The Chicago premiere of the film Free Angela and All Political Prisoners was held at the University of Chicago's (UChicago's) Logan Center for the Arts March 6.
The screening was followed by a panel discussion with Joy James, professor at Williams College; Mariame Kaba, founder director of Chicago's Project Nia; and local human-rights attorney Standish Willis. Tracye Matthews, associate director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, moderated.
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners focuses on the storied activist and academic's turbulent period when she felt compelled to go underground after police charged that she was directly involved in an attempted 1970 prison break which resulted in several deaths, including a white judge and three Black men. The hunt for Davis went nationwide and her trial remains one of the best-known in contemporary history.
As demonstrated in the film, the long trial resulted in a massive campaign to "free Angela," drawing supporters from around the world in a powerful global effort. Thousands of letters and testimonials flowed in support of Davis, from 6-year-olds in Germany to the French philosopher Jean Genet. It was Davis who insisted that the slogan "Free Angela" should be expanded with "and all political prisoners," reflecting her political views on the prison industrial complex (PIC). Davis is best-known for her work on prison abolition and her analysis and critique of a system that shealong with many other prison abolitionistsbelieves is not only unjust and harsh but systematically racist in its targeting and killing of African-Americans.
Period film clips and photos trace Davis' childhood in Birmingham, Ala., her university education in Europe and the United States, and her early career, but the film's focus is on reconstructing the events that led up to the trial, its duration and its aftermath.
Following her release, Davis became even more of an iconic figure, making invited appearances all around the world and even showing up to a jam-packed Madison Square Garden, perhaps the first and last time that an ex-political prisoner in the United States has been treated like a rock star.
The panel discussion afterwards dwelt upon such issues of fame and iconicity, as well as questions about feminism in relation to matters of race, and the complicated and ongoing legacy of Davis, who retired from her position as professor in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2008. (She came out as lesbian in 2005.)
With regard to Davis and her ongoing work and influence on feminist thought, panelists spoke to the way she is often conceived or reduced in terms of gender and appearancefamous for her hair, Davis herself has been critical of such fetishization. Kaba pointed out that Davis' insistence upon asking for all political prisoners reflected a feminist impulse that "it wasn't just about her and understanding that 'it wasn't just about me all the time.'" Kaba also addressed the importance of Davis's work on the PIC, and stressed the need for creating alternatives to incarceration.
Speaking about the current and growing conversation around prisons, Joy Davis pointed out that it's easier to mobilize around mass incarceration than against repression in a democracy, and pointed out that Ruchell Magee, Angela Davis' co-defendant, is still in jail; Magee has referred to what happened in 1970 as akin to a slave rebellion. He has been in jail for more than 45 years.
The event's location became part of the the discussion, given that four activists, students amongst them, had recently been arrested for protesting the lack of an adult trauma-care facility at UChicago's medical center. Panelists reflected upon the larger implications of the PIC in the context of a system that incarcerates vast numbers of people, particularly people of color, while simultaneously whittling away at or simply not providing basic community resources. Standish Willis contextualized the events of the past and Davis' trial alongside such contemporary events, pointing out that it has become more difficult to contest false charges and that the the rights of protesters and political prisoners have sharply deteriorated since 9/11.
Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners begins its nationwide run April 5. Angela Davis will appear at UChicago in May.