Inside, lawmakers were at work conducting the state’s business, but outside, the steps of the Idaho State Capitol were occupied only by the occasional tourist or black-coated legislator on the way to lunch or a meeting. It was Jan. 18—Martin Luther King, Jr., Day—and all was quiet.
The Gem State doesn’t call MLK Day “MLK Day.” It’s “Idaho Human Rights Day,” and traditionally, Boise State University has been more explicit in its celebration, organizing sign-making, a march down Capitol Boulevard and a massive gathering at the Statehouse that includes speechifying, storytelling, live music and more, followed by the reading of a proclamation in the rotunda. On account of the pandemic, Boise State scaled back its celebration to a virtual one, but after the storming of the U.S. Capitol Building by an insurgent mob and warnings of Stop the Steal demonstrations planned for Inauguration Day (Wednesday, Jan. 20), it pulled the plug on its online program, as well.
“Given the historically unprecedented context, and to prioritize safety for students and our community, we won’t be holding events that may increase exposure of our students or others as targets,” wrote university officials to Boise State’s MLK Day planning committee. “While we believe that the university is a place where people should come together to discuss polarizing issues and be presented with new ideas, ... at this moment the risk is too great to host these kinds of events.”
The centerpiece of those events would have been a virtual talk delivered by Dr. Angela Davis, a leading cultural figure, public intellectual, and theorist of Marxism, gender and sexuality. She is also deeply controversial, and has been criticized in the U.S. for her support of Soviet regimes and efforts to boycott Israel for its occupation of Palestine. But for some in the broader Boise State community, the abrupt cancellation in the name of safety felt like a slap in the face.
“They sit there, they listen to your concerns, act how shocked they are, and say they’re committed to diversity and inclusion,” said student Ryann Banks. “Then, they put out statements like this, defining safety for Black and Brown people.”
Banks was just one of several people connected with the university and local activist communities who said cancelling the virtual MLK Day activities amounted to anti-Blackness, and that it had used Black students to tout its diversity and inclusion efforts while stifling Black-led initiatives. Banks herself, along with the Boise chapter of Black Lives Matter, organized and and led a Defund the Police protest at Boise City Hall over the summer that turned violent after armed Trump supporters, motorcycle clubs and white supremacists arrived, with the counter-protesters surrounding, threatening and ultimately battering the protesters.
She and others decried as hypocrisy that conservative white speakers enjoy public engagements at the university while controversial Black speakers are disinvited for concerns of the wellbeing of students. Gabrielle Davis, a mental health counsellor who sometimes lectures at the university, told Boise Weekly that won’t help its mission to recruit and retain students of color or who hail from marginalized communities.
“This is what they’re choosing to fall and die on,” she said.
Nixing Angela Davis came as an especially cutting blow for Boise State graduate Tai Simpson, who views Davis as a longtime and uncompromising voice in support of civil rights and against white supremacy.
“I was excited to see all of the things that I had wanted as a student come to fruition in Angela Davis: a Black woman who was a civil rights activist, who was a scholar—everything that I stand for when it comes to liberation and power for Black folks,” she said.
Though Boise State representatives could not be reached for comment as of press time, university spokesperson Sherry Squires wrote to the Idaho Statesman in an email that the cancellation took place amid national events, security concerns and conversations with law enforcement. Following the disastrous events at the nation’s capital on Jan. 6 and swirling rumors of pro-Trump demonstrations in the capitals of all 50 states on Inauguration Day, tensions have been high, and in Boise, the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial and downtown have been peppered with neo-Nazi vandalism in the weeks leading up to the presidential inauguration.
Davis did not speak as part of the MLK Day celebration in 2021, but that has not stopped activists like Banks, Simpson, Gabrielle Davis, Tanisha Newton and Roy Iradakunda from partnering with a number of unnamed nonprofits to engage her with a virtual story circle slated for Monday, Jan. 25, at 6 p.m. via Zoom. Registration is available online. And while organizers said they are disappointed with the university for backing away from hosting Davis, the new arrangement suits them better.
“Auntie Angela is still coming, and she’s still doing story circle with all of us,” Simpson said. “Everything that she is in this movement is who we get to be, and that’s the joy that we get to celebrate, and we get to do it together.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story did not mention the role of the Boise chapter of Black Lives Matter in organizing Defund the Police protests over the summer of 2020. We regret the error.