It is 1972, and Angela Davis is answering a question about whether she approves of the use of violence by the Black Panthers. She is sitting against a backdrop of powder-blue breeze blocks, the walls of a California state prison cell. Dressed in a red turtleneck, with her signature afro and a lit cigarette, she stares at the Swedish interviewer – almost straight through him – as she delivers her reply: “You ask me whether I approve of violence? That just doesn’t make any sense at all. Whether I approve of guns? I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Some very, very good friends of mine were killed by bombs – bombs that were planted by racists. I remember, from the time I was very small, the sound of bombs exploding across the street and the house shaking … That’s why, when someone asks me about violence, I find it incredible because it means the person asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through and experienced in this country from the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”
Watching the short clip explains Davis the icon in an instant: the image, the intent, the intellect. She was immortalised in the 2011 documentary The Black Power Mixtape, and clips of the interview have been shared on social media as the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has triggered global protests against police violence. Her 1981 book, Women, Race and Class, is being shared widely as essential reading for anyone wanting to learn about being actively anti-racist, alongside James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.
Now 76, she speaks over Zoom from her office in California. Does she feel now that, after so many years, meaningful change is possible? “Well, of course, it could be different,” says Davis. “But that’s not guaranteed.” It’s an understandably cautious tone from Davis, who has seen everything from the Watts riots and Vietnam to Ferguson and Iraq. “After many moments of dramatic awareness and possibilities of change, the kinds of reforms instituted in the aftermath have prevented the radical potential from being realised.”
She is, on the whole, buoyed up by the vast protests triggered by Floyd’s death. Although there have been large-scale protests as recently as 2014 – after the death of Michael Brown, and others including Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and Eric Garner – Davis thinks that this time, something has changed. This time, white people are beginning to understand.
“We’ve never witnessed sustained demonstrations of this size that are so diverse,” says Davis. “So I think that is what is giving people a great deal of hope. Many people previously, in response to the slogan Black Lives Matter, asked: ‘But shouldn’t we really be saying all lives matter?’ They’re now finally getting it. That as long as black people continue to be treated in this way, as long as the violence of racism remains what it is, then no one is safe.”
If anyone is qualified to make an assessment on the current situation, it is Davis. She has spent five decades as an intellectual campaigning for racial justice, yet the causes she has pursued – prison reform, defunding the police, restructuring the bail system – had, until recently, been considered too radical for mainstream political thinking. There was a feeling that she was frozen in time; that she belonged to a 60s brand of so-called radical chic and that her ideas were outmoded. In a profile written in 2016, a Wall Street Journal interviewer asked colleagues if they knew who Davis was. No one under 35 did.
Davis may have become a pinup for social justice 50 years after she rose to prominence, but she insists she gets just as much out of the new generation of protesters and political thinkers. “I see these young people who are so intelligent, who have learned from the past and who have developed new ideas,” she says. “I find myself learning a great deal from people who are 50 years younger than me. And to me, that’s exciting. That keeps me wanting to remain in the struggle.”
“I think it’s really important to point out that, while the immensity of this response is new, the struggles are not new,” she says. Davis doesn’t want the impact of community organising, educational workshops and food banks – the grassroots work pioneered by the Black Panthers in the 60s – to be ignored now. “The struggles have been unfolding for a long time,” she adds. “What we are seeing now bears witness to the work that people have been doing that has not necessarily received media attention.”
Davis cites the militarisation of the US police after Vietnam, and the potential for prison reform after the Attica prison uprising in 1971, which did not materialise, at least not in the way she imagined. Prison populations in the US exploded from around 200,000 at the time of Attica to over a million prisoners by the mid-90s. “Looking back at that period, we realised that the reforms actually helped to consolidate the institution itself and to make it more permanent,” she says. “And that is the fear right now.”
So what advice would she give the Black Lives Matter movement? “The most important thing from where I stand is to begin to give expression to ideas about what we can do next,” she says.
This is, of course, a big question, and a harder one to answer in the heat of growing protests around the world. One thing Davis is clear on is that moments such as the burning of a police precinct in Minneapolis or the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol aren’t the ultimate answer. “Regardless of what people think about it, it’s really not going to bring about change,” she says of the statue’s removal. “It’s organising. It’s the work. And if people continue to do that work, and continue to organise against racism and provide new ways of thinking about how to transform our respective societies, that is what will make the difference.”
Angela Yvonne Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944. At the time, Alabama was controlled by the notorious white supremacist politician Bull Connor. Davis was friends with some of those who died in the 16th Street Baptist church bombing in 1963 – a Ku Klux Klan act of terrorism that lead to the death of four girls, and for which no prosecutions were brought until 1977. “We knew that the role of the police was to protect white supremacy,” says Davis.
She moved to New York at 15 to attend high school there, went to West Germany to study philosophy and Marxism under Herbert Marcuse at the Frankfurt school, and, back in the US by the end of the 60s, was active in the Black Panthers and a member of the Communist party. Her links to communism meant that the then California governor, Ronald Reagan, had her sacked from her position as acting assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA.
Then, in 1970, things shifted gears. A shotgun Davis legally bought was used in an attempted courthouse escape. A judge who was taken hostage was killed, as was Jonathan Jackson – the student who attempted the breakout – and the two defendants. Davis was charged with “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder” because she had purchased the gun. She went underground and was arrested in New York. Aretha Franklin helped publicise her case by offering to pay her bail, the Rolling Stones and John Lennon wrote songs about her, she became a cause celebre around the world and was cleared of the charges after spending 18 months in prison. It turned Davis from a radical academic and community leader into an international figurehead for political activism of all stripes. “I’m really thankful that I’m still alive,” says Davis. “Because I feel like I’m witnessing this for all of those who didn’t make it this far.”
Davis knows how close she came to not surviving. When the 1972 interview took place, she was still being held on a charge of murder and could – in theory – have been executed. Many of Davis’s fellow Panthers did meet violent deaths at the hands of the state: Fred Hampton was killed in a police raid in Chicago, while Bobby Hutton was shot while surrendering in Oakland (Marlon Brando delivered his eulogy). Many more are still in prison (Mumia Abu-Jamal) or exile (Assata Shakur). “I know that I could have been one of those … several didn’t make it,” says Davis. “I could be in prison, I could have been sentenced to spend the rest of my life behind bars. And it was only because of the organising that unfolded all over the world that my life was saved. So, in a sense, my continued work is based on the awareness that I would not be here had enough people not done the same kind of work for me. And I’ll continue to do this until the day I die.”
One of the key tenets of Davis’s post-prison life has been ensuring women’s contribution to the civil-rights struggle is not ignored. That’s something she sees echoed today, as people fight for female victims of police violence – people such as Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, after they used a battering ram to enter her apartment – to be given the same coverage as their male counterparts. “This masculinisation of history goes back many decades and centuries,” says Davis. “Discussions about lynching, for example, often fail to acknowledge not only that many of the lynching victims were black women, but also that those who struggled against lynching were black women, such as Ida B Wells.”
“I think it’s important to understand why this tendency towards masculine representations of struggle happen, and why we fail to recognise that women have forever been at the centre of these struggles, whether as victims or organisers.”
It’s not just Davis’s ideas on police reform and social justice that are taking hold; her ideas on how that change comes about are proving equally influential. For decades, she has promoted feminist thinking that pushes back against hypermasculine political leadership and forms of resistance. She thinks the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, which have not put an emphasis on or – in some cases – even formed recognisable leadership groups, are breaking new ground.
“There are those here in this country who are asking: ‘Where is the contemporary Martin Luther King?’, ‘Where is the new Malcolm X?’, ‘Where is the next Marcus Garvey?’” says Davis. “And, of course, when they think about leaders, they think about black male charismatic leaders. But the more recent radical organising among young people, which has been a feminist kind of organising, has emphasised collective leadership.”
But isn’t there a tension between Davis’s ideals of collectivity and her own status? “I can’t take myself too seriously,” she says. “I say that over and over again. Because none of this would have happened if it were only up to me as an individual. It was the movement and the impact of the movement.”
Davis has tried to pull that movement into the mainstream before. She ran for office herself in 1980, as the vice-presidential candidate for the US Communist party. In a lecture in 2006, she despaired at the George W Bush administration, and now she can’t even bring herself to say Trump’s name, instead opting for “the current resident of the White House”. Does she think US democracy at present has room for radical ideas about social change? “I don’t think it can happen,” says Davis. “Not with the leadership of the current political formations – not the Democrats, and certainly not the Republican party.”
But what about the Democrats taking a knee and wearing kente cloth in solidarity? Nancy Pelosi and other prominent Democrats wore the Ghanaian fabric, which was given to them by the Congressional Black Caucus, to show “solidarity” with African Americans, a crucial voter base that their presidential candidate, Joe Biden, is struggling to connect with. “That was because they want to be on the right side of history,” Davis says, dismissively. “Not necessarily because they’re going to do the right thing.”
Davis sometimes tells a story at her lectures about how, as a young child in Birmingham, she asked her mother why she couldn’t go to the segregated amusement park or libraries. Her mother, who was an activist before her, explained how segregation worked, but didn’t leave it there. “She continually told us that things would change,” says Davis. “And that they would change, and that we could be a part of that change. So I learned as a child to live under racial segregation, but at the same time simultaneously, to live in an imagined new world and to recognise that things would not always be as they were.”
“My mother always said to us: ‘This is not the way things are supposed to be, this is not the way the world is supposed to be.’”
Lanre Bakare is the Guardian's arts and culture correspondent.