From behind death row’s walls

October 27, 2015

Lily Hughes, a leading member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, reviews a new collection of essays by political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

FIGHTING FOR freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal was my first step on the path toward becoming an abolitionist. It's the first death penalty case I organized around, and Mumia was the first person on death row who made me understand the urgent need to amplify the voices and the humanity of the men and women behind the walls.

A new collection of Mumia's essays, Writing on the Wall, will further amplify this important voice for abolition to a new generation of activists.

I joined the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) in the fall of 1998 and helped start a chapter in Austin, Texas. We began following Mumia's case through the CEDP's newsletter, The New Abolitionist.

Mumia was on death row in Pennsylvania, wrongfully convicted for murdering a police officer. In Philadelphia, Mumia was a known voice in activist circles and city politics. He joined the local Black Panther Party at 16 and went on to become a radio journalist, known for his critical coverage of police violence and corruption and his indictment of city leaders for their treatment of MOVE, a local Black radical collective. On his radio show, Mumia decried the constant harassment, wrongful imprisonment and police violence against MOVE members.

Mumia Abu-Jamal
Mumia Abu-Jamal

To supplement his income, Mumia drove a cab at night. In the early morning hours of December 9, 1981, he pulled over his cab to intervene on behalf of his brother, who police were arresting. Moments later, Mumia was shot by officer Daniel Faulkner, who was subsequently shot by another person on the scene.

Months later, police would claim that Mumia confessed to the murder of Faulkner while he lay recovering in a hospital bed. That was just one of the many lies that police and prosecutors told in their attempts to frame Mumia. The many problems in the case are documented in an addendum at the end of this latest book--including false witness testimony, evidence tampering and racial bias.

Our CEDP chapter adopted the case as our first organizing campaign. We organized at the University of Texas to bring a group to Millions for Mumia, a march held in Philadelphia in April 1999. Our group of about 20 or so students and community activists joined a bus of Mumia supporters in Houston for the trip.

It was my first mass rally, and I marched alongside thousands of people who believed in Mumia's innocence, many of who also opposed the death penalty. My participation in Millions for Mumia inspired my continuous struggle for abolition of the death penalty to this day.

After the march, our chapter helped to build a local coalition devoted to fighting for justice for Mumia. One of the central aspects of our campaign was broadcasting Mumia's voice, through his writings and the available recordings he had done for radio from inside the walls.

Mumia's voice, played back on cassette tapes and CDs at numerous events, was at the heart of our struggle--it played an indelible role in the personal connection that many felt to him. Hearing about his struggle in his own words was powerful, yet it was his articulation of political struggle well beyond his own case that resonated deeply with me and the other young abolitionists I worked with.

EVEN IF you've never heard him speak before, Mumia's powerful voice rings through Writing on the Wall. The words here are written to be spoken--the writing is concise and the ideas are laid out with simple clarity. Yet each selection is imbued with passion and a feeling of urgency.

The essays are laid out in chronological order, beginning with an essay from Christmas 1982 shortly after Mumia was first jailed. In "Christmas in a Cage," Mumia begins by railing against his treatment at the hands of the police and the prison, only to finish the piece with a story about violence perpetrated against another prisoner at a cell not far from his own.

This solidarity is a hallmark of Mumia's writings and at the center of his political expression, from his writings about MOVE to his attention to fellow prisoners.

The Austin chapter began organizing around the case of Texas death row prisoner Shaka Sankofa in 1999. Shaka, a juvenile at the time of his alleged crime, was deeply politicized during his time in prison and spoke out against the racism and cruelty of the death sentence. Mumia wrote about the case in a short essay from May 2000, just a one month before Shaka was murdered by the state:

If there is a crime for which Bloody Texas seeks his death, it is this: it is a crime in a racist nation for a Black youth to be conscious and thinking in political and collective terms. For Shaka Sankofa, innocence is not enough.

His contention that racism is at the heart of the death penalty system is evident in a fiery passage from an address he wrote to the first World Congress Against the Death Penalty:

There can therefore not be a World Congress to abolish the death penalty without an acknowledgement that the racist instrument of white supremacy devalues Black life, whether that of an accused or that of a potential juror, while elevating white life.

There can be no real movement here unless there the recognition that law, whether international or domestic, is an illusion designed to perpetuate a polite status quo that for decades has been based upon the premise that "the whole problem is really the Blacks," and that the system must recognize this "while not appearing to." It is this very status quo that is the lifeblood of the vampiric American death penalty machine. And it must be shattered if abolition can ever become reality.

MUMIA'S WRITINGS here extend far beyond the death penalty or even just the criminal justice system. He writes brilliantly on the case of Lynn Stewart and rails against the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin.

He frequently writes about the imperial adventures of the U.S.--in earlier writings throughout the late 1980s and early '90s, he frequently discusses America's interventions in South and Latin America. Another essay from September 17, 2001, titled "9-11...Why," discusses the history of colonial violence in Afghanistan:

Afghanistan, one of the poorest, most rugged places on earth, has a population with a male life expectancy of 46 (45 for females!). It has a literacy rate of about 29 percent. It looks at the swollen opulence of the Americans, the global reach of the American Empire, and bristles.

Further essays take on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Israel's role as a U.S. proxy in the region. Discussing the violent foundation of Israel, he concludes, "Such roots can only lead to bitter fruits." Other essays take on labor history and union organizing, the writings of radical Black socialist Franz Fanon, the rise of the Tea Party and the election of Barak Obama--no stone is unturned.

Toward the end of the book, Mumia considers the developing Black Lives Matter movement. In an essay from August 31, 2014, he writes about the protests that erupted against police murder in Ferguson, Missouri:

For the youth--excluded from the American economy by inferior, substandard education; targeted by the malevolence of the fake drug war and mass incarceration; stopped and frisked for Walking While Black--were given front-row seats to the national security state at Ferguson after a friend was murdered by police on their streets. Ferguson is a wake-up call. A call to build social, radical, revolutionary movements for change.

One of my favorites essays in the book is a piece from January 3, 2014, called "Martin, Women and the Movement." He writes about the ways that sexist attitudes hindered the work of activists in the civil rights movement, and later the Black Panther Party (BPP). He begins by discussing the relationship between King and Ella Baker.

Mumia says that Baker was "a brilliant and skillful organizer, unable to defer to any of the spiritual and national leaders of the time." He argues that King felt uncomfortable around Baker, but that because of women like Baker, King became more open over time to the role of women in the lead of the movement.

He describes the pivotal role that women played in the creation and maintenance of the Black Panther Party, concluding:

Women form the core of the movements. They organize, as did Ella Baker, they lead, as did Elaine Brown. They do the work to make organizations--and movements--work. And given the sexism in capitalist society, it rarely gets reported, much less known. But the simple truth is that revolution is women's work. It is the work of all of us, as comrades.

At a time when women's rights are under renewed attack, Mumia's profound solidarity is incredibly moving. Despite being imprisoned for decades, Mumia's sensitivity to the struggles developing around him is a hallmark of his writings and a reminder that his voice is paramount in the movements beyond the walls.

Mumia often ends his essays with a question--challenging the reader to go further in our various struggles for social justice. The essays in Writing on the Wall aren't simply analysis. They are alive--a powerful call to action to reader to join the fight for a better world.

Further Reading

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