A Visit with Mumia Abu-Jamal on Pennsylvania’s Death Row


WAYNESBURG, Pa.-The misnamed Progress Drive, a quarter-mile-long road an hour’s drive east from Pittsburgh, dead ends at State Correctional Institute (SCI) Greene, the super-modern prison where innocent death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal resides.

Caged 23 hours daily in a tiny cell for the past 19 years at Greene and elsewhere, Mumia appeared to me in the best of humor. Mumia greeted my upraised hands on the impenetrable plexiglas barrier between us, by placing, “high five” style his handcuffed palms on mine with a smile as broad and warm as one could imagine.

“Mumia, you look fantastic,” I said in earnest as his eyes greeted mine with enthusiasm and instant friendship. “You need to lose some weight Jeff,” he answered with a hearty laugh in response to my unflattering paunch.

SCI Greene, midway between the rural Bruderhof community (see box below) and urban Pittsburgh, strikes one immediately as a bizarre place. Surrounded by high chain link fences topped with rows of fearsome razor wire, it is from a visitor’s vantage-point an immaculate institution whose every inch is planned for maximum security, human repression, and in many instances, death.

Before entering the visitor waiting area, I was given precise instructions as to my conduct, including prohibited possessions, (pen, pencil, paper, camera, video and taping material, etc.) and then subjected to a guard monitoring an unfamiliar machine that detects minute amounts of illegal drugs. Failure to pass this test results in exclusion from the prison, I was informed.

While a written flyer explains that Greene’s policy aimed at a “drug free” prison, the obvious impossibility of any visitor passing a package of illegal material through the massive sheet of plexiglas that separated my visitor’s cubicle from Mumia’s was striking.

Waiting-room visitors were treated to a display case featuring trophies won by SCI Greene guards in inter-prison guard baseball, bowling, golf, and other sports competition. The guards, however, entered and left the waiting room’s multi-locked steel doors unimpeded, including drug tests.

In short order, I was called to begin a near quarter-mile sojourn through what seemed an endless series of massive sliding doors that opened as I approached only to clang shut and lock behind me-whereupon I had to await the opening of the next door some 10 feet farther.

This echoing steel and plexiglas tunnel finally opened into yet another visitor holding room, where I was scrutinized by yet another security guard, who, for the third time, checked my papers and directed me to the numbered cubicle where I awaited Mumia’s entry.

Mumia’ tribute to Shaka Sankofa

With access to CNN cable television, Mumia was intensely aware of the current raging controversy over the death penalty brought to national attention in June by the 1973-95 Columbia University Liebman study. The study had demonstrated that some 68 percent of appealed death row sentences were reversed based on police wrongdoing, “prosecutorial suppression of evidence that the defendant was innocent,” and “egregiously incompetent counsel.”

While Liebman’s work, unintentionally, of course, served to highlight key elements of Mumia’s trial, the national headlines it provoked became inseparable from the fight for Shaka Sankofa’s (Gary Graham’s) life.

Mumia expressed his deep appreciation of the fact that the case of Sankofa had been given the full attention of his supporters. Indeed, in the month before Texas Gov. George Bush Jr. murdered the innocent Sankofa on June 22, Mumia solidarity groups across the nation brought this lesser known case to the attention of millions, thereby extracting a political price from the state power that stole Sankofa’s life.

Shaka died with dignity, purpose, and pride knowing that a renewed movement against the racist and classist death penalty was on the rise.

The broad support Mumia had won for his own case was readily transferred to the effort to save Sankofa’s life as organizations ranging from the European Parliament to the Japanese Diet demanded that Sankofa’s execution be stopped.

Mumia, whose tribute to Sankofa had been widely disseminated, was delighted that the compelling evidence of Sankofa’s innocence, banned from jury and court examination by technical time limits approved by the Supreme Court, had compelled The New York Times and other major media to take up the case and question the legitimacy of the impending execution.

I learned that Mumia had recently earned a Masters degree and that his thesis dissertation was on the Black Panther Party. Mumia, a former Panther himself, was acutely aware of the intense and illegal government pressures on the Panthers as well as the critical internal disputes and disagreements over political orientation that contributed to its eventual decline and demise.

Similarly, he expressed a passionate concern in regard to the current state of the movement for Black liberation today. We spent considerable time exchanging ideas and information about this subject.

Books on history, Mumia noted, constituted the core of his reading list. He reads widely and sees the lessons of history as an indispensable guide to today’s social struggles.

He told me he was inspired by works such as C.L.R. James’s “Black Jacobins,” the account of the successful Haitian slave revolt in the mid-1790s against the French government of Napoleon Bonaparte. Led by the 50-year-old slave, Toussaint L’Overture, the liberation army of Haiti’s oppressed defeated successive attempts by the world’s most powerful military force to suppress the Haitian rebellion.

Mumia expressed a particular interest in the political background of C.L.R. James, the American revolutionary socialist and brilliant orator who, unknown to Mumia, spent many years as a leader of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

The works on Malcolm X by another former SWP leader, George Breitman, had also found their way onto Mumia’s reading list. He was particularly impressed with Breitman’s work, “The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary,” an important work that traced Malcolm’s views on the key issues facing the Black liberation movement of the 1960s.

We spent time exchanging ideas about the political orientation, affiliation, and evolution of a number of today’s historians and political writers, including those above. Mumia’s essential modesty was ever present. When he was unfamiliar with any aspect of a subject I inquired about, he immediately asked for additional information.

Today’s youth in struggle

I should not have been surprised to learn that Mumia was unfamiliar with many of the accomplishments of the broad solidarity movement that had arisen in his defense. While often aware of the general outlines of this work, he delighted in the details, as with the recent successful student efforts at Antioch College and the University of California at Santa Cruz to mobilize campus support to include Mumia as a graduation speaker.

In these instances, as with others of a similar nature, Mumia’s role was to graciously accept the invitation to prepare an audio tape to the graduating class, labor conference, or other event where his voice was requested. But he was largely unaware of the magnificent efforts of so many people to bring these events to fruition.

“Jeff,” he said, perhaps to emphasize his desire to hear more from his supporters, “I probably know some 10 percent of what’s happening out there.”

Mumia often focused on the central importance of today’s youth in the coming struggles that he saw developing in the United States, from the new battles for civil and democratic rights to the inevitable struggles of working people to reinvigorate the labor movement.

He marveled at the role of youth in the recent WTO and IMF protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C., and was especially impressed with the prospect of labor’s rank and file taking action in their own interests. He made a special point to emphasize his interest in and delight at learning from many sources about the emergence of high school age youth in many of today’s developing social struggles.

I asked Mumia for his impressions of the many prominent people who had visited him in prison to express their solidarity. He was especially impressed with the visits of Alice Walker and Ossie Davis, two individuals who have made great efforts to bring Mumia’s case to the attention of the broader audiences they influence.

In both instances, however, Mumia was more interested in the character of these individuals, in their political insights and lifelong commitment to social justice, and in their work as artists and writers, than he was with their advocacy of his personal struggle. He judged them as equals, as real human beings who were part of the same struggle he was.

In this regard, Mumia appeared to me more as an unusually modest and dedicated participant in the struggle for human liberation as opposed to a man preoccupied with his own grave situation.

And like the best of the activists I have known, he had the capacity to see humor in the darkest situation. As we meandered through one subject after another, Mumia periodically burst into an infectious laughter that lit up his entire face and animated his body. He was able to step out of the daily misery state power had subjected him to and appreciate and marvel at the beauty of those special moments when the ruling rich exposed their baseness in all its crudity, shallowness, and hypocrisy.

Mumia and Cuba

Mumia was pleased to learn that the Cuban government had decided to devote a special television presentation to his case and to the related issues of police brutality and the prison industrial complex in the United States.

His chief legal counsel, Leonard Weinglass, and the central organizer of his national defense and closest associate, Pam Africa, had been invited to Havana for a June 18 broadcast on the popular Cuban television program, “Roundtable.” Also joining the show were other national coordinators of Mumia’s defense, including Monica Moorehead of the International Action Center.

I explained to Mumia that I was also invited to participate in the program but was unable to attend for personal reasons. The Cubans insisted, however, that I participate via a phone hook-up, and I accepted their invitation.

When I explained that I felt compelled to turn down the Cuban invitation to travel to Cuba to speak on Mumia’s case because I had promised to attend my son’s university graduation, Mumia immediately signaled his understanding. He is a parent himself who understood all too well the pressures on political people to subordinate personal and family considerations for urgent political purposes.

As most proud parents do, we exchanged stories about our kids and shared the joys of seeing them grow up with loving hearts and a dedication to social justice. (At the end of June, Mumia’s soft-spoken son, Mazi Jamal, addressed a crowd of 300,000 in Havana celebrating the return of Elian Gonzalez. He thanked the Cubans for supporting his father’s fight for a new trial.)

Mumia was a strong partisan of the struggle of the Cuban people for Elian’s return. Cuba was a special place for Mumia, not just because it was the only nation whose government was actively concerned with his fate, but because of Cuba’s unique position in the world revolutionary movement as a nation that has not abandoned its revolutionary optimism and commitment to its original principles.

When I told Mumia about the success of the April 29 Berkeley [Calif.] Community Theater “Children of Resistance” event, which featured his son Mazi and the daughter of the deceased environmental activist Judi Bari, a bright smile came over his face. But it was not just because 3000 people had participated in this unusual theater-like remembrance of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s fight for life and justice, and its linkage through three generations of fighters to today’s battles.

Mumia explained that years before his imprisonment he had met and interviewed the Berkeley event’s central organizer, Robbie Meeropol, the son of the Rosenbergs, who were falsely convicted and executed McCarthy-era witch-hunt victims. He remembered asking Robbie at that time if a similar frame-up could be engineered today. With a sardonic smile, Mumia recalled that both men agreed that it could and would happen again.

Mumia was pleased to learn of the details of the massive nationally coordinated marches and rallies of last April and May, including the 6000 people who mobilized on May 7 in New York City’s Madison Square Garden Theater, the 6000 who marched in San Francisco on May 13, and the myriad of protests that took place in some 70 countries on the same day on his behalf.

Again, however, he was pleased more as a participant in the success of a growing social movement that is capable of challenging injustice on many fronts than as the subject of those protests.

As our discussion drew to a close when a loudspeaker signaled the end of my visit, we joked about and planned what we would do upon his release. We agreed on the long walks in freedom we would take, the special dinners we would share with friends old and new, and the far-away places Mumia would like to visit.

Mumia is a gentle revolutionary, a man of incredible warmth and modesty. He has a laughter that touched me deeply, an intense interest in ideas, old and new, and an unflagging revolutionary confidence in the ability of today’s fighters to win his freedom and to change the world for the benefit of all.

It was a visit with a stranger that was like having a best friend in one’s home.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is the stuff that revolutionary fighters are made of. When we win his freedom, we will have liberated a precious addition to our struggle and we will have recaptured our own freedom as well.


Jeff Mackler is the National Secretary of Socialist Action. He is a National Coordinator of Mumia’s defense and Co-Coordinator of the Northern California-based Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.




Who are the Bruderhofs?

The day before my June 12 two-hour and ten-minute visit with Mumia in Waynesburg, I was the guest of the Bruderhof Community. The Bruderhofs, associated with the Hutterite faith until some five years ago, live in a loving, highly political, religious-based utopian village of 400 members at New Meadow Run in Farmington, Pa.

The faith of this 4000 person religious and cooperative endeavor (with associated villages nearby, as well as in New York state and other countries) stems from a vision of the meaning of Jesus Christ that some would compare to the early utopian socialist experiments in Europe and the United States.

Bruderhof’s respected minister, Steve Wiser, like me, serves as one of the National Coordinators of Mumia’s defense. Steve is also a spiritual adviser to Mumia and in that capacity takes on a myriad of responsibilities from arranging for drafts of Mumia’s books and articles to reach appropriate destinations, to weekly consultations on innumerable aspects of Mumia’s struggle for freedom.

Nestled in Western Pennsylvania’s lush mountainous pine forests, deep in the state’s former coal country, many of Bruderhof’s social activists are active opponents of the death penalty, racial and social injustice, U.S. intervention, and the murderous sanctions imposed on Iraq.

Far from a reclusive sect, they send delegations to learn about politics in nations from Cuba to Nigeria. When Mumia was transferred to SCI Greene some five years ago, Wiser and the Bruderhofs made his freedom a focal point of their work. -J.M.

Related Articles

VIDEO of Sept Rally Free Assange! Free Mumia! Free Palestine! 

SPONSORED By THE MOBILIZATION TO FREE MUMIA ABU-JAMAL & THE INTERNATIONAL CONCERNED FAMILY AND FRIENDS OF MUMIA ABU-JAMAL. CO-SPONSORS: Courage Foundation/Assange Defense.org & Middle East Children’s Alliance, Arab Resource Organizing Center. HEAR Alice Walker, prize-winning novelist; Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers; Jamal Jr, Mumia’s grandson; Chris Hedges, prize-winning journalist