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A Review by Denise Sullivan,
Following the shocking back-to-back police murders of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castille outside St. Paul in July of 2016, author and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal responded with what seemed to be an uncharacteristic loss for words when he ended a short lament titled “Killed By Cops Who Were ‘Just Doing Their Jobs'” with this refrain:
And another one gone…and another…and another.
A few days later, in a piece called “What Happens To A Dream Deferred,” he invoked the Langston Hughes poem in reference to Sterling, Castile, and a massacre in Dallas in which five police officers and others were injured.
A new stage has been reached in America’s longest war with itself.
Capsulizing the history of white slave patrols, their relationship to today’s police departments and a justice system that preserves immunity for officers who kill, Abu-Jamal goes on to suggest how and why we’ve arrived at such a horrific place in American history.
Oppression can drive people mad. It can turn calm brains into minds consumed by anger, rage, and resentment.
One year later, in the wake of recent worldwide terrorist events, mass shootings from coast to coast, and an entirely not unexpected not guilty verdict for Jeronimo Yanez, the cop who killed Castile, it is safe to say the tyranny of our brand of liberty has brought us to yet another new stage in the long war with ourselves. In his broadcasts, Abu-Jamal quotes Alexis de Tocqueville and Mao Tse-tung as he reckons with the civil war now in progress. In another titled, The Second Death of Philando, he concludes, “The jury believed once again, that a black life had no intrinsic value and that it could be treated like trash, burned up and discarded, like an old pair of shoes.”
In his latest collection of essays, Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? published this month by City Lights, Abu-Jamal offers no easy answers except for what’s undeniable: “Well, they certainly seem important enough to suppress and steal.” Over the course of the book, he shines his light on a fraction of the Black lives sacrificed since 1998– the cases that made it into the public eye– while underscoring the fact: Living while Black in the US is in itself a traumatic experience.
Between waging his own daily struggle to maintain his health despite being denied care on the inside, and working continually to overturn his own wrongful conviction for allegedly killing a police officer in 1981, Abu-Jamal writes, and writes, and writes: Over the course of nine books including the previous City Lights collection, Writing on the Wall, countless essays and radio broadcasts, all created in prison over 30 years, (much of that time on Death Row), Abu-Jamal has rung the warning bells, raised and lowered the flags for freedom, and sounded its sirens with his words, in his efforts to defer the American emergency in progress. Stating in plain language what may seem obvious is an art, the job of a prophetic voice, and Abu-Jamal owns his. The view from the inside allows for his precision and laser-focus, to see and say things the likes of which we who are free to travel the world and the Internet cannot. And yet, his status or lack of it as a prison inmate has left his input marginalized and at times dismissed by society at large. Perhaps the sheer volume of work at this point is what daunts otherwise intelligent people to shun him, or maybe it’s just that old white supremacy doing its number again…
There remains an inexplicable resistance within the so-called progressive left to regard Abu-Jamal as a poet and a writer of substance, much less a prophet or defining voice of the voiceless. Those who seem to have the time for revered prison writings from Jean Genet, George Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, just haven’t gotten around to vigorous discussion of Abu-Jamal’s vast catalog of material. Though his supporters may rest assured that long after we’re all gone, these writings will stand as testimonies to a very strange time in American history and scholars of the future will likely shake their heads in disbelief at why more attention was not paid to his prophetic wisdom and why we did not heed its call. Therein these compositions are answers and valuable tools for the recovery of America’s lost soul.
In a 2002 piece titled, “The Other Central Park Rapes,” concerning the five young men wrongfully accused and incarcerated for crimes they did not commit in 1989, Abu-Jamal calls out Donald J. Trump, citing the vicious full page ads he took out proclaiming the men should’ve received the death penalty (the young men were later found innocent after serving from 6-13 years of their 5-15 year sentences). Of that miscarriage of justice, Abu-Jamal asserts that this was no isolated incident: That five Black men should be victimized by the justice and prison systems, scarred for life by its business as usual, is quite simply more evidence of Black lives cast aside. In this same piece he asserts Black, Brown, and Latino lives “don’t matter.”
A 1998 essay, “We Are Blind To Everything But Color,” considers how people are treated in court: “…how they are charged and how they are sentenced are direct reflections of what race and ethnicity they are and how such traits are regarded by white America.” He outlines an experimental exercise among law students in which whites imagined turning Black and agreed it was “a disability,” worthy of millions in damage awards. “Why damages, unless color does matter?” he asks.
Of the 41 shots that killed Amadou Diallo, in 1999, Abu-Jamal noted the “predictable acquittal of his killers, four white cops,” in 2002 and called for the formation of a movement to stop the violence. Some 12 years later, following the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, that movement launched, though Black Lives Matter does not claim inspiration from Abu-Jamal nor does he seek their endorsement, though anyone with eyes and ears can see he was the forerunner in regard to resisting police terror and naming white supremacy as a source of law enforcement’s ills.
Read one by one like a daily reader, the essays, like the radio commentaries, are dense enough to reflect on for hours. Read all in one sitting, the evidence for bias presented by Abu-Jamal could potentially penetrate a racist mind and change it for the better, though sensitive liberals may find themselves sick with grief following the undeniable catalog of suffering here, some of it committed by our own hands (let this serve as your trigger warning). His critique of politicians is not reserved for the right: He notes the Clintons role in what he calls the mass incarceration boom as well as Obama’s legacy of mass surveillance and systemic repression: “He left the horrors of mass incarceration fundamentally unchanged and in the hands of an ultra-right wing populist, endorsed by a known domestic terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan.”
As we prepare for the long hot summer of American contradiction and its high holiday, the Fourth of July, Mumia asks us to consider what he and abolitionist Frederick Douglass asked: What does such an observance mean to a slave? As long as we remain a nation with the highest prison population in the world, with over two million serving time, we are not only a prison nation, but none of us are free. Time and again, the wrong people are warehoused when the real killers of American freedoms have yet to be tried, convicted, and locked away. “Until then,” Abu-Jamal writes,”The Fourth is just another day.”
The State of Pennsylvania has remained invested in keeping Abu-Jamal behind bars, despite a pile of evidence in favor of his innocence. In the eyes of a racist and fearful America this makes perfect sense, though in a more perfect union, where the deck isn’t stacked and there is such a thing as a justice for all, Abu-Jamal’s lifetime of incarceration would be the crime. Until that time, his writings provide companionship in the bleak hours of an American narrative that affirms, again and again although it’s a lie, that some lives are expendable.
Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop and an occasional contributor to DWT on arts, culture, and gentrification issues.