Reporters Notebook

From the Ivory Towers to Death Row:
On the Battlefield for Mumia

Revolutionary Worker #989, January 10, 1999

The following Reporter's Notebook was written by RW correspondent Debbie Lang:

"i had come into the city carrying life in my eyes
amid rumors of death,
calling out to everyone who would listen
it is time to move us all into another century
time for freedom and racial and sexual justice
time for women and children and men time for hands unbound i had come
into the city wearing peaceful breasts
and the spaces between us smiled,
i had come into the city carrying life in my eyes.
i had come into the city carrying life in my eyes

And they followed us in their cars with their computers
and their tongues crawled with caterpillars
and they bumped us off the road turned over our cars,
and they bombed our buildings killed our babies,
and they shot our doctors maintaining our bodies,
and their courts changed into confessionals
but we kept on organizing we kept on teaching believing
loving doing what was holy moving to a higher ground
even though our hands were full of slaughtered teeth
but we held out our eyes delirious with grace.
but we held out our eyes delirious with grace.
I'm gonna treat everybody right
I'm gonna treat everybody right
I'm gonna treat everybody right til I die..."

Excerpt from "I'm Gonna Stay on the Battlefield"
for Sweet Honey and the Rock by Sonya Sanchez,
read at the AMAJ conference


Mark Taylor, professor of religion and culture at the Princeton Theological Seminary and coordinator of Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal (AMAJ) welcomed us at the door to the AMAJ conference for Mumia. As he handed me the conference program, I thought back to when I was in college in the late 1970s. Many of my professors were mainstream or conservative and were often "lost" in their offices and research labs. Here were academics who came to stop the execution of revolutionary political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. They were passionate about justice and determined to lend their strength to the battle to free Mumia.

The December 11 conference was organized by Mark Taylor, Farah Jasmine Griffin and Anthony Monteiro. Jasmine Griffin is a professor in the English department at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Who Set You Flowin': African-American Migration Narrative. Monteiro is a professor in the sociology department at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. The theme for the conference was "The Regime of Power & Repression in the U.S.--The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal." Mark Taylor noted in the AMAJ bulletin Connexions, "The conference itself encountered that `regime' as it is disseminated through academic contexts." In fact, the University of Pennsylvania denied AMAJ space for the conference and the event was held at the Church of the Advocate, an Episcopal church in a Black neighborhood in North Philadelphia.

As I listened to Rev. Isaac Miller welcome everyone, I remembered the last time I was here in the summer of 1997 for the first east coast speaking engagement by former Black Panther Party member and political prisoner Geronimo ji Jaga. Geronimo had just been released from jail and came to speak in Philadelphia especially for Mumia. In the '60s this church had opened its doors to the Panthers and today continues to be a center of political activism.

Over 200 people took part in the almost 12-hour program. A bright yellow AMAJ banner with a picture of Mumia and the slogans "Free Mumia! We Need His Voice!" hung from the stage. Nana Korantima of the Akan Community in Philadelphia and Bishop Jude Egbe of the Imani Temple from Baltimore, Maryland began the conference with a procession of drums, bells and rattles, and call and response in the Twi language of Ghana. The smell of incense filled the room as Egbe performed the libation (African blessing). Solidarity statements were read from people who were not able to attend including Bishop George Augustus Stallings from the African-American Catholic Congregation; Professor Cornel West; Kathleen Cleaver and Professor Kimberly Crenshaw. From the interfaith prayers that opened the program to the presentations by professors, authors, activists, poets and historians throughout the day this conference wove together the efforts, experience and traditions of people from many different backgrounds and nationalities into a powerful cry demanding justice for Mumia and calling others to step forward and join this crucial struggle.

Learning from History to Change the World

This place we call home is a correctional facility cemented with long rusting locks.
Our blood thickens the mortar this country built on the bricks of our bones
arriving here with tongues tied and knots of chain
composing our song on a guitar which has no strings.

Excerpt from "At the Capitol
Standing with My Brothers,"
written and read by
Theodore Harris at the AMAJ conference

Many of the professors who spoke emphasized how important it is for academics to become activists--to be "doers" as well as "thinkers." During the dinner break, Professor Taylor talked to me about the role of academics: "The special contribution, I think, is working together to fight this society's nostalgia, its tendency to worship the past without really remembering what happened in the past. We have a nostalgia about the founding fathers, for example, but we have amnesia about who the founding fathers really were..." The panelists drew on their knowledge of history and the struggles of the past to expose the profound injustices in this society, especially the oppression of Black people.

Joe Feagin, a professor in the sociology department at the University of Florida at Gainesville, is president-elect of the American Sociological Association and the author of Ghetto Revolts, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He spoke about how this country is built on a foundation of slavery and racism and told the story of Tom, a slave who was sent to the West Indies as punishment by his owner for trying to run away. This was a death sentence because the environment there was so harsh slaves had a life expectancy of only seven years. "So the slave named Tom was being sent by his master to death without trial, without a hearing, as property, demonized and feared. Who was this slaveholder? His name was George Washington." Feagin then pointed out how "Black men continue to be demonized, continue to be repressed, continue to be judged without juries of their peers, continue not to get a fair trial in this country and continue to be put to death in this country without a fair trial."

Sam Anderson co-edited In Defense of Mumia, an anthology of prose, poetry and art published in 1996. He read a slave narrative from his book Black Holocaust for Beginners by a member of the Seke people, who were completely wiped out by the slave trade. Anderson emphasized that, "Mumia Abu-Jamal cannot be free unless we struggle to make him free...[his life] depends on what we do from this moment, each one of us." Swiss Professor Yves Citton, a writer and poet who teaches in the French Department at the University of Pittsburgh compared Mumia's case to two famous cases in French history, the Calais affair in the 1760s and the Dreyfuss affair in the 1890s, and said, "When a case becomes an affair, the particular fate of a singular individual forces the questioning of much larger realities.... Mumia's affair contributes to shaping the way the United States of tomorrow will face or deny the profound inequalities and aberrations which plague the structure of their judicial system."

Gabriele Gottlieb, a student at the University of Pittsburgh and an activist in the Pittsburgh Mumia Coalition, has been beaten and harassed by police and fined by the city of Pittsburgh for putting up Mumia posters. She talked about how the Philadelphia police have targeted political groups like the Black Panthers and MOVE for vicious repression and is "a department of corruption, of misconduct, and brutality."

Peter Linebaugh, a professor of history at the University of Toledo, told the audience, "Academia comes from the Latin and means outside the people. But we are here with Mumia. We're with the people." He spoke about the history of habeas corpus and how this right is being destroyed by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. [Habeas corpus is important to Mumia's case since it is one of the legal bases on which he will appeal his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court.]

Poet, Temple University professor and activist Sonia Sanchez brought herself and many of us to tears in one of the most moving moments of the day. She read a poem from her book Under A Soprano Sky, which won the American Book Award in 1985. In "Middle Passage," we are taken inside the mind of a woman from Africa who is abducted by slave traders, transported across the ocean, sold on an auction block and raped repeatedly. As Sanchez read, it was as if she were possessed by the very spirit of this slave and her defiant struggle to survive. There was a deep silence in the room as the poem ended:

"How to live, live, live, live, live, live

Latino...Asian...Native Americans...Jews ...Muslims...gays...lesbians...Chicano
How to live, live, live, live, love, love, live, live, live, live, free, free, free, free Mumia!
Live, live, live, live, live, live Mumia!
Live, live, how to live.
How to live."

Drawing Links

"Our struggle for the truth about our rights and our history parallels the struggle for justice for Mumia.

Jason Corwin, member
of the Seneca nation

The panelists at the conference spoke about the death penalty, racism, the criminalization of a whole generation of youth, censorship, attacks on first amendment rights and the constitution and other injustices people face daily in this country. Each brought a piece that, when taken together as a whole, painted a picture of a mosaic of resistance to an unjust and increasingly repressive society--with the battle to stop the execution of Mumia as an important focal point.

Burton Caine, who teaches first amendment and constitutional law at Temple University Law School, called on people to take responsibility saying, "It is another outrage that a man can be put to death without having at least every fairness that human society can give him in an effort to determine whether or not he is guilty at all. This trial has been a farce. The judge who was assigned to it is a hanging judge. The court which has affirmed all this is of the same ilk. Before they could even begin to talk about whether they can execute anybody, the first obvious thing that has to be done in our society is to give a fair trial."

Professor Tukufu Zuberi, director of The African Census Analysis Project and a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke about how Black youth are being criminalized and pointed out that African-American women are the fastest growing prison population in the United States. He said, "I stand here for all of those reasons because I understand that it is very, very, very easy for me to be in the shoes, in the pants, in the shirt of Abu-Jamal."

Houston A. Baker, Jr., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture, the author of Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance and Black Studies, Rap and the Academy, read an excerpt from a book by Jerome Miller called Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System: "Reduced to uselessness by the downsizing and restructuring of an economics of corporate and political greed, Black and Hispanic residents of the inner city have been criminalized by a racial politics that seeks ultimately their death. It is not incidental that the return of capital punishment to the world of American criminal justice was very much a Reagan-Bush encore, cut the enemy off and kill them."

Lamont Steptoe, a poet and Vietnam veteran whose great grandfather was a slave and whose grandmother was a Cherokee, read poems about the oppression of Black people. Martin Espada, poet, author and professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, read from his books, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators and Zapata's Disciple and talked about how he got involved in the struggle for Mumia after National Public Radio censored a poem he wrote about Mumia. Poet and author Lorene Cary read from her book The Price of A Child, a novel that takes place in Philadelphia in 1855 and is based on the life of a former slave named Mercer.

Michael Eric Dyson is a professor of African-American Studies at Columbia University and the author of Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, as well as Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture. Dyson has been fighting for 10 years to get justice for his brother who is doing life in prison for an unfair murder charge. He said: "We're being locked out in terms of the interstices of power and we're being locked out and locked up in terms of our bodies being hauled off in amazingly disproportionate numbers to our population and really a kind of genocidal holocaust is going on within the context of our communities.... So for me, then, the Mumia Abu-Jamal case is about the person who is able to articulate the interests of minority people not only in terms of color, but in terms of ideology. Because we know what the real deal here is also about. It is about the repression of left-wing, progressive, insightful cultural criticism and political and moral critique aimed at the dominant hegemonic processes of American capitalism and the American state as evidenced in its racist, imperialist and now we might add homophobic and certainly its patriarchal practices."

Building a Movement to Stop the Execution
and Free Mumia

"Philadelphia is a city of two legacies. One is a legacy of state-sanctioned brutality, corruption and injustice. The other is a legacy of a people's consistent resistance to all forms of brutality, corruption and injustice, a legacy of courage and conviction in the face of repression. We confront both of these legacies in the circumstances surrounding Mumia Abu-Jamal. How long are we going to let those responsible for building prisons instead of schools and housing for the poor, those who manage the poor and working poor by imprisoning them set the agenda for the tone of our times?.... We are choosing the legacy of resistance to repression over brutality, corruption and injustice."

Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin

During the conference people struggled hard to understand what it would take to build a movement powerful enough to stop the execution and free Mumia. Panelists and audience members listened to and learned from each other and shared many different ideas and perspectives on how to build the struggle. People recognized that the movement to stop the execution of Mumia is at an important crossroads and that we need to take a gigantic leap and bring millions of people into this battle in one form or another.

Professor Dyson spoke about the urgency to "link what's going on especially with young people of color throughout this country and somehow make them aware that their plight and predicament is joined at the hip, if you will, to what's going on with Mumia Abu-Jamal."

C. Clark Kissinger, contributing writer to the Revolutionary Worker and member of the national council of Refuse & Resist! drew on the lessons from the 1995 struggle when the government was forced to stay an execution warrant on Mumia: "We have to create a situation where the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal is a major social issue in America, where you cannot turn on the radio, where you can't go to an event publicly without politicians and people being asked to state what their position on this case is. And if we have that combination of a broad and diverse movement together with acts of determination, it is a people's movement that can, in fact, force the judicial system in this country to back down, admit the crap that they have done over these years and free our brother Mumia Abu-Jamal."

Rev. Cecil Gray, professor of religion, director of African-American Studies at Gettysburg College, drew on lessons from his childhood in Hattiesburg, Mississippi where his mother helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Gray said building a movement to stop the execution of Mumia would take sacrifice, including the willingness to stand firm in the face of government attacks: "We who believe in freedom cannot rest and I will not rest until it comes. Is it frightening? Yes. Will I stop? No."


This was the first time a conference of academics had come together to discuss and strategize about how to stop Mumia's execution. None of the professors received honorariums. They paid their own expenses. They took a risk in speaking out for Mumia. This conference was right on time, a reflection of the urgency our movement is facing now that Mumia's state appeal has been denied.

As I left that evening, I felt something important had changed, new unity and understanding built with potentially profound implications for the future. I remembered something Professor Mark Taylor had told me earlier in the day: "Mumia has become a focus point and a flashpoint, a crisis point, I would say. In my field of theology we often use the word chiros to talk about a special time, as opposed to chronos or chronological time. Chiros time is a situation of change, pregnancy, a kind of moment where you define what the future is going to be because of its distinctiveness. Mumia is that kind of chiros moment, I think, for many and our success as a movement will be determined by how well we communicate this sense of crisis and opportunity, this chiros phenomenon, this moment with a capital `M' as we sometimes say in the movement."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)