Commentary by Mumia Abu-Jamal: Occidental College Commencement Address

This is a transcript of the remarks made by Mumia Abu-Jamal at the Occidental College Baccalaureate ceremony on May 20, 2001.

If you were fortunate enough to be at Baccalaureate, you had the rare opportunity to hear the powerful voice of America’s most compelling prison journalist. Consider this a record of that event. College politics and bureaucracy, however, made it impossible for many of you to hear Mumia speak. If you missed the opportunity to hear Mumia’s words, consider this a second chance.

This speech is being distributed to honor the wishes of hundreds of students who asked to hear Mumia speak at Commencement. It also recognizes the reality imposed by a school administration that would not allow a three minute and 47 second speech into their ceremony.

This transcript thus represents a final effort to give Mumia a legitimate voice at this event. We urge you all to continue the struggle to give voice to those whose silence we cannot afford. We ask you to consider the following words from the “voice of the voiceless,” words which, though confined to the page, refuse to be silenced.

-Occidental Students for Democracy

I thank you all for this invitation for me to address your Baccalaureate ceremony at Occidental College in L.A.

I’m particularly pleased that hundreds of you have organized for this to happen, weeks before anybody contacted me.

I’ve heard of your petitions and of your efforts to lobby on my behalf. I was so impressed by your efforts that I immediately agreed to share a few moments with you, on this, your very special graduation day. Congratulations.

For many of you this is a time of elation and a time of terror. Elation at the end of long hard study, terror at the unknown, the world of work, of paychecks, jobs, and yes, unemployment. With the collapse of the dot-com economy, the fear of unemployment is pervasive.

But I don’t want to talk about that. I’m certain that some of you have read my first book, “Live from Death Row,” but how many of you know that much of what happens in U.S. prisons was never written there. I speak to you all from another world, one that most of you know nothing of. You won’t learn about it by looking at Oz on TV, and very little that’s written is a true reflection of the horrors that lie on the other side of the looking glass.

Imagine this: There are nearly 2,000,000 men, women, and kids in U.S. prisons and jails. Imagine: If these people were all assembled in one place, the gathering would exceed the population of states like Idaho, Maine, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Nebraska.

Let’s look at it this way, there are more people in U.S. prisons than the entire population of Kuwait. America is home to roughly 5 percent of the world’s population. It is also the place where about 25 percent of all the world’s prisoners are encaged. I call it the “prison house of nations.” Hidden in this world are moments of brutality, of loneliness, of alienation, and pervasive stupidity. This world is the true face of American democracy. Hidden torture chambers designed to demolish the mind and unhinge the spirit.

Way back in 1927, U.S. labor leader and socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs published “Walls and Bars,” a book collected of his essays from prison. What he had to say almost 75 years ago is applicable today to the burgeoning prison industry that’s all around us. He said prisons were a place of brutality, perversion, and class oppression. Debs lamented the cruel incarceration of youth. He called prisons “instruments of the will of politicians.”

Seventy-three years ago, Eugene Debs asked, “What else can the prison be considered but a breeder of vice, immorality, and disease, and condemned as an incubator for crime.”

How little things have changed in all that time. Prisons are places of unfreedom and the aura of terror that dwells in such places reaches into national consciousness and eventually into everyday life. There are certain neighborhoods in America that may be likened to minimum-security prisons for the poor, where they live under the State’s ever present and unblinking gaze, where truly one’s poverty is their crime.

These words have been designed to give you some insight into a world that you do not know, and hopefully that you will never know. I thank you for your invitation.

Ona move, Long Live John Africa, This is Mumia Abu-Jamal.

© MAJ 2001

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