Angela Davis speaking at a rally back in the day. Angela Davis speaking at a rally back in the day.

It would have been difficult to ignore the posters plastered around campus in January: a woman with a 70s afro, caught in a passionate lunge against a striking red backdrop, the words Xpression Against Oppression scrawled along the bottom. It was rebellious, so passionate. It made you want to jolt yourself out of your apathy and actually do something. The posters were advertising the keynote event of UTSU’s “Xpression Against Oppression” week. On February 4, the student union invited academic and activist Angela Davis to speak at Bloor Cinema.

Davis is easily one of America’s most controversial public figures. Currently a professor at UC Santa Cruz, she has been everything from an inspiration for John Lennon to a Vice Presidential candidate to the third woman ever on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. In the 60s and 70s, Davis was at the forefront of many left-wing movements sweeping the US. She was known for her staunch Marxism as well as her commitment to radical groups like the Black Panthers.

In 1969, Davis was fired from UCLA for her membership in the American Communist Party. This led to an international uproar over the state of academic freedom under the Nixon administration.

Davis was also embroiled in one of the landmark cases of modern legal history. In 1972, California judge Harold Haley was killed before he could sentence to death three black men arrested for attacking a white police officer. The shotgun used in the murder was allegedly registered in Davis’s name. Arrested on counts of kidnapping, conspiracy, and homicide, she was sentenced to be executed. Many saw this as typical of the racism embedded in the American legal system. A massive campaign called “Free Angela Davis” was set up. The Rolling Stones and John and Yoko dedicated songs to her. Aretha Franklin offered to pay Davis’s bail if the California government would commute her death sentence. Just before her execution, California made an about-face and cleared her of all charges.

Since then, Angela Davis has become something of an icon. She speaks on campuses throughout North America. To bring her to Toronto, UTSU teamed up with York, Ryerson, and Carlton who booked Davis on a joint speaking tour to offset her $10,500 speaking fee (UTSU paid approx. $2,500 from their budget).

Davis’s magnetic pull was evident as the Bloor Cinema packed to capacity. Tickets sold out more than a week in advance.

“She speaks so personally,” said audience member Melinda Him. “Even in a crammed hall, she’s able to bring up that one thing you yourself were so concerned about." Him’s comment was echoed by most people attending the talk.

Although best-known for her involvement in black activism and her criticisms of the American prison system, Davis’s Thursday lecture lacked any underlying thesis. After touching on the expected topics of race and poverty, she meandered among Haiti, Palestine, the environment, and transgendered issues. All of her points were met with loud bursts of applause and cheering.

“I specifically came to hear her talk about Haiti,” said former U of T student Hanna Adams. “I think it’s important to get a rounded perspective when all we encounter are biased images of misery from the mainstream media.”

Most audience members appeared to have immortalized Davis as she is shown on the UTSU poster: the eternal iconoclast, raging against every sort of institutionalized oppression. But in 2010, the exact meaning of this oppression seemed disparate and a bit hazy. It lumped together everything from David Naylor to gay-marriage regulation.

“As student leaders, we hope that Professor Davis’ social consciousness can inspire students to speak out against U of T’s increasingly corporate agenda,” said Daniella Kyei, VP Equity.

Following the lecture, A private reception with Davis at the Trane Studio on Bathurst was arranged by UTSU. Fans and select audience members were all eager for photo-ops and autographs.

Speaking to the newspaper, Davis expressed her dissatisfaction with the current leadership of America. Even in the Obama era, she feels that there is still a racist streak running through the country’s socio-economic fabric.

“It was the foundation that America was unfortunately built on," she said. "It’s no coincidence that Jim Crow Laws and big-box capitalism grew hand-in-hand. Only a real radical can overhaul the system. All other leaders inevitably end up compromising.”

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