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.