Update: On Jan. 4, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute announced that the award dinner has been cancelled, an updated story about the cancellation and reaction is here.
Each year, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has an event to present its highest honor, the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, but for some in the community, there might be some indigestion at the dinner over this year’s honoree.
Birmingham native Angela Davis will be honored at the Feb. 16 event, which is being referred to as “A Civil Rights Icon Returns.”
According to the Institute, “Through her activism and scholarship over many decades, Angela Davis has been deeply involved in movements for social justice around the world. Her work as an educator – both at the university level and in the larger public sphere – has always emphasized the importance of building communities united in the struggle for economic, racial and gender justice.”
Something not included in the Institute’s publicity for the event is that Davis has also been an outspoken voice in the boycott-Israel movement, and advocates extensively on college campuses for the isolation of the Jewish state, saying Israel engages in ethnic cleansing and is connected to police violence against African-Americans in the United States.
In her talks, the “building communities united” specifically excludes supporters of Israel as intersectional coalitions adopt the Palestinian struggle as their own.
Her 2015 book was entitled “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement,” and she frequently compares Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to police shootings of African-Americans. She has also said Israel gets its tear gas to use against Palestinians from the same company that supplies the police force in Ferguson.
There is a national effort among advocates for the Palestinians to get police departments to refuse joint training with Israeli police on best practices for fighting terrorism and enhancing emergency response.
She also connects Israel with one of her primary causes, the abolition of the prison system in the U.S., which she calls the “prison-industrial complex.” Palestine under Israeli occupation is “the worst possible example of a carceral society” as the world’s “largest open air prison,” she has stated.
Davis compares Israel to apartheid South Africa, but has stated that Israel is worse in its treatment of Palestinians. She refers to the security barrier Israel erected following a long series of deadly suicide bombings by Palestinians in Israel in the early 2000s as an “apartheid wall.”
Davis has called for “political prisoner” Marwan Barghouti to be released from jail. A leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Barghouti is serving five life terms for participation in murders of Israelis. A leader of the First and Second Intifadas, in 2014 he called for an end to Palestinian security cooperation with Israel and advocated a Third Intifada.
Davis also was a supporter of Rasmea Odeh, who was convicted of a 1969 bombing in a Jerusalem grocery store, killing two students. A member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Odeh was deported from the U.S. for immigration fraud, lying about her terror ties and not disclosing her terrorism conviction.
At a sendoff party for Odeh in Chicago on Aug. 12, 2017, Davis praised her for decades of “her principled challenges to the policies and practices of the state of Israel,” saying Odeh was being deported to cover up governmental efforts to “blunt support for BDS.” She also said the deportation was the result of misogyny, an assault on immigrants, and xenophobia.
In her speech, Davis also said “we see the state of Israel as perpetrator of sexual violence and trauma, and we see the U.S. government reaping the benefits of that sexual attack as it has designated Rasmea a terrorist even as she has suffered under sexual terrorism.”
She referred to terrorism charges leveled against Odeh as “fabricated,” and done “in an attempt to dampen a growing movement for justice — justice for Palestinians, justice for people of African descent, for indigenous people, for Latino people.”
In a 2017 talk at George Washington University, Davis asserted “In standing up against the racism of the state of Israel, we are passionately saying no to anti-Semitism as well,” and opposing Israel benefits the Jewish people.
Ignoring Jewish indigenous ties to the land of Israel, she also reminded the audience that like Israel, the United States “is also a settler colonial nation” occupying someone else’s land.
She is a passionate supporter of the boycott-Israel movement, routinely joining Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and author Alice Walker in pressuring entertainers who have scheduled events in Israel to cancel.
Davis co-signed a letter stating that restricting BDS to the settlements lets Israel “off the hook” for approving the settlements, Israeli banks for financing them, and other “serious violations of international law” by Israel.
She also endorses an academic boycott of Israeli institutions and professors.
Davis criticizes Israel for what is called “pinkwashing,” defined as Israel’s touting its acceptance of the LGBTQ community as a way to “distract” from other “crimes,” and falsely charging that Palestinians who are LGBTQ aren’t allowed into Israel.
In a January 2018 speech at Washington University, Davis stated that pro-Israel advocates can not stand for intersectional social justice, and all feminists should be pro-Palestine.
Davis grew up on Dynamite Hill in Birmingham, where Klan bombings were commonplace. After being recruited for a northern high school, she became active in Communist youth groups.
She received a scholarship to Brandeis University, where she was one of three black students in her class.
After further studies in Europe, she became an assistant professor at UCLA, then was fired for her ties to the Communist party. A judge overturned her dismissal, but she was fired again for “inflammatory language.” She was also a member of the Black Panthers.
In 1970, an activist took hostages in a Marin County courtroom; during a shootout the judge and three others were killed. Davis had purchased the weapons used in the attack, and fled upon being charged. She was named to the FBI Ten Most Wanted list. She was captured and stood trial, but was acquitted.
Davis has said that her consciousness of Palestine came during her undergraduate years at Brandeis, and that when she was imprisoned, she was supported by Palestinian political prisoners and Israeli attorneys who were defending Palestinians.
She also noted in a recent interview that “encounters between Black liberation struggles in the United States and movements against the Israeli occupation of Palestine have a very long history.”
Established in 2002, the Shuttlesworth Award was first presented to Shuttlesworth, a towering figure in Birmingham’s civil rights struggle. It is “an opportunity for the Institute to recognize individuals for their service to civil and human rights causes around the world.”
Among past recipients are Danny Glover, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rep. James Clyburn, Bryan Stevenson, Ambassador Andrew Young, Vernon Jordan Jr. and C.T. Vivian.
This year’s event will be held at Haven in Birmingham’s Southside.
(Updated Jan. 8 to include quotes from the Odeh event, and link to the new story).