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Angela Y. Davis is one of the best-known names from 1970s American radicalism. Born in 1944 in the heartland of segregated America, Birmingham, she began a lifetime of political engagement before even entering high school. Quickly rising to prominence in the Communist Party as well as the burgeoning racial and feminist politics of the time, she became known as an associate of the Black Panthers and countless others.

This notoriety exploded in 1970 after Johnathan Jackson, a black teenager, took a Marin County courtroom hostage, ending in his own death and that of several prisoners, cops and a judge. Davis, was sought for her involvement, having written the prisoners he was attempting to free and allegedly purchased the guns he used. First as a fugitive then one of the country’s best-known political prisoners, and even managed to become the third woman in history to make the FBI’s 10 most wanted list. After 18 months in jail, she was acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury, but not before becoming something of an international sensation. With hundreds of support groups in 67 countries, as well as songs from both the Rolling Stones and John Lennon/Yoko Ono.

In the decades since, she’s been a teacher, two-time vice-presidential candidate (Communist) and the author of many books, including Angela Davis: an Autobiography, Abolition Democracy and The Meaning of Freedom.

Davis’ writing focuses on themes of race, class, gender and political freedom. Since her time in prison, though, her work has taken on incarceration as a main focus. As a co-founder of Critical Resistance and author of books such as Are Prisons Obsolete?, she describes herself as a prison “abolitionist” and draws parallels between the modern prison-industrial complex and old institutions of slavery. As she points out, this view might sound radical today, but during the 60s and 70s it was widely accepted, even among industry experts (then Reagan happened…). While it’s notoriously brutal, racist and ineffective, Davis argues our prison system is inextricably rooted in our “democratic” system, which tends to be defined by the loss of it’s freedoms, first through the “civil death” of slavery and now incarceration.

In a little over a week, Angela Davis will be visiting the Hammer! On Wednesday March 27th (doors @ 6pm) she’ll be lecturing at LIUNA Station, giving a speech entitled “150 Years Later, Abolition in the 21st Century”. The event is both free and wheelchair accessible.

I just read an excellent critique from BayView, regarding the Occupy movement. In it, Nancy Heitzeg makes some excellent points about the predominantly white and male nature of the Occupy movement’s imagery and critique. As a white male and someone who’s been involved with the Occupy movement, I feel compelled to respond, or at least share my thoughts. This type of analysis is vital to our movement, and it absolutely can’t be shrugged off.

I wish I could say that I hadn’t noticed similar trends. In Hamilton, at least, we’ve tried to be pro-active, by making sure that we passed an acknowledgement of the unpleasant colonial connotations of the word “occupy” through our General Assemly, and have since formed a committee to look into issues of “Accessibility and Inclusivity”. Enough? Hardly. But at least a humble start. The truth is, like all social movements, Occupy is caught between principles and the “normal” and “moderate” ideals of our broader society. These ideals, of course, are far from neutral, and definitely more in line with the interests of the “1%” than the rest of us. But then again, it doesn’t take a statistician to tell you white middle-class males make up a very small percentage of the actual population…

Heitzeg focuses on the issues of prisons and policing, and this is certainly one area I’ve witnessed this kind of thing. Though I might not apply exclusively “white” or “male” labels to all of the comments I’ve heard, they certainly apply to many. Beyond these, I’d also have to argue that many of the pro-police statements I’ve heard aren’t much in terms of class analysis either, or really any kind of analysis. Saying things like “they’re just doing their job” and “cops are part of the 99% too” says a lot about their victims too. Does an arrest or conviction exempt you from the 99%? When people argue that they’re “good guys” and “necessary”, what does this say about all the communities who certainly don’t feel the police are on their side?

We may not be as America, but our own prison statistics are pretty startling, especially when it comes to First Nations. One could argue, I suppose, that oppressing native people isn’t the “real purpose” of our policing system. Given the history of the RCMP, though, that would be a hard argument to make. The RCMP was of course geared at controlling the frontier, especially natives (in the wake of the Riel Rebellion), and the early tasks included things like making sure all native children went to residential schools. Likewise, with policing in the southern US which evolved from slave patrols, and elsewhere (Northern US or Europe) from debtor’s prisons. Racism, classism and colonialism were built into these systems from the outset, and have never been far from the surface – not in the 1930s, 60s or 90s.

Of course the police are not “on our side” and stating otherwise is very alienating to all kinds of people, especially the kinds the Occupy movement claims to fight for. Not acknowledging this is even more alienating. Perhaps most alienating is a complete failure to notice how it all ties into our message. There’s nothing the bailouts and austerity can do, or the associated police crackdowns, which haven’t been a daily fact of live for a very large number of people as long as they can remember. This violence happens every day (as the article notes, an average of one dead American daily), and the effects are crippling, socially and economically in more ways than can be listed here.

The police are only one example of institutions who’s inclusion can become very exclusive to others. Where any gross power imbalance exists, there is a potential for abuse, oppression and exploitation. I certainly wouldn’t want Welfare, Children’s Aid or Immigration officials around, nor would I want to see uniformed jail guards, security personnel or members of certain infamous residential care facilities. This isn’t to say that members of these professions can’t take part as individuals, but wearing a uniform and receiving a paycheque means that their presence is far more than personal. Anybody else present who is at the mercy of those institutions suddenly has to worry about what they’ll report back or keep on record about “troublemakers”. Whatever moralistic judgements others want to apply about immigrants, ex-prisoners or single mothers, the risk to individuals involved can’t be denied. Beyond that, it kneecaps our analysis by forcing us to pull punches on issues of serious systemic oppression for fear of offending the staff at the institutions involved. What’s worst, it does all of this in the name of catering to those with the most power in these situations, at the expense of those with the least. Refusing to criticize aspects of the because we want to “play nice” or not seem too radical is hypocrisy, plain and simple.

People are not equal in our society. That’s abundantly clear economically, sexually, racially, geographically, in terms of age, ability, or dozens of other factors. Assuming equality or imposing artificial “unity” in situations like these only entrenches inequality. This happens by turning all issues into “personality conflicts” between “individuals”. It happens when members of a dominant group cry foul over measures designed to balance the scales (ie: affirmative action). And most importantly, it happens when positions of power become normalized and accepted in ways that make very obvious oppression invisible.

Any critique of the status quo which doesn’t take these issues into account is only half an analysis. Trying to focus on the issue of “normal Canadians” is absurd. There is no “normal” Canadian or American, just a whole lot of individuals. Every issue we face affects different individuals in different ways, and there is no universal experience of oppression. The common ground comes from the fact that we’re all dealing with the same power structure, and far stronger together than apart. We can neither understand nor struggle against this power structure until we understand how it affects everybody, not just people similar to ourselves. Solidarity isn’t about an army of clones marching in lock-step – it’s about fighting a common struggle from a point of incredible diversity. Bringing this up isn’t divisive – refusing to bring it up is.

This is, of course, not a blanket condemnation of the Occupy Movement. Far more, it’s a critique of the ideals of our society which continually do their best to re-assert themselves within it. I’ll continue to be involved, and do what I can to see that these issues are brought up. None of this is a reason to stall in our tracks, but rather to move even farther forward, toward a movement and critique which better reflects the grim realities of the world we live in. This is not hard – we just have to be willing to listen, and the pay-off will be a far stronger, larger and more diverse movement – but only if we’re all willing to let go of our old ideas about what a movement is supposed to look like. True popular movements allow all people to share in the creative side of actions, not just following orders and doing the work.

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