Phillipian Commentary: Letter to the Editor

To the editor:

I read with interest the Staff Report on Angela Davis’ talk (The Phillipian, February 21). While the report mentions that “throughout her career in social justice, Davis has been considered somewhat of a controversial figure,” I feel it omitted some important details of Dr. Davis’ trial and activities after her release from prison. She was indicted on kidnapping and murder charges because she purchased and supplied guns to a militant group that kidnapped a judge and other hostages in a takeover of a courthouse, in which the judge was murdered. Dr. Davis proudly mentioned in her talk that she was put on the FBI’s “ten most wanted” list. That was, of course, because she became a fugitive from justice. Davis was acquitted after her lawyer apparently managed to choose jurors sympathetic to her cause. According to Dr. Davis’ own words in her talk at [Andover], some of the jurors drank champagne with her at her acquittal party—hardly an impartial bunch.

I remember the campaign to free Angela Davis in my youth in the Soviet Union. The campaign was all over the government-controlled newspapers (there were no other newspapers, of course). Prominent Soviet cultural figures and even chess champions were pressured to sign official letters in defense of Davis. The worldwide campaign was supported by the propaganda branch of the KGB.

After her release, Angela Davis became a propaganda tool for oppressive regimes in communist countries, meeting their leaders and receiving multiple honors and awards. Meanwhile, this advocate against mass incarceration consistently refused to intervene on behalf of political prisoners in communist countries. Even the Wikipedia article on Davis fills in some details and lists over 130 references. On another occasion, when asked to intervene on behalf of certain political prisoners in the Soviet Union, she responded: “they are all Zionist fascists and opponents of socialism.”

I am all for inviting controversial, even radical, speakers to campus. What disturbed me about this event was that Andover students and faculty in the audience seemed to have suspended their critical thinking faculties (despite Dr. Davis’ admonition to use them) and, as one, greeted Dr. Davis’ rather incoherent and at times condescending presentation with multiple standing ovations. This reminded me of the scenes I observed in my youth of Communist Party meetings in the Soviet Union, and in current news clips from North Korea.

I was also disturbed by the need to submit questions via a website: I felt this arrangement, unprecedented at Andover, was undemocratic and gave the organizers time to filter out “unfriendly” questions. As it happened, this turned out not to be very important after all. When asked about an alternative to prisons, this prison abolitionist scholar went on a filibustering tangent about free education and free medical care, “including pets,” which used up most of the Q&A period. I didn’t have much hope, anyway, that my question—whether she still believes that opponents of socialism should be in prison—would be aired. I was also curious to know whether she would now be willing to intervene on behalf of political prisoners in such places as China, Cuba or North Korea. I suppose I will have to judge her by her deeds, not words, as Dr. Davis insisted we do.

Gary Litvin, P’92, ’00