Angela Davis had that distinctive silhouette: her natural hairdo, refracted through pop-art screen printing into a political image as simple and direct—actually, more so—as Tania Hearst's famous armed-and-dangerous photo. Which is how you know you've made a dent in politics: you're an icon both figurative and literal. But Davis had and has a storied career that couldn't fit on a poster: she was born in the same city as Condoleezza Rice—but 10 years before; "Isn't that fun?" asks writer Laura Flanders—which is one of those contrasts that just tingles. On one balance: her last book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, and her longtime work as a prison-reform activist—she uses the term "abolitionist"; on the other, Dr. Rice's recent notice that "the Geneva Conventions should not be extended to those who don't live up to the obligations of the Geneva Conventions."
These must be sadly ripe times for Davis, weeks after the allegations—supported by mysterious CIA flights to Eastern Europe and growing evidence in the international press—of secret government prisons for terrorist-ish nonpersons; as Molly Ivins asked: What was the point of defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War if we were just going to turn into it ourselves? But the gulag has been growing for years, as chronicled in Davis' life and writings. She found her international fame as a prisoner in New York City in 1971, incarcerated on weapons charges related to a Marin County jailbreak—inside, she watched firsthand as the roughest end of what she'd later call the prison-industrial complex ground her fellow prisoners down, and before her acquittal and release, she'd organized a within-the-walls bail program to aid the poorest inmates. And once she was outside, she made sure the organization that had fought for her release changed its name: the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and All Political Prisoners. Who would have their work cut out for them right now.
Davis hit a lot of high points over the next 30 years, publishing her landmark Women, Race and Class and her lesser-known sociology of music work Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, getting fired as a UC lecturer for being a communist (per orders from Ronald Reagan) and running as the Communist Party's VP candidate in 1980 and 1984—she didn't say she wasn't a communist!—and then getting rehired at UC Santa Cruz, which probably shaved a few minutes off Reagan's twilight years. Her lectures are a traditional campus touchstone—Davis remains an advocate of student activism, instead of retreating into '60s-old-codgerism. Not to say something about now more than ever, but the prison state is healthier than it's been in years: even domestically, where Democratic-leaning inmates in Florida could have tipped that 2000 vote toward Gore—if they'd been allowed to vote. Which would have cut out the heart of this whole fiasco in the first place—a point made by Angela Davis.