Left Hook interviews Mumia Abu-Jamal

This edited interview with political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal was conducted in November 2009 by Larry Hales—a national organizer for F.I.S.T. and Left Hook writer.

LH: How old were you when you first became politically active?

Mumia: I was around 14 or 15, and my first overt political activity was attending, with 3 or 4 friends, a rally staged by presidential candidate and racist, George C. Wallace in 1968.  I wrote about it in “Live from Death Row”.  To go into a rightwing presidential rally for Wallace (even in Philly) was a bit mad.  But, as it is public and had political objectives to protest the Wallace candidacy, it was about as politically active as you can get.

LH: What attracted you to the Black Panther Party?

Mumia: What attracted me was two things: an article in Ramparts magazine on the BPP; and meeting a young (tho’ older than I) sista who gave me a copy of The Black Panther newspaper.  Both of these publications electrified me, and turned me on to the possibility of joining a real revolutionary movement.

LH: How did your family and friends react, were they supportive of your politics?

Mumia: Some were supportive; some were not.  I remember coming home, and sitting with some older brothers, and one saw a book in my shirt pocket, pulled it out, and read aloud (mispronouncing), “The Quotations of Mayo Zee Tongue—Whoa! This is communist! What you doin’ readin’ this, man?”

When I responded that we read and studied Mao and others for their insights and lessons, he went further, “But this is communism!  These people want to enslave your mother!  We fightin’ this in Vietnam!”

When I answered that the U.S. was in Vietnam to exploit Vietnamese natural resources, and to oppress the Vietnamese people, he snapped, “I don’t dig you no more, man.”

But, generally, given the tenor of the anti-war, radical and revolutionary era, many people expressed support for the BPP and other similar movements of the time.

LH: Are the problems facing young people today more serious than they were 40 years ago?

Mumia: The problems are, if anything, far more serious today than they were then, although most young people don’t think so.  I’ve talked to or received letters from enough young people who think that the 60s were the great old days. Things were actually much harder then.

The fact is, economics determines the world in which we live, think and work.  Today’s economic system is one that is far more relentless than that of the 60s for a very simple reason.  Today, there is hardly any alternative to the capitalist, globalist model.

If you talk to anybody in their twenties during the 60s or 70s, they’ll tell you that jobs were plentiful and pay was relatively high.  People quite literally could walk out the door from one job, go to another and begin working the next day.

That could hardly be said to exist today.

That’s true despite that fact that many young people are better educated than that generation.

Many tens of thousands of people are facing unemployment who have graduate and professional degrees.

Young people are corralled into a groove where they can play dazzling toys like Facebook, iPods and crackberries, but they have less room to organize (by organize, I mean take the time to actually talk to people—listen to them), to be truly active and to expand their boundaries beyond their virtual lives.

I should also add the often forgotten history of the 30s, when in the shadow of the Great Depression, millions of Americans turned to socialist and alternative ways of organizing society, because the dominant model had failed badly.

The reigning corporate parties were seriously challenged by progressive and socialist movements, at least until the so-called Cold War and anti-communist hysteria forced much of the tendency underground.

The point here is that times of economic trouble (like now) open up alternatives for millions of people who recognize that the system isn’t working for them—it’s fine for the bankers though.

The lesson, of course, is that times of adversity offer its own opportunities for social change.

LH: What effect do you think mainstream media has on people?

Mumia: The media ain’t as mainstream as it once was; and that goes for both the electronic media and the newspaper biz.

That’s because people are watching less MSN and reading less “straight” papers.  I think this has much to do with the feeling of alienation against the media for their mass, collective betrayal of their readers and their profession in the ramp-up to the Iraq war.

Also, young folks know that the media is the mouthpiece for the rich and powerful, and secondarily, an international gumball machine.  By that I mean, they are there to sell meaningless things to people; things that people don’t really need, but things that the advertising industry hypes to them to feed into the bottomless maw of society.

LH: What do you think of the rising incarceration rates, especially for young people?

Mumia: I think I addressed the unemployment situation but not the incarceration issue.  In point of fact, both these issues are intimately related.

The brilliant activist/scholar, Dr. Angela Y. Davis wrote, I think in her Are Prisons Obsolete?, that back in the 70s when there were several hundred thousand prisoners in the U.S. (about 300,000 or so); we thought that this was the oncoming tide of fascism.  There was a prisoners’ movement then.

The idea that there would be nearly 3 million people in joints today, increasingly female and juvenile, was almost unthinkable.  In that sense, it is drastically different now than it was then.

LH: What is going on with your case?

Mumia: We are in the Supreme Court, with several petitions pending.  The state is trying to still kill me.

LH: How did you come up with the idea to write your latest book, “Jailhouse Lawyers”?

Mumia: I had a discussion with some activists from Britain, and I talked about jailhouse lawyers, and they looked at me like I was speaking Greek.  One woman said, “Jailhouse lawyers?  What is that?”

I was surprised that they hadn’t heard the term before.  I talked about it for a few minutes, and one woman said, “Why don’t you write about it?”

The rest is history.

LH: Do you have anything further you’d like to add?

Mumia: The nation faces challenges far more daunting than those of the 60s and 70s.  Don’t look back to that period as the Golden Age.  It wasn’t.

That said, it’s important to work now to change the situation that people face today—the economic crises, the corporate wars, unemployment, underemployment, mass incarceration, foreclosures and a dangerous educational system that kills souls and minds.  The problems are mounting.  But there are also opportunities to struggle against many of these problems and create real, lasting change.


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