(Photo: John Taggart, epa)
If you're going to protest a new president famously accused of being a tool of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, common sense would suggest avoiding high-profile speakers who were proud tools of Putin's former employer, the Soviet Union. But common sense is often in short supply in our public life.
The Women’s March on Washington, the massive protest against Donald Trump Saturday, has been dogged by accusations of not being inclusive enough — toward men, pro-life women and even white feminists who feel they are being treated as oppressors by minority activists. The newly released list of speakers raises even more questions about whom and what the march represents. The entire roster skews far left, from feminist doyenne Gloria Steinem to filmmaker Michael Moore — with no room for anti-Trump Republicans such as GOP activists Ana Navarro and Amanda Carpenter. And then there’s Angela Davis, a star speaker and honorary co-chair of the event. An activist and scholar, Davis is also a Communist Party veteran with a long record of support for political violence in the United States and the worst of human rights abusers abroad.
The Washington Post article on the Women’s March speakers identified Davis as a “civil rights era icon.” In fact, while Davis participated in civil rights activism as a teenager in her native Birmingham, Alabama, she spent the peak years of the movement studying philosophy in Europe; she did not become an icon until 1970, as a famous fugitive accused of aiding a courthouse escape attempt in which a judge was shot dead and a juror and a prosecutor were wounded. Davis, by then a University of California professor, a Black Panther militant, and a hardcore Marxist-Leninist, was eventually acquitted by a handpicked politically sympathetic jury despite evidence that the weapons used in the incident were registered in her name. In subsequent years, she was an active supporter of the radical Jonestown commune in Guyana, which ended in murder and mass suicide.
But whatever one thinks of Davis’s domestic militancy, her true claim to infamy is her career as an apologist for repressive communist regimes. During her 18 months in jail, Davis became a heroine across the Soviet bloc; for communist states frequently criticized for imprisoning dissidents, a perceived “political prisoner” in the United States was a godsend. After her release, Davis was feted in East Germany (a 1972 photo shows her shaking hands with then-General Secretary Erich Honecker, whose orders to shoot people trying to escape the socialist paradise by crossing the border into West Germany resulted in over 1,000 deaths), in Cuba, and in the Soviet Union, where she was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1979, just months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
It takes some cheek to mount a protest against Trump with a speaker who was twice honored by Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union.
In July 1972, Czech journalist and activist Jiri Pelikan, a prominent figure in the reformist “Prague Spring” who was forced to emigrate after the 1968 Soviet invasion, wrote the recently freed Davis an open letter expressing sympathy with her experience and urging her to speak out against human rights violations in Communist countries. Most of his appeal focused on the brutal treatment of Czech dissidents—many of them, like Pelikan himself, idealistic Communists who thought Communism could be humanized into democratic socialism. Davis did not respond; however, her friend Charlene Mitchell told The Guardian that Davis “did not think people should leave socialist countries to return to the capitalist system” and that “even if such people said they were communists they were still acting in opposition to the ‘socialist system,’ objectively speaking.” Mitchell also said, professing to speak on Davis’s behalf, that people in Eastern Europe were only jailed “if they were undermining the government.”
Later, Davis remained a leader in the slavishly pro-Soviet Communist Party USA; in the 1980 and 1984 elections, she was the Party’s vice-presidential candidate. She did not leave the organization until 1991, when the Soviet Union was relegated — as those elections’ winner, Ronald Reagan, had predicted — to the ash heap of history.
Davis’s Communist past only undermines the message of the women's march.
The opposition to Trump accuses him of being a would-be dictator who seeks to impose an authoritarian order and trample human rights. While these claims may be exaggerated, there is a good case to be made that the incoming President has a strong authoritarian streak. Vigilant opposition is certainly needed. Yet Davis has amply and repeatedly demonstrated her hypocrisy on the subject of dictatorship and human rights.
What's more, the rhetoric of the anti-Trump “resistance” often portrays him as being in cahoots with Vladimir Putin, or even as a Kremlin puppet. Yet the same resistance is honoring a woman who ran for political office in the United States on the ticket of a party that was quite literally a wholly owned subsidiary of the Kremlin. Such hypocrisy lends credence to gibes by Trump supporters, such as Ann Coulter, that liberals and progressives had no problem with Russia when it was the Soviet Union but are now being hawkish against post-Communist Russia.
Trump has often been assailed for drawing support from extremists including white nationalists and neo-Nazis and not doing enough to repudiate them. Yet the opposition clearly has its own extremism problem, openly welcoming a person with an unmistakable history of reprehensible views. When an anti-abortion feminist group is beyond the pale but a longtime apologist for the crimes of Communism is not, the resistance can hardly lay a claim to the moral high ground — or appeal to the bulk of Americans who consider themselves moderates.
Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and RealClearPolitics.com and a Contributing Editor at Reason. Follow her on Twitter @CathyYoung63.