By Montse Reyes & Ramona Parrotta

Angela Davis was the keynote speaker for the 31st annual Martin Luther King Jr. convocation. Photo by Camille Carrillo.
Angela Davis was the keynote speaker for the 31st annual Martin Luther King Jr. convocation. Photo by Camille Carrillo.

“There has been an unbroken line of racist police killings since the era of slavery,” said scholar, author and activist Angela Davis during her keynote “Racism, Militarism and Poverty: From Ferguson to Palestine” at the 31st annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation on Jan. 28.

A UC Santa Cruz Distinguished Professor Emerita, Davis recalled many cases of anti-black violence while growing up in Alabama, including “vivid childhood memories” of the killing of Emmett Till in the summer of 1955.

Hundreds waited in line for several hours before the event to assure a seat inside, and many were turned away when the auditorium reached its approximate 2,000 person capacity. 

During her time at UCSC, Davis played a monumental role in the history of consciousness and feminist studies departments. She made a name for herself as an activist through her participation in the Black Power movement and Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s. After 18 months of wrongful incarceration in the early 1970s, Davis began to focus her activism on the abolition of the prison industrial complex. She has written nine books, challenging racism, sexism and the prison system.

“It is both ironic and very fitting that Angela spoke for [the convocation],” said Vilashini Cooppan, the director of UCSC’s newest major, critical race and ethnic studies. “She is someone we all know who has questioned authorities of all kinds and has paid heavy prices for doing that. In some ways she is the perfect person to remind the university of its mission, which is education that liberates.”

Drawing from Dr. King’s journals and speeches, Davis’ keynote reflected on Dr. King’s place in history while bringing his ideas into the modern day. She traced the lineage of Dr. King’s work from the civil rights movement to now, looking to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the countless other victims of police violence in the United States.

Introduced by members of UCSC’s African/Black Student Alliance (A/BSA), Shadin Awad and Wisdom Cole, Davis began by honoring the Ohlone people who once inhabited what is now Santa Cruz. Her talk reflected on racism, feminism and the War on Terror, but the crux of her speech rested on the interconnectedness of global oppression and how what Dr. King dubbed the “triple evils” — racism, poverty and militarism — work to create such oppression.

“If we want an end to anti-black and anti-Latino racism,” Davis said, “we will also have to speak out against economic exploitation, against war, against the destruction of the environment, against anti-Muslimism and anti-Semitism, against gender bias and homophobia, and of course for access to good, organic non-GMO food, for free health care and free education for all.”

Davis drew comparisons between the history of police violence and militarization in the United States and the occupation of Israeli military in Palestine. It was found that the tear gas canisters used in Palestine and Ferguson were manufactured by the same company, Combined Tactical Systems — a firm based in the United States.

When Michael Brown was murdered last August, people all over the world protested police brutality. Davis recalled her travels to Europe, where she witnessed people standing in solidarity with the community of Ferguson.

“In Brussels, Belgium, people wanted to hear about the struggles against racist police violence, and even though they didn’t speak English, they were saying, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot,’” Davis said.

Some members of the community expressed disapproval with the choice of Davis as a speaker. Twenty-two Jewish UCSC alumni wrote a letter to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, saying they were upset to see Davis deliver the keynote due to her public support for boycotting the state of Israel. They added that the topic of her talk was a “perversion of the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.” and that it left many Jewish students and community members feeling unwelcome.

In her talk, Davis discussed anti-Semitism as an issue and clarified that her criticism was of the actions perpetrated by the state of Israel, not Jewish people.

She advocated to move away from the neoliberal, individualistic mentality and to view struggles of oppression and state violence as a global issue, citing that Dr. King was an internationalist.

“Talking to her and hearing her has made me think more globally about the cross comparison of struggles and what is going on in different places such as Ferguson and Palestine,” said A/BSA member Wisdom Cole.

Cole also appreciated that Davis bridged the gap between academia and activism, saying that issues of race and racism are often dismissed as being relevant to a single group of people.

“[Davis] shows that this is not an issue stuck to one race,” Cole said. “It’s a real thing that you can study, that you can produce data on, that you actually can produce academic works and show the public as well as the university that this is an issue we need to be fighting for and discussing and really working to change in higher education.”

Melissa Lyken, a first-year student at UCSC, is part of the Black Experience Team (BET), a group composed of four undergraduates, faculty, graduate students and staff. The committee conducts research and reflects on student experiences at UCSC. She said for some people Dr. King and the civil rights era may seem like a long time ago, but there is still work to be done in addressing racism.

“We have too many black students who are not being retained,” Lyken said. “Too many black students who do not want to be here, too many black students who leave because their experience here is not like the rest of the student population.”

BET’s purpose is to discuss the necessity of a larger black population on campus. Currently, 2 percent of UCSC’s student body is black. Although BET was initially meant to last one year, the team ultimately decided that a one-year trial was not enough time to make real change.

Davis retired from UCSC in 2008. This quarter, only one black female professor teaches at UCSC. Professor Cooppan said UCSC should be committed to addressing the gap of black faculty on campus.

“We want a UC Santa Cruz that looks — probably not like Santa Cruz — but looks representative, and it’s important for the culture of mentorship,” Cooppan said. “It’s important for students of all groups to see knowledge coming from many different sources in different forms.”

BET demands that the university allocates more money for outreach, to let students know that there is a black community at UCSC and what resources and support are available. It also calls for a psychologist on campus who understands the black experience.

“I’m sitting in this class, and people are trying to say that racism is over, but we are walking around campus and we are experiencing these things,” BET member Lyken said. “Students are really talking from their own experiences to say that there is no racism. You ask one of us, but if you are really attuned to what is going on in society, then you would really know that we are not in a post-racial society.”