Interview With Mumia: Fighting the Empire

by Rafael Rodriguez Cruz / July 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

Attorney Rafael Rodriguez Cruz did the following interview during a visit with political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row at the State Correctional Institution at Waynesburg, Pa., and in later correspondence with Mumia in late May 2006.

Mumia was charged with the murder of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981, and is currently entering the final stages of a federal court appeal that could grant him a new trial or freedom. His attorney has until July 13 to challenge a brief by the state of Pennsylvania, which seeks to overturn the order by a lower court enabling the appeal and to reinstate the death penalty.

A longer version of this interview, with an introduction can be seen at http://www.socialistaction.org. (A similar version appears in the June 26 on-line edition of Counterpunch.) The full interview on our website includes Mumia’s commentary on the Black Panther newspaper, uses of the internet, and government repression against the Panthers.

Rafael Rodriguez Cruz is a member of the board of directors of the Rosenberg Fund for Children in Easthampton, Mass. Founded by Robert Meeropol, the youngest son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the RFC is a non-profit agency that provides for the educational and emotional needs of children of targeted progressive activists in the United States. He also writes for the Puerto Rican newspaper Claridad.

RAFAEL RODRIGUEZ CRUZ: In your book “We Want Freedom,” you talk about the influence that the 1960s struggles in the Third World had on the internationalist perspective of the Black Panther Party. What impact do you think that the current revolutionary and progressive movements in Latin America are likely to have on the struggles of oppressed people in the United States?

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: As I noted in “We Want Freedom,” the BPP developed an internationalist perspective because Huey P. Newton (the Party’s Minister of Defense & co-founder) was curious about revolutionary struggles and liberation struggles that came before, whether in China, in Cuba, in Congo Brazzaville, or where ever.

What Party members learned was that people should study struggles in other parts of the world and take what is useful, applicable, in their own struggles here.

What we see now, for the most part, is precisely the opposite: where folks from the so called First travel to Third locations, and presume to teach lowly Third World populations how to struggle. I call this tendency “left imperialism,” because those people, usually white leftists, base their claim to supremacy not upon their specific, or organizational work, but upon their privileged place in the Empire; their U.S. nationality, and often their Western background—their whiteness.

From what experience base can U.S. leftists claim supremacy? What project can they point to that is successful and should be replicated anywhere else in the world? The mass incarcerations? The poisonous public school system? The crumbling environment? The deepening racial rifts? The Clinton administration? Nothing succeeds like success; and U.S. “leftists” have precious little success to boast about at home or abroad.

An example of “left imperialism” can be found in how easily so-called liberals applauded U.S. bombing, takeover and occupation of Afghanistan, and later Iraq. Liberals typically argue that Afghanistan was a “good” war and occupation; yet Iraq was “bad.” In point of fact, both, if I’m not mistaken, violated international law. But beyond that, the Afghanistan war was allegedly justified on the basis that the Taliban regime “harbored” terrorists.

At the same time that U.S. politicians were barking such charges, the country was flush with terrorists, who waged wars against their own peoples in defense of their American masters.

People who have waged bloody massacres against Haitian workers and students live in peaceful solitude in the U.S. Anti-Castro terrorists who have bombed planes, and poisoned crops, and bombed hotels live in splendid peace in Miami today. Meanwhile, the Cuban Five are unjustly incarcerated in this country for fighting against U.S.-sponsored terrorism.

I can’t count how many dictators, generals, cut throats, have been kicked out of their home countries, and found refuge in the U.S.

One final note about “harboring terrorists”—more people have been taught torture techniques in the U.S. School of the Americas (since renamed), than in any dusty camp in Afghanistan. Latin Americans call the school, la escuela de golpes de estado: coup d’état school. How many graduates of this “School of the Americas” have raped, tortured, garroted, blown up, killed, terrorized the people of Latin American countries?

The point is not to simply be antiwar, but to be above all anti-imperialist. That’s something that left imperialists find impossible to, do.

RRC: Fidel Castro is turning 80 on Aug. 13, 2006. What is the meaning of the Cuban Revolution in the year 2006?

MAJ: Cuba holds a special place in my heart. Not only for their great revolution against an American-supported puppet (Batista), but their internationalism in practice, when they sent their own troops to help a sister country, Angola, fight off the brutal cross-border raids from the apartheid regime in South Africa. In a place called Cuito Canavale, Cuban troops stopped South African advances in their tracks, and taught them the meaning of mortality.

And just as Black troops during the Civil War taught white Confederates about the falseness of white supremacy, Cuba’s Black, white, and brown troops taught them important lessons. They learned the value of negotiating a settlement, and suddenly the African National Congress (ANC) didn’t look so bad.

South Africa certainly still has daunting problems, and things are still far from equal. But the apartheid regime was an affront to every Black person of earth. Cuba—little, besieged, and embargoed—made a momentous difference. And they did so in a time when Ronald Reagan advocated “constructive engagement” with the racists!

Fidel, with his determination, his profound humanism, has become a legend of the 20th, and now the 21st century. I’m sure people around the world, in the U.S., in Brazil, in Venezuela, in South Africa, and beyond join me in wishing millions of birthday greetings to this revolutionary: Feliz cumpleaños, Fidel!

Cuba represents the power of resistance and survival against tremendous odds. It also represents the power of the small over the mighty. It is, in the words of Assata Shakur, a Palenque like Palmares (in slavery days, Brazil). It is a place of freedom amidst capitalist tyranny.

RRC: What are your thoughts about the recent mass mobilizations of millions of undocumented immigrant workers in the United States? Are they natural allies of other oppressed minorities, particularly Blacks?

MAJ: The massive, spirited demonstrations were a joy to see; I think they marked the emergence of an oppressed people, from the shadows into the light. It brought back memories. I think it also demonstrated “the browning of America,” and thereby activated a reservoir of fear in white America, which looks down their nose at people south of the border.

Given the power of media to shape ideas, we shouldn’t be surprised that some Black Americans echoed the xenophobia of whites, and looked at Brown America’s emergence with concern. What it reminded me of was our little-known, but shared history. In the 1830s, the U.S. was at war with Seminoles, because they were one of the few Indian tribes who refused to return Blacks to slavery in Georgia and Carolina. The Seminoles fought at least two wars with the U.S. on precisely this principle.

After years of war, the Red and Black Seminoles found freedom in fleeing Florida, and finding new homes in Mexico. The Seminoles, led by a warrior named Coacoochee (called Wild Cat), and assisted by a Black warrior named John Horse, took their soldiers and tribesmen, across the Rio Grande.

Mexico abolished slavery in 1829. They offered not only land, but posts in the Mexican Army. Thousands of Black men, women, and children found freedom in Mexico years before a war brought legal (but false) freedom in the lands of their birth.

From such intertwined histories, alliances can be made. For Black folks, and Red folks, fought, not for the US Empire, but for Mexican independence, and for freedom (literally!). So, the “browning” of America doesn’t fill me with alarm; for I know that “brownness” comes from Aztecs, Seminoles, Africans, and others.

RRC: Can you talk also a little bit about the experience of the Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican communities in places like New York City?

MAJ: The Black Panther Party had the most impact on Puerto Rican communities, I think, in NYC, and in Chicago. Both cities had chapters of the Young Lords Party, a socialist, independence group that had its origins in a youth gang in Chi Town. There, at the urging of Fred Hampton, the Lords became increasing politicized, and in many ways, were inspired by the BPP. (Among Mexican American brothers and sisters, the Brown Berets grew in Chicago, as well as in California).

In New York, former YLP people joined the BPP, in part, because they were Afro-Puerto Ricans. We had a number of such members of the Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn chapters. Offhand, I remember Denise Oliver, who came from Harlem, and Sol Fernandez, who was in the Bronx. Their membership was important, not just symbolically, but because of their ability to speak to communities that usually couldn’t hear, or read, our works.

RRF: What are the obstacles to building a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-racial revolutionary movement in the United States in the year 2006?

MAJ: There are not enough substantial opportunities for us to work together, and by so doing, to learn the worth of such a project. We argue over crumbs. For example, on Black radio and in Black conversations in response to the mass immigration demos, people could be heard saying, “They want our jobs.”

What, pray tell, is so good about many of the jobs Black folks have in the U.S.? As it stands, we probably have the highest unemployment already!

Rather than fighting each other, we need to find ways to work together, to deepen, broaden, and give new, real meaning to democracy. The obstacles are false consciousness, white supremacy, and linguistic barriers. But I really believe that all of these can be surmounted.

RRF: Is the struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico still meaningful for revolutionary politics in the United States?

MAJ: Once again, I look at it from the perspective of a learner, not a teacher. I say that because the PR independence movement has demonstrated, on the ground, the power of its political mobilization, when it freed many (not all) of its political prisoners. There is no movement in the U.S. that has duplicated this, even among the white so-called “left.” That is impressive.

So, puertorriqueños have more to teach us about community mobilization, principled struggle, and broad unity over revolutionary goals, than we think we have to teach them.

Plus, given the increasing levels of aggression shown by the Empire, the independence movement can only heat up.

How many young Puerto Rican men and women will join the imperial army, to fight wars, when Puerto Ricans on the island can’t even vote for President (Emperor)? When they sense their colonial position costs them far more than it benefits, the independence movement can only be fueled.

RRC: What is, in your opinion, the state of political persecution in the United States?

MAJ: In the late 60s, and early ’70s, when COINTELPRO [the FBI spy operation against Black, antiwar, and socialist groups] was revealed, folks were genuinely shocked. It was in every conversation, every paper. It was in the air. “Can you believe it? ” “Did you hear?”

Flash forward 30 years, and everything that was unlawful under COINTELPRO is now legal under the U.S. Patriot Act. What is the response to revelations of wiretaps? Of mail covers? Of internet snooping by the government? Not surprise! It’s kind of like: “Well, I knew they were doing that.” “What else is new?” “So what? If it’ll stop another 9/11….”

Instead of shock, one finds resignation; a kind of inside knowledge, reflected in the culture in flicks like “Enemy of the State.” Of course, the things happening have been occurring in the so-called Third World, primarily. Well, finally, the chickens have come home to roost (to quote Malcolm X).

The things that America did abroad are now returning from the periphery to the interior of the Empire. And given the logic of globalism, even the false shield of whiteness will not long protect people here, who have grown up thinking, “it can’t happen here.”

I am reminded that Germany had the most cultured, most intellectually sophisticated, most technologically progressive, and most educated bourgeoisie in Western Europe; but all of that didn’t stop the rise, and then the flood of fascism. Indeed, if we are honest, we learn that both they (and the South Africans!) learned much of their segregation, reservation, and racial “hygiene” ideas from the turn-of-the-century Americans. The fever unleashed by 9/11 has let loose something in the culture, like a fervor, that is still afoot. It portends that something quite unhealthy is coming.

In the very beginning, with rhetoric of “democracy,” the rulers looked over the span of ages, and selected a model to embrace. Having just rejected and defeated a king, one isn’t surprised that the royal model wasn’t emulated. But what about the parliamentary model? While it certainly has its critics, it allows a wider range of political representation than the winner-take-all of the present structure.

Americans, students of history, looked to, admired, and sought to imitate Rome, by choosing a Senate. By emulating Empire, it inherits the infirmities as well as the glories. Weak Senates create overweening executives.

In Rome, we remember, it was the Senate that gave Octavian the titles of Prince of the Senate and Emperor. They paid for it. The U.S. Senate gave unlimited powers to Bush. We’ll pay for that too.

If there is one lesson that echoes down the corridors of time and history, it is this: No Empire Lasts Forever. But people are not an empire; they can transcend such things. In order to survive, they must.