Jun 05 2012

Conversation with Political Prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal

Long time political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal has just published his last work while on death row called Message to the Movement. The award winning journalist was moved to the General prison population earlier this year in Pennsylvania where he is serving out a life sentence. It took years of activism and legal proceedings before Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s office announced last year that it would drop its push for the death sentence and accept life in prison for Abu Jamal. Abu Jamal spent 30 years on Death Row for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police office Daniel Faulkner in a case that has drawn international attention. Abu Jamal and his supporters maintain his innocence, and a long list of celebrities such as actor Danny Glover and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have called for his release, or at the very least, a new trial.

Mumia Abu Jamal is a former member of the Black Panther Party. Like other Panthers, he was subjected to government surveillance under COINTELPRO. Upon graduating he pursued a career in broadcast radio journalism and worked at a number of radio stations. In 1994 he sued National Public Radio for canceling an agreement to air his radio commentaries based on complaints by the Fraternal Order of Police.

Today Mumia Abu Jamal continues to make his voice heard through his regular radio commentaries at PrisonRadio.org. Earlier this year a group of high-profile activists such as Angela Davis and Cornel West, held a day called Occupy the Justice Department, which among other things, drew attention to Mumia Abu Jamal. They are demanding a meeting with Attorney General Eric Holder over issues of police corruption and civil rights violations in the case of Abu Jamal and many others.

Mumia Abu Jamal called into KPFK from the SCI Mahanoy prison in Frackville, Pennsylvania to discuss the Occupy Wall Street movement, the American prison system, the media, and more.

Thank you Gifts:

Message to the Movement pamphlet by Mumia Abu Jamal – $50 pledge

Tickets to see Chris Hedges on June 28th at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church – $15 each

Uprising’s Dollar-a-Day Occupy Spring Pack – $365 pledge
Included in pack are — Richard Wolff’s “Occupy the Economy”, Chris Hedges’ “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” and 2 Occupy Media Pamphlets – Mumia Abu Jamal’s “Message to the Movement” and Noam Chomsky’s “Occupy”, plus Uprising’s Best of Drive MP3 CD PLUS a pair of tickets to see Chris Hedges on June 28th

Rough Transcript:

Sonali Kolhatkar: I want to talk to you about the Occupy Wall Street movement that you have expressed a lot of optimism about. You’ve called on people to “occupy everything.” What do you think is the ability of this movement to make real change, particularly changing our capitalist system?

Mumia Abu Jamal: I think credit must be given to Occupy for raising the question, or shall we say, more accurately, stating the situation, by the simple slogan of “We are the 99%.” They targeted and focused on the wealthy and the super-wealthy, who are in many ways the owners and the motors of American capitalist society. That, by its very nature, was anti-capitalist. It was not, shall we say, Marxist, but it was certainly anti-capitalist in the sense of designating the immense power and the immense wealth held in the hands of the one percent, and percentages of that one percent. I think that was a powerful and pregnant and really long-awaited beginning in the transformation of social consciousness. It certainly changed the minds of millions of people.

Kolhatkar: I know this movement is very new, and I’m wondering what advice you can give, given that you were a member of the Black Panther Party and are experienced with movements for social change. So you know well that movements that are effective get attacked not just by police, but by politicians. They can get infiltrated to the point of implosion. What is your advice to the Occupy Wall Street movement against such pitfalls?

Abu Jamal: To tell them of my experience and the experiences of many of my contemporaries, and to warn them against some of the mistakes, which were many, that we made. Many people of my generation look back with rose-colored glasses, in a sense, at the sixties, as if it was a time of ultimate perfection. Those of us who lived there obviously know that was not the case. Many, many mistakes were made: practical, strategic. In many ways a lot of people, especially in the white left but also in the black left, melted away from the movement. Some because of the repression, others because they felt like they had won, that the social changes they thought they were struggling for were solidified and made and society was transformed. While that may have been the case on the surface, it was only the case on the surface, and not in the essence of society. Because we see, if we had won what we thought we had won, we wouldn’t have the society we have today. It wouldn’t be as racially offensive. We wouldn’t have this evil mass incarceration that we have. We certainly wouldn’t have the public school system that we have. So I would say in all honesty and in all modesty, that those of us who have been through movements, and are a generation older than the Occupiers, have really much to learn from them, because they are doing some pretty remarkable stuff. But we should also warn them against the mistakes we made, because that’s the benefit of hindsight, experience.

Kolhatkar: You brought up the issue of our racialized society, racial oppression and mass incarceration. The case of Trayvon Martin in 2012 has galvanized so many people, black, brown, and even white, even some conservatives. Why do you think it took the killing of this teenage boy to draw attention to an issue that has dogged people of color for decades?

Abu Jamal: I think it was two things. The convergence of the youth and the real beauty of this kid, and the convergence of social media. Because while people all across the country reacted, when you really saw the organizing—that is to say, people walking out of schools, people going to mass protests—these were very young people. These were school age kids, Trayvon’s contemporaries, his colleagues, his cohort, that really pushed and took to the streets. It wasn’t, shall we say, established organizations. And I think many kids his age looked at it to them, that could be me, that could be my brother, that could be my homie. And, in fact, it could have been. It could have been anybody. And it was, in many ways, anybody. And just the blatant way it was done, and how the state reacted, which was as if nothing had happened, moved people to action and forced them into protest.

Kolhatkar: President Obama said that Trayvon Martin could have been his son. And I’m wondering then if you think we are also at a time now when the broader issue of mass incarceration is reaching awareness. People like Michelle Alexander have brought this issue into the mainstream, particularly how it affects black men. Although this is an issue that progressives have been familiar with for a long time, do you think there is a broader public awakening about the racism of the criminal justice system?

Abu Jamal: I think we’re at the beginning of it. I don’t think we’ve really reached the cusp of it. I think people like Michelle have certainly raised the issue in the same way that Occupy has raised the 99% issue. However, I don’t know if Michelle has broken through to mass consciousness. She certainly has sold a great number of books and spoken to a lot of people at her book tours across the country. But you don’t see her on corporate mass media often. There’s still a kind of mass incarceration ghetto, and it needs to break through. Part of the problem, I think, is people in black communities, in Latino communities, know it in their bones, know it in their spirits, know it in the fact that many of their mothers and fathers and brothers and cousins and uncles and sisters and daughters are in these situations. It’s a beginning, but I think it has a significant way to go. It’s a good beginning, but it still has a ways to go.

Kolhatkar: The Occupy the Department of Justice event commemorating your work and calling attention to your case earlier this year seemed to try to bring together, at least thematically, the Occupy Wall Street movement and cases like yours and the issues of mass incarceration and imprisonment. Do you think it’s important for these two issues to converge, for people to connect them together? Will that strengthen the movement?

Abu Jamal: I actually do, because I think that one of the strengths, believe it or not, of the Occupy movement, is its ability to morph, and its ability to not get into any one box. That is to say, they’re able to be flexible and respond to the conditions that exist around them, and to respond one way or another. That allows them to in essence stretch, and reach, and touch people in ways that movements of previous generations did not. I think that one of the biggest movements in the sixties and the early seventies was the anti-war movement. And it was, I think, the epicenter of what could be called the radical white left. What happened? Well, when the Vietnam War was over, much of that movement melted into vapor, in a sense. There’s a movie that came out a few years after that called “The Big Chill.” I think it captured the big chill of first the repression, that forced people to discard their allegiances to the movement. But also, this was the “me generation.” Some great well-known radicals went from protesting in the Pentagon to working on Wall Street and building capital. I think that Occupy has been more flexible than that movement, because it’s not just about one thing, it’s about the 99%, and all the issues that involve the 99%, like mass incarceration, like mass unemployment, like mass underemployment. And so they’re able to at least affiliate with movements that the older left really did not affiliate with.

Kolhatkar: I want to ask you about the Presidential election this November that has prompted a debate among progressives over President Obama, who has embraced his war presidency, he’s increased deportation rates of undocumented prisoners, he’s embraced Wall Street firms. How do you assess his presidency? Is he an unwitting pawn or an active participant?

Abu Jamal: Well, I look at the presidency as a kind of right wing of the left. That is to say, many of the things he’s doing—not the things he’s saying, but the things he’s doing—could have been done by Hillary Clinton, or certainly Bill Clinton. They’re very Clinton-esque. And they are unabashedly imperial. That is, they support the empire, and not the rhetoric of freedom and all that kind of stuff. They’re also often outward-looking, as opposed to inward-looking. What I mean when I say that is this: that for many, many of the people who voted for Obama, they were coming from an inward-looking place. That is to say, African Americans saw him as one of us. And therefore, this is a great historic opportunity to create change in a nation that Black people have been trying to create change in for the better part of five centuries. But it was also very young people, of under-30 ages, who were of the hip-hop generation, and saw a black president as a very cool thing, and a transformation from the Bush era and the era of their parents. So those two forces certainly converged to make an Obama presidency possible. What’s the third variable? I think it was, overwhelmingly, white women, who instead of being turned on by the John McCain and Sarah Palin candidacy, were turned off, and looked at Obama and said, you know, this is a nice guy, this is a reasonable guy, certainly has a beautiful family, and they responded to him warmly. And those elements converged to make his presidency possible. But in terms of what he’s been involved in, it’s been in many ways the same old thing. He certainly propped up Wall Street, he certainly saved the economic system. He did formally declare the end of the Iraq War and de-escalation of the Afghanistan war, but he’s also escalated what I call the drone wars. Drone attacks in the hundreds and possibly thousands in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Somalia, in Pakistan, and in other places around the world. In many ways, I think he’s far more martial than people realize. Even though, in honesty, he said he would be. But I think it’s less of a change than most people wanted or most people hoped for, and it’s more like the same old stuff.

Kolhatkar: I want to ask you about the media. You’ve been a journalist since before your incarceration and have continued to regularly produce radio commentaries. How has the narrowness of the media landscape affected your ability to get your work heard widely? NPR doesn’t air your commentaries anymore, for example, but now there’s a greater reach directly to people through social media and the internet.

Abu Jamal: I think that’s due to the transformation of what media is. There is corporate media, and there’s social media, and the two are not yet the same. In corporate media, I remember reading an insert in The Nation about ten years ago, and it illustrated a map of who controlled American media. You could literally take eleven people, and they controlled say 90, 95 percent of American media. So, that kind of concentration has made the corporate media the most distrusted in my lifetime. I look at this stuff on TV and I cringe because it’s nothing close to news. I think social media is going to take the place of what corporate media has failed to do, and that is inform and serve the people.

Kolhatkar: Well, Mumia Abu Jamal, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. In these last few seconds, anything that you’d like to get out to our listeners?

Abu Jamal: Well, thank you so much, Sonali. I saw you on C-SPAN, I think you do really incredible work, and I thank you so much for the kind invitation. I send my love to all the help and supporters. On the move. Long live John Africa.

Special Thanks to Marjorie Hunt for transcribing this interview.

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