Angela Davis, activist, distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz and defendant in the 1970 "Soledad Brothers" shootings, spoke about gun violence and social justice at St. James Cathedral on Sept. 7. The "Bending the Arc" annual symposium, founded to honor the work of the late civil rights attorney Robert Howard, was sponsored by the Crossroads Fund which supports community organizations working on issues of racial, social and economic justice in the Chicago area. Panel members included Chicago activists Henry Cervantes, Mariame Kaba, Ryan Lugalia-Hollon and Ameena Mathews and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. The event was moderated by National Public Radio correspondent Cheryl Corley.
Wearing an orange tunic, her famous "fro" hairstyle now copper colored, Davis traced the evolution of the gun orientation of early civil rights groups like the Black Panthers to today's calls for an end to gun violence. "We were challenging the idea that racist and state violence could prevent us from achieving equality," in early days said Davis, adding that the original name of the Black Panthers was the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. "My dad kept guns in the house," because the Klu Klux Klan "bombed so many houses" in her Birmingham neighborhood it was known as "Dynamite Hill." There was a "political context for our position," Davis told the audience and "gun violence was not the leading cause of black men's deaths," as it is today.
Davis owned the guns used in the 1970 kidnapping of Superior Court judge Harold Haley from the Marin County Civic Center in an attempt to free the Soledad Brothers. Four died in the botched, bloody event and Davis was charged with three felonies that carried the death penalty. She became the third woman to appear on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List and a fugitive and was eventually tried and acquitted on the charges. Her time in prison led to her life's work against the "prison industrial complex" and is chronicled in a documentary called "Free Angela and all Political Prisoners" to be shown Oct. 3 at Roosevelt University.
The sheer amount of guns in the US is "insane" Davis told the audience, at the start of her remarks. There are 94.3 guns for every 100 US citizens versus 3.4 per 100 citizens in "violent" Palestine and .4 per 100 citizens in Ghana. Nor can violence against racial minorities, disempowered communities, domestic partners, disabled people, LGBTQ people, children, prisoners and animals be separated because it is all part of a culture of violence, said Davis. We are as unconscious of the suffering behind "food products and our eating habits" as we are about the suffering "in the prison system," said Davis saying we have "fast food solutions for everything."
Observing that the recent 50-year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's Washington march felt more like a "historical observance than the start of something new," Davis urged people to connect the dots in the struggle for justice--"imagine the future and inhabit our past." She received a standing ovation.
Former alderman, history teacher and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle also focused on the US prison system in her remarks, calling it "the intersection of racism and poverty." Ninety-nine percent of adult detainees in Cook County are "black and brown" as are 86 percent of youthful detainees, said Preckwinkle. Money, not the violent nature of criminal charges, determines which detainees are granted bail with most who remain in detention facilities not charged with violent offenses, she said.
Panelist Henry Cervantes with the Marquette University Peace Works Program said, "There is a lot of anger in the community" because of the high concentration of young people and lack of resources. "I did not choose to be a peace activist; it is an obligation we all have to the community."
Another panel member, Mariame Kaba, assailed police harassment of young people "under the guise of ending gun violence," abuses which she said have been especially bad this summer. Kaba is founding director of Project NIA, an advocacy, education and capacity-building center with the long-term goal of ending youth incarceration. There can't be a discussion of gun control without looking at the "structural violence of police, drones and disinvestment" said Kaba to the evening's most rousing applause.
Also evoking strong applause was "violence interrupter" Ameena Matthews who appears in The Interrupters, a film about Chicago's CeaseFire anti-violence group, which won a best documentary Spirit Award last year and appeared on Frontline. "I want to stop the transition of violence from one person to another," said Mathews. "I want to get them before they cross the line and go to the institution where my dad has been for the last 30 years." Mathews' father, Jeff Fort, is one of Chicago's most well-known Chicago gang leaders, credited with forming the Blackstone Rangers in 1959.
Panel member Ryan Lugalia-Hollon with the YMCA Youth Safety and Violence Prevention Initiative agreed that more prisons and guns are not the solution. We need to address drug addiction, gun addiction and the "the breakdown of our community fabric," he said. It is not acceptable for young people to be on a "path to prison" and it is not acceptable that they think of their "brothers as enemies to kill."