[Ppnews] Mumia writes for Reporters Without Borders

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jun 11 10:27:52 EDT 2009



Mumia Abu-Jamal: Journalism in hell

By Mumia Abu-Jamal

While a young reporter for a local NPR affiliate, housing was my beat.

In a city which was the oldest in the United 
States, there were no shortages of housing 
issues, for Philadelphia’s housing stock seemed 
in a permanent state of disrepair, especially in 
those sections of the city where Blacks, Puerto 
Ricans, and poor ethnic whites lived.

But which stories shimmer in the rear-view mirror 
of memory, brighter than the rest?

Although I reported in several sections of the 
city, many of those have sunk below the ocean of 
time. An exception was the rent protest by 
residents of a dwelling in Southwest 
Philadelphia, a place I drove by for years, but 
never entered, until it became my job.

The exterior was attractive and distinctive, and 
set apart from its neighbors by the decorative 
mouldings and mortar-work which told of another 
age of its construction, when builders were 
artisans, who took time not merely to build, but 
to make the building beautiful.

When I got a call from a contact of the impending 
strike, I rushed out there and finally entered the building.

The conditions therein made me gasp. Ceilings 
were dangerously drooping over children’s living 
quarters, plumbing was backed up, and the general 
conditions of lack of repair made the building a 
threat to all of its inhabitants.

As I met with the leaders of the strike, their fury was evident.

When I think back on the story years later, it 
dawned on me that housing, per se, wasn’t the issue.

Resistance was. That’s what gave the story the 
meaning, for it represented everyday, 
working-class people standing up to the injustice 
of unfair and improper living conditions.

Years later, while in the churning swells of the 
American House of Pain (prison), this would be my beat.

There are tens of thousands of people in these 
places, and therefore, tens of thousands of stories.

I have never had a shortage of them.

Sometimes, it’s the cases which brought a man to 
this place, and more often than not, the procedures by which this occurred.

Like the making of sausages, the American legal 
process is a messy and ugly thing when one inspects closely.

I’ve written of unjust and improper prosecutions, 
harrowing brutality, stunning institutional 
boneheadedness, and cruelty that would curdle milk.

In 1995, I was institutionally sanctioned for 
“engaging in the business of journalism.” It took 
years of legal wrangling, including sitting in a 
courtroom for several weeks, in shackles so tight 
that one’s ankles were swollen and bleeding, to 
finally prevail on the principle that the U.S. 
constitution’s 1st Amendment protected such 
activity, but it was well worth the battle (the case was: Abu-Jamal v. Price).

For years, writing a story meant, quite 
literally, writing a story. With an ink pen. On a 
legal pad. Sometimes with a 4-inch long flex-pen 
(this is a pen which has in inner tube of an ink 
pen, but the shaft is composed of see-through 
rubber, with a rubber cap at both ends, one 
allowing the 1/2–centimeter tip to protrude). It 
has been likened to writing with a wet noodle. 
Two of my books were written with these 
instruments, and then sent out to be typed by friends or editors.

The computer age has not yet dawned on the prison 
system (at least in Pennsylvania). I am often 
amused when I receive letters from people, who 
include, quite innocently and helpfully, their 
e-mail addresses, or their websites. For it tells 
me that they actually think I have a 
computer—here—in the cell, or perhaps computer (or web) access.


Not only are there no PCs in here; there are no 
Ipods, no CDs, no cassette tapes! (even though 
cassette-ready tape players are for sale in the prison commissary!).

We are, for all intents and purposes, dinosaurs, 
who live in another age, at another warp and woof 
of time, from the millions who dwell without.

Recently, a man named Amin (Harold Wilson) who 
won a retrial and acquittal from several unjust 
murder convictions, was ordered released after 
almost 2 decades on death row. He left the county 
prison in Philadelphia, with all his earthly 
possessions in a trash bag, and a bus token. A 
local country prisoner, a Puerto Rican brother, 
released at the same time, saw the look of loss 
on his face, and offered him his cell phone. Amin 
squinted at the machine, tiny in his fist, and 
asked, “What do I do with this?” He had 
absolutely no idea how to operate this strange 
thing, for he had never seen nor held one before.

He later told me “My it looked like something straight outta Star Trek!”

Sometimes, stories come, unbidden, and unwanted.

Several months ago, a funny and well-liked 
jailhouse lawyer on the Row, named Bill Tilley, 
tired from his years of butting his head against 
the grey, judicial walls, and fearful that his 
emergent health problems were a prelude to 
cancer, got up early in the morning, used his 
laces from his sneakers, and fashioned a noose, 
by threading them through the steel grate mesh of the air-vents into the cell.

He hung himself.

After his passing, the scuttlebutt was that he 
did indeed have cancer, but medical staff did not 
disclose this fact, for, as a death row prisoner, 
the state wouldn’t waste money on such a patient who was going to die anyway.

Several weeks before his death, Tilley confided 
to a few friends that he suspected it was cancer, 
given the severity of his symptoms, but whether 
it was, or not, it was so painful that he 
remarked, “I don’t ever—ever—wanna go through that again!”

What we didn’t know was that he was telling us, 
in the only way he could, of his suicide plans, 
back then. Perhaps he was saying, in so many 
words, that he didn’t fear death, but did fear pain.

His death took place less than 35 feet from the 
cell door in which these words are written. I 
broke the story. But it gave me no pleasure.

There are tens of thousands of stories in this 
House of Pain, and I have written hundreds of them.

This is my hidden beat, one that even the most 
intrepid of journalists cannot enter.

Yet, it is my beat.

And I intend to do this job with the same 
thoroughness, the same professionalism, as I did in days of yon.

For, though this is a hidden world, one not seen 
by millions, it is, too, a public world, for it 
is bought and paid for with the tax dollars of the citizenry.

Shouldn’t they know what their investments have purchased?

Several times a month, in written form, or 
otherwise (as in books of commentaries) I offer 
this service, to the best of my ability.

I fight against being here, but I am here. And while here, the beat goes on.

Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote this article for 
<http://www.rsf.org/>Reporters Without Borders on 
May 23 from his prison cell on death row in Pennsylvania.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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