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Celebrating Black History Month: An Interview with Fania Davis

In honor of Black History Month, LLC staff took a field trip to the Oakland Museum to see the Black Panther Party exhibit and celebrate Oakland’s rich history.  There was a sign in the exhibit that caught my attention:

 

Toward the Future

 

Consider how current social issues relate to the conditions that demanded the creation of the Black Panther Party fifty years ago. The Party no longer exists as an organization. However, their ideas and spirit live on in former Panthers and generation of new artists, community organizers and citizens who will help to determine the future.

To help us consider the future, we turned to a dear colleague and leader, Fania Davis, who worked with the Black Panther Party in the 60’s and is a leader in the Restorative Justice Movement today.  Fania graciously agreed to be interviewed by the LLC staff to share perspectives and wisdom from her experiences that ha

ve informed her work today.

 

Could you tell us about your relationship to and experience with the Black Panther Party?

 

I was not an actual member though I did work closely with the Black Panther Party for a brief period in San Diego. In 1969, my sister, Angela Davis, who was in a Ph.D. program at UC San Diego and was teaching at UCLA, invited me and my then husband to move from Alabama to San Diego to enroll in graduate studies at UCSD. Angela was a member of the Los Angeles Black Panther Party at the time, mostly teaching political education classes, but she left after a brief period, largely due to sexism. Shortly after we arrived in San Diego, Ronald Reagan and the Regents fired Angela from her faculty position in the UCLA Philosophy Department because of her membership in the Communist Party and her prison activism.  As a result of my husband's and my association with the Black Panther Party – combined with my relationship to Angela who was daily in the news headlines at the time – the police broke into our Del Mar apartment with guns drawn. My husband went for a gun in self-defense and the police shot him. He was taken to the hospital. He survived. Uninjured, I went underground and the police charged both of us with attempted murder of a police officer, putting out an all-points bulletin for me as armed and dangerous.  I turned myself in. The District Attorney re-indicted us after the judges dropped the charges.  This kept happening.  We never went to trial, having won a series of pre-trial motions to dismiss based on the unlawful and unconstitutional police entry into our home. Ultimately the charges were permanently dropped. Angela was also successful in her legal battle at the time to win reinstatement to her position as a UCLA professor.  However, shortly thereafter, she was charged with capital murder, kidnapping and conspiracy in connection with the August, 1970 events at the Marin County Civic Center. Angela was placed on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list.  A massive manhunt ensued and she was captured in October 1970 in New York.  For the next 2 years, I worked 24-7 to help organize the massive international movement to free her.    

 

How did you move from your involvement with the Black Panther Party’s work to Restorative Justice?

I underwent a lot of development as a political organizer and leader through the work on the Free Angela campaign and traveled to scores of different countries speaking on Angela’s behalf to tens of thousands of people in Rome, Paris, France, Moscow, Leningrad, Santiago, London, Warsaw, East Berlin, Helsinki, Vancouver, Montreal, Chile, London and other places.  Massive solidarity protests and rallies were organized on behalf of Angela. This extensive and well-highly organized international movement was made possible in large part because of the mobilization of communist parties all over the world – Angela was a member of the Communist Party, USA. This was a grassroots movement powered by millions of people all over the US and world. It was the people's power, well mobilized and organized, that freed my sister.

 

Working on Angela’s case, I admired the lawyers who defended my sister – though they were doing criminal defense work in Angela’s case, they were civil rights trial lawyers.  Having been inspired by her lawyers, I went to law school and became a civil rights lawyer myself, dedicated to fighting for racial justice in the courts. After 30 years of being in combative mode, fighting against capitalism, against racism, against male chauvinism, against imperialism, against apartheid, etc. I was starting to feel out of balance.  I had to cultivate hyper-aggressive and hyper-masculinist qualities to be successful as a trial lawyer and activist. I was starting to feel way out of balance and began to get sick. I knew intuitively I was being invited to make big changes in my life. I needed more healing and spiritual and creative energies. Synchronistically, I was led to enroll in a Ph.D. Program called Recovery of Indigenous Mind and for the next 7 years studied indigenous healing traditions around the world, especially in Africa.

 

Has your thinking about leadership and the way you practice leadership changed since your involvement in the Black Panther Party, and how?

 

We practiced leadership styles that privileged males. Hierarchical styles of leadership by command and dictate – this was decidedly not the grassroots leadership and radical democracy promoted by civil rights leaders Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker.  Something that the Ferguson youth have said reminds me of what we need today. When the media asked them, “Who are your leaders?” and suggested they were leaderless, the young people responded, “We are a leaderful movement,” going on to rattle off a long list of names of youth who had exercised leadership at one point or another and in one way or another in the youth-driven movement in Ferguson.  

 

This is a very Ella Baker idea about leadership, and in Restorative Justice we subscribe to this idea that today’s problems are so complex that we need everyone’s wisdom and there is no one single expert  who calls the shots and who can address the issues alone. We use circle process with the talking piece moving around the circle from person to person, seeking to draw from each person their truth, wisdom and knowledge. It’s amazing what comes out when you use ceremony and other approaches to create safe spaces, values based spaces that are open, and where it is clear that everyone’s voice matters, and everyone is a leader, whether a 12 year-old, or an adult holding positional power.  We do with others, not to them. Young people are involved in the decisions that affect their lives. This means, if it is a discipline situation where someone has harmed another, they sit in circle to hear from the harmed person and together they figure out what needs to be done to heal the harm. It’s about personal as well as social transformation. I personally am not interested in a leadership that seeks to privilege or lift me up as individual or to center my voice in decision making. We practice non-hierarchical leadership. The biggest difference in the leadership we practice is the Ella Baker difference. This approach was not always respected by our movement brothers. And I believe it’s mainly why my sister Angela did not stay in the Black Panther Party for long.

 

What can we learn about resistance and movement building from the days of the Black Panther Party and what do you believe is needed in the current environment?
 

I think we need a broader understanding of leadership right now than the leadership models of the civil rights movement. There were individual leaders who were part of the hierarchy of leadership at the time. The 1963 March on Washington was organized by men who planned the March for years. I was there and I was also at the January 21st  Women’s March after the inauguration of Donald Trump. The great labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph built alliances among civil rights, labor and religion under a ‘jobs and freedom’ banner and developed the plans for the 1964 march over a long period of time. This had been his vision for many years.  However,  the women’s march this year came out of the blue.  

 

The day after the election, a woman in Hawaii created a Facebook event and invited women to march on Washington in protest. The next morning she woke up to positive responses from tens of thousands of women.  Similar Facebook pages were created and thousands of people signed up to march in a short period of time. This march came from the bottom up, unlike 1963, and that was amazing. I flew to DC and had a connection in Salt Lake City and when I got on the plane there was a sea of pink hats – 90% of the passengers on boarding in Salt Lake City were going to the march. I realized then the march would be a lot bigger than projections; perhaps bigger than anything we’d ever seen. I was staying at a friends and we took the metro and we were shoulder to shoulder on the platform and had to wait for 3 trains to pass before we could get on one.  When we got off, for blocks and blocks it was wall to wall people.  Yet with all these people there was not one police incident! My sister was speaking and her car dropped her a few blocks away from the main stage.  However, the crowd was so thick that it took her more than one hour to make her way. My daughter was part of the national organizing committee. They projected 250,000 a few days before.  About one million turned out.  This massive uprising  is indicative of a movement that is self-organizing. In the 60’s, organizing was from the top. But now, it’s not about leadership by command, leaders telling people what to do.  So many people who came had never been to a demonstration before. Leadership is about nurturing these self-organizing activities that are participatory and bottom up. Encouraging this is an important role of leadership.

 

As someone who was involved in past movement building and resistance work, what message would do you want to share with people leading today?  

 

In the past, we were very single issue in our orientation to struggles and movement building.  The march on Washington was focused on civil rights for black people. The Black Panther Party was fighting against political repression and even though they had a 10 point program it was all around black people’s rights and survival. The fabulous and historic thing about this year’s Women’s March was that it was intersectional. While women’s issues have historically been narrowly defined, too often on the basis of racial bias, as suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and reproductive rights. At the 2017 Women’s March however, the consistent and powerful messaging from all the speakers was that mass incarceration, police killings, transphobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, the environment and water, economic justice in addition to equal pay and reproductive rights. These are all women’s issues. They all affect women and their children and their families. I have never in my life been to a mass demonstration that had such a profound and thoroughly intersectional message, and we need to encourage this at a time when we need unity and community more than ever.

 

Obama created the space for us to organize around so many issues: trans, Bernie, Black Lives Matter, Occupy, Dreamer, and environmental issues.  All of the elements of the movement we need to fight neo-fascism are present in the bubbling up of these movements over the last 8 years.  And it’s our charge as leaders today to knit these movements together in a single fabric. It’s our charge, in addition to trans, women, Black Lives Matter and occupy activists, to bring in the rust belt people who feel shut out and abandoned. In a crunch, a study from The Fed found more than half the people in this country would not be able to come up with $400 in cash. That tells us there is a lot of hidden economic pain in this country and it’s our duty to recognize that and bring all who are suffering into the umbrella of the movements that rose up during the Obama years. As leaders, we also need to name capitalism (in its global privatization phase) as the source of all our suffering. We have not been good in this century in naming this, especially in the last 8 years or so, and if we don’t, we will be perpetually caught in a loop swinging from the Democrats to the Republicans – of course both of which are the parties of capital.  The alliance we need will distance itself from the parties of capital, and imagine and develop a new political formation and economic system that is organized to meet the needs of diverse peoples and of our earth.


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You can connect with Fania's work at: http://rjoyoakland.org/

 

Images from 

  • The House on Coco Road Website http://www.thehouseoncocoroad.com/
  • Yes Magazine: http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/life-after-oil/the-radical-work-of-healing-fania-and-angela-davis-on-a-new-kind-of-civil-rights-activism-20160218

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