The one-time Black Panther leader urged the rapt audience to move beyond mourning and embrace grassroots political organizing in the face of the impending presidency of Donald Trump.
Seventy-two-year-old Davis looked regal, her grey-gold Afro in a halo around her face, her gap-toothed smile and lilting voice as captivating as it was 50 years ago. She was depicted in the media as a dangerous terrorist then. In the early 70s she was placed on the FBI's most wanted list, then tried and acquitted on charges of being an accomplice to the killing of a California judge (charges widely seen as then-governor Ronald Reagan's retribution for her radical activism). Today, the University of California Santa Cruz professor emerita is still an icon, regularly publishing influential feminist and anti-capitalists treatises and lecturing widely around the country.
The crowd was a racially diverse who's-who of progressive and radical Chicago—including Chicago Teacher's Union president Karen Lewis, and the leadership of Black Lives Matter Chicago, Black Youth Project 100, Assata's Daughters, and the #LetUsBreathe Collective. Two of Sandra Bland's sisters were there. John Cusack sat in a front pew with black baseball cap pulled low.
Whatever the original intent of the lecture Wednesday, much of the event was devoted to a discussion of the election.
"I feel really invigorated, to be here, in Chicago, at this moment," Davis announced, punctuating her words by leaning closer to the microphone as applause and cheers intensified. "How do we begin to recover from this shock? By experiencing and building and rebuilding and consolidating community. Community is the answer."
Davis said that she has long seen Chicago as one of her "political homes," an "anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist political community." But in the context of the election, she underscored the need to "struggle over the coming period as we have never struggled before." She reminded the audience that Trump hadn't won the popular vote, that most people who cast their ballot did so against him, and that the millions of people who didn't vote at all shouldn't be forgotten by organizers and activists. She urged everyone to think critically about "representations of divisions in this country."
Nevertheless, the election was a reminder that we can't underestimate "the extent of the ideological influences of racism, of islamophobia, anti-semitism, hetero-patriarchy, xenophobia," Davis said, adding that the problems of the electoral college system have never been more apparent. "This is a time to reflect on the extent to which we are living with the relics and ghosts of slavery."
But Davis, who in September stated her intent to vote for Hillary Clinton, also took time to examine the deep deficiencies in the would-be first woman president's campaign, particularly its "outmoded notion of feminism that revolved around white, middle class and bourgeois women."
Davis then read from civil rights leader Anne Braden's 1972 "Letter to Southern white women":
I believe that no white woman reared in the South—or perhaps anywhere in this racist country—can find freedom as a woman until she deals in her own consciousness with the question of race. We grow up little girls...absorbing the stereotypes of race, the picture of ourselves as somehow privileged because of the color of our skin. The two mythologies become intertwined, and there is no way to free ourselves from one without dealing with the other.
"It seems like Hillary Clinton should have read her," Davis concluded, and the echoey chapel nave filled with laughter.
She then tackled the shortcomings of Bernie Sanders. Though he was able to bring a critique of capitalism to the national political arena and talk about the "working class" in a way that hadn't been heard in decades, "he seemed to be just learning how to incorporate a critique of racism," David said. "He should have sat down with some people and said, 'You know, I need a crash course on intersectionality.'"
As she concluded her lecture, Davis highlighted the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement in the country's slow progress toward understanding intersectionality; she called for free healthcare and free education; emphasized the usefulness of civil disobedience and the need to organize women's labor; underscored Islamophobia as "the most salient form of global racism today," and said that every city should be a sanctuary city for immigrants. She also repeated her decades-old call for the abolition of prisons and policing , "because we need new notions of security. Why do we accept forms of security that are fundamentally grounded in violence?" she demanded as the audience exploded in applause. "Violence and security contradict each other."
Davis then read from an open letter James Baldwin—who she called Jimmy—wrote to her while she was in jail:
The enormous revolution in black consciousness which has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America. Some of us, white and black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name. If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.
Following the lecture, Davis engaged in conversation with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a rising-star scholar of African-American studies from Princeton University. The most persistent questions (submitted by audience members on anonymous note cards) were about what to do in the the face of a Trump presidency. Davis didn't have any easy answers. "Whatever we are already doing, we need to do more," she said. "We need to accelerate our activism."
Davis also said that we should be cautious of views of Trump as a "wake-up-call" that might finally bring the country to mobilize behind a progressive agenda. "I remember the Nixon era, when we all went to jail," she said. Too much time and energy had to be spent on legal defense then, to the detriment of the various radical movements of the era, she explained.
The last question of the night, a plea for advice and hope for the future, came from a group of high school students who Davis asked to stand up and be recognized. "I think that you are the hope," she told them. "Even though I've been around for a very long time I don't see myself as having all the answers... The young people need to show the rest of us the way."