New Urban Politics and the Right To The City Emerging Leaders Program Blog

Angela Davis: Making ‘Radical’ Imaginable

“Now is the time” said Angela Davis, as she summoned her audience to not settle for anything less than radical transformation. Taking part in NYU’s Skirball Talks on the eve of election day,  her call to action was auspiciously timed. Although the title of her talk was ‘Politics and Aesthetics in the Era of Black Lives Matter,’ she discussed more broadly the connectivity of struggle and the need for imagining a new society.   

In spite of being a self described “radical black woman revolutionary,” and one of the most amazingly brilliant activist educators of our time, Dr. Davis has a way of making you feel as if you’re sitting in her living room, sipping tea, while casually discussing global transformation. Upon beginning her talk, she even asked the technicians to bring the lights up so she could see everyone’s faces. This feeling of intimacy with her and her message is one of the more unique – and fundamentally critical – aspects of her philosophy. Radical transformation is not something we should put on a pedestal or deem out of reach. Rather, it can be highly attainable if we establish community with each other and do the necessary work, collectively.  

As a first step in doing this work, Angela Davis offered art as a metaphor for how we may begin to envision a new future – a future that does not capitalize on the violence of humans, animals, and the environment. “Great art has the possibility to evade our lives; it makes us feel something before we know how to express it.” While highlighting the challenges of imagining a new society, she emphasized the importance of not blindly accepting the options presented to us. “Art reminds us we are not obligated to recognize what is given simply because it is given. Rather, it helps us cultivate the imagination – to make something new of the old.”

She also acknowledged the reality of doing this work within “spaces of contradiction” while continually emphasizing the importance of collective movement. In this context, she unabashedly highlighted examples relevant to the NYU community, which were greeted with much applause. Among these examples were student groups’ recent work to end what they’ve determined to be NYU’s complicity in Israel’s apartheid state and the prison industrial complex. The student work being referenced was the recently proposed resolution to BDS, pledge of non cooperation with NYU Tel-Aviv, and call to discontinue contracts with Aramark or other food service companies who have financial ties with federal or private prisons.

From comments made by Provost Fleming in the introduction through student commentary in Q & A, the navigation of contradiction was a prevalent theme throughout the evening. How do we reconcile the need for imagining a new society while working within the constraints of our current system? Angela Davis’s answer to this complex question… ‘Abolitionist Feminism.’

In recent years, the word ‘abolition’ has been used by movements organizing against the prison system, much inspired by Angela Davis’ thinking and activism. For Davis and other Black radicals, ‘abolitionism’ has a richer meaning, one inherently tied to systemic injustice and the  vision of a “democracy still to come.” For many, ‘abolitionism’ has been a long-term historical struggle for black Americans’ freedom from racial violence in the form of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and the death penalty. In Angela Davis’ recent book Freedom is a Constant Struggle, she explains this in saying:

“It is about prison abolition; it also inherits the notion of abolition from W.E.B. Du Bois who wrote about the abolition of slavery. He pointed out the end of slavery per se was not going to solve the myriad problems created by the institution of slavery. You could remove the chains, but if you did not develop the institutions that would allow for the incorporation of previously enslaved people into a democratic society, then slavery would not be abolished.”

Freedom from violence is freedom from the current system: politically, socially, and economically. It is this process that calls on us to look within ourselves and the spaces we take up, to be conscious of the relationships we cultivate, the jobs we have, the leaders we elect, and the future we imagine. What does it mean to envision a society free from violence? What could this look like in the intimacies of our personal lives and the intricacies of our larger social democratic fabric?

One way we could begin to think about this, which has been called upon by other decolonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Walter Mignolo, is to abolish the center of power. Power in our current system – colonial, white, capitalist – criminalizes all else that falls outside that system. It is this imbalance that inherently connects those not in power. Freedom from racial violence will not be won without freedom from occupation, militarization, white supremacy, and colonization. Davis warns of the dangers in striving toward a new vision while deeply embedded in the structural and ideological forces meant to be challenged and hence, the importance for systemic change. If our goals are too short sighted e.g. “get more diverse representation in politics,” we’re still working within the confines of an oppressive system and thus perpetuating the very violence we set out to contradict. Davis’ bottom line: abolition is the only generative way toward radical transformation.

Reflecting on all of this in the context of New York City right now, I couldn’t help be reminded of the work we have cut out for ourselves. With Mayor de Blasio’s plans to open four new borough-based jails and the recent announcement of Amazon’s new headquarters, NYC’s political leaders have continuously chosen capital over community. Rather than invest in education, affordable housing, healthcare or public spaces, NYC is fueling the cycle of violence via gentrification, incarceration, and an increased gap in wealth / power. Fortunately, there is some incredible organizing efforts being lead by such coalitions as #NoNewJailsNYC and Critical Resistance NYC, both of which call for immediate actions to help bring about systemic solutions in eradicating this cyclical violence.

Angela Davis’ closing thoughts will come as no surprise for anyone familiar with her work—- and yet still overwhelmingly relevant and well received. “Learn the rules in order to break the rules.” Our democracy, and our future, depend on it. Now is the time.