What does it mean to be an activist? At a tense political moment, in which scathing headlines, packed marches, and controversial tweets have become a matter-of-course, the role and responsibilities of the activist can feel as though they are in flux. Who has the responsibility to speak, to act, and how should they go about it? Even the responses to mainstream acts of protest, such as the now annual Women’s March, have been divisive across the political spectrum and within the communities touched by the issues addressed by the march.
While many activists, particularly young people, find themselves discouraged because of these issues, lifelong activists Angela Davis and Gina Dent remain optimistic about the future of social justice. Perhaps best known is Davis’ iconic participation in the Civil Rights Movement and Black Panther Party, however the pairing have also made a mark with their decades-long work in the struggle for prison abolition. In addition to having authored numerous works about incarceration, they are also involved in Critical Resistance, an organization that seeks to end the “prison-industrial complex” (the use of incarceration to solve or profit from social and economic struggles).
After speaking to students at NYU Florence about this particular moment in the fight for social justice, Davis and Dent sat down with La Pietra Dialogues Editing interns, Tia Glista and Katia Taylor, on May 1, to discuss different challenges in contemporary activism, including those facing young people today.
How have you found your voice as an activist?
Angela Davis: Well, I actually never considered doing anything else. I have been active for struggles in racial justice literally since I was a child, and so the voice has developed as a result of working with many different communities, many different organizations -- I’m just standing at the interconnectedness of them all.
Gina Dent: Well, I have never experienced it as finding a voice. It’s just always been about finding oneself in a situation and thinking about what feels necessary to say, and increasingly, because I have access to travelling and moving around the globe in ways that people that I care about don’t, it’s been about speaking in ways that give evidence to other people’s lives and to things that can’t be brought to the fore by people who are not privileged enough to.
In response to that, there can be a great deal of divisiveness within liberal activist communities, particularly with debates happening on social media, in the media, or even in celebrity culture. With regards to this kind of in-fighting or dissent, depending how you view it, do you think that it can be healthy or do you see it as more of a distraction?
AD: Contradictions are inevitable and I don’t think that people should allow differences to prevent them from moving forward. As a matter of fact, I think that contradictions may be the prime motor of our world; they push us forward. But of course, it is important to learn how to live with differences and contradictions, to learn how to utilize them productively, as opposed to assuming that everyone has to have exactly the same perspective, and I think that has always been a major challenge for activists and probably will continue to be a challenge.
GD: I think that sometimes when I talk to younger people, they perceive that as being something new to this generation and I think it’s important to know that those kinds of problems have occurred in every generation. I think actually this generation is more fortunate in some ways, because issues of what’s being referred to as “self-care” and the kind of internal conversations around harms that happen within activist communities have become more sophisticated. And so, there is probably a greater possibility today of being able to work through some of what Angela is referring to as contradictions, and what other people might be referring to as conflicts, and maybe one of the best things to do would be to turn conflicts into contradictions that can be understood within the group.
On a similar note, you spoke at the roundtable [with students on April 24] about the spectacle of activism right now and how some acts of activism can become ego-driven. In your own work, how do you self-monitor or look for ways to make sure that you are not being ego-driven?
AD: Hmm, that’s a very interesting question. Because it points to the need to be self-aware and self critical all the time. I don’t think it’s possible to assume that everyone, all of us, are capable of the kind of esteemed position above all these issues. We’re constantly confronted with them and what I’ve tried to do is not shy away from criticism - I don’t assume that when someone is criticizing me that it is somehow going to tear down my sense of self, and learn how to inhabit that space of not only criticism, but self-criticism. I think that living in the capitalist world, as we do, we’re always influenced by the kind of individualism that is promoted by capitalism. There is no way we can escape it. And more important than trying to elude it is to develop a way of being aware of when we are affected by it.
GD: To follow on that line, I sometimes refer to the problem of acquisitive knowledge -- the kind of knowledge that people try to access in order to gain more capital for themselves, more value for themselves, so the devotion to knowledge can turn into that ego-driven quest. I agree with Angela -- I don’t think that we can take that entirely out of the equation. But I also think that having a more robust intellectual environment that sustains the activism that connects between the kinds of researchers that we’re engaged with from the university, across to the kinds of questions that people are raising who are often excluded from the university, is a way of emphasizing the necessary crossing and the necessary intellectual development that can reveal the collectivities involved in the production of our knowledge.
Connecting knowledge from the universities to people who don’t have access to them can be challenging; particularly in politics right now, there is a lot of anti-intellectualism. I’m wondering what you think to be the cause of anti-intellectualism right now, and how you believe we should respond to that.
GD: Well, I think it’s important to recognize that anti-intellectualism isn’t just a natural thing that people feel, but that it has to be cultivated in us. Children are naturally curious. To remove that curiosity means that something has to happen. I always refer back to one of my graduate instructors, Edward Said, who taught us a lot about the way that the political right was organizing in the 1980s to invade the university, which it perceived as a challenge. Because the more information that students were getting, regardless of their political backgrounds, the more they were changing to become more democratic, more open, more embracing of different kinds of communities. And that was a threat to capital and a threat to the dominant elites.
AD: Anti-intellectualism is, in a sense, an inevitability of the hierarchical structure of our world. Unfortunately, sometimes, it serves as a way to justify the hierarchies that characterize our society. And, it’s also easy. It’s easy to argue that everything should be clear and lucid, without having to think deeply. I think it’s important to point out that anti-intellectualism not only affects those who have been professionally trained as intellectuals, but those whose knowledge has been generated in other places. In prisons, for example. There is probably a larger number of intellectuals per capita [in prisons] than in most other places in the world, because people who are in prison discover that if they are to have some access to freedom, it will be through freedom of the mind. And so they spend a great deal of time thinking and studying. And that is what we have to encourage in our movements. Answers are not immediately available, as someone, like the current President, would like to assume. It’s the easy way out. And in most instances, it’s the way out that leads to more racism, and more xenophobia, and more modes of oppression.
What do you feel is the greatest challenge facing the new generation of young activists today?
GD: I think the biggest challenge is that there are so many issues that are there for attention and it’s difficult to consider spending one’s life just going down one narrow path. I think young people feel responsibility to deal with every issue and that’s why I think it’s important to pay attention to those aspects of activism that can connect to the broadest set of possible issues, which is why for us, for example, prisons have been such an important window onto societies, because they capture so much of what is a problem in society at the same time.
AD: I think the greatest challenge is that of living up to the promise of the times, because this is a very special historical juncture where a mode of activism is possible that has not been previously possible. Equally important is developing activism that can be communicated to younger generations, so I think it’s a responsibility of the younger generation to attend to those who come after.
Special thank you to Angela Davis and Gina Dent for their time and openness with us students and to Ellyn Toscano and NYU Florence’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee for their partnership in arranging the events.