In his first major interview in four years, America’s most well-known and outspoken political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal, discusses his past, his counterculture roots with the Black Panther Party, and his hopes for a new trial and for the youth of tomorrow. Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, has been on Death Row since 1982. This past October, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge scheduled his execution for December 2. Abu-Jamal’s lawyers, who are appealing to the federal courts, immediately filed for a stay.
Abu-Jamal’s supporters argue that he received an unfair and biased trial, with a racist pro-police judge and a meager $14,000 defense budget. The two main witnesses against him were a prostitute and an arsonist who changed their stories several times. Even his harshest critics admit that his alleged emergency-room confession—which no one reported to police for two months—looks dubious, and witnesses who saw another gunman have emerged since the trial.
Mumia Abu-Jamal has become an icon against oppression and capital punishment around the world. The journalist and former radio reporter recently agreed to this HIGH TIMES interview. Because of prison rules, the interview was conducted on paper, with Abu-Jamal writing his answers to our questions by hand.
HIGH TIMES: A lot of people know who you are, but don’t know you. Could you tell us about yourself?
Mumia Abu-Jamal: I’m just a guy like you. I came from an unremarkable ghetto—a poor background just like millions of our people.
When did you become active in civil rights and revolutionary politics?
I heard about the black-liberation movement when I was twelve or thirteen years old. Some older sisters in the neighborhood gave me stuff to read and answered my questions about the movement. One sister, Audrey, gave me a copy of The Black Panther newspaper, and it electrified me. It was truly thrilling to read about brothers and sisters who were fighting to free black and oppressed people.
Looking back to when you were 15, could you talk about your role organizing the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1969 and your title as “minister of information”?
A lot of folks look at the Black Panther Party with a kind of romanticism. Organizing isn’t glamorous. It’s often just hard, consistent work. Just because I had a title didn’t mean much. It just meant I had a duty to the organization that had to be performed. Most party members sold papers for long hours in the streets when the only things open were bars, around two or three in the morning. I did it too, in Philadelphia, in New York, and wherever I was needed and ordered.
Brothers and sisters got up early to open up our offices and our free breakfast places, and cook a hot meal for some thirty-odd neighborhood children, five days a week, before they went to school. Other folks went around seeking community donations from area businesses to keep the programs functioning.
Over the years there has been much debate about the meaning and legacy of the ’60s as far as social and cultural change. What is your opinion of the counterculture? How much or how little did the ’60s shape America?
The ’60s, like every other period, had both positive and negative impacts. It brought about the end to overt legal apartheid in the US, but it only went so far and no further. Many, if not most, of the beneficiaries of the ’60s have been the black middle class, while we are now speaking of the poor as the “underclass”—an acknowledgment that they are seen as virtually beyond help.
In regards to the counterculture, Black America has been a culture which has been in resistance to the dominant Eurocentric culture for over three centuries. It could be said that through music (R&B, pop, etc.], Black American culture had a tremendous impact on the dominant culture, and created space for a counterculture to emerge in the ’60s. The late, great Mauritanian and Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon once said—I’m paraphrasing—“It is the duty of every generation to either fulfill their destiny or betray it.” I think my generation went quite a ways towards fulfilling that destiny. This one has a ways to go. But we lived during a revolutionary era. Youth today live in an age of capitalist triumphalism and class war, so it’s harder for them.
Can rap music better utilize its educational potential and help liberate the “underclass”?
Rap, at least that which is popularly projected, is more often than not a commercial for material goods, glitter and gloss. It doesn’t have to be. It can serve revolutionary goals—but only if young artists fight to produce it and project it. It can do what good jazz did, what good R&B did and what great spirituals did for millions of our people. It can lift our people’s and the world’s spirits to the light of freedom.
Did you smoke marijuana back then or go through a pot phase?
There were times when I was a confirmed pothead—during the ’70s mostly. The positive was that it truly opened the doors of perception and expanded my consciousness. The negative was that it sometimes leached me of energy and also sometimes made me frighteningly paranoid.
When did you start growing dreads? Were you into Bob Marley or inspired by John Africa and MOVE?
I had the pleasure of meeting both John Africa and Bob Marley. I interviewed Bob Marley after his concert in Philadelphia. Both were truly remarkable men. Marley said to me, “MOVE is Rasta, mon; MOVE is Rasta.” Both were sons of Africa looking at a world that yearned for revolutionary change, and both were tremendously influential to me and others. One was cultural and spiritual; the other was political and spiritual. Bob Marley made music and John Africa made revolution. I first started sprouting dreads after the August 8, 1978 police attack on MOVE.
The “Reefer Madness” campaign to ban cannabis in America focused on blacks and whites socializing together and its use among jazz musicians. Today, minorities are being locked up in droves for nonviolent drug offenses. How do you feel about the race card that the US government uses in the War on Drugs, both past and present?
When I wrote that legal apartheid in the US ended, I shouldn’t have left the impression that the system isn’t racist anymore. The so-called criminal-justice system is the lineal descendent of the American slave system, and still exploits black life, albeit passively. Look at the absurdity of the so-called “Drug War.” The state targets poor, economically oppressed (predominantly black) neighborhoods for prosecutions of drug use, sends those it corrals to the most severe and lengthy prison terms, in the name of “protecting people” from drugs. In this case, the “treatment” is far deadlier than the infection. Further, for many of those who do use drugs, they do so as a way to flee the horrific lives that the system drives people to.
The prison industry is the fastest growing sector of the American economy. Is this the future for 21st-century America?
The American Encagement Industry is driven by the dual concerns of politics and money. That it comes during the period of deindustrialization in America shows its political function—to warehouse, store and isolate surplus populations who are on the periphery of the new economic order.
There’s been a lot of talk by activists that the Drug War is a form of “ethnic cleansing.” Do you agree with this?
This term may have been coined by America, for it certainly reflects the treatment of aboriginal people here in North America at the time of the European invasion. The so-called “Drug War” has some racist underpinnings, but it may be overstating the case to call it “ethnic cleansing.” It is, however, a part of a larger assault on black life.
Could you talk about your experience living on Death Row?
When I hear questions like this my immediate response is—was Amadou Diallo of New York on Death Row? Was the young woman, Tyesha Miller of Riverside, California, on Death Row? Was Johnny Gammage of Pittsburgh on Death Row? Were the MOVE martyrs of Osage Avenue in Philadelphia on Death Row? We can answer these rhetorical questions quite easily, can’t we? No. Of course not. But are you sure? In a racist state, Death Row is a status that can be assigned to an African-American, or other nonwhite person, in the blink of an eye. Some of the folks here you find in the house next door (especially if you live in a poor or black neighborhood). The most common denominator, however, is poverty. Those who can afford good, competent counsel don’t go to Death Row. That’s a “privilege” of the poor.
The death penalty has been banned around the world, except in a handful of nations like Saudi Arabia, China and, of course, the US. Does America choose to be associated with such tyrannical states?
The US is a retentionist state because it has a long history that is reflected in American lynch law. Just because some laws change doesn’t mean that ways of thinkng and perceptions change. Also, we know that forms change over time, while essences remain. Lynch law cannot occur, as it did in the past, but it can be seen in the development of the American death-penalty scheme. They are able to achieve their objective now under the rubric of law.
What about the US role in Africa? Why do you think the US—or the United Nations—hasn’t intervened to stop war and genocide in Sudan, Rwanda and the Congo?
The situation in the Congo has resonances from history. What we are looking at is a kind of new-age imperialism, a neocolonialism from the only world empire that remains. Why does capital go anywhere in the world, except for the attainment of capital gains? UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, while a brilliant and accomplished diplomat, represents an agency that is virtually ignored when the US empire wants to ignore it. That was shown in the unilateral bombings of Serbia. The UN wasn’t a factor in the most deadly bombings in recent memory! Annan is Secretary General because the US wanted him there. They slapped the face of Boutros-Boutros Ghali, and held out for his ouster because they felt he would oppose US imperial interests.
What would a new trial do to help your case, and why are so many powerful forces, such as the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the media and politicians against you?
Several years ago, in a fit of anger, a top FOP official said to my lawyer: “Jeez, if this guy gets a new trial, he’ll get an acquittal!” That says it all.
Last summer, Vanity Fair published an article titled “The Famous and the Dead” by Buzz Bissinger, a former newspaper reporter who had access to Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell’s office while writing a sympathetic biography of him. According to the article, you confessed Officer Faulkner’s murder to a prison volunteer, Philip Bloch. A few weeks after it was published, you and your attorney Leonard Weinglass released a letter from Bloch that endorsed your innocence. Could you talk about this?
How does an objective media source dare run any story without checking out the subject? No news media outlet checked with the agency that employed the subject for over a week afterwards! If they had, they would’ve learned that the subject making the claim was removed/terminated before the alleged confession occurred! They would’ve learned that the subject making the claim was seen and perceived as a media-hungry-type person. If they’d have checked with me they might’ve learned that I had in my files a letter from that subject, written over seven months after the alleged confession, saying he envisions me being acquitted at a new trial, and such a result is “justice.” You don’t write that kind of stuff to someone who confesses to you. But the media didn’t give a damn. Their job was to push any story that served their objective: death.
Gerónimo Pratt, another Black Panther jailed for almost 30 years for a murder he did not commit, was released from prison two years ago. Does this give you hope that your case will be reopened?
I don’t have any hope for [getting justice from] the state, but I have hope for the people.
Read the full issue here.