselves and their families. Over 50%. That is right out of the heart of American history. And somehow it seems to me that art, as important – music – wonderful and significant as these are, that for a movement to take place there has to be that passionate (44:00) sense that we can have a different kind of world and here are the things that are obstacles to having that better world. There are certain systems written into us that we must change.
Kaplan: Okay, I think now we’re going to take some recent questions from the audience. (44:30)
Sonali Kolhatka: Well, we have to be out of here by 7:30 and there were a lot of good questions submitted. I think [Arie] and I sort of looked at a couple of questions that could be combined into one that seemed to be a very important question that hasn’t yet been addressed, and that’s around the Occupy movement. I’ll read them both and then add my two cents. (45:00)
One question says the right is trying to use violence against property and/or the police to delegitimize the Occupy movement. Embracing non-violence will blunt this, but embracing non-violence and rejecting violence are part of a process that will take some time. What do you suggest we do to help these young activists understand how important it is that they proclaim themselves as a non-violent movement?
And then the other question that’s related says how would you compare the Occupy movement to the organizing of movements of the civil rights era? (45:30) And I want to throw in, if you don’t mind, what lessons can the two of you, from your years of experience as activism, share with Occupy protestors about protecting this movement from in-fighting and infiltration and the kind of things that movements are by their nature open and inclusive are susceptible to? It’s kind of a big set (46:00) of questions.
The Meaning of Resistance
Davis: Wow, okay, let’s see. I’ll just start by saying I think there are some historical precedents for these kinds of movements. One would be the Attica uprising, and I don’t think that we have seriously looked at the ways of which Attica prisoners attempted to create a multi-racial (46:30) community, making demands for educational rights and religious rights, economic rights, expressing solidarity with revolutions and other parts of the world. Of course that only lasted four days because it was put down so violently by Governor Rockefeller, but I think it would be important to go back and look very closely (47:00) at how the prisoners who took over Attica prison tried to craft a community of resistance.
Then there’s another precedent, and that would be – it’s a feminist precedent – and that would be the women’s’ peace movement and the Greenham Commons struggle that took place in the beginning and I think December of 1981, (47:30) ten years after Attica which was ’71. And within a year there were 30,000 women in the Greenham Commons encampment. It was also an encampment where people stayed and it circled this military base in the UK. And in three years, I think, (48:00) there were 50,000 women who surrounded the military camp calling for an end to the production of cruise missiles and an end to nuclear weapons.
So I think it might be important to take a look at some of those moments. And then of course there’s the connection with Egypt – Cairo and Tahrir Square. I was the other day reading (48:30) a message that came from participants in that movement, and there was something very moving included in that message, and that was they asked what are our demands? But there’s no one left to reform. There’s no one left to ask for reforms. And so therefore, we have to create that (49:00) which we would like to see in the future. We have to create what we want as opposed to asking somebody else to give it to us. And I would say that as with any movement, there are never any guarantees. You never know. There are never guarantees. (49:30) But as I said before, we have to act as if it were possible.
And this is what happened during the era of what is called the civil rights movement. Of course it was a freedom movement in those days. It was much, much more than civil rights. But what I think was the most important accomplishment of that movement, and it wasn’t necessarily the change in the laws, although that was very important, it was (50:00) the transformation of the consciousness of so many people who learned how to imagine a very different future. And I always like to point out that we never give the women – the black women domestic workers who refuse to get on the bus, we never give them the credit for creating (50:30) this collective community of resistance, because if they had not refused to get on the bus, if they had not boycotted the bus, where would we be today? We certainly would never have known a doctor Martin Luther King, and so many of the other advances that came about as a result of that movement.
(51:00) So let us also take seriously what it means to transform consciousness, and I think that that is something that may be happening now given that so many people seem to be identifying with the 99%, and apparently a survey indicated that the majority of New Yorkers believed that they should stay. (51:30) And I can tell you from the experience we had walking to the port on Wednesday, I mean it was absolutely amazing. Cars were blowing their horns and nobody was upset that the march was blocking traffic. There were kids on bicycles who were stopping the traffic so that the march could go through. There weren’t any police anywhere. Well, we knew they were around. (52:00) But we didn’t see them. We didn’t see them.
And everywhere people were beeping their horns, it was just this amazing, joyful experience and so many people seemed to experience that joy of being together, of being a part of a new community, a community that has the potential of dismantling the economic structures and the racist (52:30) hierarchies and the gender hierarchies in the future.
Lawson: Well I think we must not – Professor Davis romanticized the present moment.
Davis: Why not? I mean, I know I’m romanticizing it.
Lawson: I’ll tell you why not. (53:00) Well, let me say it two ways. One, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is an excellent illustration for the Occupy people to study because two, three years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott happened in December of ’55, black women organized the Women’s Political Committee.
Davis: Joanne Robinson.
The Revolution Must Not be Romanticized
Lawson: Exactly, Joanne Robinson. And they were very much upset with the (53:30) indignities heaped upon black women on those buses, and they began the agitation process. It is that agitation process that in my own judgment then led to the moment of Rosa Parks, and being already in place a group of people then said this is a chance, let’s have the bus boycott. They pushed it without going to the community for any kind of action approval, but it came out of their own organized [deforate].
The organized (54:00) agitation protest process that builds a structure that can explode in a movement is a critical part of getting a movement. The best example I know in the United States about romanticizing is the Peace Movement in the United States, of which I’ve been a part in so many different ways. My first jail experience was sending my draft cards back to the draft boarding in ’49 (54:30) and going to jail as a consequence. Now in the last 40 or 50 years, no matter all the people talking peace, all the organizations and articles about peace, our society has systematically moved through its structures – business, military, Pentagon – through its structures to create a national (55:00) security state, a militarized state, in which the first move is to build bases down the east coast of Africa now, the Africa COM Command.
Now we had millions of people in the street against the Vietnam War, and I maintain that because we did not target that specifically in terms of issues in the United States that allowed the military process to take place, we have systematically been unable to stop (55:30) the movement towards more than 800 military installations in 131 countries and so forth and so on. How do we reverse that? The movement has to somehow develop strategies for a different kind of agenda for ourselves, and you’ve named many of these, and the action has to develop ways (56:00) of a protracted campaign that may take a whole generation, but a campaign then that can reverse the process.
Davis: I totally agree with you. I’m not saying this Occupy movement is going to change the world. I’ve been trying to talk about a potential, and I think it’s really important to distinguish between movements and organizations and parties. (56:30) This is not really a movement. It’s an occupation that also has to be aware of the extent to which the term occupation has been used in genocidal context. The occupation – the colonial occupation of this country that led to that (57:00) horrendous violence inflicted on indigenous people, the military occupation, the occupation of Palestine for example. So I think that it’s up to those who are involved and those of us who may be supporters of what appears to be a possibility to try to work through some of these issues, and (57:30) hopefully a movement will emerge. Hopefully we’ll get to the point where we can talk about strategy and perhaps even focus demands.
Lawson: But why aren’t we at that point now? Because after all, in the 20th century, there have been phenomenal peoples’ movements that have caused their societies to get to a new level of consciousness and to make critical kinds of changes. (58:00) Why in America, where we have more activism than we ever had in the 1940s and 50s, are there not all kinds of people who recognize the need for heading inter-generational unity, inter-generational issues, developing warfare out of non-violent kind, and (58:30) developing short-term and long-term goals?
Davis: Well, it’s because I don’t think any of the victories we ever win are etched in stone. We cannot take for granted that because we achieved a particular victory at a particular time, that it is going to forever transform the landscape of the country and of the world. There aren’t a lot of people of your generation (59:00) who talk about gender hierarchies in the way that you do. I’m really so happy to hear you speak in those terms.
Lawson: It’s part of my long-term passion.
Davis: You see the conversation is just starting and now we have to end, it’s 7:30.
Lawson: How is it that the American people want housing, education, jobs, transportation, they want (59:30) better communities, but we have this atrocious system that is cheating us over and over and over again and pretending that we have the best possible society? What’s happened that we, the American people, don’t see through this with so many great movements in the United States itself so that we have learned (60:00) that it’s going to take hard work to make the changes, and we need to be about that hard work?
Davis: Well see, I think that people who historically may not have identified into radical movements, may not have identified with the labor movement, may not have identified with the black movement, are not recognizing as a result – as a direct result of this financial collapse, that maybe they should have been identifying with what we used (60:30) to call the other America all along. And so I think that is why this moment offers a new promise; a promise that we have really have not witnessed before. Perhaps during the 30’s, and I think we need to go back and look at the movements of the 30’s, because it was during that period when you had vast numbers of people identifying (61:00) with the unemployed strikes and participating in the efforts to prevent evictions and the sit-down strikes and all of that stuff. I know you’re looking at us. But I think that we can continue this conversation, and hopefully you will continue this conversation (61:30) as you go about your ways.
Kaplan: It’s like you said, really the conversation just got started, but I know you’ve got a plane to catch and I just want to thank all of the rewardees for their participation in this conversation. Angela Davis, Reverend James Lawson, Doug Minkler, thank you all so much. (62:00) And Dorothy Lawson.
To order the print edition of "Autumn Awakening" use the back issues page.
To read more of our stories please sign up for our RP&E quarterly newsletter and occasional updates.