American academic, socialist organiser and general revolutionary symbol, Angela Davis has been in the country giving talks in Auckland and Wellington. Being in Dunedin, I wasn't able to make it to the talks, but have received a limited amount of feedback on the events. Her trip was sponsored and supported by various academic and ethnic-oriented groups such as Amokura, Nga Pae O Te Maramatanga, Va'aomanû Pasifika: Samoan Studies and Pacific Studies, Te Kawa a Maui: Maori Studies, and the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Victoria University. What's more - the Maori Party provided security for her! While it's great to see these groups openly supporting a revolutionary in NZ, it's also kinda ironic for a number of reasons. [Read more below]
First, Davis is partially dismissive of over-focus on race and ethnicity as a form of social change and understanding. After all, she has in the past been highly critical of ethnic nationalism and the rejection by black nationalists of class and socialism as a way forward. She held the view that nationalism was a barrier to grappling with the underlying issue, capitalist domination of working people of all races. For this reason she's been a strong supporter of Cuba and she views democracy and socialism as being more compatible than democracy and capitalism. I wonder what she made of her NZ 'supporters' who take a contrary approach.
Apparently when Davis spoke to a select academic group at Victoria University of Wellington, she mentioned her interest in moving away from analysis/activism 'based on ancestry' - ie race. This followed on from the invited academics telling her about their projects and struggles which were primarily concerned with race. That someone was able to get away with critiquing this race-based approach was probably only 'allowable' due to Angela Davis' iconic stature - no white male on the left in NZ would get away with it! (Although, then again, Elizabeth Rata doesn't get away with it either!)
So it sounds like there has been a lot of fawning over Davis, despite her rejection of the backward liberal-left approach to social change that characterises NZ politics. The involvement of Maori Party politicians in the fawning is especially ironic, because Davis' special interest is in prison abolition, which she talked about at great length in Auckland and Wellington. Yet not only do the Maori Party fully believe in a prison system, they want more private prisons built! I wonder if Hone Harawira was honest enough to admit that stance to Davis. Of course, at one talk, Davis noted that politicians and collaborators who support the building of prisons - which she calls 'participators' - will always be with us, in every community.
Hopefully Davis' well-made point about the backgrounds and ethnicities of politicians such as Condaleeza Rice and Barack Obama weren't lost on those that have tended to view politics through the lenses of race in NZ.
It should also be noted that despite the poor publicity for Angela Davis' brief tour, and despite the organisers booking her to speak in such tiny venues (what were they thinking?), her talks have obviously sparked off much enthusiasm for social change and put some radical ideas onto the activist agenda. Perhaps there will even be a reestablishment of the Polynesian Panthers here in NZ - which has been one of the more progressive and interesting example of working class based struggle around an ethnic community in this country. Inspired by the Black Panthers in the US, the NZ Polynesian Panthers did a lot of their work around Auckland running homework centres and breakfast clubs for hungry children.
You can hear some of thoughts at the website for Niu FM, and Maia is posting some thoughts on her Capitalism bad; tree pretty blog. It also sounds like Davis will be back in NZ for a conference (in the Far North) in about 2010, so it would be good if she can be exposed to some more radical politics next time.