YWCA brings Angela Davis to Pasadena at a tumultuous time

It was, well, the hell of a day, Tuesday was, for the 20th-annual Women for Racial Justice breakfast thrown by the local YWCA.

All the beautiful words and the amazing solidarity of hundreds of women of color, and White women, too, in the Pasadena Hilton ballroom came on the morning of “the hot mess in L.A. City Hall,” in the words of one of the event’s honorees, Surina Khan.

One of the most powerful, nominally progressive Latinas in California had been caught on tape in an hour of vitriol showing her to be a vicious racist, an all-purpose hater, a homophobe, with deep prejudices against apparently everyone in the world with the possible exception of those with roots in Zacatecas.

Nury Martinez, former president of the Los Angeles City Council, had resigned that post, and as we gathered was announcing that she would take a leave of absence from her council seat as well, in what one hopes will be a move preparatory to her full resignation.

For such a cynic, it’s almost certain that losing her almost $300,000 in annual compensation is the only thing keeping her from doing the right thing.

The breakfast was founded two decades ago by Pasadenan Judy Brown. and this week the Glendale and Pasadena YWCA women honored four outstanding women: Angela Aguirre, poet and activist; Dr. Giovanna Brasfield, CEO of Brasfield & Associates;  Connie Chung Joe, CEO, Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles; and Surina Khan, CEO, Women’s Foundation of California.

The big draw for the big crowd was keynote speaker Angela Davis, who did not disappoint, nor shy away in her remarks from the crisis at hand.

“I guess I walked into a cauldron here in Los Angeles,” she said as she took the stage. “Now, what can I say? I am appalled that a conversation could be charged with such obvious racial stereotypes. But if we really want to be about an end to racism … to all of these modes of repression that have devastated our society — also, classism — we have to remember that none of the words we have heard are a question of people getting their feelings hurt. They reveal the profound need for structural transformation.”

We have to pause here for a moment to remember just who Angela Davis is. In a cultural icon sense, it was simply a thrill to see her here, still on the hustings at 78 years of age, emerita now in her role as a philosophy professor at UC Santa Cruz, but still criss-crossing the nation and the world, going wherever there’s a cause that interests her. Which includes speaking in all 50 states. AD in South Dakota? Guess so. But it needs to be recalled that she was not only a longtime member of the Communist Party USA — she was twice its vice-presidential candidate. While she has done really admirable work on prison reform in her own country, and advocated strongly for people here wrongly incarcerated, she consistently refused down the decades to protest against Soviet-linked regimes in Eastern Europe who jailed dissidents willy-nilly.

Then there’s that Pasadena connection. In 1970, Davis was one of many supporters of the so-called Soledad Brothers, three inmates charged with the killing of a prison guard at Soledad Prison. On Aug. 7 of that year  17-year-old Blair High School student Jonathan Jackson, whose brother was George Jackson, one of the Soledad Brothers, took over a courtroom in Marin County in an effort to free them. The judge in the case was killed in the ensuing melee. So were the Soledad Brothers. Several of the guns used were owned by Angela Davis, including the shotgun used to kill the judge.

She went underground; was found in New York City; came back to California to face trial; was found innocent of all charges.

So, there’s that — half a century ago. On Tuesday, Davis spoke insightfully about any number of issues, and told wonderful stories about both how the YWCA had supported her when she was jailed and how “the YWCA helped to save my mother’s life.” When Davis’s mother was a 13-year-old in rural Alabama, her foster parents wanted her to quit school and work to help support the family. Instead, she ran away to Birmingham, got a room at the YW, and went on to finish high school there, graduate from college, go to grad school.

At the end of her remarks Tuesday, Davis says she’s kind of glad the revolution she had been seeking in America never happened. “It would have been a masculinist revolution,” she said. “And freedom is not so much a destination. It is a journey.”

Write the public editor at lwilson@scng.com.