"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?"
He says to me...
"The brutality of the empire was exposed under George W. Bush. 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.
Abu-Jamal says in the film...
"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, 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 slavemaster 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."
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