She came. She spoke. Federal Way survived. Oh, and it was standing room only, a lot of laughs (often about her time in jail and being fired by Ronald Reagan), and began and ended with an ovation. She spoke for over 45 minutes, and answered questions in detail for nearly an hour.
Many did not agree with Angela Davis’ ideas. I don’t agree with many of her ideas. I'm sure many did not agree with her tactics in the 1960s and 1970s, and much of her polarizing history that included membership in the Communist and Black Panther parties, and time in jail.
I know that some in our community did not want to allow her to speak here at all, in any capacity. The comments in The Mirror before she arrived had reached fairly ugly proportions. The Mirror comments repeatedly called her a terrorist, equating her presence to bringing in Klansman and Nazis; they used labels including “blood drenched radical” and “murderer;” they linked her to a suggestion that our local Somali-American community was prone to terrorism; and of course attacked the Federal Way School Board for allowing her to speak.
There was also very emotional testimony last week during public comment that challenged the school board for allowing Davis to speak, and challenging that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech was not applicable to supporting a talk by Davis.
So naturally, with this much controversy I was excited (as were my wife and daughter) to see this talk for myself! I’m pleased to share that as far as skill and eloquence – the art of holding an audience in rapt attention – I’ve not seen a better presentation in Federal Way – kudos to Wanda Billingsley.
And as the evening wore on, it became abundantly clear that it was precisely because of Ms. Davis’ life experience – both good and bad – that her otherwise non-controversial subject matter carried resonance far beyond a sound bite on a news report, or a mean-spirited, throwaway slur on a website comment.
I believe everyone at the program was moved by the stories of growing up in segregated Birmingham, and of the bombings and burnings that destroyed and shaped the lives of so many. I believe that Ms. Davis’ framing of the issue as one of imagination – that we cannot achieve change that we cannot imagine, let alone imagine as possible – served as a non-controversial centerpiece for the evening and was illustrative of how useful different points of view can be when problem solving.
Many teachers asked probing questions about techniques to address problems within our Federal Way schools relating to discipline, the “the pipeline to prison,” race and diversity, institutional bias, the role of family, the role of community, gender issues, health and nutrition issues, and other frightening topics. I believe that those in attendance (even if they vehemently disagree with her message) would likely agree that Ms. Davis did not shy away from a single question and answered the questions in detail.
There were two troubling parts of the evening: first, no one that was previously so upset about Angela Davis asked a question that might have probed the reasons that justified why they did not want her to speak. Maybe they didn’t attend. Maybe they were intimidated by a woman who comes off as a soft-spoken, humor-filled, permanently hopeful grandmother.
Second, while the evening stood as a testament to the application of the Constitution to our discourse, the ease with which the idea of censorship can be tolerated is always a concern. At the board meeting, in response to complaints, the board seemed to suggest that a “report” would be made at the next meeting about why Ms. Davis was asked to speak, suggesting that it was possible that having Ms. Davis speak was a mistake.
The board stated that Wanda Billingsley, who set up the speaker series, would be asked to come to present at the next meeting, which seemed to imply that the decision might need to be defended.
I was then discouraged that, as far as I could tell, no member of the Federal Way School Board had the opportunity to attend the actual talk. If they had done so, I think they may have realized that the best response at a school board meeting, when a member of the community seeks board support for censorship, might go something like this:
“Not in Federal Way. The First Amendment rocks in Federal Way. We are a city of ideas, a city of diversity, and a city where a multitude of opinion and culture must coincide, every minute of every day. We’ll put up no walls to exclude, and where we find them, we will tear them down. You want to burn one book? Amazon’s right up the street, we’ll buy two copies for each one you torch. You want to silence a speaker instead of offer your better idea in the public square? Sounds like that’s a speaker we’ll ask back two times.”
Steve Edmiston, Federal Way