Reflections on the full and dynamic life of Phil Africa


“Ona MOVE Kevin!

Hey Now Bro! I got your letter and wanted to write right back so you’d know it was good to hear from ya. Always good to hear from those you are active in the work needed to right the things this rotten system has caused to be wrong. To make a righteous change in this world one must be willing to work for it and to stand up against all that is wrong.”

Those lines began the first letter I received from MOVE 9 political prisoner, Phil Africa. I was 16 and his letter of encouragement kept me motivated for weeks. Phil had that effect on people. I continued to write and visit with him over the years, unfortunately less so the past few years. I was as shocked as everyone else when I heard that he passed away on Saturday. To say that it didn’t seem like it should be his time is an understatement. If you’ve had the privilege to spend time with Phil you know that to think of his high energy level slowing down is like thinking about the sun going out. Though he has spent the last 36 years in prison, eating prison food, spending time in solitary confinement, and experienced the abhorrent conditions that come from a life imprisoned, Phil was vibrant, his skin glowed, he talked a mile a minute and he was excited to be alive.

Writing about Phil is frustrating because he’s a hard person to describe. I only knew him through visits and letters, but I really feel that I got to know him. I wish more people had had that opportunity. Phil’s hard to describe because he embodied forces that we usually think of as contradictory. He was big, strong as hell, very protective, and I’m sure he’d be damned intimidating if the situation required it. He was MOVE’s First Minister of Defense for a reason. However, he was bursting with love, humor, and positive energy in a way that was physically palpable as soon as you came near him. He had a calm, clear thinking, collected vibe that relaxed those around him.

Phil was like a metronome, a very fast metronome. His steady pace and consistent energy level gave me something to measure myself against. He wrote letters with whoever wrote him – hundreds of people. If you sent Phil a letter you’d usually have at least one or two typed (hopefully, otherwise good luck with his handwriting!) pages back within a week. There were many times when he wrote to me twice before I responded to the first letter. I’m incredibly thankful to have a binder of his letters on my shelf. I’ll be reflecting on them for years to come. In letters and in person Phil was always moving things forward. If you wrote him about a problem he’d offer pragmatic advice to proceed and didn’t humor weakness if you were stubborn to move on. This discipline was coupled with an incredible sensitivity and concern.

I’m lucky to have so many fond memories of Phil. It helps that he had a lot of unforgettable habits that will help aid in keeping the memories clear. As soon as we’d arrive in the prison visiting room, after we had hugged, he step back and thoroughly examine me. He’d squeeze my bicep and nod encouragingly or tip his head to the side humorously if he thought I hadn’t been exercising. He’d look closely at my face and say “You alright man?” After we’d stocked up on food from the prison machines he’d sit across the table, give a knowing look, tilt his head back and smile in the most distinctive way, almost like he was observing the whole thing from the future, like he already knew what you were going to say and he was quite entertained by it.

The past few days it’s been tough telling people about Phil who didn’t know him. I’ve been glad to be able to share my experiences, but there’s just no translating them. I think for many folks it’s hard to get past the label “prisoner.” That word becomes the primary identifying factor. I understand that. Without the privileges I’ve had to get to know so many people who happen to be imprisoned I think I would have the same stumbling block. If I was making a list of a hundred things Phil was though, prisoner wouldn’t make the top 100. He never allowed himself to be imprisoned. He didn’t put his life on hold after he was sentenced, he continued right along in the work of his life. He put in long days, typing deep into the night. He kept a strict exercise regimen, called into radio shows, mentored other inmates, and learned to paint. He wrote until typewriters broke and he painted until there were no more supplies. He became a damned good painter. And if you were on a visit or on the phone, he talked. He talked very quickly and very intentionally. The number of words that went into a 15 minute call with Phil would fill up an hour of normal conversation. He was passionate and he was excited. And that is why it is so damned hard to believe that the last letter that I got from him is the last I will get from him. His words and actions will continue reverberating on and on into the future though. As I type these words now the waves of his life are still moving through mine and the thousands of other lives he touched.

The Commencement Controversy and the Real Mumia

Three weeks ago I visited imprisoned journalist, Mumia Abu-Jamal, at SCI-Mahanoy in Pennsylvania. I’ve been visiting with Mumia, sometimes regularly, for the last decade. Despite the polarizing rhetoric from those who’ve fought for three decades for Mumia’s state sanctioned murder, the man I met is one of the kindest, funniest, and most intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to know. The first time I visited with Mumia, on death row at SCI-Greene in 2004, the conversation was so engaging that the visit was halfway over before I realized his hands had been shackled the whole time. After years of organizing around his case I knew he was a brilliant thinker, but I was pleasantly surprised by his sense of humor and silliness.

I learned of Mumia’s case as a teenager in 1997, when my world was rocked by reading his gripping book documenting death row life, “Live From Death Row.” The same week I purchased his newly released collection of musings, essays, and poems, “Death Blossoms.” I stayed up all night reading it, inspired by the empathy and insight coming through the pages. At that point I was a freshmen in high school and had begun to get politicized by an active punk scene in Norfolk, VA. Mumia’s writing opened my eyes to worlds I had never even considered. I started organizing heavily for a new trial for Mumia as well as working on many other causes and movements. After over 15 years studying this case I know that his trial was a travesty of justice (as does Amnesty International and many international governing bodies) and I believe that he is innocent.

In person and in his writings Mumia rarely focuses on his own case, instead focusing on broad international struggles for justice. On our most recent visit we talked about books we’re reading, world events, and mutual friends. For a few years he’s been studying musical composition and when I told him that I didn’t know how to read music he spent an hour passionately explaining the basics to me. I learned a lot. These visits have been some of the most educational hours of my life. It’s easy, absorbed in conversation, to forget that we are in a prison. It’s hard to comprehend that this man was nearly put to death on two separate occasions and that the mere mention of his name will send many into a fit of rage. If they actually met Mumia they wouldn’t recognize him next to the violent cop-killer straw man the media built in his image. Mumia has been characterized by much of the mainstream media as an unrepentant murderer. When word got out that an audio recording by Mumia would be the commencement address at Goddard College this Sunday, Fox News and other media pundits manufactured a media controversy.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of backlash by the Fraternal Order of Police and others who want Mumia dead. When Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys organized a massive benefit show in his defense there was media uproar and pressure to shut down the show. When Mumia was made the first honorary citizen of Paris, France since Pablo Picasso, and Saint-Denis, France named a street after him, the US House of Representatives passed HR 1082 condemning Mumia and Saint-Denis, France. The hysteria over having Mumia as the commencement speaker at Goddard is just the most recent in a long series of similar media spectacles. This one hits a bit closer to home for me because I graduated from Goddard College in 2012 and have friends who will be graduating this Sunday. I love Goddard and am very protective of it. Conversations with Mumia were part of the catalyst for my enrolling in Goddard. He attended Goddard in the 70s and finished his degree there in 1995, knowing he might be executed before graduation.

It’s difficult to watch a person that you love and respect routinely slandered in the media. Goddard College and their graduating students have been condemned for their decision and attacked as well. I’m impressed with the way the school and the graduating students are defending their decision. There are a number of symbolic reasons it’s valuable to have Mumia speak at commencement. The United States is the largest jailer in the world history, with over 2,000,000 people in the prison system. Racism plays a key role in deciding who will be convicted and the sentence they will receive, and as a result black men are incarcerated at vastly disproportionate numbers. The lack of educational opportunities and diminishing job options are a huge factor in our sky rocketing rates of imprisonment. If we seek to change these conditions I can think of no better speaker than Mumia Abu-Jamal, an accomplished academic, and brilliant black man who is wrongfully convicted. With the rampant police murders of black people, notably Eric Garner and Mike Brown, it’s important to publicly assert that black lives matter and that the victims of police brutality and judicial misconduct must be defended.

These are wonderful symbolic reasons to celebrate the choice of Mumia as a commencement speaker. However, Mumia is not a symbol. He is a man who was wrongfully held in solitary confinement on death row for nearly 30 years and is now being wrongfully held in general population with no legal possibility for parole. He has children who have had children in the years he’s been away. He is a man with a brilliant mind and an unstoppable pen. Those who oppose him have been fighting for decades to silence his voice. Yet every week, often twice a week, Mumia continues work as a journalist, writing and recording audio commentaries over the prison phone calls. With so much at stake it only seems right that we listen.

To hear Mumia’s commentaries go to

For more information on who Mumia is, his case and his writings go to

Lessons from the other night, when I thought I killed my friend

The bed of my dump truck broke free from the body, flipping to the side as two and a half tons of dirt and metal crashed to the ground. For the first three seconds, my friend was under that massive pile. For three seconds, my friend was unquestionably dead. Except that he wasn’t actually under the mound, he had moved out of the way. But I didn’t know that. In my mind, I was in some way responsible for a death. In my mind, I was helpless, incompetent, terrified, confused, and utterly broken. I called his name and at first there was no response. I ran around the broken truck and saw him. I have never been so relieved. I wasn’t thinking about the thousands of dollars of repairs, I wasn’t thinking about the jobs to be postponed. I was grateful, utterly, deliriously grateful.

That moment and the two days since have taught me some things. Here are some things that I’ve learned:

*What the fuck are we doing?          

Seriously, what the fuck are we doing. If you’re old enough to be reading this than you will be dead in the next 90 years. I guarantee you, it will happen. It could happen today. The bed of a truck may fall on you now. What are we doing? Why are we giving so much attention to such petty bullshit? Why can’t we put the excuses aside and really love the people that matter to us. Why can’t we put the bullshit aside and love?

I read a book a few years ago where when you forgot what was important in life you had to play Russian roulette. You had to put a bullet in the chamber, spin it, put the gun to your head and pull the trigger. If you lived you’d understand how valuable your life was. I’m not advocating this as a good practice, but I can understand the result. We need a good, humbling smack in the face every once in a while. Most of the time we’re too damaged to realize the value of what we have. Most of the time we don’t see the sunset.

* A truck is not a truck

A truck is not a truck, it’s the product of many decisions. Sometimes it looks like a truck, other times it looks like iron ore and rubber plantations, other times it looks like a welder who was distracted because his kid is sick and he’s having a shitty day so he rushes a weld. A truck is not a truck, a house is not a house. It is sometimes and other times it isn’t. These things change quickly, we should expect that. Things break, sometimes fall. Sometimes they move soil and transport people, other times they kill people. Proceed with caution.

* I have an amazing, caring community, and that scares the shit out of me

Since the truck attempted homicide the support we’ve received has been amazingly humbling. My neighbor, who I was pretty sure didn’t like me the first few years we lived here, spent ten hours helping me deal with the problem. Today he was driving around helping me look for a new truck bed. Other friends have offered money, ice cream, love, and concern. Two friends are letting me borrow their trucks to help me stay on my work schedule while we’re dealing with our truck.

This is so wonderful, and so scary. I don’t like getting help. I don’t like needing it. It terrifies me. I’m not sure how to give it back. I believe in community. I want to be a member of a strong community. I am,  but it still scares me. Why is this so hard? Earlier today I was listening to “On Being with Krista Tippett.” The guest, Nadia Bolz-Weber is a bad ass, the type of radical Christian I can get on board with. She said that she doesn’t believe the aphorism that “you’re only given as much as you can handle.” She believes that you are only given as much as your community can handle. Our hardships must be distributed, used as a thread binding us together, solidarity in the flesh. I believe this. I am struggling to live this, and I am so, so glad to be alive.

Solidarity Wherever: Remembering West Virginia- in South Africa

Last month 34 striking mine workers were killed when police fired automatic weapons at a crowd of protesters demanding higher wages in Marikana, South Africa. Tensions have been building for months as miners demand an increase in their pay from 4,400 rand a month to 12,500, or in U.S. dollars a raise from about $450 a month to $1350 a month. Thousands of miners went on a wildcat strike in mid-August to demand better compensation for their dangerous work in the Lomnin platinum mines and were met with bullets instead of negotiations, resulting in the largest display of force by South African police since the days of apartheid.

I heard about the Marikana massacre on Democracy Now the next day, but didn’t really begin to investigate the conflict until a few days ago. As I was reading articles about the strike I was listening to a new album called “Blair Pathways: A Musical Exploration of America’s Largest Labor Uprising.”  The album beautifully documents the dramatic history of labor struggle in the mountains of West Virginia and continues the work of protecting those mountains by fighting against mountain top removal mining today.

The Battle of Blair Mountain, one of the largest uprisings in US history, was the most dramatic event of the South West Virginia mine wars. Though the Battle took place in August of 1921, it bears striking resemblance to August of 2012 in South Africa. In 1921 West Virginia coal miners were fighting for their right to form a union and were met with bullets and even bombs. Like in South Africa, they tried to negotiate until it became apparent that the owners of the mines had no interest in sharing their plentiful profits. The Battle of Blair Mountain ended after the Sheriff’s Department had fired over a million rounds of ammunition and nearly 100 miners and 30 from the Sheriff’s Department were left dead. In South Africa, West Virginia, and so many similarly tragic struggles, the police aligned themselves with the owners of the mines over their own class interests.

The Blair Pathways album does an incredible job of transporting the listener to West Virginia in the early twentieth century. As I close my eyes and listen to the traditional songs of the time, of the ballads about the mine wars and Mother Jones, and to the spirited rendition of Solidarity Forever, I can feel some of the anger, pain, and joy of those struggling in those mountains. So, what songs will we sing to mourn the dead of the Marikana mines? What songs will we sing to unite our own struggle with theirs? What songs are they singing to mourn their dead, to continue their struggle? Can we hear them singing?

*For more on the struggle in South Africa, go here :

*If you would like to buy an album and support the Blair Pathways project go to

Recognizing the Heroes in our Midst: My Tribute to Pam Africa

As I type, I look on the walls of my office and see posters and photos of people that inspire me. Many of them; Malcolm X, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Charles Darwin, I can only know through their writing and reputation. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to know and build relationships with many of the people who’ve inspired my life. One of those people, a very important one, is Pam Africa.

Last weekend there were events to recognize the life of achievement and endless energy that Pam exhibits. I was deeply upset to have been unable to attend those events, so I’m taking some time tonight to write some of the things that I would have liked to have said then. Many know Pam for her tireless work to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the MOVE 9, and all political prisoners. They’ve witnessed her incredible strength in standing up to repressive police, forcing the Philadelphia police department to back down and give ground. In the over thirty years that Pam has been fighting for justice her reputation has spread internationally as she has traversed the globe speaking, teaching, and working, constantly working for justice. Many know of her ability to work all night and day, with little to no sleep, and yet still have an unexplainable and contagious energy.

However, I feel like I’ve been incredibly privileged to see a side of Pam that not everyone gets to see and learn from. I first met Pam in 1999, when I was 15, at a demonstration in DC against the U.S. Bombing of Yugoslavia. I’d been organizing around Mumia’s case for over a year at that point, had read a lot about the MOVE Organization and was supportive. I knew that Pam would be speaking that day, and having heard a great deal about her I hoped to meet her. I don’t know what I was expecting; a giant, an entourage, I’m not quite sure. I looked around for a while and asked a man near the microphone if he knew where she was. He directed me to her, and I was a bit surprised to find, not a giant, but a woman a good bit, a very good bit shorter than my 15 year old self. I was taken aback by how accessible and patient she was, taking time to talk to an awkward teenager.

My next encounter with Pam was later that year when PA Governor, Tom Ridge signed Mumia’s death warrant. In the preceding months I’d become close with people who knew Pam well, and after driving up from Norfolk, VA we went to Pam’s house to help drive signs to the demonstration. Pam was on the phone running up and down the stairs grabbing signs, pressing t-shirts, and organizing fliers. Thinking I was being helpful I offered to help press the t-shirts. Well, not knowing what the hell I was doing and being too shy to ask proved to be a bad combo. I managed to leave the press down far too long and burn the t-shirt press together, making it completely useless. The way Pam reacted in this stressful moment, when expensive machinery was ruined, when Mumia was literally threatened with imminent murder, with thousands of people waiting for her at Broad and Spring Garden, is a perfect example of her character. She didn’t lose her temper, she gently moved me toward another task, and didn’t let me know what I’d done until years later.

Upon graduating from high school in 2001 I moved to Philly, for what was supposed to be three months, to staff the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia office. After 11 years of living in or near Philly I’ve received many valuable life lessons from Pam. That first summer Pam spent time on the phone calming my mom down when my car was stolen outside of the Mumia office at two in the morning while a friend and I were burning the midnight oil printing fliers. She consoled and advised me a few times after I was picked up, at times due to my own naivete and youthful arrogance, by Philly cops for Mumia related activities. What many don’t know is that aside from being an international spokeswoman, and one of the most bad-ass organizers of this era, Pam is always wearing a dozen hats. She is caring, present, and empathetic. She is a fiery revolutionary and an incredible mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.

When I was staffing the Mumia office in 2001 a fellow activist commented that Pam shouldn’t be running around getting fliers made, and other such small tasks. She thought that Pam should stick with the important stuff, speaking tours, demonstrations and the like. But that’s Pam. She’s involved in everything. She’s rooted in the community and she’s an international figure. She’s on the phone with an organizer in France while she’s attending to her grand kids. I’ve watched as Pam made soup and purchased groceries for an injured activist, hauled them up four flights of stairs and cleaned his apartment, not once, but many times, often a few times a week, until he recovered. This is one of hundreds of similar stories. Pam exhibits a love for people, a love for life, that isn’t bound by political campaign or category. A few weeks ago we were driving up to visit Mumia, and during the ride she was on the phone organizing against Mayor Nutter’s ban on feeding the homeless in public. I could go on for many more pages, but it’s not necessary. We have the benefit of a living hero as an example of how to love and how to fight. At times Pam has been my second mother, my sister, my role model, and friend. I’m infinitely grateful to her, and am proud to struggle by her side.

Lessons in simplicity from another kind of Monk

I’ve had the same Thelonious Monk album in my cd player for over a month.  Our house’s last remaining cd players sits atop the refrigerator, a dusty three-cd changer that was all the rage in the early nineties.  I spend a great deal of my time in the kitchen and usually listen to NPR or a podcast of “Democracy Now” as I cook.  However, lately it’s Thelonious Monk.  Each time I listen I get more and more from it.

I listen to music constantly, but for some reason this is the first time in a long time that I really feel I’m listening.  I’ve gained such enjoyment from eight beautifully orchestrated tracks.

This all makes me wonder why I have hundreds of albums; 40 gigs of music, meticulously catalogued on a back-up hard-drive.  I’ve probably spent over a hundred hours uploading albums, labeling info-less tracks, and cursing the false-gods of Apple.  All that time, when I could have been listening.

The Classroom, the Cell, and the Street

The night before last I had a gun put to the back of my neck for the contents of my backpack and pockets.  There was a book in my bag that I can only hope the three teenage assailants will read.  I know it’s not what they were robbing me for, but if they read it with the attention it deserves it would be far more valuable for them than any amount of cash they could have stolen.  The book is the latest work from the brilliant minds of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Marc Lamont Hill, The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America.

Abu-Jamal and Hill converse with comfort and ease, logic and love, about some of the most serious issues of the day.  Both men grew up in poor Philadelphia neighborhoods.  One has written seven books from the confines of Pennsylvania’s death row, the other teaches at Columbia University.  Together they have an expansive view of Black life in America.  The Classroom and the Cell is a must read for building a movement against the school to prison pipeline.  This daring text elaborates on Michelle Alexander’s mind-blowing work, The New Jim Crow, by providing personal insights into our national epidemic of mass imprisonment, specifically concerning populations of color.

Hill and Abu-Jamal advance the goal post for the prison abolition movement by transcending academic discussion and delving deeply into personal reflection and palpable empathy.  I’ve been educated and impressed by Mumia’s previous works, such as Jailhouse Lawyers, Faith of our Fathers, and We Want Freedom.  However, this is something different.  I’ve had the privilege of spending many hours visiting with and getting to know Mumia.  This text is the closest one can come to getting to know this complex and beautiful man through the written word.  The Classroom and the Cell brings the reader into the conversation with its honesty and vulnerability.

While the work focuses on Black life in America, Abu-Jamal and Hill passionately discuss the roles of nationalism, homophobia and patriarchy as interconnected systems of oppression.  The Classroom and the Cell is a humanist work of profound love for people.  The authors understand the necessity of building community in organizing social movements.  Much of my political education began in the era of “the Battle of Seattle” in 1999.  Abu-Jamal’s Live from Death Row and Death Blossoms had a tremendous impact on my early activism.  Now, in the era of the vibrant Occupy movement, The Classroom and the Cell should be on every activist’s bookshelf.

Maybe the teenagers who robbed me will read the book in my backpack.  I hope so, but I doubt it.  After being failed by their school system and left without options or direction I’m not certain books are where they’ll turn to seek relief.  However, we must change the discussion.  We must challenge the dominant dialogue that condemns the poor for conditions caused by the greedy.  We must expose the disproportionate jailing of people of color for non-violent crimes.  More importantly we must challenge these systems with the love and humanity expressed by Hill and Abu-Jamal.  As Mumia wrote in his essay, The Lost Generation?:

“This is not the lost generation.  They are the children of the L.A. rebellion, the children of the MOVE bombing, the children of the Black Panthers, and the grandchildren of Malcolm; far from lost, they are probably the most aware generation since Nat Turner’s; they are not so much lost as they are mislaid, discarded by this increasingly racist system that undermines their inherent worth.

They are all potential revolutionaries, with the historic power to transform our dull realities.  If they are lost, then find them.

Let’s do it.