Mumia’s Life Matters

by Sonali Kolhatkar

I first heard the deep and haunting voice of Mumia Abu-Jamal more than 10 years ago, as he offered cutting analysis of the political issues of the day through his brilliant commentary. The fact that an African-American man convicted of killing a police officer and waiting to be executed was continuing his journalistic work from behind bars, and doing it so powerfully, was profound. I soon learned that he was a political prisoner on death row who had been convicted in a faulty trial of murdering a police officer. I also discovered an entire movement dedicated to freeing him.

Today, despite a successful effort in 2012 to commute his death sentence to life in prison, Abu-Jamal seems to be prematurely dying. A sudden onset of life-threatening diabetes and an inexplicable and dire skin condition have left him weakened, shaking and a shell of the man he once was. His supporters and family are convinced that having failed to officially execute him, the state of Pennsylvania is simply letting him die through medical neglect.

That may sound far-fetched?until one examines the shocking lengths to which authorities have gone over several decades to kill and silence Abu-Jamal. The earliest evidence can be found in the words of Judge Albert Sabo, who presided over Abu-Jamal’s trial in the early 1980s and was overheard by a court stenographer saying that he would “help ’em fry the ni**er.” That set the tone for a trial that by many accounts was deeply flawed and intent on delivering a death sentence.

For decades legal battles ensued during which the notorious Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) did everything it could to intimidate supporters and even news outlets from fairly reporting on his case. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting lambasted NPR for caving in to political pressure from the FOP and for reneging on an agreement to air Abu-Jamal’s comments.

In its latest apparent attempt to silence him, Pennsylvania passed a bizarre law last year aimed specifically at Abu-Jamal called the Revictimization Relief Act, which claimed that victims of violence relived their mental anguish if the convicted perpetrator of the violence was able to speak in public. Abu-Jamal had just recorded a commencement address for his alma mater, Goddard College. He and others challenged the law and won a victory in late April when a judge rightly ruled it was unconstitutional.

So it should come as no surprise if it appears that Pennsylvania prison authorities might be deliberately dragging their feet in addressing the medical needs of their most controversial prisoner. In response, a coalition of supporters has mobilized to “Rise for Mumia.” In addition to raising thousands of dollars for his medical care, filmmaker Stephen Vittoria, director and producer of “Mumia: Long-Distance Revolutionary,” created a short video that I was humbled to host, in order to generate as much support for Abu-Jamal as possible.

It appears that the campaign may be working. Just this week news emerged that medical staff at the Pennsylvania Corrections Center informed Abu-Jamal that they would proceed with the first of several diagnostic tests recommended by his doctor, and that a skin biopsy was also approved. But concerns about testing delays and inadequate medical care remain.

Given the current political context, Abu-Jamal’s situation is more relevant than ever. Viewed through the lens of the Black Lives Matter movement, his case exemplifies the trajectory of mistreatment of African-Americans at the hands of police, and the miscarriage of justice that so many black men have suffered. In fact, he is a living, breathing reminder that black people have been screwed by police violence and the criminal justice system for decades.

In his January 1982 essay, “Christmas in a Cage,” to be published in his forthcoming book “Writing on the Wall,” Abu-Jamal describes the brutality he faced during his arrest:

"Nowhere have I read an account of how I got shot, how a bullet happened to find its way near my spine, shattering a rib, splitting a kidney and nearly destroying my diaphragm. And people wonder why I have no trust in a “fair trial.” Nowhere have I read that a bullet left a hole in my lung, filling it with blood.

"Nowhere have I read how police found me lying in a pool of my blood, unable to breathe, and then proceeded to punch, kick and stomp me?not question me. I remember being rammed into a pole or a fireplug with police at both arms. I remember kicks to my head, my face, my chest, my belly, my back and other places. But I have read no press accounts of this, and have heard tell of no witnesses.

"Nowhere have I read of how I was handcuffed, thrown into a paddy wagon and beaten, kicked, punched and pummeled. Where are the witnesses to a police captain or inspector entering the wagon and beating me with a police radio, all the while addressing me as a “Black motherfucker”? Where are the witnesses to the beating that left me with a four-inch scar on my forehead? A swollen jaw? Chipped teeth?"

Similar scenarios have surely occurred countless times in encounters between police and African-Americans in the United States. For men like Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and Walter Scott, and for children like Tamir Rice (to name just a tiny fraction), they ended in death.

What has set Abu-Jamal apart from most prisoners and journalists is the sharp analysis of law enforcement he had constructed even prior to his arrest. A former Black Panther, Abu-Jamal was also an accomplished journalist. He won the prestigious Major Armstrong Award from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism for his coverage of police brutality in the black community. After his arrest he effectively employed his masterful expression to eloquently shame the power structure that had trapped him.

Over the years he has filed thousands of commentaries, perfecting his art in the best medium available to him: essays of two to three minutes each delivered verbally by phone and distributed worldwide. He has brilliantly analyzed domestic policies (for example, during the Occupy Wall Street movement he provided critical historical analysis to social movements) and also connected those policies to U.S. foreign policy (in the midst of the Iraq war, he made crucial comparisons between the conditions at Abu Ghraib prison and the prison system in the U.S.).

More than a decade ago, I passed out leaflets with a group of Abu-Jamal’s supporters outside the historic Midnight Special bookstore on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. During those somewhat naive early years of my activism, I was convinced that if only enough people knew about his case, they would rise up to demand his freedom and it would simply happen because enough of us wanted it. I marched on the streets of San Francisco alongside thousands of others chanting, “Brick by brick, wall by wall, we’re gonna free Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

Sadly, all these years later, leafletting and marching haven’t freed him. But they have lifted his spirit, as Abu-Jamal attests in his latest recording expressing gratitude for the campaign demanding medical care. In “Message to the Movement” he says, ” I am not back to where I was before, but I will be, thanks to you.”

We have imprisoned the body of one of the nation’s most important individuals for over three decades. But we have never imprisoned his mind. While the militancy and optimism of the movement may have faded, it remains imperative for myriad reasons that we demand freedom and health for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Abu-Jamal’s supporters recommend making calls to the following officials and prison and asking for his freedom and his immediate access to his doctor: John Wetzel, PA Secretary of Corrections: (717) 728-4109; Gov. Tom Wolf: (717) 787-2500; SCI Mahanoy: (570) 773-2158.

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