Nyle Fort. Socialism & Democracy. Volume 28, Issue 3. November 2014.
I first heard Mumia’s voice while sitting in Dr Mark Taylor’s “Systematic Theology” class my first semester at Princeton Theological Seminary. Mumia was sitting on death row. He had been for nearly 30 years—longer than I had been alive. Having heard about his story, I expected to hear a man scarred by brutality and bitterness. To my surprise, Mumia’s voice radiated with a beauty and brilliance that arrested my attention and captured my conscience. Soaking in every word, I somehow knew my life would never be the same. Less than two weeks later I was standing in the heart of Mumia’s hometown alongside an eclectic group of activists, students, grandmas, organizers, scholars, and children, chanting “brick by brick, wall by wall, we’re gonna free Mumia Abu-Jamal!” That was my first rally. It has been over two years since that windy winter evening outside of Philadelphia’s Constitution Center where we gathered to celebrate Mumia’s release from death row as well as challenge the slow-death (“life”) sentence the State put in its place. In the spirit of that revolutionary motley, of troublemakers and freedom-fighters … standing in solidarity … speaking truth to power, I write.
Crisis in the Village: Where Do We Go from Here?
The USA, hailed as the “land of the free,” has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With less than five percent of the world’s population, the US holds twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. Approximately one out of every four prisoners worldwide is in a US prison, jail, or juvenile detention center. Currently, 2.3 million Americans are imprisoned (nearly another five million are under correctional control), 2.7 million children have a parent behind bars, more than half of all state prisoners are serving time for non-violent offenses, and a quarter-trillion dollars is spent annually on incarceration. While mass incarceration troubles the American citizenry, it terrorizes the black community. According to recent reports, blacks make up nearly forty percent of prisoners while only constituting thirteen percent of the national population. Furthermore: (1) despite similar crime rates, blacks are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites; (2) One in every three black men is currently under correctional control (in prison, on probation or on parole); and (3) there are more black people in prison today than were enslaved in 1850. More than the sum of its statistics, mass incarceration is a community-crushing, democracy-destroying, soul-shattering technology of terror that contradicts any idea that we are living in the “land of the free.”
Against this bleak backdrop, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is arguably the most popular publication on the intersection of race and legal studies in the US today. But it has also drawn criticism. Political sociologist Joseph Osel criticizes Alexander’s text for “exlud[ing] an analysis of mass incarceration’s most central and defining factors.” He observes: “The New Jim Crow is a book about a modern American ‘caste system’ without even a single reference to the modern economic paradigm,” i.e. capitalism. According to Osel, any analysis of mass incarceration that fails to confront the complicity of capitalism is severely lacking. Greg Thomas questions Alexander’s terminology. For Thomas, the term “Jim Crow,” as opposed to more explicit descriptors such as “white supremacy,” obscures the continuing reality of racism and thereby isolates the problem of mass imprisonment from larger systems of domination. In this article, I affirm Alexander’s text as a catalyst for understanding mass incarceration while simultaneously asserting its limitations. Considering The New Jim Crow‘s impact on mainstream discourse, I present Mumia Abu-Jamal’s intellectuality as a critical conversational companion.
Who is Mumia?
Mumia Abu-Jamal is perhaps the most famous political prisoner in the world today. Here, however, I want to transcend the delimiting binary of Mumia as inmate (crusaded by detractors) and Mumia as icon (championed by supporters) in order to explore Mumia the intellectual.
Born in northern Philadelphia a month after the passage of Brown v. Board, Abu-Jamal was no stranger to poverty, racism, or police brutality. His first altercation with police came when he was 14. Beaten by a white Philadelphia police officer for disrupting a “George Wallace for President” rally, Abu-Jamal decided to drop out of high school and join “The Movement.” Soon after joining the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), he was elected Lieutenant of Information of the Party’s Philadelphia branch, a position that put him in charge of the organization’s media relations and placed him on the watchlist of the FBI’s notorious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). After attending Goddard College in Vermont, Abu-Jamal returned to Philadelphia to work as a journalist.
Despite his growing popularity and position as president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, Abu-Jamal was forced to take on a second job as a taxi driver to provide for his family. On December 9, 1981, he was working the night shift when he was drawn into a fatal incident in the course of which a white Philadelphia police officer was killed and he himself was seriously wounded. He was arrested at the scene and, after a highly flawed trial, sentenced to death. In response to global cries for his release, Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was ruled unconstitutional on December 7, 2011—after he had spent nearly 30 years on death row. But he is still serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
The details of his case are still debated, but what is hardly debatable is the impressiveness of his writings. Here I will explore his intellectual canon, underscoring four key themes: (1) the black radical tradition; (2) the prison-industrial complex (PIC); (3) mass media; and (4) capital punishment. I will argue that amid the mainstream discourse on mass incarceration, we must look to Mumia Abu-Jamal for a more radical understanding of the relationship between race and law.
The Black Radical Tradition
For many blacks, the past is as present as one’s mirror.
Much has been said about the frenetic rise of incarceration in the US. And yet it persists. Rather than settling for Band-Aid responses, we must identify root causes; we must engage the historical womb from which mass incarceration was born.
History is a battleground: a site of critical contestation. Abu-Jamal tells stories of our past in a way that disrupts the dominant American historical narrative. Tapping into the black radical tradition, he enables us to imagine a politics useful for not only analyzing mass incarceration but also abolishing it.
The best of the black radical tradition is characterized by several traits including but not limited to: (1) a search for root causes of oppression; (2) an understanding of Western modernity as deeply tied to the legacy of slavery; (3) an emphasis on self-determination; (4) a commitment to social justice; and (5) an international political imagination. Abu-Jamal’s scholarship is situated within this tradition. As he writes: “Much of African American history is rooted in this radical understanding that America is not the land of liberty, but a place of the absence of freedom.” From this perspective, as Brown University Professor John Edgar Wideman observes, “Abu-Jamal forces us to confront the burden of our history.” In We Want Freedom, Abu-Jamal historicizes the emergence of one such “burden”: the BPP. He invokes an extensive, untamable tradition of black radicalism that predates the Party’s 1966 founding in Oakland, California. According to Abu-Jamal, “the roots of armed resistance run deep in African American history. Only those who ignore this fact see the BPP as somehow foreign to our common historical inheritance.” Abu-Jamal dates the black radical tradition back to the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on American shores. Citing anti-slavery revolutionaries such as Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), and Nat Turner (1831), Abu-Jamal reminds us of the rebellions and armed resistance which define a tradition of black radicalism neither bound by legal-reformism nor confined to the logic of non-violence.
Furthermore, he situates the black radical tradition within the context of global revolution. As he writes, “The Party looked to liberation struggles and revolutions around the world as inspiration and guidance for the Revolution that would one day emerge in the heart of the United States.” By internationalizing the black radical tradition, Abu-Jamal helps create a subjectivity untamed by national forces seeking to suppress its revolutionary potential. (This is similar to the impulse that led Malcolm X to appeal to the United Nations for human rights while those invested in legal reform protested for civil concessions.) The BPP embodied this tradition. It thus posed a serious political threat to the US at a time when its hegemonic power was deeply vulnerable, largely due to the Vietnam War. And what threatened the State—an intersectional anti-racism linked to a radical critique of capitalism—transformed the movement.
But why would the US government want to discredit and ultimately destroy the BPP? “Because, at its deepest levels,” Abu-Jamal agues, “the Black Panther Party believed in the revolution—the deep, thorough-going transformation of society from the ground up.” The BPP represented everything the US government fears: political independence, self-determination, revolutionary internationalism, and armed resistance. Considering COINTELPRO Abu-Jamal compels us to ask, which is the real threat to democracy: the BPP or the US government?
Largely missing from mainstream discourse on mass incarceration is the history of slave rebellions and revolts, revolutionary internationalism and Malcolm X, COINTELPRO and the BPP. Yet, it is within this history that we find the tools for combating not only mass incarceration but also the monster of institutionalized racism that created it. We must understand mass incarceration as deeply tied to the legacy of slavery. This provides the intellectual grounding for the prison abolition movement, and relates to human rights struggles that call for international solidarity.
While Alexander’s text provides a compelling account of American racial social control, it fails to address the history of black radicalism, including the transformative potential it possesses for us today. In light of The New Jim Crow’s limited historicization, Abu-Jamal’s voice is essential not only to remind us of our radical political past but also to enable us to imagine a more just collective future.
The Prison-Industrial Complex
The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. (Corrections Corporation of America, 2010 Annual Report)
Mass incarceration is big business in America. Prison labor is one of the biggest sources of profit in the US today, generating billions of dollars annually. This penal-to-profit phenomenon is known as the prison-industrial complex. Abu-Jamal’s writings force us to confront capitalism and its connections to the US prison system. Considering the totalizing effects of capitalism, he examines not only its economic configuration but also its racial and political history, illustrating the role of capitalism both in creating mass incarceration and in exploiting oppressed communities.
For Abu-Jamal, more often than not, it is capital—not “corrections”—that structures the law. Referring to President Clinton’s “crime bill,” The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, Abu-Jamal writes in Jailhouse Lawyers, “The bill is, in essence, a $30+ billion public employment program for predominantly white workers.” By framing the bill as a jobs program, Abu-Jamal exposes the link between criminalization and capitalism. “As jobs were sold off and outsourced for millions of Blacks,” he explains, “jobs in the repression industry were ladled out to the rural areas.” Here, Abu-Jamal highlights how the deindustrialization of urban America occurred simultaneous to the proliferation of US prisons. And while deindustrialization dilapidated most of urban black America, incarceration recuperated much of rural white America. As urban blacks were being jailed, rural whites were getting jobs.
Legislation supposedly enacted to protect the politically vulnerable ended up benefiting capitalist corporations more than it did communities of color. Abu-Jamal quotes Howard Zinn, “Very soon after the Fourteenth Amendment became law, the Supreme Court began to demolish it as a protection for blacks, and began to develop it as a protection for corporations.” Corroborating Zinn’s analysis, Abu-Jamal adds, “Between 1890 and 1910, of the cases involving the Fourteenth Amendment that came before the Supreme Court, 19 were concerned with the lives and liberties of blacks and 28 dealt with the property rights of corporations.” Here, Abu-Jamal displays the distinction between de jure and de facto law—what the law says and what it does. Whereas the language of the 14th Amendment called for full citizenship and equal protection, its implementation produced second-class citizenship and unequal protection.
While Abu-Jamal insists on an analysis of the larger structure of capitalism, he never forgets the ways everyday people are affected by its presence and power. Exploring the impact of capital on courtroom convictions, he cites early twentieth century lawyer Clarence Darrow. Speaking to a group of incarcerated men, Darrow once said, “Nine-tenths of you are in jail because you did not have a good lawyer, and, of course, you did not have a good lawyer because you did not have enough money to pay a good lawyer.” By coupling Darrow’s class analysis with Zinn’s racial history, Abu-Jamal demonstrates how “the law is a tool of racial … and class domination.” Rather than serving the common good, law tends to serve the interests of big corporations. As one such company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), makes clear in its annual report: there is a symbiotic relationship between “sentencing practices” and “enforcement efforts” (criminalization) and “the demand for [its] facilities” (capital). Abu-Jamal enables us to see CCA’s report within a larger system of neoliberal capitalism that seeks revenue in the name of “rehabilitation” and pursues profit at the expense of people, especially the poor.
One cannot understand mass incarceration outside the context of capitalism and its neoliberal configuration. By revealing the capitalist underpinnings of US incarceration, Abu-Jamal extends Alexander’s analysis. Whereas the word capitalism does not appear in The New Jim Crow, the concept is central to Abu-Jamal’s texts. By exposing the economic factors within our prison system, Abu-Jamal enables us to see beneath the rhetoric of rehabilitation and beyond conservative claims that our prison system is primarily about public safety.
Mass Media and Mass Incarceration
Don’t expect the media networks to tell you, for they can’t, because of the incestuousness between the media and the government, and big business, which they both serve. I can.
Trained as a journalist and politicized as a “Panther,” Abu-Jamal knows both the constructive and destructive potential of media. He calls our attention to the complex and often covert connections between the corporate press and the prison system. In addition, he demonstrates how mass media works in conjunction with other political and economic forces.
In Jailhouse Lawyers, Abu-Jamal highlights the role of the media in the passing of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA dramatically decreased the number of cases incarcerated individuals could bring to the courts. Historicizing the PLRA, he describes how the media sensationalized stories of incarcerated individuals in order to boost ratings and justify governmental exploitation. As he asserts:
The nation’s media … anxious to juice up their audiences with sensationalist reporting of those “loony prisoner suits,” or to hit their economic advertising market with high scores in the “sweeps” (or ratings) period, decided to offer their services to this ignoble crusade instead of simply reporting the truth.
For Abu-Jamal, the fundamental problem is not that media reporting is untrue, but that the media are not interested in truth in the first place, preferring “fiction over fact.” Congress, bolstered by the media’s negative portrayal of the incarcerated, chose the PLRA over prisoners’ rights. As Abu-Jamal insists, “What changed the law was something far more insidious than the occasionally silly [law]suit. It was the convergence of. … State power, the media, and political opportunism.”
Recently, there has been much mainstream media hype about a so-called knockout game—in which one or more attackers attempt to “knock out” an unsuspecting victim for their own amusement and pleasure. Like the “crazy prisoner” stories, these episodes are both classist and racist: they represent blacks from low-income, inner city neighborhoods as inherently “thugs.” Interestingly, as social justice advocate Davey D points out, white mobs such as the Minutemen who terrorized Mexican immigrants in Arizona and the “Duck Pond Officers” who brutalized black urban youth in Watts are never depicted as thugs in the world of white corporate media. Echoing Abu-Jamal, Davey D reminds us that “the threat of the Black brute and Brown menace is big business for a lot of people.” As Abu-Jamal wrote:
It is … a measure of the power of the corporate, white supremacist media that the term riot almost invariably evokes imagery of black folks tearing through the streets in a frenzied orgy of destruction. But in fact, most riots were the instruments of whites, who used mass violence to terrorize blacks and deny them citizenship.
Dovetail this radical reframing with the brutal realities of stop-and-frisk and President Obama’s drone policy, and the question arises: who are the real perpetrators of violence in America and throughout the world today?
However, Abu-Jamal neither reads nor renders media as wholly corrupt. As a journalist, he understands the power of alternative media to combat and counter the violence of mainstream media. Working in Philadelphia under the racist regime of Police Chief Frank Rizzo, Abu-Jamal saw first-hand how the local media portrayed the MOVE organization as a cult, rather than a political community. As he writes, “Neither the brutal police assault on the MOVE compound in August 1978 nor the bombing of their new compound in May 1985—in which eleven of their members were killed, and a whole neighborhood was destroyed—could ever have happened without the media.” Against the racist media coverage, Abu-Jamal intervened with a wave of counter-narratives portraying the underlying politics and highlighting the humanity of MOVE.
Abu-Jamal sees the media as a double-edged sword, able to terrorize the weak but also transform the world. Sadly, mass media primarily undermines rather than uplifts the dignity and humanity of the oppressed. In the context of mass incarceration, mass media’s power translates into, among other things, propagating racist criminal stereotypes and manipulating political discourse for capitalist ends. Hence the need for radical voices such as that of Abu-Jamal.
The Politics of Death (Row)
At the heart of this country’s death penalty scheme is the crucible of race.
June 16, 1944: After an all-white jury quickly convicted him of murdering two pre-teen (white) girls, George Stinney was executed in Columbia, South Carolina. He was 14-years-old, black, and the youngest person ever to be executed in the US. The only “evidence” against him was the testimony of three white police officers, claiming that he confessed to the murders. Standing 5’2″ and weighing a little over 90 pounds, Stinney used the Bible he had under his arm as a booster seat. His head did not fit the adult-size facemask that was used to electrify his body. With the facemask slipping off, it took four minutes for him to be pronounced dead. Stinney’s ghost haunts the American penal system to this day.
Abu-Jamal, like Stinney, like Troy Davis and Wanda Allen, is but one drop of an ocean of blackness permeating the history of death row in the United States. Having spent almost 30 years in a 6 by 10 foot cell, Abu-Jamal is a living witness to the terror that defines the death row experience. Using the narrative as his theoretical launching pad, in Live From Death Row Abu-Jamal analyzes the pathology of the State as he articulates the pain of those incarcerated in its penal bowels.
“A prison inside a prison,” death row is a State-manufactured apparatus—a psychophysical “living” hell. Abu-Jamal takes us on a guided tour of the technologies of terror that characterize death row and traumatize those suffering its brunt. Twenty-two hours locked in a cell the size of a small bathroom; two hours of “recreation” in an outdoor cage, “ringed with double-edged razor wire”; non-contact visits; body-cavity strip searches; solitary confinement; little to no access to educational programs; lack of proper healthcare; horrifying screams; haunting silence. This marks the world—rather, the “wound”—of death row. Abu-Jamal exposes this wound while the State seeks to conceal it, to Band-Aid it with archaic justifications and politically correct language. Abu-Jamal’s voice peels the Band-Aid off, word-by-word and story-by-story, for us to see the reality behind the rhetoric.
According to Abu-Jamal, death row is the site “where humans are transformed into nonpersons, numbered beings cribbed into boxes of unlife, where the very soul is under destructive onslaught.” This degenerative process—from person to nonperson and life to unlife—is what philosopher and political scientist Achille Mbembe names “necropolitics.” In his article with that title, Mbembe argues that “contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death (necropolitics) profoundly reconfigure the relations among resistance, sacrifice, and terror” and that “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.” Necropolitics thus:
… account[s] for the various ways in which … weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.
Abu-Jamal spotlights the subjugation Mbembe names, showing us the intimate relationship between State repression, institutionalized terror, and people’s resistance. In Live From Death Row he takes us inside one of the State’s manufactured “death-worlds”; a world wherein a “vast population [is] subjected to conditions of life” that ultimately condition them for death.
In his chapter “‘On tilt’ by state design,” Abu-Jamal tells the story of Harry Washington. Harry, like many of the men and women on America’s death row, “has begun the slide from depression, through deterioration, to dementia.” “Shriek[ing] out of an internal orgy of psychic pain,” Harry is left to deal with his agonizing condition with nothing but a television set. As Abu-Jamal explains, “TVs are allowed but not typewriters: one’s energies may be expended freely on entertainment, but a tool essential for one’s liberation through judicial process is deemed a security risk.” Abu-Jamal thus beckons us to question a criminal (in)justice system that favors exploitation and repression over education and rehabilitation.
While mainstream discourse is largely disapproving of mass incarceration, it is not so for capital punishment. To the concerned liberal who believes that State execution deters crime, Abu-Jamal asserts: “Study after study has shown that it does not. If capital punishment deters anything at all, it is rational thinking.” To be sure, the irrationality of capital punishment should not be reduced to its inability to deter crime. Instead, it should be expanded to include its profound ability to destroy people and the communities they call home. As he demonstrates through the lives of innocent former death row inmates such as Jay Smith and Glen Woodall, there is a long history of the State simply getting it wrong. In this sense, capital punishment is not only inhumane but ineffective.
More than a space of necropoliticization, death row is also a site of what Professor Cornel West names “niggerization”:
Niggerization is neither simply the dishonoring and devaluing of black people nor solely the economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement of them. It is the wholesale attempt to impede democratization—to turn potential citizens into intimidated, fearful, and helpless subjects.
This is consistent with Abu-Jamal’s observation, “you will find a blacker world on death row than anywhere else”—reflecting the fact that black men comprise over forty percent of death row inmates. Abu-Jamal demonstrates how death row—like mass incarceration itself—contradicts the notion that America practices democracy. By silencing the voices of the most vulnerable, death row forecloses the possibility of a democratic society. “Mix-in solitary confinement, around-the-clock lock-in, no contact visits, no educational programs,” Abu-Jamal writes, “and you have all the fixings for a stressful psychic stew designed to deteriorate … one’s humanity.”
Death row has a meaning that speaks to the heart of mass incarceration. From the history of black radicalism and the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism to the power of corporate media and the presence of Stinney’s ghost, Abu-Jamal interprets death row as a metaphor useful for thinking about, and ultimately transcending, this “New Jim Crow.” Following his lead, it is time we begin interpreting mass incarceration as part of the larger historical, neoliberal, corporate media-backed assault on the black freedom struggle. The struggle is hard. The stakes are high. As the movement mantra goes: “If one is chained, none of us are free!”
Conclusion: Mumia in the Age of Mass Incarceration
Trained as a journalist, politicized as a Black Panther, and confined as a political prisoner, Abu-Jamal is as important now as ever. Amid the carceral crisis, his voice is not only timely but transformative. As important as The New Jim Crow has been in popularizing the conversation, Abu-Jamal reminds us of the need for a more radical understanding of the relationship between race and law. If Alexander’s text is, as Dr Cornel West opines, “the bible” of the movement against mass incarceration, then—like the Bible—it demands both radical critique and prophetic intervention. Mumia is the movement’s prophetic voice—crying in, critiquing from, and imagining against … this American wilderness! Who will listen?