Interview With Death Row Political Prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal

(by ILWU Local 10 longshoreman Jack Heyman for the union's newspaper The Dispatcher)

The Dispatcher: We'd like to begin by thanking you for being one of the endorsers of our Neptune Jade defense campaign.

Mumia: You are quite welcome. I am honored to offer any assistance that I can in efforts of working folk to gain some advantage over the owners.

The Dispatcher: West Coast maritime employers attempted by the use of cops and courts to intimidate labor activist picketers and the longshore union from demonstrating international labor solidarity. In the end, we won by organizing a broad united front of individuals concerned with the erosion of democratic rights and the labor movement and by mobilizing maritime workers for action here and around the world. Do you think similar tactics could be applied in your defense?

Mumia: I think a "broad united front" may prove effective in labor actions, and in human rights movements on broader social issues. Can it be applied in my case? Yes. For the efforts of the State is designed to isolate us, to build and construct barriers between us. All that we can do to demolish those walls is to the good.

The Dispatcher: Recently during the ABC-TV lock-out of NABET/CWA workers, you refused on principle to be interviewed by strikebreakers on the news program "20/20", despite the fact that publicity may have helped your case. Why?

Mumia: I had to ask myself, "Would I cross a picket line if I were living in quasi-freedom, and walking to the studio?" The answer was an irrevocable, 'no.' How could I do less, even under these circumstances? I felt an intense affinity for the people of NABET, and felt it was an important opportunity to express, and dramatize my solidarity with them. In any event, it did give the NABET folks a "shout out", that they perhaps otherwise would not have received. So, it wasn't a total loss. Moreover, I ad received, several days prior to the airing, in the process of civil discovery, a xerox of the first leter written to the DOC (Dept. of Corrections), from the producers of 20/20. The bias of that letter was palpable as they expressed an overt intention to do a show that would present the position of the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police). How could such a program have helped my case? It could, however, aid, in some small way, those folks battling for their well-deserved health benefits on the picket line.

The Dispatcher: Before this, your first and only imprisonment, you joined the Black Panther Party (BPP) in the 1960's at the age of fifteen and held the position of Minister of Information. Some ten years later you were an activist in and elected president of the Association of Black Journalists in Philadelphia. As a working journalist you exposed racism and police brutality. Do you think the police targetted you because of your work as a journalist?

Mumia: I think that there is no question that I was known and hated (by the police) for my work as much for my history. Moreover, the DA (District Attorney) fought frantically (and the clever judge denied him everytime, saying it threatened a reversal) to introduce, at every phase of the trial, my BPP background to the predominantly white jury.

The Dispatcher: Did the release from prison of former Black Panther leader Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt) and the exposure of the F.B.I.'s Counter-Intelligence Program of frame-ups and killing of black activists give you some hope for justice?

Mumia: I have to admit that it did, as for all in the movement. It truly was a glorious breath of fresh air. But if that be so, what about the vicious, continued state campaign to encage him again? Geronimo ji Jaga was admittedly imprisoned (in the words of state parole officials) because he "is still a revolutionary"! If that's the case, is it logical to suggest that he was the only one? The MOVE 9 were encage over twenty years ago because they were (and remain) revolutionaries. There are scores of ex-Panthers and others who remain so encaged, all across America.

The Dispatcher: Judge Sabo who presided over your trial was known as the ³King of Death Row², for having handed down more death sentences than any other judge in this country. Since he has been forced into retirement has this increased your chance for a fair trial?

Mumia: Unfortunately, no. The state system allowed him to do his damage, and then retired him. As a life member of the FOP, he was well-placed to do their bidding. The courts have found that my membership in the BPP justified my death, but when Sabo was challenged by defense cousel about his membership in the FOP his defense was that he was only a member "for a few years." Well, I was only a member of the BPP for "a few years," but it was sufficient to form an unofficial aggravating circumstance to demand my death. Fair, huh?

The Dispatcher: In 1995, the scandal of the Philadelphia police department was front page news across the U.S.- framing up of innocent people, corruption, police brutality. 300 convictions were thrown out and many innocent victims set free. This was followed by an expose of routine jury rigging by the Philadelphia District Attorney¹s office to exclude blacks. Tell us a few of the more egregious violations during your arrest, imprisonment and trial?

Mumia: The police department has said, and the DA's office has seconded, that neither I, nor my brother were beaten. That flies in the face of logic. They then constructed, out of whole cloth, a false "confession", claiming that they forgot it for a few months. They rejected almost every potential black juror that came into the door. They assembled a jury composed of friends and family of cops, tried before a life member of the FOP in black robes, and arranged an appeal before an appeals court where one "justice" (the same one who served as DA on my direct appeal) admitted at least 5 other judges had accepted FOP "support" in their election campaigns.

The Dispatcher: In San Francisco ILWU Local 10's constitution cops are barred from becoming members of our union because of the murderous role they played in the 1934 West Coast Maritime Strike, killing six workers. When a benefit was held for your defense in July 1995, at the Philadelphia Hospital and Health Care Workers Union Local 1199C, 300 armed cops besieged the union hall screaming for your execution. Do you think that police brutality, particularly against blacks, is part of a larger system of repression?

Mumia: Police brutality against African-Americans has an historic component that can be traced to the 1800's, after the civil war. "Paddy-rollers" was the term fugitive slaves used to describe the vicious slave-catchers who dogged their trails. A century later, police wagons were called "paddy wagons": an allusion to their common histories, and roles. Police are agents of the ruling class, and, as such, soldiers who serve their interests. They exist, not to protect the people, but to protect capital. What role do they perform when workers strike? What role do they perform when the people demonstrate against any social injustice? What function did they perform when young brothers like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were building the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party? What role were they playing when they bombed men, women and children in the MOVE House in South-West Philadelphia on May 13, 1985? Their job is to wage war against the people, and to instill terror against anyone --anyone-- who resists against the system.

The Dispatcher: 25% of young black men are under the control of the so-called criminal justice system, either incarcerated, paroled or on trial. Is this phenomenon related to the polarization of capitalist society with the rich getting richer, the poor poorer, increased joblessness, homelessness, the "War on Drugs", in short a social disenfranchisement of part of the working class?

Mumia: When I read Frances Fox-Piven's The New Class War: Reagan's Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences (1985), I learned some important things about how the fate of the poor, the desperately poor folks barely surviving on welfare, were closely linked with the fate of the workers. She explains: "...income-maintenance benefits (welfare) support wage levels despite high unemployment. The reason is simple. If the desperation of the unemployed is moderated by the availability of various benefits, they will be less eager to take any job on any terms. In other words, an industrial reserve army of labor with unemployment benefits and food stamps is a less effective instrument with which to deflate wage and workplace demands." The state understands that if it can divide labor against the poor, it can cut the legs off both groups. It is, actually an attack on the working class, hidden under an attack on the poor. And many workers can't really recognize that their interests are allied to theirs (the poor)! The War on Drugs is also a justification for what really is a War on the Poor. Most drugs are used by people of means--and for them there is the Betty Ford Clinic. For the poor, there is a prison cell. A grim, deadly end that punishes the poor for their flight from the horror of their daily existence at the bottom of the social order.

The Dispatcher: Why is the United States the only industrialized power remaining that uses capital punishment and is it implemented in a racist fashion?

Mumia: The U.S. is distinct from many of their contemporaries because of their distinct history. When one examines the history of say, Canada, one views a prison system that is drastically different from that of the U.S. Why is that? Their history differs in the crucial area of slavery. And the American criminal (in)justice system is lineally descended from that horrific history. It taints the system, just like it taints consciousness.

The Dispatcher: Where does your struggle go from here?

Mumia: The struggle goes on, as it must for freedom, for liberation, for a peoples' justice that only they can give.
Ona Move! Long live John Africa!

© Jack Heyman 1999
Mumia Abu-Jamal 1/15/99