[Ppnews] UK Guardian interviews Mumia: "I Spend My Days Preparing For Life, Not Death"

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Oct 26 10:38:45 EDT 2007

UK Guardian interviews Mumia: "I Spend My Days Preparing For Life, Not Death"


Thursday, October 25 2007 @ 04:34 PM PDT

SCI Greene County Prison on the outskirts of 
Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, sits low in the rural 
landscape so that it's easy from the restaurants 
and petrol stations on the main road to miss the 
barbed wire coiled in endless circles. Inside, 
the plush leather chairs that squat on shiny 
floors make it feel more like a private hospital 
than a maximum security institution. But the 
black men in prison jumpsuits cleaning the floor, 
eyes downcast, dispel any such illusions. Signs 
spell out the rules: no hoods, no unauthorised 
persons, only $20 in cash allowed.

This UK Guardian Newspaper article coincides with 
today's premiere of the new British documentary 
on Mumia Abu-Jamal, 
review from ScreenDaily.com).

'I spend my days preparing for life, not for death'

by Laura Smith; Thursday October 25, 2007; The Guardian Newspaper, UK

SCI Greene County Prison on the outskirts of 
Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, sits low in the rural 
landscape so that it's easy from the restaurants 
and petrol stations on the main road to miss the 
barbed wire coiled in endless circles. Inside, 
the plush leather chairs that squat on shiny 
floors make it feel more like a private hospital 
than a maximum security institution. But the 
black men in prison jumpsuits cleaning the floor, 
eyes downcast, dispel any such illusions. Signs 
spell out the rules: no hoods, no unauthorised 
persons, only $20 in cash allowed.

Death row - or at least the visiting area - is a 
curiously ordinary place. A central waiting room 
where a guard watches the goings-on. 
Institutional doors opening on to small boxes, 
each furnished with a table and chair. But then, 
inside the visiting room, there is the shock of a 
grown man in an orange jumpsuit, his hands 
cuffed, the space small enough for him to reach 
out and touch both walls. And between us a layer of thick, reinforced glass.

Mumia Abu-Jamal has lived at SCI Greene since 
January 1995. Convicted and sentenced to death in 
1982 for the murder of a police officer in his 
home town, Philadelphia, he spends his days in 
solitary confinement, in a room he has described 
as smaller than most people's bathroom. When I 
arrive, he puts his fist to the glass in 
greeting. He is a tall, broad man with 
dreadlocked hair, still dark, and a beard 
slightly greying at the edges. He has lively eyes.

It is hard to know how to begin a conversation 
with Abu-Jamal, revered for his activism around 
the world as much as he is reviled as a cop 
killer by some in his home country. He is careful 
about who he agrees to see and rarely talks to 
the mainstream media - this is the first time he 
has granted an interview to a British newspaper. 
We start with the basics - the everyday 
restrictions of prison life. Visits: one a week - 
though it is difficult for his family to make the 
660-mile, 11-hour round-trip from Philadelphia. 
Money: a stipend of less than $20 (£10) per 
month. Phone calls: three a week lasting 15 
minutes each - but a quarter of an hour to Philadelphia costs $5.69 (£2.77).

This being Abu-Jamal, a campaigning journalist 
who has written five books about injustice while 
in prison, it is not long before we are on to the 
bigger questions: why SCI Greene, which takes 
most of its 1,700 inmates from Philadelphia, was 
built "the farthest you can be from Philly and 
still be in the state of Pennsylvania". "I 
believe it is intentional," he says. "I could 
count the times on my hand when I have seen this 
whole visiting area full." And why Global Tel 
Net, the firm that provides the prison phone 
calls, is allowed to charge so much of people who 
have so little. His conclusion is 
characteristically pithy: "The poorest pay the most."

Abu-Jamal has eight children, the eldest of whom 
is 38, and several grandchildren. How does he 
keep in touch? "Some grandchildren I have not 
seen. That's difficult. You try to keep contact 
through the phone, you write. I send cards that I 
draw and paint. To let them know the old man 
still loves them." Abu-Jamal's father William 
died when he was nine; his mother Edith died in 
February 1990 - eight years after he was 
imprisoned. He goes very quiet telling me this, 
and there doesn't seem much point asking how it 
felt not to be able to sit with her at the end.

Abu-Jamal has been locked up since he was 27. He 
is now 53. The story of how he ended up here has 
been told often. As a teenager he had been active 
in the Black Panther party but by 1981, with most 
of the party's leaders either dead or in jail, he 
had become a well-respected radio reporter and 
president of the Philadelphia chapter of the 
Association of Black Journalists. Radio 
journalism was not well paid, however, and 
Abu-Jamal supplemented his income by driving a taxi at night.

In the early hours of December 9 1981, he was out 
in his cab when he saw his brother, Billy Cook, 
being stopped by a police officer, Daniel 
Faulkner. A struggle ensued, during which Cook 
says Faulkner assaulted him. Abu-Jamal got out of 
his cab. Minutes later, Faulkner had been shot 
dead and Abu-Jamal was slumped nearby with a 
bullet wound to the chest, his own gun not far away.

At his trial in 1982 it appeared an open and shut 
case. A former Black Panther with a history of 
antipathy towards the police (although no 
criminal record). A white police officer dead. A 
succession of eye-witnesses who testified that 
Abu-Jamal was the killer. And the icing on the 
cake: a confession made by Abu-Jamal himself at 
the hospital where he was taken for treatment.

But some inconvenient facts were obscured: 
Abu-Jamal's gun was never tested to see whether 
it had been fired; his hands were never swabbed 
to establish whether he had fired it; and his 
gun's bullets were never solidly linked to those 
that killed Faulkner. The crime scene was never secured.

Of the three witnesses, one has since admitted to 
lying under police pressure, another has 
disappeared amid evidence that she too was under 
duress, and the third initially told police that 
he had seen the killer run away, but changed his 
story. Evidence from others who said they saw a 
third man running away was played down.

Evidence of Abu-Jamal's confession was equally 
shaky. Although two witnesses testified to 
hearing him shout, "I shot the motherfucker and I 
hope the motherfucker dies", the doctors who 
treated him insist that his medical condition 
made such a thing impossible. Neither of the two 
police officers who claimed to have heard the 
confession reported it until more than two months 
after the shooting - after Abu-Jamal had made 
allegations of being abused by police during his 
arrest. On the contrary, one noted in his log at 
the time that "the negro male made no comment" in hospital.

The trial judge, Albert Sabo, was a former member 
of the powerful police union, the Fraternal Order 
of Police, known to favour prosecutors. He 
overturned permission Abu-Jamal had obtained to 
represent himself, excluded him from much of his 
own trial, and presided over jury selection in 
which the majority of black candidates were 
removed. A court stenographer overheard Sabo 
telling a colleague: "I'm going to help them fry the nigger."

There were other irregularities, so many that 
Amnesty International concluded in 2000 that the 
trial was "in violation of minimum international 
standards", adding, "the interests of justice 
would best be served by the granting of a new trial to Mumia Abu-Jamal".

In the 25 years since, Abu-Jamal has appealed 
against his conviction many times, and many times 
has had his pleas rejected. He has had two dates 
set for his execution, only for them to be 
overturned by legal pressure. He is now awaiting 
the outcome of his latest appeal; this time by 
the second highest court in the US. His lead 
lawyer, Robert R Bryan, describes it as "the 
first time in 25 years that Mumia has had a 
chance at a free and fair trial". Abu-Jamal is 
more circumspect. "I have learned not to do 
predictions," he says. "It's not helpful, 
psychologically. I don't sit and fret about things."

Instead, he spends his days writing about prison 
life and social struggles around the world. He 
takes reams of notes from books sent in by 
supporters, so that he can refer to them when 
they are taken away (he is allowed only seven in 
his cell). "I confess, I am a nerd," he says, 
laughing. He uses his weekly phone calls to 
record radio commentaries that are broadcast around the world.

Then there are the speeches he records - he spoke 
at the World Congress Against the Death Penalty 
this year and the Million Man March in 1995 - the 
cards he paints for his family, and his drawing. 
He is currently working on his sixth book, 
Jailhouse Lawyers, about those prisoners who, 
like himself, help prepare legal cases with other 
inmates. He uses a beaten-up typewriter; he has 
never seen a computer. Asked about the work of 
which he is proudest, he cites his 2004 book, We 
Want Freedom, a history of the Black Panther party.

Abu-Jamal spends 22 hours a day alone in his cell 
- except at weekends, when it's 24. For two hours 
between 7am and 9am every weekday he has the 
option of going out into the yard - or "cage", as 
he prefers to call it. It is 60ft square and 
fenced on all sides, including overhead. Because 
"air is precious", he rarely refuses, but not 
everyone takes up the offer. "People have 
different ways," he says. "I know some guys who 
play chess for hours and hours, shouting the 
moves between cells. Some guys argue with other 
guys. Some guys used to enjoy smut books, but 
they've stopped those now. A lot of guys don't 
come out. I think it's depression. You get tired 
of seeing the same old faces. The role of 
television is the illusion of company, noise. I 
call it the fifth wall and the second window: the window of illusion."

Many of the younger prisoners call him "papa" or 
"old head" and it is clear that he is touched. 
"When you are out in the yard, it's dudes 
joshing," he says. "Guys being guys, playing 
ball. You have this machismo." One of the things 
that seems to keep him going are these 
relationships with other guys in "the hole". Many 
of them have inspired me and taught me ... about 
how things are on the street now, how young people are talking and walking."

I ask how prison has changed him. "In ways I 
could not have imagined," he says. "It has made 
me immensely patient. I was not before. It has 
given me an introspection that I hadn't had 
before, and even a kind of compassion I hadn't had before."

In Abu-Jamal's company, it is easy to forget that 
you are inside prison walls. As he talks, one is 
pulled into a world of urgent work that needs 
doing, of debates to be thrashed out, of 
injustices to be tackled. With characteristic 
eloquence, he calls Hurricane Katrina "a rude 
awakening from an illusion", watching television 
"a profoundly ignorising experience" and observes 
that much commercial hip-hop contains "no 
distinction, except in beat and tone, to a 
Chrysler advert". "If the message is, I am cool 
because I am rich, and if you get rich, you can 
be cool like me, that's a pretty fucked-up 
message." On American politics, he is damning. 
"You would think that a country that goes to war 
allegedly to spread democracy would practice it in its own country."

Born Wesley Cook in the Philadelphia projects, he 
adopted the name Mumia as a 14-year-old (later 
adding Abu-Jamal - "father of Jamal" in Arabic - 
when his first son was born). The following year, 
aged just 15, he helped found the Philadelphia 
branch of the Black Panther party after being 
handed a copy of their newspaper in the street. 
"I was like, whoah," he says. "It just thrilled 
me. I was like, this is heaven. This is great. 
Everything. It was the truth. Uncut, unalloyed. It was everything. It fit me."

He spent long days helping with party activities, 
which included free children's breakfast 
programmes and the monitoring of police, whose 
corruption at that time has since become 
notorious (at least a third of the officers 
involved in Abu-Jamal's investigations have since 
been found to have engaged in corrupt activities, 
including the fabrication of evidence to frame suspects).

Mostly, as the party's lieutenant of information, 
he wrote, gathering stories for The Black 
Panther, the party's newsletter. "It was great 
fun," he remembers now. "You worked six and seven 
days a week and 18 hours a day for no pay ... 
When I tell young people that now they are like, 
what was that last part? Are you crazy, man? But 
because we were socialists we didn't want pay. We 
wanted to serve our people, free our people, stop 
the homicide and make revolution. We thought 
about the party morning, noon and night. It was a 
very busy but fulfilling life for thousands of 
people across the country. We were serving our 
people and what could be better than that?"

Subject to relentless disruption by the FBI's 
Counter Intelligence Programme, which targeted 
radical and progressive organisations, and riven 
by internal disagreements, the Black Panthers 
imploded in the early 1970s. For Abu-Jamal it was 
a personal tragedy. "Despair," he says when asked 
how it felt. "A profound despair."

He is adamant that the party's message is still 
relevant today. "Millions of black people are 
more isolated in economic, social and political 
terms than they were 30 years ago," he says. "I 
remember a photograph of an elderly black woman 
(after Katrina) who had wrapped herself in the 
American flag and I remember looking at it and 
being so struck by it. Maybe she wasn't thinking 
visually, she was probably very cold and hungry, 
but I couldn't help thinking, what does 
citizenship mean? Are you a citizen if in the 
wealthiest country on earth you are left to 
starve, to sink or swim, to drown at the time of the flood?"

If Abu-Jamal's latest appeal is successful he 
could be a granted a retrial or have the death 
penalty overturned. If it is not, his execution 
could quickly follow. He does not sound afraid. 
"I spend my days preparing for life, not 
preparing for death," he says. "They haven't 
stopped me from doing what I want every day. I 
believe in life, I believe in freedom, so my mind 
is not consumed with death. It's with love, life 
and those things. In many ways, on many days, 
only my body is here, because I am thinking about 
what's happening around the world."

As we leave, people emerge from other visiting 
rooms into the central area. There's a family 
with teenage children; a young mother whose 
little daughter has spent much of our interview 
peeking through the door - to Abu-Jamal's 
delight; a grandfather being pushed in a 
wheelchair. A mother says to her children with a 
forced cheeriness: "That was a nice visit, wasn't it? I'm sure glad we came."

We step outside into a perfect summer day. All I 
can think of is my last view after saying goodbye 
to Abu-Jamal: a row of men, all black, standing 
behind glass. Their hands cuffed, their faces 
smiling goodbye to their families, their voices 
shouting greetings to each other. In a couple of 
minutes, each man will trek back to a cell no 
bigger than your bathroom, with no company but 
their own. But for now, just for now, there is 
the sight of life. And they're drinking it in.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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