‘Change rarely happens without the involvement of artists’

Angela Davis’s visit in Oslo was an event that may well have ripple effects.

Angela Davis at the Oslo Melafestival, 11 August 2022. Photo: David D. Brandt

All of a sudden, there she was – the legendary American civil rights activist, author, and academic Dr Angela Davis – being instantly greeted with standing ovations and cheers from a packed hall at the Saga cinema in central Oslo. She was there because the multicultural Melafestival – directed by Khalid Salimi, who for several decades has been central to anti-racist work in Norway – had brought in Davis to mark the occasion of the festival’s 20th anniversary.

Her visit probably went under the radar for many, as it was not heavily marketed. Even so, the tickets were snapped up within a few hours. Davis could undoubtedly have filled an arena, but as her message is fundamentally anti-hierarchical, such a venue would not necessarily have been a good thing in itself. The largest hall at Saga was small enough for the event to feel like a relatively intimate encounter on a human scale, and despite the inherently monologic lecture format, Davis was able to connect with the highly committed and emotionally stirred audience, consisting in large part of younger activists, artists, and culture workers.

Having said that, it would certainly have been good if the event had been streamed, not least since the Norwegian press failed to respond adequately to its importance. As Davis herself noted, this was only her second visit to Norway. The previous visit took place way back in 1974 to coincide with the publication of a Norwegian translation of her autobiography. Back then, she came in the company of Toni Morrison, who was not yet very well known as a writer at the time, attending in her capacity as Davis’s editor. The fact that the visit from a figure like Davis, who has been central to the anti-racist struggle for over fifty years, was not given any attention in the major media is cause for concern. What does that say about the Norwegian public sphere?

Ericka Huggins (left) and Angela Davis. Photo: David D. Brandt.

Even though Davis consistently emphasises the importance of movements rather than individuals, she very obviously has enormous significance as a role model and inspiration for anti-racists worldwide, and it seems very likely that her visit to Oslo will create some ripple effects in the times ahead. While icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were killed during the civil rights struggle in the US during the 1960s, 78-year-old Angela Davis is still active and very much alive – “a survivor,” to quote the term she used for herself and her contemporary “sister” from the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence (BPP), Ericka Huggins. Partway into the lecture, Davis shared the applause by bringing Huggins forward on stage, as well as Lisbet Tellefsen, who works with the movement’s archive and history.

Davis highlighted the importance of the work done by anonymous individuals and collectives who never receive any public recognition – a message well worth taking on board in our current culture of extreme visibility. She placed particular emphasis on the importance of women’s work. Referencing a book by Ericka Huggins to be published later this autumn, Comrade Sisters. Women of the Black Panther Party, she pointed out that 66 per cent of the members of the BPP were women, and yet the mode in which the party is represented to the world is always “masculinist.”

Davis also thanked the international anti-racist movement that supported her and contributed to her acquittal and release in 1972, after she had spent sixteen months in prison, accused of complicity in the murder of a judge. As she said, at the time there were “official efforts by the US that I was either executed or consigned to prison for the rest of my life.”

Angela Davis with the archivist of the Black Panther movement, Lisbet Tellefsen (left). Photo: David D. Brandt.

The importance of a global movement was the main focus of the lecture, ‘Why Racism Must Be a Global Concern: Art and Politics in the 21st Century.’ Davis opened by describing our time as “an era of intense awareness of struggles against racism, struggles against heteropatriarchy, climate change, and a whole range of issues that constitute our contemporary global social justice issues.” She believes that we have learned much, during the last half century, about the power of racism. For example, that it is not confined to geographical sites where there have been explicit policies of racial segregation such as in the US and South Africa. Rather, racism permeates human history and the systems of capitalism that were enabled by colonialism and slavery. Although she emphasised that she is not critical of international solidarity, believing that today we need as much solidarity as we can muster, she still found that international movements against apartheid and racism often have limited themselves to being movements of solidarity, and as such they have unfolded at the expense of the recognition of racism as a global phenomenon.

Davis believes that there is now greater awareness of the connection between racism and capitalism – racial capitalism – and that racism is no longer primarily considered an individual character flaw. “Recognising the connection of racism and capitalism means that we are all implicated in the reproduction of racism,” she said, adding that this means we cannot simply assume that countries which were less directly involved in the slave trade, or whose histories of colonialism are relatively minor in scope, like Norway and the other Scandinavian countries, bear no historical responsibility for racism:

Every country in the world is implicated in the processes that claim whiteness to be the global standard of humanity, whether they benefit from this assumption or whether they are oppressed by it. Those nations that have historically imagined themselves as white and abused standards of whiteness either implicitly or explicitly to define themselves are deeply implicated in the reproduction of racism.

One point made a particular impression: at a time when the massive international Black Lives Matter-protests following the brutal police murder of George Floyd on 29 May 2020 already feel distant, Davis asserted the importance of holding on to such milestones. “It’s so important to hold moments of promise in our collective memories,” she said, referring to the summer of 2020 when huge numbers of people worldwide stood up against racism – at their own peril, as this was in the middle of an early phase of the Covid-19 pandemic. She pointed out that these moments of promise never actually achieve their goals, but they do place issues on the global agenda, issues that still remain unresolved. She highlighted the abolition of slavery as another such moment of promise (as she reminded, “it did not actually abolish it”), as well as the prison abolition movement, the movement against gender violence, and the environmental movement, which has “generated promises that if not fulfilled, it will cause the earth to lose all future possibilities.”

Angela Davis. Photo: David D. Brandt.

Davis said that back in the 1960s and 70s she believed, given the intense work done on organising students, teachers, workers, unions, artists, musicians, and cultural workers, that it would only take a few years before they would be able to see real changes. Later, when taking part in launching a movement for the abolition of prisons and structural racism in the 1990s, she was convinced that they initiated a process that would not have a significant effect in their lifetimes. She pointed out that “utopia” means “no place,” not “no time,” and that she likes to think of movements for change as utopian in that sense, as having a vision that would be realised in the future.

Much of the lecture was devoted to the fight for the abolition of the police and prison system. While this struggle tends to appear particularly relevant in the US, due to the degree of police violence and mass incarceration there, Davis emphasised that the issue, which includes border policing, is a global concern, too. She was interested in the possibility of alliances between the fight against what she calls “the prison industry” and the fight for immigrants’ and refugees’ rights, and the comparisons that can also be drawn between police violence in the US and what she referred to as Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine.

But Davis said she would not call for abolition “without thinking of what might work better than violence and oppression.” She continued, “prisons and police cannot be abolished without restructuring the entire society,” stressing that the real question is how we can transform our societies so that we do not need to rely on these institutions of violence that continue to reproduce structural racism, heteropatriarchy, transphobia, and capitalist exploitation.

Even though its title put “art and politics” on equal footing, Davis’s lecture in Oslo was, strictly speaking, mostly about politics. Even so, she emphasised the importance of art at the beginning and end – and, given the context of the Melafestival, she highlighted the importance of music in particular. “Artists and musicians can help us move forward by teaching us what it feels like to want to be free,” she said, pointing out that art often has a way of making us feel what we don’t yet understand, what we cannot express in words. Change rarely happens without the involvement of artists, she emphasised.

Davis ended her Oslo appearance by repeating the importance of an intersectional approach, issuing a call to be both critical and angry when change does not happen, but at the same time urging the audience to not let it get in the way of continuing the process of doing what we have to do to bring about change even if we don’t see the results ourselves. “Because we know that a hundred years from now, people may be addressing other issues, other issues will emerge. That is to say, if the planet is still here.”

Angela Davis receiving standing ovations in Oslo. Photo: David D. Brandt.