By Barrington Salmon of the Washington Informer
In 1969, Angela Davis was every white man’s worst nightmare: Educated, possessor of a formidable intellect, black, assertive, an activist, a woman, and a communist.
Davis’ political opinions, social activism and her outspoken criticism of racism, segregation and the way African Americans and other non-whites were treated in a country sharply divided along racial and class lines, brought the full weight of the government upon her head.
The fallout is outlined in great detail in Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, a documentary film by director Shola Lynch. The story surrounds Davis’ removal from her teaching post at UCLA, Los Angeles; the charges brought against her for murder, kidnapping and conspiracy; the nationwide manhunt; her inclusion on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List; and her arrest, trial and eventual acquittal. Viewers listen to narratives from Davis, friends, family and associates and witness their comments weaved around documents, videotapes and sometimes grainy historical footage.
Today, Davis, 69, is an acclaimed political activist, scholar, and author. She remains unapologetic about her views on race, community building, and social justice and she works tirelessly in the struggle for gender equality, economic and racial justice. Of equal importance is her work to dismantle a prison-industrial complex in the United States in which 2.3 million people, primarily black and brown, are ensnared.
Back then, she was a 26-year-old Sorbonne-educated professor, who was immersed in activities she hoped would bring social, economic and political freedom for blacks.
The 102-minute documentary, shot in cinema vérité style, unfolds with snapshots of 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson and three other men leaving the Marin County Courthouse in San Rafael, Calif., with weapons trained on a judge, prosecutor and jurors. As the group gets into a yellow van, police snipers and guards from San Quentin Prison open fire leaving Superior Court Judge Harold Haley and three of the four hostage takers – including Jonathan – dead.
One detective walks from the crime scene with a weapon wrapped in plastic and viewers are told that Davis had purchased two of the guns.
In a straight-forward, vulnerable but poignant manner, Davis recaptures the heady, complex, scary days of the emergence of the Black Power Movement, black nationalism, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and an all-too-brief period of time when blacks around the country – like a sleeping giant shook off fear, lethargy and the past, and demanded an end to America’s homegrown apartheid system.
The Black Panther Party came to the attention of the authorities when in 1967, a small group of members, all bearing arms and led by Chairman Bobby Seale, marched into the California legislature to protest a pending gun-¬control bill and to illustrate that blacks had a constitutional right to bear arms. The group called for armed revolutionary struggle against the oppression and slavery-type conditions perpetuated by the ruling elite and their functionaries in the United States. They also strove to create a society of justice, freedom and equality for the masses of black and brown people. They developed breakfast programs and educated children, while advocating for a 10-point program which sought, among other things, employment, housing and an end to police brutality.
So concerned was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about the Panthers, he described them as “the single greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” Hoover was determined to prevent the formation of a cohesive Black movement in the United States and used murder, coercion, extortion, disinformation and other tactics to undermine and destroy black leaders who exhibited leadership, organizational skills and the ability to communicate well. The FBI and police from Oakland, Chicago and elsewhere began targeting and assassinating members of the Panther organization.
The documentary reminds viewers of the raw anger, deep distrust and animus between the black community and police. Footage of an hours-long shootout between police and the Black Panthers illustrates the full-pitched gun battles that often ensued between law enforcement and the organization.
“It was as if we were living in a state of war, a state of siege,” said Davis. “We had to do all we could to usher in the Revolution. There was a conspiracy to kill every Black Panther in America and all black people.”
Quenesha McNair, 30, was left visibly moved by the film.
“I feel grateful for this information,” she said. “My generation knows the criticism directed at her approach to politics but not the level of determination to eradicate her. I’m surprised I’m just learning about her in the film. This wasn’t in the textbooks. I never knew how raw it was. The raid on the Black Panther headquarters was like genocide. I never, ever thought this could happen.”
Davis was also on the frontline as a spokesperson for the Soledad Brothers, three men in California’s Soledad Prison accused of killing a guard and persecuted for their political beliefs. George Jackson, John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo were each incarcerated for petty property crimes, we’re told, and jailed for years because of their attempts to bring about change in the prison system.
“I saw him at a hearing and I was drawn by the tenderness I didn’t expect to see in a prisoner,” said Davis of the man she loved, George Jackson. “He was a beautiful, powerful, passionate writer.”
Following the botched kidnapping and hostage deaths, the white establishment called Jonathan and his accomplices thugs, hoodlums and criminals. However, he was seen as a hero by many in the black community. At his funeral, thousands of mourners crowded the streets around the church, standing solemnly with fists raised in the Black Power salute as the coffin was carried into and out of the church.
As word about the shootout spread, Davis knew the feds would try to apprehend her.
“It was clear that this was not the time to make myself available for arrest,” she said soberly.
With a fugitive’s warrant of $100,000 on her head, Davis went underground, moving around for two months through Las Vegas and Miami, ending up in New York with local law enforcement and the FBI not far behind. As she evaded them, police descended on black communities around the country accosting black women with big afros and gaps between their front teeth. The FBI had agents conducting surveillance on anyone who knew Davis, and also began to wrangle information from her friends, family and associates.
“I knew there were countries that would accept me, but I decided I didn’t want to flee the country because I knew I’d be in exile for the rest of my life,” she said. “… I was pretty scared, always thought I’d be on the verge of being caught. I thought about the family I left behind, worried about mom and my siblings …”
Davis was traveling with a wealthy friend, David Poindexter, and the pair left Miami when the FBI questioned his mother.
“We were rapidly running out of money and I had a palpable sense that the FBI was closing in,” she said.
FBI agents had been searching parking lots in New York City looking for Poindexter’s car and found Davis at a Howard Johnson’s motel.
Davis, exhausted, pale and gaunt, said she was placed in a ward for women with psychiatric disorders.
“I hadn’t thought about what it meant to be a woman in prison,” she said.
Her sister Fania agreed.
“Angela’s education is now being put into practice,” she said during an interview in the documentary.
Davis’ capture ignited a firestorm of criticism of the Nixon administration and strident calls for her release. The Free Angela! Movement hopscotched from the U.S. abroad, with hundreds of defense committees calling for Davis’ release as well as the release of all political prisoners. Demonstrations, marches and fundraisers kept Davis’ case in the public eye even as Nixon called her “a dangerous terrorist.”
“It was lonely, very lonely. I read a lot and wrote a lot,” she recalled. “I followed the example of others like George and created a kind of freedom within that experience. They wanted to break me, wanted me to feel the burden of solitude.”
Davis was spirited from New York on a military aircraft, in the middle of the night and against her wishes, to be tried in California. In all, she spent 18 months behind bars. The prosecutor built an elaborate case around Davis’ all-encompassing love and passion for George Jackson which drove her to try to free him. But through the efforts of lawyers Howard Moore Jr., Leo Branton, Jr., and Doris Walker, Davis was granted bail and later freed after an all-white jury found her not guilty of all three charges, which initially carried the death penalty.
Her exoneration touched off exuberant and emotional celebrations inside the courtroom, around the courthouse complex and across the world.
“This is the happiest day of my life,” Davis later said at a press conference.
At the conclusion of the film, Davis crystallized the arc of her life since her release.
“I wanted to keep the structure and energy in place and to bring about more victories to the people. That became the theme of my life and here I am today …”
The documentary is being shown in select theaters around the country, including Oakland and Los Angeles, Calif., New York and Philadelphia. In the Washington metropolitan area, the movie can be seen at the AMC Hoffman Center 22 in Alexandria, Va., and the AMC Magic Johnson Capital Center 12 in Largo, Md.