New Collection of Prison Writings by Mumia Abu-Jamal Provides a Compact History of America's War on People
Writing on the Wall-- Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal
(City Lights Books, 2015)
Foreword by Cornel West
Edited by Johanna Fernández
Mumia Abu-Jamal has been in jail longer than members of the millennial generation have been alive. Those who've followed his case---from the time he was a Philadelphia radio journalist, framed by police in 1981, through the wrongful death sentence he served until 2011 (when it was converted to a "slow death" or life sentence)---know he's served his time in the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution "ona move," to use one of his catchphrases. Agitating for America to live up to its claim as land of the free, when it comes to his positions on our injustice system, unbridled capitalism, and the "need" for wars of aggression, he's also served as the invisible line so-called liberals will not cross. Even in the more radical and progressive wings of politics there is a tyrannical hierarchy of supporters more concerned with who's protested louder and longer for Mumia, than for what Abu-Jamal stands for (life in the face of death and and faith against the odds, in case there is any doubt).
Thirty-three years after his incarceration, it would seem Abu-Jamal's 15 minutes in the media spotlight would have elapsed, a possibility that would not be lost on Abu-Jamal who knows well the Society of the Spectacle. Yet while over two million Americans are neglected in prisons, and despite the age and attention gap, it's a victory we are still talking about him all. The most identifiable prisoner in the known world, through his own persistence and with the help of a core council of support who works to deliver his books and his Prison Radio broadcasts, Writing on the Wall is his latest communique to reach us from the confines of the prison nation.
Published by City Lights Books and selected by Johanna Fernández, a scholar, educator and coordinator of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, over 100 previously unpublished short essays by Abu-Jamal well-cover our history of violence (from the police bombing of the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia, to commentaries on the violence in Ferguson, MO ) and the media circusry that accompanies it. Prepared in the style and format of his Prison Radio pieces broadcast on public radio, Fernández wrests hope from Abu-Jamal's prophecies that one day America might live up to the truth of its own advertising. "Like Nelson Mandela, Mumia defies his captors by preserving his integrity and compassion in the face of the hateful repression orchestrated against him," she writes.
Despite his personal circumstances on the inside, Abu-Jamal consistently, dispassionately, and evenly assess the cost of selling freedom worldwide. The book opens with early writings on MOVE, the black liberation organization bombed out of its headquarters on order of Philadelphia's first black mayor, Wilson Goode, in 1985. Though there is a repetition to these writings, they serve to set the stage for the larger theme of state violence, the bulk of it waged on people of color, along with our poorest and most pacifistic citizens.
Two essays from 1991 serve as examples of Abu-Jamal's ability to see things clearly where the rest of us may be blinded to the reality of everyday racism, our vision obstructed by denial or the demands of surviving. Dated February 7 and titled Opposing Anti-Arab Racism, Abu-Jamal cautioned of a developing anti-Arab sentiment at the dawn of the first Iraq war. "The potential for extraordinary evil launched against them is real." In the piece that follows dated March 10 simply titled Rodney King, he writes, "'There's always a few bad apples in every bunch,' the cops will say, adding, 'Don't blame the bunch!' To now cry 'bad apples' is to insult Black intelligence. It is not 'bad apples,' but a bad system, that relegates Black life to the psychic underworld of terror." Both statements, written over 20 years ago, are alarming in their prescience. For anyone who needs the idea of systemic racism and police violence further unpacked, he writes, "For what did Black youth cross the seas of Saudi sand? For what did their fathers wage war in Vietnam? For what did their grandfathers fight a fascist Hitler? To be eaten in the streets like dogs?" These questions would appear to remain unanswered.
As if further documentation was needed, in the piece that is perhaps the book's most profound, Abu-Jamal outlines the danger presented by the "doorway execution" of Amadou Diallo in New York City in February of 2000. He perceived the appalling 41 shots fired at Diallo, "A harbinger of greater violence against unarmed Black and non-white life by the cops… contributing toward the illusion "That perhaps Black life will somehow be safer in the city with Democrats in political control." Somewhere along the way he has introduced the term "police terrorism" into the social and racial justice lexicon. He continues, "No major political party in America can even begin to promise Black folks in America the power to stand on their own doorstep, or ride their own car, or walk the streets of the urban center, without the very real threat of being 'accidentally' blasted into eternity. A politics that cannot, or will not, control the agents of that polity (that is the police) is unworthy of our support."
He writes on Abu Ghraib with an authority that can't be denied, given his firsthand experience with torture. Just this year, Abu-Jamal was denied proper medical treatment and visitation following complications from diabetes, its onset not unrelated to lack of care by a deficient prison hospital. His words on the surveillance state, inspired by news that the pacifist organization, the Thomas Merton Center had been suspected of ties to terrorism, are also chilling. "Thanks to the utility of fear, we are seeing how virtually silent people are in the asphyxiation of the alleged constitutional rights of the People."
Whether he's writing about Palestine, George Zimmerman or singer Nina Simone, the years flash by and the events of our times unfold, until finally, in 2011, Abu-Jamal leaves death row, but not before an inspirational missive titled, To My Brethren and Sistas on The Row: "I write not of death but of life. If I can walk off, so can you."
It's not every prisoner, political or otherwise, who has the endurance and temerity, nor the call to testify like Abu-Jamal, from researching the miscarriage of justice in his own case to becoming a self-proclaimed jailhouse lawyer; few have streets in France named for them or public support from figures diverse as Cornel West, Amy Goodman, Alice Walker, Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, and Eddie Vedder. It's safe to say, though consigned to prison for life, Abu-Jamal will not be forgotten now or any time soon: His collected prison writings will be appreciated by human rights activists for ages to come, but more importantly they are useful right now, for anyone seeking a light in the darkness of the American night.
Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing, Black Power Music from Blues to Hip Hop and an occasional contributor to DownWithTyranny.