On Freedom and Action: An evening with Lennox Hinds and Angela Davis

On Wednesday, Rutgers celebrated the service and retirement of Professor Lennox Hinds, who had been a faculty member there for over forty years. Professor Hinds built his career on social justice, serving as legal counsel to Assata Shakur and the third woman to be placed on the F.B.I.’s most wanted list, Angela Davis. Professor Hinds was also legal advisor to Nelson Mandela, during his inaugural visit to the U.S.A. in 1990.

Hinds and Davis shared the stage at last night’s celebration of Hinds’ career and distinguished service at the University, as friends and comrades-in-arms who have been fighting for racial justice for the past five decades. Davis recounted their meeting as she was detained in New York City in 1970, and a subsequent encounter with New Brunswick police after an event held at Rutgers (circa the late 1970s, 1:05:00 to 1:09:00 in the YouTube video). Paralleling the struggles of black youth in the 1960s and 70s to contemporary over-policing of black bodies and mass incarcerations of people of colour, Hinds and Davis both recognised the enmeshing of capitalism with policing and criminal justice. As Hinds asserted, the motto of the police is ‘To protect and serve’, but “to protect and serve whom?”

Hinds and Davis demanded accountability from police, noting that “police misbehaviour” was not a new occurrence, but just one that was becoming more visible through the availability of recording devices. Professor Hinds gave a brief review of the laws of the USA, starting with the constitution, illustrating the foundation of these laws in racist ideology, leading up to the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the US, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted“.

As Lisa Cacho explores in Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected, racism creates populations who are “dead-to-others”, who lack inherent value, and who are denied personhood, and can then justifiably be politically repressed and imprisoned. In the fifty years between the rise of the Black Panthers and of Black Lives Matter, the continuity of these oppressive societal structures necessitate the persistent under-valuing of racialised groups and the attribution of criminality to their skin colour. “The criminal” is ontologised as the black body, just as the “job-stealing-immigrant” to America is the Latinx (often read as ‘Mexican’). These presuppositions of one’s nature are rooted in ideologies that devalue these bodies, and thus deny personhood, protection and justice. Adhering to established structures, then, would not revaluate these lives.

One of many memes with this quote circulating on social media.

Davis challenged us to dream of a future beyond reforming the systems we currently have, referring to Audre Lorde’s advice about the master’s tools being ineffective when trying to dismantle the master’s house. Why should we try to change systems of oppression? Why not abolish them? What would it mean to develop a notion of security that does not require constant policing?

Having prisons means we believe people would continue to commit such harm that they require being locked up. Instead, Davis suggests we move towards the elimination of prisons. How do we get rid of the harm that people inflict on each other?

By removing the situations of oppression that cultivate harm-causing behaviours, such as monopoly capitalism, premised on exploitative manufacturing practices, inclusive of the under-valuing of human life and labour.

Angela Davis took the opportunity at the forum to clarify her being misquoted by supporters of Hilary Clinton. During her Sept. 30 keynote address at the “Black Matters: The Futures of Black Scholarship and Activism” conference at the University of Texas at Austin, Davis said, “I have serious problems with the other candidate, but I am not so narcissistic to say I cannot bring myself to vote for her.” Davis articulated that the political system does not protect the vast majority from the perils of the capitalist, sexist, elitist, hetero-patriarchal and racist state, and called for the formation of a new party informed by the ideologies of feminism and black radical activism, that was invested in labour movements and the working-class, was anti-capitalist and sought environmental, sexual and economic justice. Davis suggested that to vote for Clinton would allow a climate for such a party to emerge, and to open possibilities for future generations.

Davis recognised value in young activists’ new ways of thinking and organising around these persistent oppressions. In the face of mass incarceration, mass graves of undocumented Latinx migrants, of environmental justice and indigenous rights, Hinds and Davis encourage young activists to not lose hope, to keep fighting, noting the only alternative is surrender; we must either engage in radical critique or assimilate and become silenced under the status quo. Hence Davis’ unwavering stance on abolishing systems of oppression rather than trying to fix them.

In what context can we be free? We must imagine this future and then build it. As Davis asked, “Can’t we dream?”