Political Prisoners

The Vital Importance of Mumia Abu-Jamal

By Walidah Imarisha

Mumia Abu-Jamal, award winning journalist, activist, organizer, “voice of the voiceless” and resident of Pennsylvania’s death row, was denied his appeal to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to receive a new trial. They did uphold the decision to give him life without parole instead of the death penalty, which the state will probably appeal.

They waited almost an entire year to hand down that verdict, I remember the big protest we had outside the court the day the hearing happened (a hearing Mumia was supposed to be allowed to appear at personally, until the last minute when they wouldn’t let him come. It would have been his first in-person court appearance in over a decade).

The case of Mumia is so important to justice, to the state of things, and to me personally. My first protest I ever went to, at the age of 15 in Eugene, Oregon, was a Free Mumia protest. It was such a small protest now that I have been at gatherings with hundreds of thousands. But at the time it seemed massive.

The flyer had said to gather at the entrance to the University of Oregon. Unfamiliar with activist time, I had shown up about 20 minutes early, and had seen no one. I worried if I’d gotten the location wrong, if it had been cancelled, if it was really going to happen.

I had just begun my foray into political education, thanks to an internship I stumbled onto at a local social justice organization. My time in the office set in a creaky old building with pipes that rattled set the stage for the rest of my life. It was sitting in the frayed worn couches near the bay window that I first heard the words communism and socialism as more than just some dangerous evil that would devour me if it wanted. While typing up stories for the newsletter at the antiquated box of a computer, talk of the Zapatistas, political prisoners, Sandinistas, Central America, Cuba, apartheid, Assata Shakur, Malcolm X all swirled around me. I didn’t know what the hell these people were talking about. But I knew they were individuals I already respected, who knew so much about things I had never dreamed existed. I knew I had to educate myself.

I asked my mentor, a young white man who wore cardigan sweaters and converse and looked more at home in a 50s car hop poster than organizing in support of farm workers, timidly one day if he could recommend some books for me to read. He reached up without hesitation and handed me a small black book, with a dreadlocked man staring solemnly out of the cover. “You should really check this out, I think you might find some good stuff in here.”

I started Mumia’s, Live From Death Row on the long bus ride home (I actually lived in another city, Springfield, so I had to transfer three times to get home). I stayed up until three in the morning, neglecting schoolwork and my favorite show on TV, to finish the book. Mumia’s words were elegant, poetic, searing and undeniable. He wrote about life on death row, vignettes about the people there with him, the supposed scum of the earth, he wrote about them as humans, beautiful flawed tragic humans. He wrote about the larger prison industrial complex, wrote about why prisons exist and who benefits from them, not in safety but in real material dollars. And whose flesh is sold to make those dollars, poor and black and brown and illiterate and mentally delayed and who never had a chance—and nobody never listened to their voice. His book was not about him, he was the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth and the heart that drew it all together, linked connections I had never imagined, showed me the web of oppression that threaded through my entire life, tangling me without my realizing it. And he showed me how to begin to hack away at those threads. I believed and believe with all my heart, Mumia, when he says he’s innocent. But his book and his commitment showed me that that is not the biggest question. The biggest question is who is guilty of what crimes, and why are those guilty of the worst atrocities against humanity rarely ever brought to justice?

Back at the gate to the University of Oregon, I looked up as about 10 young white people, some dreadlocked with patch work pants, a couple in all black with patches on their ripped up hoodies, came towards me, carrying signs that said “Free Mumia” and “Free All Political Prisoners.” One young woman came up to me and asked, “Are you here for the Mumia protest?” I was so happy. I nodded my head vigorously. “Great,” she said, handing me a sign, “We’re almost ready to start.”

In about 10 minutes, the group of 30 to 40 folks assembled set off down the street, marching through the business district around the University. I had never been in a crowd of people chanting and banging drums, yelling slogans, stopping traffic. I felt strong, and unstoppable. This is the power that people in the dilapidated office had talked about, the power that can stand up to bullets and batons and tanks and dictators and empires—the power of the people.

Someone pushed play on a boom-box they had brought, and Mumia’s rich voice, tempered with honey and with steel, burst from the speakers, rained down on the boutiques and pizza shops and on me. I had never heard Mumia’s voice before. Listening to him read one of his commentaries he had written in prison, I knew why they didn’t play Mumia’s voice, why they were scared to let this radio journalist’s voice free from the cage. You could not listen to Mumia’s voice and not be moved by the power, the rationality and most of all the humanity in it. You could never believe this man was the rabid loose cannon, crazy-person they tried to paint him as. You couldn’t hear Mumia’s voice and not want to join in the fight to free him, and the fight to make sure there would be no more Mumia’s on death rows ever again.

As he closed out his commentary, “Live from death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal,” I hoisted my Free Mumia NOW sign as high as I could, and yelled with all my might with the dozens of throats around me, “Brick by brick, wall by wall we’re going to free Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

I screamed the same chant 13 years later, in front of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals last May as they heard evidence to decide Mumia’s fate. What they don’t understand, and what we have to, is that it is not their decision. The decision, as always, rests with the people, who have the real power. I still believe wholeheartedly in the chant, and I know you do too. Now is the time to make our voices and our determination heard.

—Free Mumia Abu Jamal, June 9, 2008