The Censorship of Mumia Abu-Jamal
They Can't Suppress the Voice of the Voiceless
Revolutionary Worker #1050, April 16, 2000
"They don't just want my death, they want my silence."
Mumia, from Death Row,
SCI Greene Prison, Pennsylvania
Mumia Abu-Jamal uses the typewriter, the radio microphone, the tape recorder and his insightful handwritten Death Row columns to speak out--on behalf of those millions in the U.S. and around the world who are ignored and oppressed. From his days as a teenage writer for Black Panther newspaper, Mumia has dared to expose brutal acts of this system. He earned himself the name "The Voice of the Voiceless"--and he earned the hatred of Philadelphia's political establishment and the Fraternal Order of Police.
In 1978, Philadelphia's notoriously brutal police-Mayor Frank Rizzo raged that a "new breed of journalists" was confusing the people. Rizzo charged, "They believe what you write and what you say, and it's got to stop. One day--and I hope it's in my career--you're going to have to be held responsible and accountable for what you do." It was Mumia, in those days, whose radio broadcasts were raising Rizzo's blood pressure. And Mumia, who had been under FBI surveillance since he was 15, came solidly into the crosshairs of the system.
Three years later, Mumia Abu-Jamal was fired as a radio journalist--for exposing police attacks on the radical MOVE organization. Then he was shot late one night by a cop--and outrageously framed for the killing of that cop. At the sentencing hearing of the trial, the prosecutor read out loud revolutionary political statements Mumia had made as a Black Panther and demanded the death penalty.
This respected revolutionary journalist, Mumia Abu-Jamal, faces the ultimate censorship: state execution by lethal injection.
And yet, through all these years of lockdown in Pennsylvania's Death Row, Mumia has found countless ways to raise his voice--not mainly about his own case, but about the sweeping injustices of this system and the need for conscious resistance.
This voice of the voiceless has not been silenced! His words have only gotten more powerful--reaching a wider audience worldwide--appearing in books, tapes, CDs, radio broadcasts, newspaper columns, and internet postings. And always, always, facing intense new attempts at censorship and suppression.
Here is the latest:
Mumia is scheduled to be the commencement speaker (via taped messages) at two Ohio campuses--Kent State University and Antioch College. The Associated Press ran an article about Mumia's coming April 29 speech at Antioch. A student from Antioch College reported over the internet about the reactionary frenzy that has broken out: "The media circus has begun--from prodeathpenalty.com to the Dayton Daily News to rightwing radio shows. Hundreds of mostly overtly racist hate-mail is coming through email and paper mail every day. We have received hundreds of death threats and threats on our safety organizing. The state's office for the Ohio FOP is only an hour away. Some faculty and students have turned their backs, their silence screaming `cop killer.' We need support." Meanwhile, Mumia's new book--All Things Censored--is about to be published. The book contains powerful columns and writings from the last few years. It comes with a CD of Mumia's voice delivering the radio commentaries banned from National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."
Many different forces are mobilizing intensely in the battle over Mumia's execution. In the coming months, Mumia's case enters the federal courts and crucial hearings will be held.
Given the history of the last 20 years, there is every reason to believe that the new book will itself become the focus of shameless new attempts to suppress Mumia's voice at this important moment.
Live from Death Row-- The Radio Show
In 1994, it was announced that a series of Mumia's commentaries would be aired on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" program. Mumia produced ten reports focused on the lives and conditions of prisoners. The word spread on the street: Mumia was going to be back on the airwaves.
But powerful forces were determined to silence his voice. The Associated Press ran a hostile article in which the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) accused NPR of "giving a monster a soapbox."
On May 16, 1994, NPR pulled the commentaries just as they were about to air. NPR then refused to release Mumia's commentaries so they could be aired on other radio outlets. NPR not only caved in to open police censorship but joined the suppression effort.
On May 17, Senator Robert Dole hailed NPR's cowardly capitulation from the Senate floor and said: "I think we need to be on the alert because those who probably thought up this idea will probably be thinking up some others that could be just as harmful and just as bad." It was a threat from a powerful pointman of the ruling class.
Live from Death Row--the Book
"Mumia Abu-Jamal's essays question matters left untouched by most of the popular stories of black lives decorating bookstores today. And therein lies much of the power, the urgency, of his writings.... Because he tells the truth, Mumia Abu-Jamal's voice can help us tear down walls--prison walls, the walls we hide behind to deny and refuse the burden of our history."
John Edgar Wideman,
Introduction to Live from Death Row
"InLive from Death Row, you hear the voices of the many, the oppressed, the damned and the bombed. I paid a high price to bring it to you, and I will pay more; but I tell you here, I would do it a thousand times, no matter what the cost, because it is right."
The suppression of the radio commentaries did not hold. Many people fought to bring these commentaries to the people. And soon it was announced that a book by Mumia, Live From Death Row, was heading for the presses. The book included his censored NPR reports. These were searing accounts of the brutalities, humiliations, and atrocities of prison life. Here was an indictment of death row and courtroom injustice --from a man who knew these subjects well.
The suppression machinery swung into action again. A boycott was called against any bookstore that carried Live from Death Row. Rich Costello, the president of the Philadelphia FOP, insisted that the only words the public should hear from Mumia Abu-Jamal were "good-bye."
Mumia's publishers were informed they were forbidden to send any money to Mumia's legal defense team (in exchange for legal rights to the book). A plane was hired to fly over the publisher's Boston offices to write in the sky, "Addison-Wesley Supports Cop Killers." And, as always, this denunciation by cops carried a further threat--that their targets might face harassment, dirty tricks or worse from the thugs in blue.
The publisher stood firm, and courageous booksellers stepped forward against the police censorship. Live from Death Row has been widely read--and translated into at least seven languages.
That was hardly the end of it.
On June 1, 1995 Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge signed Mumia's death warrant, setting his execution for August 17. Pennsylvania Rep. Michael McGeehan demanded that Mumia's writings and interviews be suppressed by the prison authorities. Mumia was given an official "misconduct report" from the prison officials for "engaging actively in a business or profession"--for writing a book while behind bars. Prison officials started holding up Mumia's mail (including an important letter from his lawyer) and seized money sent to him. They cut off visits from journalists, rejecting at least 17 interview requests in 1995.
The authorities wanted to gag Mumia, while their spokespeople pressed for his execution. Mumia commented, "Clearly, what the government wants is not just Death--but silence." Just as clearly, silence was (and is) a key part of the governments strategy to bring about his death.
The Struggle Intensifies
"From his tiny cell at SCI Greene he manages to inspire and encourage the world. In this time, which is so filled with grief; when we see our own destruction as a species looming just ahead of us; when we see there is little unpoisoned grass and almost no pure water to drink; when our children follow in their elders' footsteps and bomb and murder other children; when no one is safe anywhere on earth anymore; where does a voice of sanity seem to be coming from? From a small cell on death row. Isn't this amazing?"
Worldwide protest played a key role in preventing Mumia's execution in 1995--and his book played a crucial role in getting his message and story out to the people. Despite the energetic attempts at suppression his writings have appeared in many publications, from the Yale Law Review to the Revolutionary Worker newspaper.
Mumia's supporters have also faced a crude and unprecedented campaign of police censorship. In 1995, the FOP launched a picket line in an attempt to shut down a theater event in New York City where actor Giancarlo Esposito performed as Mumia. In January 1999, the head of the New Jersey State Police called for denying a stadium to Rage Against the Machine when they held a benefit concert for Mumia. During Rage's national tour in 1999, police attacks and pickets happened in city after city. In Philadelphia, police have repeatedly threatened concert hall owners--hoping to prevent Mumia fundraising events. A Sting concert in Philadelphia was picketed in 1999 by police--because Sting supported a new trial for Mumia. And also in 1999, police withdrew security for the shooting of a film starring Whoopi Goldberg--because she had spoken out for Mumia. There has been a general call from the national FOP for a boycott of any works by artists who support Mumia.
In June 1999 over 800 seniors at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington got to hear an inspiring taped speech by Mumia at their commencement exercise--while police and reactionaries raged all around. Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, rightwing Republican congressional leader Tom DeLay, and the FOP all tried to stop his speech--and failed.
Now comes All Things Censored with over 75 of Mumia's writings--many of them never before seen in print. Once again, a book appears at a key moment in the fight to save the life of Mumia. Once again, there will be those who try to suppress the voice of the voiceless. And there must be many who fight so that Mumia can be heard, so he can live, so he can walk free.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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