All Things Censored

Mumia Abu-Jamal, ed. Noelle Hanrahan, All things Censored.  Foreword by Alice Walker.  (New York, 7 Stories Press, 2000).

The sheer feat of publishing All Things Censored reflects the enormity of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s accomplishment and his importance in today’s liberation struggle.  One shudders merely reading the list of what went into this publication: the author living in a small, sparse cell on Death Row inside a Pennsylvania supermaximum control unit, having to fight fiercely merely to retain possession of a few papers and to receive legal mail, intermittently sent to an even more stark environment, “Phase II,” whenever the Governor, who’d long ago sworn he would see Mumia dead, legally assigned a date for his execution; Noelle Hanrahan taping the author’s notes to the unbreakable window in a visiting booth and holding up a tape recorder, always under threat of imminent disruption and arrest by guards, as a shackled Mumia delivers radio commentaries; National Public Radio discontinuing promised broadcasts lest conservative politicians cut off their public funding.  The book’s publication reverberates with a contemporary liberation movement bravely facing SWAT squads on the streets and goon squads inside the prisons.  The book’s contents and the accompanying CD reveal a visionary leader and a cogent analysis of what ails our society and what needs to be done.

From the deepest, darkest hole inside the belly of the beast comes one of the strongest voices of liberation in many decades.  (Don’t get me wrong, I mean darkest figuratively — the lights are actually always on in the modern high-tech supermax prison with its video monitoring, remote- controlled doors and near-total isolation and idleness.)  Yes, Pennsylvania’s Death Row is entombed in the supermaximum control unit at S.C.I. Greene.  Why in the world would they choose that site for it? Traditionally, prisoners on death row do not constitute much of a security risk because, on average, they are contemplating their end while working on their appeals.  If there is no “penological objective” in placing them in punitive solitary confinement, what objective is there?  Whenever one asks such an obvious yet naive question, one discovers anew the cynicism and toxicity of the Prison Industrial Complex.  Locating death row inside a punitive segregation unit serves merely to torture and demonize the residents of The Row, as if it is their bestiality that requires they be shackled inside a bare cell inside a lockup behind multiple sealed doors.  The hope on the part of the authorities must be that average citizens, frightened by the image of entombed violent beasts, will support legislation to lock up ever more young people of color in ever more secure supermax prisons. 

Of course, awful things occur by design in our prisons.  Craig Haney and Philip Zimbardo’s mock prison experiment in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford University in the early ‘70s proved that even students play-acting at being guards will quickly descend into grotesque sadism toward other students acting as prisoners.  Of course this kind of brutalization requires secrecy.  The dominators have to be certain that their cruelty and inhumanity toward the dominated will not reach a wide audience.  Thus, as our massive imprisonment binge escalated in recent decades and the brutality “inside” grew beyond what one might expect a civilized society to tolerate, every effort was made by the authorities to maintain secrecy about what goes down inside.  They don’t admit that’s what they’re doing.  But their policies testify to their intentions.  They locate maximum and supermaximum prisons far from population centers (S.C.I. Greene, where the population is mainly African Americans from Philadelphia, is a six hour drive from that city), harassing those who do make the trek with long waits to enter the visiting area and humiliating searches (here’s a new one just in from California: low intensity xray searches of visitors); tripling and quadrupling telephone rates for prisoners and their families; creating laws that bar the press from interviewing prisoners; and taking away prisoners’ visits as punishment for a growing list of offenses.

The state’s adamant demands for ever higher security, and their campaigns to enforce secrecy about the brutality, set the stage for the ongoing legal battle over Mumia Abu-Jamal’s right to practice journalism and to have his journalism aired widely.  The state maintains they aren’t trampling on Mumia’s First Amendment right to speak by quashing his articles and tapes, rather they are enforcing a prison rule prohibiting prisoners from taking part in journalistic and other business pursuits.  Mumia stood up to them legally, and won an important battle in the federal appeals court.  He gives his account of this legal development in this book.  And then there was the shameful episode where National Public Radio dropped its contract to air Mumia’s powerful audiotaped messages from Death Row (a sampling of which appear on the CD accompanying this book, some never before published). 

Whether he is winning or losing in the courts, Mumia delivers this unblinking political perspective:  “Courts are inherently conservative institutions that loathe change, and…. tend to perpetuate existing power relations, even though their rhetoric perpetuates the illusion of social equality.  In many instances, courts barely conceal their hostility to prisoner litigants, as evinced by increasingly restrictive readings of rights raised in the courts these days” (p 93).  And this from a man who has was shackled and then barred from the courtroom during the 1982 proceedings that sent him to Death Row. 

Why are the powers that be so frightened of this man?  Could it be his brilliance?  His subversive ideas?  His strength in the face of massive repression?  His ability to inspire protest demonstrations around the globe in the tens and hundreds of thousands?  The fact that he’s a fine writer, a personal storyteller, a theoretician, a leader of masses?  They are afraid of all the above.  But their main fear is that this man’s voice is powerful enough to blast its way out of a Death Row — inside a supermaximum unit where visitors are few and there are rules against contacting the public — and reach an audience who might vehemently object to the brutality and inhumanity that is rampant in this system’s deepest, darkest prison holes.  In this sense, Mumia personifies in his own life the horrors of the Prison Industrial Complex, meanwhile providing resounding opposition to an evolving police state. 

Leaving for the moment the world of deep political questions, Mumia Abu-Jamal is simply a fabulous writer.  He writes about his very young daughter who came to see him for the first time as he sat in shackles behind an unbreakable window: “In milliseconds, sadness and shock shifted into fury as her petite fingers curled into tight fists, which banged and pummeled the Plexiglas barrier, which shuddered and shimmied but didn’t break” (p. 61).  He touchingly describes fellow prisoners, including Hank Fahy, a man who would be executed in two weeks when the rapist of his teen daughter entered a prison unit close enough for Hank to get his hands on him.  He explains to Mumia why he didn’t kill the younger con, in fact he went right up to him and said he forgave him.

Hank Fahy:  “I loved my daughter, Jamal.  She was my heart. But me killing that kid can’t bring my Jamie back, and ya know what else, Jamal?

Jamal:  “What’s that, Hank?

Hank Fahy:  “I wouldn’t wish death row on my worstest enemy” (p. 70).   

During one taped message Mumia sings R & B tunes and rap lyrics while theorizing about the historical signficance of trends in modern music.  He even theorizes about the gender politics of rap.  His legal writing is worthy of law review articles.  For example, he uncovers an 1890 U.S. Supreme Court case, In re Medley, where the majority Republican Supremes ruled that solitary confinement constituted “an additional punishment of the most important and painful character” (p. 39), and was therefore unconstitutional.  He even reviews his own award-winning book, Live From Death Row:  “It paints an uncomplimentary picture of a prison system that calls itself ‘Corrections,’ but does little more than ‘corrupt’ human souls; a system that eats hundreds of millions of dolllars a year to torture, maim, and mutilate tens of thousands of men and women; a system that teaches bitterness and hones hatred” (p. 120).  A remarkable thing about Mumia’s writing is that he could, with his fame, have anything he produced published widely, and yet each new piece from his pen is masterfully crafted, mercilessly poignant and provocatively analytic.

Mumia Abu-Jamal does not seek stardom.  In fact, in person and in his writings he directs us not to focus solely on him, but also to pay attention to other prisoners who have no voice.  He opines about his case as merely representative of the millions, disproportionately people of color, who are incarcerated and forgotten.  As the gap between the haves and have-nots widens, a growing proportion of the population are deemed not only dispensable, but also dangerous.  More of the state budget is handed over to the police, whose brutality proliferates.  They beat Rodney King and kill Amadou Diallo in cold blood.  But how can a citizenry take all that very seriously when that same citizenry only yesterday went to the polls to register its full support for Three Strikes, more police on the streets and more secure maximum security prisons?  So the police abuse goes unrestrained and they build more supermaximum control units in the prisons.  Mumia’s messages from Death Row forcefully challenge the plan.  So he’s dangerous. 

And Mumia is angry, and he makes no bones about it.  Should we politely ask the oppressor to take his boot off our neck?  There is something about Mumia Abu-Jamal’s voice that makes you think he knows what he’s talking about.  The passion sometimes comes through best when we hear him speak.  Noelle Hanrahan did us a huge favor when she alternated the voices of Mumia Abu-Jamal and such luminaries as Assata Shakur, Cornel West, Adrienne Rich, Sister Helen Prejean, Howard Zinn, and the list goes on.  It’s as if they are in dialogue.  And they are.  We all are in dialogue with Mumia Abu-Jamal.  That’s part of what holds us together as a movement.  The tapes of his voice express his passionate resistance, the voices of other commentators illustrate our very earnest dialogue with him. 

I am very frightened that they will kill Mumia Abu-Jamal.  We all hope we’re right in assuming that if enough people take to the streets in protest, the execution won’t happen.  But what of the opposite scenario?:  A huge number of people take to the streets in protest and the state orders its expanded police forces and soldiers newly trained for domestic warfare to come in and suppress the revolt.  More of the visionaries would be incarcerated.  The police state would have proved its capacity to crush skulls and lock people up.  They’d be wrong about the eventual outcome — the heightened repression would eventually drive more people into the struggles for equity and justice — but when the day came to reverse the tyranny, it would be too late to spare Mumia’s life.  That is the worst case scenario.  Let’s not bow to the trendy pessimism of our times.  Let’s continue to assume as we organize that if enough people take to the streets and pressure their leaders and judges sufficiently, the beast will have to set Mumia free.  Judging from this book written in a supermax cell, Mumia poses quite a real threat to the status quo.  Imagine what it would be like to have him out here with us.

Reviewed by Terry A. Kupers, M.D.
Graduate School of Psychology
The Wright Institute
Berkeley, California

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