Potential jurors reporting for jury duty in the D.C. Superior Court building have of late been passing a photo exhibit celebrating renowned black women in a series of posters, each featuring portraits of trailblazers exemplifying greatness in their respective fields.
Included among the posters, hung for Black History Month on the walls outside the jurors’ lounge, is one in which the D.C. courts — the federally funded judicial branch of the D.C. government — honor eight “Black Women Paving the Way to Greatness in Politics.”
One might quibble with some of the choices, but most of them are women who indeed deserved to be celebrated. They include: Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman and the first black woman who sought to run for president; Carol Moseley Braun, the first black female U.S. senator; former National Security Council adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the first black female to hold both offices; Patricia Roberts Harris, the first black female Cabinet secretary, U.S. ambassador and law school dean; and our current first lady, Michelle Obama.
One of these personifications of “greatness,” however, comes as a shock, especially in the context of a court of law. It is none other than Angela Davis, a black activist who came to prominence in the 1960s as a leader of the Communist Party U.S.A. and the radical black group the Black Panther Party. Ms. Davis was such a high profile communist in the latter days of the Cold War that she was awarded the so-called “Lenin Peace Prize,” given to her in a Moscow ceremony by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev himself.
Of course, Ms. Davis, too, was a trailblazer in her own way.
She was the second black woman to make the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. She earned that distinction as a fugitive wanted on murder and kidnapping charges stemming from her role in a notorious attack on a courtroom in Marin County in California.
On Aug. 7, 1970, a black 17-year-old named Jonathan Jackson, toting a small arsenal of guns, entered the courtroom of Judge Harold Haley, where convict James McClain was facing murder charges in the death of a prison guard. Brandishing a gun, Jackson halted the proceedings and then armed McClain, after which they together armed two other convicts, who’d been called as witnesses in the case. Jackson and the three freed prisoners then took Judge Haley, the prosecutor and three female jurors hostage, bargaining chips in their effort to force the release from prison of older brother George Jackson, an armed robber who also was under indictment on murder charges in the death of another prison guard.
A career criminal turned Black Panther prison organizer, George Jackson was the author of “Soledad Brother,” a collection of his militant prison letters. The abductors fled with their hostages — Judge Haley now with a sawed-off shotgun taped under his chin, the others bound with piano wire — in a waiting van. They didn’t get far before reaching a police roadblock, where a shootout erupted, leaving Judge Haley, Jonathan Jackson and two other kidnappers dead, the prosecutor paralyzed for life and a juror wounded.
It was quickly established that Angela Davis had purchased at least two of the guns used in the deadly attack, including the shotgun that killed Judge Haley, which she had bought two days earlier and which was then sawed off. California law considered anyone complicit in commission of a crime a principal. As a result, Marin County Superior Judge Peter Smith charged Ms. Davis with “aggravated kidnapping and first-degree murder” and issued an arrest warrant for her. Instead of surrendering for trial, Ms. Davis went into hiding. She was captured by the FBI almost three months later at a Howard Johnson motel on 10th Avenue in the heart of New York City.
Ms. Davis claimed that she was innocent, and her case became a cause celebre, as the international communist movement bankrolled her defense and organized a worldwide movement to “Free Angela.” Eventually, she was acquitted in 1972, despite her proven ownership of the murder weapons and a cache of letters she wrote to George Jackson in prison expressing her passionate romantic feelings for him and unambivalent solidarity with his commitment to political violence.
As in the O.J. Simpson trial, however, many remained convinced of the defendant’s guilt despite the jury’s verdict. Ms. Davis was acquitted, wrote author and ex-radical David Horowitz for his Front Page website, “in part because of the difficulty the prosecution had in establishing in court the real connections between Davis and Jackson, and in part because the jury was stacked with political sympathizers like Mary Timothy, an anti-Vietnam [War] activist,” who, according to Mr. Horowitz, would later become the “love interest” of Bettina Aptheker, a prominent Communist Party activist and organizer of the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners.
There is a further irony in the homage to Ms. Davis‘ “greatness” displayed for jurors in the D.C. Courthouse, the scene of people tried for actual crimes who might go to prison: Ms. Davis is these days a driving force in the prison-abolition movement and founder of a group called Critical Resistance, which is dedicated to smashing what she calls “the prison-industrial complex.”
Ms. Davis holds that any black serving a prison sentence in the United States is in reality a “political prisoner,” whatever offense they may have committed. In her lexicon, those convicted are only victims of “masked racism.” As she wrote in 1998, the poverty in which blacks are “ensconced” causes them to be “grouped together under the category ‘crime’ and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior to people of color.” The purpose of prison, in her eyes, is simply to “disappear” people who come from “poor, immigrant and racially marginalized communities.”
Ms. Davis imputes to the American ruling class what she terms “racial assumptions of criminality,” which enable the nation to lock up the innocent under a veneer of legality and “disappear the major social problems of our time.” As she explains, most people “have been tricked into believing in the efficacy of imprisonment,” even though “prisons do not work.” Ms. Davis envisions linking her struggle against this “complex” with other “strands of resistance” to build a new “powerful movement for social transformation.”
In the D.C. Courthouse, as juror selection takes place, lawyers for both sides daily strive to winnow out even subtle biases that could impinge on a jury’s impartial hearing of trial evidence. With her blanket dismissal of evidence as irrelevant in trials of (automatically innocent) minority defendants, Ms. Davis indicts the entire American legal system as a rigged farce.