[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 Philadelphias 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 childrens 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, wasnt the issue.
Resistance was. Thats 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, its 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.
Ive 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 ones ankles were swollen and bleeding, to
finally prevail on the principle that the U.S.
constitutions 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 1/2centimeter 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
computerherein 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 wouldnt 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 dont evereverwanna go through that again!
What we didnt 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 didnt 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.
Shouldnt 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.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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