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 http://www.prisonradio.org
For more information on who Mumia is, his case and his writings go to http://www.freemumia.com