Poster for "Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal"
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 bete 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.