I am sitting in the visiting area of the SCI Mahanoy prison in Frackville, Pa., on a rainy, cold Friday morning with Mumia Abu-Jamal, America’s most famous political prisoner and one of its few authentic revolutionaries. He is hunched forward on the gray plastic table, his dreadlocks cascading down the sides of his face, in a room that looks like a high school cafeteria. He is talking intently about the nature of empire, which he is currently reading voraciously about, and effective forms of resistance to tyranny throughout history. Small children, visiting their fathers or brothers, race around the floor, wail or clamber on the plastic chairs. Abu-Jamal, like the other prisoners in the room, is wearing a brown jumpsuit bearing the letters DOC—for Department of Corrections.
Abu-Jamal was transferred in January to the general prison population after nearly 30 years in solitary confinement on death row and was permitted physical contact with his wife, children and other visitors for the first time in three decades. He had been sentenced to death in 1982 for the Dec. 9, 1981, killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. His sentence was recently amended to life without parole. The misconduct of the judge, flagrant irregularities in his trial and tainted evidence have been criticized by numerous human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.
Abu-Jamal, who was a young activist in the Black Panthers and later one of the most important radical journalists in Philadelphia, a city that a few decades earlier produced I.F. Stone, has long been the bête noire of the state. The FBI opened a file on him when he was 15, when he started working with the local chapter of the Black Panthers. He was suspended from his Philadelphia high school when he campaigned to rename the school for Malcolm X and distributed “black revolutionary student power” literature.
Stephen Vittoria’s new film documentary about Abu-Jamal, “Long Distance Revolutionary,” rather than revisit the case, chronicles his importance and life as an American journalist, radical and intellectual under the harsh realities of Pennsylvania’s death row. Abu-Jamal has published seven books in prison, including his searing and best-selling “Live From Death Row.” The film features the voices of Cornel West, James Cone, Dick Gregory, Angela Davis, Alice Walker and others. It opens in theaters Feb. 1, starting in New York City. In the film Gregory says that Abu-Jamal has single-handedly brought “dignity to the whole death row.”
The late historian Manning Marable says in the film: “The voice of black journalism in the struggle for the liberation of African-American people has always proved to be decisive throughout black history. When you listen to Mumia Abu-Jamal you hear the echoes of David Walker, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and the sisters and brothers who kept the faith with struggle, who kept the faith with resistance.
The authorities, as they did before he was convicted, have attempted to silence him in prison. Pennsylvania banned all recorded interviews with Abu-Jamal after 1996. In response to protests over the singling out of one inmate in the Pennsylvania correction system, the state simply banned recorded access to all its inmates. The ban is nicknamed “the Mumia rule.”
“I was punished for communicating,” Abu-Jamal says.
Cornel West says in the film: “The state is very clever in terms of keeping track, especially [of] the courageous and visionary ones, the ones that are long-distance runners. You can keep track of them, absorb ’em, dilute ’em, or outright kill ’em—you don’t have to worry about opposition to ’em.”
“If you tell them the truth about the operation of our power this is what happens to you,” he goes on. “Like Jesus on the cross. This is what happens to you.”
During my four-and-a-half-hour conversation with Abu-Jamal I was not permitted a pencil or paper. I wrote down his quotes after I left the prison. My time with him mirrors the wider pattern of a society where the poor and the destitute are rendered invisible and voiceless.
The breadth of his reading, which along with his writing and 3,000 radio broadcasts has kept his mind and soul intact, is staggering. His own books are banned in the prison. In conversation he swings easily from detailed discussions of the Opium Wars between 1839 and 1860 to the Black Panthers to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the series of legislative betrayals of the poor and people of color by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. He cites books by Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Huey P. Newton, Assata Shakur, Eric Foner, Gore Vidal, Cornel West, Howard Zinn, James Cone and Dave Zirin. He talks about Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, “Cinque,” Harriet Tubman, Charles Deslondes, Denmark Vesey and Sojourner Truth. He is reading “Masters of War” by Clara Nieto, “How the World Works” by Noam Chomsky, “The Face of Imperialism” by Michael Parenti and “Now and Then” by Gil Scott-Heron. He wonders, as I do, what shape the collapse of empire will take. And he despairs of the political unconsciousness among many incoming prisoners, some young enough to be his children.
“When I first got out in the yard and I heard groups of men talking about how Sarah was going to marry Jim or how Frank had betrayed Susan, I thought, ‘Damn, these cats all know each other and their families. That’s odd,’ ” he says. “But after a few minutes I realized they were talking about soap operas. Television in prison is the great pacifier. They love ‘Basketball Wives’ because it is ‘T and A’ with women of color. They know how many cars Jay-Z has. But they don’t know their own history. They don’t understand how they got here. They don’t know what is being done to them. I tell them they have to read and they say, ‘Man, I don’t do books.’ And that is just how the empire wants it. You can’t fight power if you don’t understand it. And you can’t understand it if you don’t experience it and then dissect it.”
Abu-Jamal’s venom is reserved for politicians such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, whom he correctly excoriates for speaking in the language of traditional liberalism while ruthlessly disempowering the poor and the working class on behalf of their corporate patrons. And he has little time for the liberals who support them.
“It was Clinton that made possible the explosion of the prison-industrial complex,” he says, speaking of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill.
He looks around the visiting area at the 30-odd prisoners with their families.
“Most of these people wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Bill Clinton,” he says of the other inmates. “He and Barack Obama haven’t done anything for poor people but lock them up. And if our first African-American president isn’t going to halt the growth of the prison-industrial complex, no president after him is going to do it. This prison system is here to stay. The poor and the destitute feed it. It is the empire’s solution to the economic crisis. Those who are powerless, who have no access to diminishing resources, get locked away. And the prison business is booming. It is one of the few growth industries left. It used to be that towns didn’t want prisons. Now these poor rural communities beg for them. You look down the list of the names of the guards and see two or three with the same last names. This is because fathers, brothers, spouses, work here together. These small towns don’t have anything else.”
The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world—742 adults per 100,000. There are some 2.2 million adults incarcerated in federal and state prisons and local jails. About 5 million are on probation or parole. Seventy percent of the inmates are nonwhite.
The Omnibus Crime Bill, pushed through the Senate with the help of Joe Biden, appropriated $30 billion to expand the nation’s prison program. It gave $10.8 billion in federal matching funds to local governments to hire 100,000 new police officers over five years. It provided $10 billion for the construction of new federal prisons. It expanded the number of federal crimes to which the death penalty applied from two to 58. It eliminated an existing statute that prohibited the execution of mentally incapacitated defendants. It instituted the three-strikes proposal that mandates life sentences for anyone convicted of three “violent” felonies. It ordered states to track sex offenders. It permitted children as young as 13 to be tried as adults. It set up special courts to deport noncitizens alleged to be “engaged in terrorist activity” and authorized the use of secret evidence. The prison population during the Clinton presidency jumped from 1.4 million to 2 million. The United States has spent $300 billion since 1980 on the prison system.
Abu-Jamal talks in the interview about being a Black Panther and the use of violence as a form of political resistance throughout history. He speaks of visiting the Chicago apartment where Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was shot to death by Chicago police and the FBI while he slept on Dec. 4, 1969. He calls Hampton, who was 21 when he was killed, “one of the bright lights.” Abu-Jamal chokes up and his eyes glisten with tears. “Fred … ,” he says as his voice trails off.
“It used to be that a politician promised jobs, a chicken in every pot,” Abu-Jamal says. “But in our new national security state they promise law and order. They get elected by saying they will be tough on crime and by calling for the death penalty. Death sells. Fear sells. What was a crime by the state in the 1960s is now legal. The state can wiretap, eavesdrop, listen to phone calls and break into homes. And there is nothing we can do about it. The mass incarceration and the mass repression impact every community to make people afraid and compliant.”
“In this place, a dark temple of fear, an altar of political ambition, death is a campaign poster, a stepping-stone to public office … ,” Abu-Jamal has written. “In this space and time, in this dark hour, how many of us are not on death row?”
“The brutality of the empire was exposed under George W. Bush,” he says to me. “The empire desperately needed a new face, a black face, to seduce the public. This is the role of Barack Obama. He is the black face of empire. He was pitched to us during the most recent presidential campaign by Bill Clinton, the same Clinton who gave us NAFTA in 1994 and abolished good-paying manufacturing jobs for millions of workers. The same Clinton who locked us up. Clinton and Obama represent the politics of betrayal at the heart of the corporatist machinery. And they have fooled a lot of people, especially black people. During slavery, and even post-Reconstruction, there were always a few black people who served the system. The role of these black servants to white power was to teach passivity in the face of repression. This is why Obama is president. Nothing has changed.”
It is only by stepping outside the system, by carrying out acts of civil disobedience, by defying both of the major political parties, that we have any hope of resisting the rise of an oligarchic and totalitarian corporate system that will finally enslave us all. Abu-Jamal sees hope in the Occupy movement, largely because white middle-class youths are beginning to experience the cruelty of capitalism and state repression that has long been visited on the poor. But, he adds, we must recover our past. We must connect ourselves to the revolutionaries, radicals and prophets who fought injustice before us. We must defy the historical amnesia the corporate state seeks to cement into our consciousness. His book “Faith of Our Fathers: An Examination of the Spiritual Life of African and African-American People” sets out to do precisely this, to recover a past intellectual and spiritual life for African-Americans that is trivialized, ignored or censored by the dominant culture. He is worried that the mindless diversions of popular culture and the assault by corporate power on education are keeping many from grasping not only what is happening but the continuity that modern systems of oppression have with older systems of oppression.
“We would not be who we are as African-Americans of this date were it not for the Reverend, the Prophet, Nat Turner—who brilliantly merged the religious with the political,” Abu-Jamal says in the film. “Who didn’t just talk about the world to come but fought to transform the world that is. You know, he is honored and revered today—not because he could quote the Bible well, he could do that, but because he worked in the fields of life to get the slave master off of his neck, off of all of our necks.”
On the far side of the visiting area are vending machines that dispense White Castle hamburgers, soda, candy and Tastykake cupcakes. We drop in the prepaid tokens—no money is allowed inside the prison—and the fast food is dumped in the vent. To Abu-Jamal, forced to eat prison food, it is a treat, especially the Hershey’s bar. He watches as a boy darts past him toward his father.
“I didn’t see children for 30 years on death row,” he says softly. “It is a delight to see them here. They are what is most precious, what the struggle is finally about.”