Robyn C. Spencer
He glided towards us, Samuel L. Jackson cool. Unexpectedly, we were confronted by his physicality. With each stride, disembodied voice became flesh and icon became man. The room, full of men huddled with their loved ones in a tender web of public privacy, faded into the background. He was in front of us, taller than I envisioned and smiling. Uncertain at first, I gave his outstretched hand a firm shake, paused, then leaned in for an embrace. Our familial grins belied this awkward dance. We had never met in person before, but we were far from strangers.
He was Mumia Abu-Jamal, an award winning journalist, a former member of the Black Panther Party and the most well-known political prisoner in the U.S. We were two Black women, who were members of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home (CBMH), a grassroots organization formed by scholar-activist Johanna Fernandez in 2012 to bridge Mumia’s long standing support base in the movement to free political prisoners with a new generation of young people fighting to end mass incarceration. CBMH members had been placed on Mumia’s list of authorized visitors and serendipitously, me and Sophia’s names had been the first two to be cleared. For years we had occasionally written to Mumia and spoken to him on the phone when he called into conference calls, meetings or events. The opportunity to meet him in the flesh had pushed us out of our beds at 5am that chilly fall morning and jump started an unforgettable journey.
After the first set of greetings, Mumia immediately gave us the rundown: Visitation 101. We took photos right away. Us: shorn of money, phones and underwire, and full of purpose. Him: clad in a burgundy jumpsuit, bearded, bespectacled, easing into an unguarded pose. Next stop: snatching the salad, the one with spinach, from the vending machine. Among the chips, re-heatable nachos and candy bars, anything green was gold. We picked a spot in the rows of side by side seating and he sat between us. We could have been anywhere: a living room, a doctor’s waiting room, the departure gate of an airport, or a park bench. But our surroundings were not so benign. Over a dozen cameras clocked our every move and a guard walked around periodically to ensure food was shorn of wrappers and to disentangle lingering embraces. Violence sat cocked in the background.
We were in SCI Mahanoy, a 2,300 bed, medium security prison carved out of the harsh Pennsylvania landscape where coal once ruled and industrial development has faltered ever since. Prisons like SCI Mahanoy have filled an economic void, serving as an important employer for local residents and a magnet for visitors who purchase goods and services from struggling businesses. Frackville, the official prison zipcode, is 96% white, with a 6.6% unemployment rate and 21% of the residents living beneath the poverty line. Such areas have been fertile ground for the anti-immigrant, white supremacist message of the Trump administration and 70% of Schuylkill County turned out for Trump in 2016.
Mumia’s story of incarceration story began long before SCI Mahanoy — its sinews connect activist generations and movement genealogies in ways that point to the dismantling of America’s carceral state.
In 1981, Mumia was convicted of killing police officer Daniel Faulkner in a late night incident in Philadelphia and sentenced to death. Mumia has maintained his innocence and his legal team has pointed to witness manipulation, a biased judge, and other irregularities and bias in his trial. At the time, he was a popular investigative radio journalist who had been targeted for his exposé of police corruption, his Panther affiliation and his positive reporting of MOVE, a Black radical organization whose natural living and anti-authoritarian politics had run afoul of the Philadelphia police and whose compound would be bombed by a military grade bomb a few years after Mumia’s arrest. His supporters consider him to be a political prisoner, targeted for his dissident politics. He is not alone.
There are several dozen political prisoners in the US, most of whom are veterans of the most radical wing of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Political prisoners are an intrinsic part of the larger system of mass incarceration, which imprisons 2.3 million people, a rate that is more than five times higher than any other country in the world.
Political prisoners, according to carceral studies scholar Dan Berger, are “canaries in the coal mine.” He has argued that “some of the most distinguishing features of the American prison state — aggressive policing, hefty charges, preventive detention, lengthy sentences, parole denial and prolonged solitary confinement — were first deployed as means to stop radical social movements beginning in the 1960s.”
These movements faced repression from COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program which launched a multipronged campaign of infiltration, harassment, spurious arrest, surveillance, and disruption against Black radicals, the New Left and others in the 1960s. Members were targeted for surveillance, arrest, and conviction because of their critique of racial capitalism, US imperialism and often, their support of the use of political violence and armed self-defense. Their trials were shaped by irregularities and illegalities, they received harsh sentences and often faced punitive periods of solitary confinement and other human rights violations in prison.
Mumia has condemned the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex in dozens of radio commentaries and nine books; and advocated for collective resistance and societal transformation. The injustice of his imprisonment, the clarity of his analysis and the urgency of his writing has attracted support from veterans from the civil rights, Black Power and New Left movements; students, labor union activists, and well respected human rights champions like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, and Angela Davis.
In 1971 Angela Davis wrote that: “In the course of developing mass movements around political prisoners, a great deal of attention has inevitably been focused on the institutions in which they are imprisoned.” She argued that: “the political receptivity of prisoners — especially Black and Brown captives — has been increased and sharpened by the surge of aggressive political activity rising out of Black, Chicano, and other oppressed communities.” These conditions were evident in the early 1990s. During this period, the mobilization around Mumia’s case dovetailed with a mass movement born in the face of skyrocketing incarceration rates; the war on drugs; and rising police brutality and violence epitomized the Rodney King beating. This movement condemned the carceral state, traced the history of racial criminalization back to enslavement and its aftermath, rallied against state violence and raised the question of prison abolition. It was led by local grassroots groups like NY’s Campaign to Free Black Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War, and nationwide organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Organization, Critical Resistance,the Jericho Movement and INCITE! Books like The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness (2000) by Michelle Alexander and Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis (2003), and Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California by Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007) provided the intellectual foundations of the movement while blogs like US Prison Culture, and research initiatives like Prison Policy amplified a strong structural critique of prisons. Incarcerated men and women using everything from their pens to hunger strikes to challenge their conditions have also played a decisive role.
After decades of appeal, Mumia’s death penalty was commuted to a life sentence by the PA Supreme Court and in 2012 he was transferred to general population in SCI Mahanoy. This partial victory reinvigorated his traditional base of support and brought his case to the attention of a new generation of activists who flooded the streets in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin that same year. The cry of Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name in the face of police killings in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities flowered into the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a network of 50 organizations representing thousands of activists. In 2016, the M4BL created a wide ranging policy platform which included restorative justice and the abolition of prison, declaring that “until we achieve a world where cages are no longer used against our people we demand an immediate change in conditions and an end to all jails, detention centers, youth facilities and prisons as we know them.”
Mumia’s case, rooted in repression, surveillance and the dismantling of 60s liberation movements, is one key to the carceral apparatus that this new generation of activists seeks to replace. These young people have supported him as he fought back against attmpts to silence his voice through the Revictimization Relief Act in 2015, and through his battle for Hep C treatment after suffering illness and almost going into a diabetic shock in 2015. These cases have shed light on prison conditions and Abu-Jamal v. Wetzel (the Hep C case) has been used by incarcerated men in Missouri and promises to continue to provide critical legal precedent for the fight for a humane standard of prison health care. Much like the cry to “Free Huey” and “Free Angela” in the 1960s, Mumia’s name has become a shorthand for the injustice of the criminal justice system. His case bridges the distance between people who are ensnared in a politicized carceral apparatus through mass incarceration and those who are considered political prisoners.
Sophia and I literally embodied this history. Born in the 70s, I had been politicized in the 1990s activist upsurge and had learned about Mumia when the death penalty loomed over him. I joined the Free Mumia Coalition, helmed by former Black Panther, Safiya Bukhari in New York and over the years I had remained connected with his case. I joined the CBMH in 2014. Sophia was born in 1989 and had learned about Mumia through a class in college. She had been a part of the CBMH from its inception. Together, we reflect the intergenerational nature of the movement to free Mumia, its many waves, its connection to state violence and its regeneration in the crucible of Black Lives Matter. Our gender is not incidental. Just like vocal women of color and femmes have been at the helm of the M4BL, the free Mumia movement is led by women like Pam Africa, Ramona Africa, the late Safiya Bukhari and Johanna Fernandez.
Sitting with Mumia
What does one say to the most well known political prisoner in America? Sophia and I had prepared appropriately political topics to stuff into any holes that might appear in the conversation, had memorized greetings and messages from other CBMH members and had questions ready for the book party we were planning for his latest release, Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?. But it turned out that we didn’t need the scaffolding. The three of us fell into an easy rapport. Mumia immediately dubbed Sophia “Wisdom” and asked me both about my child and my recently published book, referring to them both as my babies. He seemed eager to not just talk but to ask questions and listen.
Our conversation unfolded languorously. Mumia turned the “Italian Sicilian” dressing on the salad into a dissertation on Hannibal, general of the Carthaginian army. We moved from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean. Junot Diaz’s brilliance in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao led us deep into the battlefields of French defeat in the Haitian revolution which led to Algeria, Fanon and neocolonialism. We moved from there to 1960s New York and Panther Afeni Shakur’s role in the defense of the Panther 21. Here, our voices became a chorus, upholding the brilliance of Tupac Shakur’s “Dear Mama,” the powerful 1995 tribute song to Afeni. We moved to the importance of women’s activism, then and now. From Maxine Waters latest clapback to Trumpism; to the cancellation of WPNs “Underground” and the power of seeing Harriet Tubman portrayed on television; to the cultural impact of Nichelle Nichols as Uhura on Star Trek; to Safiya Bukhai and Afeni Shakur’s role in the NY Panthers; to Black Lives Matter activist Ash Williams’ confronting Hillary Clinton on her famous quote that “we have to bring them to heel” and the role of the Clintons in accelerating mass incarceration. It was clear that he had remained a sharp analyst of mainstream news, popular culture and grassroots activism.
Like Malcolm, Mumia had a ready smile and a quick wit. Although cut off from social media, he was as aware of Trump’s tweets and eccentric mannerisms as he was about his disastrous policies for people of color. He was a skilled impersonator who replayed dramatic scenes from his life complete with critical and often comedic commentary. He told us that he was deeply inspired by the young activists in M4BL and enjoyed hip hop citing TI, Lupe Fiasco, and Jay Z as favorites. Like the discovery that he was a Trekkie, these revelations were profoundly humanizing.
We shifted through comfortable pauses; mini lectures; intense dialogue and blackity black non-verbals. It seemed like every topic was a morsel to be savored; every shared opinion was a revelation; every divergence was an invitation to drill deeper; and every new bit of information needed to be tucked away for future research. We talked with deep political purpose and with light hearted abandon. We forecasted him traveling, teaching and getting back into the studio after he was released. We were liming (the art of doing nothing, hanging around, gathering, socializing, Trinidad); gyaffin’ (informal, meandering talk, Guyana); skinning our teeth (grinning, Jamaica, Guyana) and shooting the shit, in diasporic defiance of the ways that we were governed by the clock, patrolled by watchful eyes and disciplined by the institution. We turned those three chairs into a classroom, a church, a kitchen — a place where our words melded like gumbo.
Somehow it was easier to talk about everything but where we were. But soon enough we dared to ask him about life behind the walls. Mumia has been locked up since he was 27 years old. He is now 63. He spent 30 years on death row, 28.5 of them in solitary confinement in a room the size of your average parking space. He’d been in general population since 2012 and was facing life. In our conversations, he’d often used the term “when I was in the world,” to describe the time before his arrest. Yet, prison was also his world. What could he — would he — tell us about being inside?
Mumia spoke in broad strokes. He had successes as a jailhouse lawyer helping himself and advising others despite the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act which made it harder for incarcerated people to file lawsuits against prisons in federal court. He had developed a respectful relationship with some of the other incarcerated men, some of whom nodded, shook his hand and introduced him to their family in the waiting room. From commissary to contraband, from inflated prices to exploited labor, from the employees to the contractors, his words illuminated the bowels of the prison industrial complex — the economies within. He talked about the quotidian survival strategies he had snatched out of the jowls of death row and about the last 6 years in general population. His tone was dispassionate and he was open about the realities of outmoded technology, lousy food, hyper-surveillance, endlessly shifting rules and regulations and constant roadblocks. Gallows humor and books had armored him.
Yet, heartbreaking details spilled out from the crevices of his matter-of-fact telling. That moment when he felt wind unfettered by walls for the first time and thought it was going to “turn him around.” The flowers that caught his eye, whose delicate, fragrant petals he had not wanted to disturb with a touch. The baths, a hard-won medical prescription for the chronic skin condition left behind in the wake of Hep-C, doled out only on Mondays. Our visits had been punctuated by the muted soundtrack of his insistent scratching. The exposed skin on his neck, shin and forearm was darkened and discolored by shades of red and pink. Damn, I thought. Water and wind on hungry skin, flowers that lingered in the full bloom of eyes used to shades of gray — it was a sensorial reminder of all that prison takes. Of course, what it takes most of all, is time.
The inhumanity of 36 years — over 13,100 days in prison, over 10,400 of which were spent in solitary confinement — lay between us like a rancid odor no one wanted to claim or acknowledge. My mind thought: but how do you survive this? My lips said nothing. Instead, I thought of my own life. I was 11 the year Mumia was incarcerated. I was all elbows and knees, lived for “Fame” on TV and rode my bike on endless loops around my Brooklyn neighborhood. Thirty-six years was the yawning gulf between the much-coveted beeper of my tween years and the apps on my phone calibrating my middle aged life. While he was incarcerated Mumia’s children had grown up and he’d lost both parents, a sibling, and a child. In single file, in that grim room, I silently mourned for Mumia’s yesterdays and all that could have been.
It was love — of friends and family, of the worldwide movement determined to secure his release — that provided his oxygen. He told us that more than once, looking deep into our eyes almost willing us to understand that it was not a platitude. Supporting court appeals, organizing street actions, and grassroots political education are a crucial part of what the political prisoner movement describes as “the work.” But the movement’s lifeblood are the many unseen acts of humanity that nurture the spirit of political prisoners: writing letters and sending birthday cards, amplifying their writings, raising money for their commissary, visiting them, sending books, accepting phone calls, and emotionally supporting their families. In that moment, Mumia radiated gratitude.
We ended the visit by asking him for our marching orders. He advised us to pivot from the spectacle of the daily headlines to the news unfolding under the radar, especially the stories of successful acts of resistance and victories. He reminded us to keep an eye on judicial appointments at the federal and state level, and keep the pressure up through direction action in the streets. In January 2018, Mumia’s contention of judicial bias in his case was given new life as newly sworn in District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office has begun to review the role Ronald Castile, former DA and PA Supreme Court Justice, played in Mumia’s case. One scenario could be that Mumia’s legal appeals could be reinstated, potentially resulting in a new trial. The outcome of this investigation remains uncertain but it represents a major breakthrough. Activists and supporters are packing the courtrooms in February and March even as they continue to challenge the legitimacy of the larger criminal justice system.
At the end of the visit Mumia walked us back to the processing desk and made a joke about us getting our freedom papers, the documentation that was our ticket to the outside. Under the guard’s watchful eyes, we leaned into the second allowable embrace. We had spent a total of 8.5 hours together on our two visits and likely, we would not meet again inside those walls. We locked eyes and instinctively, I started nodding over the tightness in my throat. “Good-bye” was not an option. Instead, our movement salutations tumbled over each other. “Stay strong.” “Ona move.” “Long live John Africa.” “All power to the people.” To this, we added our “I love yous.”