Book Review from Behind Bars
On a Move, The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal
By C. Clark Kissinger (with a little help from my friends)
Revolutionary Worker #1092, February 25, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
On a Move; The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
By Terry Bisson. Litmus Books, 215 pages.
An important new book for the people has just been published. On a Move, by Terry Bisson, tells the life story of Mumia Abu-Jamal. On a Move was the first book by or about Mumia Abu-Jamal I have been allowed to receive in prison and, between work detail and being sent to the hole at the whim of my captors, working on this review was a treat.
On a Move is a cool read--and a deep read. Written in short, punchy chapters, it includes never before published photos from every stage of Mumia's life. Bisson's new book is also a fun read! That may sound like a strange description for a biography of a man on death row, but it's true. And it was one of Mumia's key ground rules for this authorized biography:
"It was time to go," Bisson writes. "For one of us, sunlight and air; for the other, a humiliating strip search and a narrow cell. We pressed our hands together against the inch-thick glass, and I said, 'fun?'
"'You know what I mean,' Mumia said, 'Don't make me out to be some saint or martyr. Being a revolutionary is hard, but it's fun. I was having fun. Hell, can you believe it, I'm still having fun!'"
Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, as well as France's Gran A Prix de l'Imaginaire--Terry Bisson is the author of numerous science fiction novels, short stories, motion picture novelizations, and a biography of Nat Turner for young adults.
Bisson met Mumia about 15 years ago, when political prisoner Dr. Alan Berkman suggested that Bisson send Mumia an article he was writing for The Village Voice about the murder of Michael Stewart, a young Black graffiti artist savagely beaten to death by New York police. Mumia wrote back to Bisson and over the next years Bisson visited him several times.
Bisson's biography takes readers on a journey with Mumia, from child storyteller in Philadelphia's Black housing projects (the "PJ's")...to running with the Black Panthers in Philly, Oakland and New York, from radical radio journalist on a mission...to the pre-dawn sidewalk encounter with a brutal cop that led to an outrageously unjust trial...that led to death row. The face on the poster moves into three dimensions as we meet Mumia as son, student, radical, lover, husband, father, cub reporter, and "voice of the voiceless."
There is a film-like quality to Bisson's imaginative style. Short sketches put you right into the scene, dramatizing situations--through interviews with colleagues, comrades, loved ones and Mumia himself.
"California!? Wesley Cook, what in the world!"
You hear Mumia's mother Edith on the phone with Mumia after he takes off for Panther headquarters in San Francisco without telling her.
"I should get out of this car and kick that baby out of her stomach."
You hear the voice of Detective George Fencl threatening Mumia and his first wife Biba as they walked down the street. Like the coldhearted police inspector who hounds the hero of Les Miserables, Fencl pops up again and again--as Bisson's story weaves a living picture of the pattern of political persecution that sent Mumia to death row.
Bisson moves deftly from scene to scene--telling the story of one of the stormiest periods in American history and of the young rebel who came of age in its crucible.
In his Afterword, Bisson says: "These brief impressionistic sketches were designed to give the contours and flavor of a life that Mumia insists (with characteristic modesty, and not inconsiderable truth) is not exceptional at all, but representative of the lives of many of the youth of his generation, and particularly Black youth, who were informed and set into motion by the welcome upheavals of history."
On a Move begins with a forward by artist Chuck D who recently visited Mumia on Pennsylvania's death row. Chuck D tells how he first found out about Mumia by reading posters on the street in Naples, Italy--and focuses on how the government at the highest levels targets revolutionaries like Mumia, and what's at stake in this battle.
"The State has a lot of goods at stake in this case. If Mumia's lawyers ever get a fair chance at proving how totally foul it is, a lot of heads are gonna roll. That's why they have to shut him up, even if he's already on death row. It's also why spreading the word about him is like making a 911 call.
"Mumia's story is an American tragedy--not just for him, but all across the board.
"It is the story of other revolutionaries tucked away behind prison walls, of the powder-kegged ground we stand on, and the robotic-minded time we live in, when human beings are often treated with less respect than diamond-studded watches or cars.
"It reminds us that we cannot keep our heads 'wide shut' forever, that we can no longer deny the fact that the structures around us and beneath us are rotten from the core and crumbling fast."
Historian Howard Zinn has said that "to read this book is to gain deep insights into issues of race and poverty--and the pretenses of our nation with regard to equal justice before the law."
Weaving through the up close and personal sketches, Bisson grounds Mumia's story in a historical context:
"...our story really begins in the North, twenty years after the Civil War, when the victorious Yankees decided to ally themselves with the slave owners they had defeated rather than the slaves they had helped set free. That fateful decision was to shape all our futures, black and white."
One result of that decision was "one of the greatest migrations in world history," as millions of black sharecroppers were forced off the land and into urban ghettos as the age of imperialist world war caused a demand for cheap labor. A specific result after World War 2 was the creation of vast federally funded housing projects. Modern slave quarters, these projects--the "PJ's"--were overwhelmingly Black and poor, and they were where Mumia grew up.
Mumia is a product of the "deep north."
With four brothers and one sister, and dozens of other kids near by, Mumia quickly earned nicknames like "Scout" and "United Nations" for his constant inquisitiveness about his neighborhood and other peoples. But the segregated years of Mumia's childhood were also the years of the rise to power in Philadelphia of Frank Rizzo, the urban emblem of white power. Rizzo first made a national reputation by ordering a police attack on demonstrating Black high school students who were demanding Black studies programs in 1967.
As the march came past his junior high, Mumia like many others poured out to join them, but soon saw the opportunity to ditch school, and headed for home. When the march reached the Board of Ed, Rizzo unleashed his club-swinging cops, yelling "get their Black asses!"
Back at the crib, Mumia was deep into his Spiderman comics and missed the action that day, but as Bisson reminds us: "He made up for it by attending the rest without fail."
Wesley Cook had the advantage of a high school teacher from Kenya at a moment when African American studies burst into the curriculum. Timone Ombima not only taught his students Swahili, but also assigned them African names. Wesley became Mumia.
Shortly afterward followed the famous incident when Mumia and a group of his friends crashed the George Wallace for President rally. He was beaten by the white racists and cops so badly his mother couldn't recognize him. And Mumia was charged with assault.
"Two days later, at the arraignment, the judge heard the cop's testimony and grimaced. 'Assault? This kid's face assaulted your fist? Case dismissed.'
"It was Mumia's first police beating, and his last encounter with a sympathetic judge."
As Mumia has said, the incident literally kicked him into the Panthers.
"A few months later Mumia was walking down Broad Street when he was approached by a much older woman (probably seventeen, he says now) in a leather jacket and beret. A radical, dangerous, exciting-looking woman.
"She stuck a paper in his hand and said, 'Read this, kid.'"
A real strength of Bisson's book is how it connects to the young and restless--bringing alive a time when, for thousands of youth, coming of age meant becoming a revolutionary.
"The job of a sci-fi writer is to make strange worlds familiar," Bisson writes, "and what could be stranger today than the sixties (which lasted well into the seventies), when white supremacy and corporate hegemony seemed not only threatened but actually on the run in Vietnam, Latin America, Africa? How could we describe to today's youth what it felt like to know that the Revolution was just around the corner? That the world was changing every day for the better?
"'Listen, Terry, if you can do Mars, you can do the sixties,' Mumia said with a hopeful, slightly wistful, homesick grin."
The chapters on the Black Panther Party are some of the strongest material in Bisson's book. We follow Mumia from the founding of the BPP branch in Philly through his work on the Black Panther newspaper in Oakland, to the assassination of Fred Hampton in Chicago, and the defense of the Panther 21 in New York City.
Bisson highlights what attracted Mumia to the Black Panther newspaper and to a passion for journalism:
"It was seeing a brotha or sista light up when they saw the paper. It was their paper, and it expressed their voice, their hopes and dreams, their rage. Mumia and his comrades were serving the people and living out their deepest desires--for self-determination, for revolutionary nationalism, for a life free of the double scourges of racism and capitalism."
With the birth of his son Jamal, at age 17, Wes Mumia Cook became Mumia Abu-Jamal--"father of Jamal."
In the summer of 1970, the Black Panther Party held their national Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. (This writer and Mumia were both in attendance, although we didn't know each other in those years.) Yet by the end of the year, Mumia and the Philly Panthers had resigned from the Party in response to the growing factionalism and political differences over the way forward.
Amazingly, Mumia returned to high school where he was elected President of the student body--and then promptly kicked out of the school for leading protests to change the name of the school to Malcolm X High.
Bisson goes on to fill in the years between Mumia the Panther and Mumia the radio journalist. Midwife for the transformation was Goddard College. The semesters at Goddard in rural Vermont were light-years away from the PJ's in Philly, but Goddard introduced Mumia to something that would change his life: radio. Bitten by the radio bug at Goddard's student station, Mumia returned to Philly and his own program on the Temple University station, WRTI. Ironically, years later, WRTI would censor his recordings made in prison. But it was at WRTI that Mumia began to wield the political potential of radio.
"He was fired with the same passion that he had felt as a Panther, and now it was heightened with a showbiz buzz. Mumia wanted to light people up again--the way he had seen them light up when he had sold them Huey P. Newton's Message in The Black Panther."
Moving into commercial radio, however, imposed new constraints. With two children to support, Mumia needed a real job. To get it, Mumia assumed yet another identity: William Wellington Cole, urbane news reporter.
Here readers will find a detailed refutation of the slander published in Vanity Fair several years ago that Mumia never really was a professional journalist. Not only did Mumia cover regular breaking news stories all over the city, but he interviewed major public figures. Once he was even congratulated by President Jimmy Carter for the probing questions he had put to the president.
Now married to his second wife, Peachie, Mumia Abu-Jamal was on his way to becoming the "voice of the voiceless."
It was as an established radio reporter that Mumia encountered the MOVE family. In the late 1970s, MOVE was news; in Philadelphia, big news, and Mumia began covering the city's war on MOVE.
In 1978, Mumia covered the police siege of the MOVE house in Powelton Village, an incident that attracted international attention. The siege ended with a police shoot-in. Of the 11 adults captured, two agreed to renounce MOVE and were let go. The remaining nine were sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison. And the incident marked a turning point for Mumia:
"Mumia quit pretending. He was a revolutionary journalist, a partisan, not a cold-blooded 'objective' observer. He attended all the MOVE trials and expressed his outrage on the radio as much as he was allowed (and a little more). He quit hiding his dreads under a hat."
Mumia was fired. William Wellington Cole was no more. Mumia Abu-Jamal, now with his third wife Wadiya, needed a job real bad. He was doing occasional stories for Mutual Black Radio and NPR, but out of necessity, he started to drive a cab at night.
"Mumia didn't exactly hide the fact he was driving a cab, but he told Linn Washington not to spread the word unnecessarily. The 'voice of the voiceless' didn't want to become known as the 'wheels of the wheel-less,' he joked."
In brief but powerful sketches, Bisson recounts the well-known incident of December 9, 1981, when driving his cab, Mumia came upon a cop beating his brother Billy. That night a police officer died and Mumia was gravely wounded.
We share the shock as one by one Mumia's comrades and family hear that Mumia has been seriously wounded and is under arrest.
And we find Detective Fencl and his political police on the scene, as the railroad of Mumia Abu-Jamal for the murder of a cop is in the making:
"Fencl and his CD Squad were among the first on the scene, even though it was four in the morning. It was almost as if they had been waiting for it to happen."
Ending his story with chapters on the injustice of Mumia's trial and the growth of the international movement for justice for Mumia--Bisson opens the door for readers to find out more about Mumia's case and the movement to stop his execution:
"Mumia is not dead today only because his case has attracted world-wide attention and support.
"Some support him because he is innocent.
"Others because they believe that innocence is not the issue; that any conflict between a well-known black radical journalist and a police force as famously racist and violent as Philadelphia's is more self-defense than murder.
"Others because of the demonstrated racial bias of the death penalty; and still others because they oppose the death penalty on principle.
"Some support Mumia because they see him as a martyr, like Sacco and Vanzetti, Joe Hill, or the Rosenbergs. Some because they have been moved by his words in support of others.
"But all agree that the central and overriding injustice is the trial.
"The so-called trial."
And, in the final words of his Afterword, Bisson recalls his conference with Mumia about writing the book:
"You know what I mean," Mumia said. "Don't make me out to be some saint or martyr. Being a revolutionary is hard, but it's fun. I was having fun. Hell, can you believe it, I'm still having fun.
"Beep. From his Plexiglass booth the shadowed guard insisted: Time to go. And the doors that we are all working desperately together to break open before it's too late, began to slide shut behind me, one by one.
We close the book determined that Mumia Abu-Jamal will be having fun for a very long time. Get your hands on this book. Read it and pass it on.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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