Mumia: All Things Censored

sherrynstan at sherrynstan at
Mon Dec 24 18:20:04 MST 2001

[Admin Note: also see "Silver-Lining in Dark Denial of New Trial
for Abu-Jamal" at <>]

Socialism and Democracy

Fall-Winter 2001 [Issue #30; Vol. 15, No. 2]

Book Review

Mumia Abu-Jamal, ed. Noelle Hanrahan, ALL THINGS CENSORED.
Foreword by Alice Walker. (New York, 7 Stories Press, 2000).

Reviewed by Terry A. Kupers <kupers at>

The sheer feat of publishing *All Things Censored* reflects
the enormity of Mumia Abu-Jamal's accomplishment and his
importance in today's liberation struggle. One shudders
merely reading the list of what went into this publication:
the author living in a small, sparse cell on Death Row
inside a Pennsylvania supermaximum control unit, having to
fight fiercely merely to retain possession of a few papers
and to receive legal mail, intermittently sent to an even
more stark environment, "Phase II," whenever the Governor,
who'd long ago sworn he would see Mumia dead, legally
assigned a date for his execution; Noelle Hanrahan taping
the author's notes to the unbreakable window in a visiting
booth and holding up a tape recorder, always under threat of
imminent disruption and arrest by guards, as a shackled
Mumia delivers radio commentaries; National Public Radio
discontinuing promised broadcasts lest conservative
politicians cut off their public funding. The book's
publication reverberates with a contemporary liberation
movement bravely facing SWAT squads on the streets and goon
squads inside the prisons. The book's contents and the
accompanying CD reveal a visionary leader and a cogent
analysis of what ails our society and what needs to be done.

>From the deepest, darkest hole inside the belly of the beast
comes one of the strongest voices of liberation in many
decades. (Don't get me wrong, I mean darkest figuratively --
the lights are actually always on in the modern high-tech
supermax prison with its video monitoring, remote-
controlled doors and near-total isolation and idleness.)
Yes, Pennsylvania's Death Row is entombed in the
supermaximum control unit at S.C.I. Greene. Why in the world
would they choose that site for it? Traditionally, prisoners
on death row do not constitute much of a security risk
because, on average, they are contemplating their end while
working on their appeals. If there is no "penological
objective" in placing them in punitive solitary confinement,
what objective is there? Whenever one asks such an obvious
yet naive question, one discovers anew the cynicism and
toxicity of the Prison Industrial Complex. Locating death
row inside a punitive segregation unit serves merely to
torture and demonize the residents of The Row, as if it is
their bestiality that requires they be shackled inside a
bare cell inside a lockup behind multiple sealed doors. The
hope on the part of the authorities must be that average
citizens, frightened by the image of entombed violent
beasts, will support legislation to lock up ever more young
people of color in ever more secure supermax prisons.

Of course, awful things occur by design in our prisons.
Craig Haney and Philip Zimbardo's mock prison experiment in
the basement of the psychology department at Stanford
University in the early `70s proved that even students
play-acting at being guards will quickly descend into
grotesque sadism toward other students acting as prisoners.
Of course this kind of brutalization requires secrecy. The
dominators have to be certain that their cruelty and
inhumanity toward the dominated will not reach a wide
audience. Thus, as our massive imprisonment binge escalated
in recent decades and the brutality "inside" grew beyond
what one might expect a civilized society to tolerate, every
effort was made by the authorities to maintain secrecy about
what goes down inside. They don't admit that's what they're
doing. But their policies testify to their intentions. They
locate maximum and supermaximum prisons far from population
centers (S.C.I. Greene, where the population is mainly
African Americans from Philadelphia, is a six hour drive
from that city), harassing those who do make the trek with
long waits to enter the visiting area and humiliating
searches (here's a new one just in from California: low
intensity xray searches of visitors); tripling and
quadrupling telephone rates for prisoners and their
families; creating laws that bar the press from interviewing
prisoners; and taking away prisoners' visits as punishment
for a growing list of offenses.

The state's adamant demands for ever higher security, and
their campaigns to enforce secrecy about the brutality, set
the stage for the ongoing legal battle over Mumia
Abu-Jamal's right to practice journalism and to have his
journalism aired widely. The state maintains they aren't
trampling on Mumia's First Amendment right to speak by
quashing his articles and tapes, rather they are enforcing a
prison rule prohibiting prisoners from taking part in
journalistic and other business pursuits. Mumia stood up to
them legally, and won an important battle in the federal
appeals court. He gives his account of this legal
development in this book. And then there was the shameful
episode where National Public Radio dropped its contract to
air Mumia's powerful audiotaped messages from Death Row (a
sampling of which appear on the CD accompanying this book,
some never before published).

Whether he is winning or losing in the courts, Mumia
delivers this unblinking political perspective: "Courts are
inherently conservative institutions that loathe change,
and.... tend to perpetuate existing power relations, even
though their rhetoric perpetuates the illusion of social
equality. In many instances, courts barely conceal their
hostility to prisoner litigants, as evinced by increasingly
restrictive readings of rights raised in the courts these
days" (p 93). And this from a man who has was shackled and
then barred from the courtroom during the 1982 proceedings
that sent him to Death Row.

Why are the powers that be so frightened of this man? Could
it be his brilliance? His subversive ideas? His strength in
the face of massive repression? His ability to inspire
protest demonstrations around the globe in the tens and
hundreds of thousands? The fact that he's a fine writer, a
personal storyteller, a theoretician, a leader of masses?
They are afraid of all the above. But their main fear is
that *this man's voice is powerful enough to blast its way
out of a Death Row -- inside a supermaximum unit where
visitors are few and there are rules against contacting the
public -- and reach an audience who might vehemently object
to the brutality and inhumanity that is rampant in this
system's deepest, darkest prison holes*. In this sense,
Mumia personifies in his own life the horrors of the Prison
Industrial Complex, meanwhile providing resounding
opposition to an evolving police state.

Leaving for the moment the world of deep political
questions, Mumia Abu-Jamal is simply a fabulous writer. He
writes about his very young daughter who came to see him for
the first time as he sat in shackles behind an unbreakable
window: "In milliseconds, sadness and shock shifted into
fury as her petite fingers curled into tight fists, which
banged and pummeled the Plexiglas barrier, which shuddered
and shimmied but didn't break" (p. 61). He touchingly
describes fellow prisoners, including Hank Fahy, a man who
would be executed in two weeks when the rapist of his teen
daughter entered a prison unit close enough for Hank to get
his hands on him. He explains to Mumia why he didn't kill
the younger con, in fact he went right up to him and said he
forgave him:

Hank Fahy: "I loved my daughter, Jamal. She was my heart.
But me killing that kid can't bring my Jamie back, and ya
know what else, Jamal?

Jamal: "What's that, Hank?

Hank Fahy: "I wouldn't wish death row on my worstest enemy"
(p. 70).

During one taped message Mumia sings R & B tunes and rap
lyrics while theorizing about the historical signficance of
trends in modern music. He even theorizes about the gender
politics of rap. His legal writing is worthy of law review
articles. For example, he uncovers an 1890 U.S. Supreme
Court case, *In re Medley*, where the majority Republican
Supremes ruled that solitary confinement constituted "an
additional punishment of the most important and painful
character" (p. 39), and was therefore unconstitutional. He
even reviews his own award-winning book, *Live From Death
Row*: "It paints an uncomplimentary picture of a prison
system that calls itself 'Corrections,' but does little more
than 'corrupt' human souls; a system that eats hundreds of
millions of dolllars a year to torture, maim, and mutilate
tens of thousands of men and women; a system that teaches
bitterness and hones hatred" (p. 120). A remarkable thing
about Mumia's writing is that he could, with his fame, have
anything he produced published widely, and yet each new
piece from his pen is masterfully crafted, mercilessly
poignant and provocatively analytic.

Mumia Abu-Jamal does not seek stardom. In fact, in person
and in his writings he directs us not to focus solely on
him, but also to pay attention to other prisoners who have
no voice. He opines about his case as merely representative
of the millions, disproportionately people of color, who are
incarcerated and forgotten. As the gap between the haves and
have-nots widens, a growing proportion of the population are
deemed not only dispensable, but also dangerous. More of the
state budget is handed over to the police, whose brutality
proliferates. They beat Rodney King and kill Amadou Diallo
in cold blood. But how can a citizenry take all that very
seriously when that same citizenry only yesterday went to
the polls to register its full support for Three Strikes,
more police on the streets and more secure maximum security
prisons? So the police abuse goes unrestrained and they
build more supermaximum control units in the prisons.
Mumia's messages from Death Row forcefully challenge the
plan. So he's dangerous.

And Mumia is angry, and he makes no bones about it. Should
we politely ask the oppressor to take his boot off our neck?
There is something about Mumia Abu-Jamal's voice that makes
you think he knows what he's talking about. The passion
sometimes comes through best when we hear him speak. Noelle
Hanrahan did us a huge favor when she alternated the voices
of Mumia Abu-Jamal and such luminaries as Assata Shakur,
Cornel West, Adrienne Rich, Sister Helen Prejean, Howard
Zinn, and the list goes on. It's as if they are in dialogue.
And they are. We all are in dialogue with Mumia Abu-Jamal.
That's part of what holds us together as a movement. The
tapes of his voice express his passionate resistance, the
voices of other commentators illustrate our very earnest
dialogue with him.

I am very frightened that they will kill Mumia Abu-Jamal. We
all hope we're right in assuming that if enough people take
to the streets in protest, the execution won't happen. But
what of the opposite scenario?: A huge number of people take
to the streets in protest and the state orders its expanded
police forces and soldiers newly trained for domestic
warfare to come in and suppress the revolt. More of the
visionaries would be incarcerated. The police state would
have proved its capacity to crush skulls and lock people up.
They'd be wrong about the eventual outcome -- the heightened
repression would eventually drive more people into the
struggles for equity and justice -- but when the day came to
reverse the tyranny, it would be too late to spare Mumia's
life. That is the worst case scenario. Let's not bow to the
trendy pessimism of our times. Let's continue to assume as
we organize that if enough people take to the streets and
pressure their leaders and judges sufficiently, the beast
will have to set Mumia free. Judging from this book written
in a supermax cell, Mumia poses quite a real threat to the
status quo. Imagine what it would be like to have him out
here with us.


Terry A. Kupers, M.D.,
Graduate School of Psychology
The Wright Institute
Berkeley, California

Copyright (c) 2001 Research Group on Socialism and Democracy.

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