Nancy Cutler Rockland/Westchester Journal News - NYACK – Activist and educator Angela Davis came to Rockland after all Thursday evening, meeting with North Rockland teens − and hundreds of others − after a planned school-sponsored event unraveled amid criticism that she was too “radical” for the county and its children.
The event finally took place at Pilgrim Baptist Church, with about 500 people crowded in. There was no prior publicity, a strategic move, organizers said, after the North Rockland school district and then, quietly, St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill pulled out of hosting the civil rights activist because of protests. When Davis appeared, before she reached the podium, her audience burst into applause and gave her a standing ovation.
"The Black church has truly been a vector for freedom," Davis said. She said she was excited to be invited to Rockland, the longtime home of the late author Toni Morrison, her close friend for 50 years. She wondered whether Morrison's books were used in local schools − or might be targeted for bans. Davis said opposition to her appearance was really "not about me. I am just one person." Protestors do so, she said, to "misconstrue and misrepresent what it means to struggle for justice, to struggle for freedom."
The Rev. Carl Washington III, pastor of Pilgrim Baptist, urged the crowd to applaud itself "for your own efforts to see this day come." He cheered the North Rockland High School students who first sought to bring Davis to Rockland. Anaya Willis, a North Rockland senior, introduced Davis, saying too many people see American history as the story of "white America" and that students wanted to hear from a figure who once helped feed the needy with the Black Panther Party. Several organizations stepped in and arranged Davis' appearance, including Nyack NAACP, Mid Hudson NAACP, Education for Liberation Network, and Haymarket Press. Nyack NAACP President Nicole Hines said it was remarkable that hundreds learned of the rescheduled event but were able to keep it under wraps. "Dang! My community is great." Hines earlier listed the reasons it was important for Davis' appearance to go on: “Giving the students a voice, recognizing their hard work and getting someone so powerful to come into our community,” Hines said. “Not allowing folks who don’t like Dr. Davis to shut down and shut up students.”
Jada Rock and Kaitlyn Russo, 17-year-old seniors at North Rockland High School, were at Pilgrim Baptist after working on the scrapped plans to have Davis address a student club. "We're really excited about having a conversation with an historical figure," Rock said. Russo said she was devastated when the school event was canceled. She knew Davis was controversial, but "I didn't expect that." Davis was ultimately heard by students from outside North Rockland, including some who are part of a group called Leaders of Change at Spring Valley and Ramapo high schools. Davis told them that "It's extremely important to recognize that change has happened" because activists sought radical change. "Maybe not all the change we need, not all the change we want." She said the Black community had managed to "hold onto hope through the generations," and that today's North Rockland students are the benefactors.
"I think everyday about the fact that I am associated with a people who have refused to give up," she said. "Not only that, but have created beauty" through it all. Davis, 78, has long been a key figure in the Black liberation movement, feminist movement and a leader in fighting the "prison-industrial complex." The UC Santa Cruz professor is the author of 10 books. North Rockland residents, though, attended a November school board meeting to blast Superintendent Kris Felicello for entertaining the idea of bringing a “radical” to address students, even after community pushback had already led to the off-campus event’s cancellation. Many who opposed Davis called for Felicello's firing. The North Rockland school board showed support for him at the November meeting, where Felicello described why he initially supported bringing Davis to speak and why he scrapped the planned event. Felicello said Davis had been chosen by VOICE, a group of students from diverse backgrounds. VOICE members said they wanted a “big name,” and the superintendent said his goal was to “have all students be heard, make this a better and more inclusive place.” When news of the planned North Rockland-affiliated appearance broke, critics took to social media. They shared the FBI “Most Wanted” poster issued when she went into hiding in 1970 after she was accused of supplying guns used in an attempted courtroom escape. She was acquitted of all charges in 1972 by an all-white jury.
Those who spoke out against the appearance also pointed to her past affiliation with the Communist Party and made unsubstantiated claims that she was somehow connected to the 1981 Brinks robbery in Rockland that killed two Nyack police officers and a Brinks guard. Hines said critics just look at bad information and listen to hearsay. “She is a philosopher,” Hines said. “She is a powerful Black woman who is a professor. People need to do their research into who she really is. Read her stuff.” Wilbur Aldridge, regional director of the NAACP Mid Hudson Valley, said the NAACP has always stood up for free speech. "Why shouldn’t she be here? It is America," he said. "People do have a right to express their opinions about anything, including her critics." Aldridge said that Davis has had a long activist tenure, and people should be willing to hear from her in the present. "The NAACP does not judge someone based upon their past." He said that even if someone has different political views, "that doesn't mean they shouldn't be heard."
Besides, he said, if parents have instilled their beliefs, a single speech should not pose a threat to their children.
"I don’t believe anyone can ever be indoctrinated into anything in one hour," Aldridge said. "I’m not too sure what they’re afraid of." Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland.