American activist Angela Davis: “Zionism is racism”

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

When American anti-racism activist Angela Davis watched a film about the Marikana mine killings she was shocked that the “whole cast was black”.

She was referring to this year’s award-winning documentary film Miners Shot Down showing footage of police officers killing mineworkers who were on strike for better wages in October 2012.

Davis said she was also shocked when she heard police commissioner Riah Phiyega say in the film that “today we are ending this matter”.

“And she said whatever happened on that day represents the best of policing… It hurt me deeply that those words came from a black South African woman,” said Davis.

Angela Davis in Cape Town. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

Angela Davis in Cape Town. Pic by Yazeed Kamaldien

The 70-year-old retired University of California professor remarked that racism existed in situations of “black-on-black violence”, a term used also in the US.

“Can a primarily black non-racial government be held responsible for racist violence? During apartheid, black and white police officers carried out violence (against black protesters). Why would one assume that’s not possible 20 years after democracy?” she asked.

The outspoken activist for equality, particularly in the segregated US during the 1960s and 1970s, was in Cape Town this week.

She said at a public talk, at the Centre for the Book in the city, that she was asked to support the Marikana mineworkers.

Her talk focused on transnational solidarity for activism against racism and was part of a two-week workshop on non-racialism.

The latter included stops in Johannesburg, Swaziland, Durban, at Nelson Mandela’s grave in Qunu and finally Cape Town. Davis returned to California this weekend.

She told a packed audience that her activism did not focus only on “anti-black racism” but was against various forms of discrimination.

Davis said it was important that one “can’t make exceptions in your anti-racism”.

“If you are anti-racist it has to be universal. There can be no exceptions… If we believe in freedom we can’t rest,” she said.

Davis said she was “born in the most segregated city” in the US: Birmingham, Alabama.

Davis joined the Black Panthers, a group that took armed action against racist US police targeting blacks. She was arrested for her activism but later freed.

This followed a global campaign demanding her release. Rock band The Rolling Stones recorded the song Sweet Black Angel, dedicated to her, in 1970.

The Beatles front man John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono recorded their song Angela in 1972, also supporting calls for her release.

Davis said this week: “In the 1970s I was a political prisoner… It seems like just yesterday that I was on the FBI’s ten most wanted list. I was a fortunate beneficiary of the transnational anti-racism movement.”

She said cross-border efforts to combat racism around the world were vital. Then turning to this week’s humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, she said “it would be important to place Palestine on the global agenda”.

She said: “We have to engage in how Israel re-asserts its ideological position as the only democracy in the region… Zionism is racism.”

“It (Israel) continues to be the only settler colonial state that continues to expand.”

Back home, Davis has campaigned over a number of years for prisoner’s rights. She recalled visiting a notorious Cape Town prison when she previously visited South Africa.

“I spent a day inside Pollsmoor Prison some years ago… I have this teddy bear at home made by men who were sewing to support children outside,” she recalled.

Her gaze turned again on South African politics when the audience asked her questions about engaging former liberation heroes – such as herself.

“When Nelson Mandela talked about the Long Walk to Freedom, it was about a future which we think we can imagine. We find out it’s so much more complex than we ever knew,” she said.

“This is not the South Africa you want to move into the future, is it? How are you reimagining the present? Sometimes you have to say, ‘Sorry, but our time has come’… You have to speak back to your elders.”

She added: “Often times we work with old theories, old modes of consciousness… I’m still very optimistic… The struggle for freedom is an infinite one.”

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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