…..is right here.
Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?
Mumia Abu Jamal.
City Lights Open Media Series.
San Francisco: City Lights Books.
202 pp., $15.95.
The core of this book, the author’s ninth from prison and fifth collection of commentaries, is at the end: “To Protect and Serve Whom?,” a 2015 pamphlet for the Black Lives Matter movement. Abu-Jamal’s Black radical, revisionist history of the Civil Rights Movement that centralizes the blood and anger of young people is in his deceptively simple agitprop style. In that pamphlet, briefly post-scripted for the end of the Obama era (“As far as the Black Lives Movement is concerned, by raising their voices under the Obama period, they established their sound integrity—and perhaps it may be seen that it’s possible that they should have yelled louder”), he reminds his symbolic charges that movements come from oppression and will guarantee violent resistance.
In the pages that precede his extended meditation, Abu-Jamal compiles his brief commentaries about the justice system and Blacks from 1998 to 2016, a time spanning from President Bill Clinton to President-elect Trump, from Death Row to his release into general population to his fight to get the Hepatitis C treatments he finally got two months ago. He has constantly used writing to fight for life—a craft the 63-year-old began at 15 as a member of the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party. The fact that his writings about police brutality in 1969 are not different from his writings in the late 20th and early 21st century does not show his intellectual stagnation, but America’s bloody consistency.
The columns list the roll call of victims in real time, from Abner Louima to Travyon Martin and beyond. This is a book containing examples of, as one column called it, “legalized police violence,” killings and abuse “you pay for….every time you pay taxes, endur[ing] this every time you vote for politicians who sell out in an instant.” To Abu-Jamal, “Americans are blind to everything but color” because “United States history is a history of denial.”
Abu-Jamal may no longer be “The Voice of the Voiceless” in the social media-era, a world now filled with scattered prophets of digital rage worldwide. However, the lifelong rebel’s compiled writings are still important because he shows the difference between progressive movements and radical movements: the latter believes that America’s systems need either radical reform or revolution. His intellect and talent remain directly in opposition to America because America has proven it is opposed to Black and brown people.
To Protect and Serve Who? Organizing a Movement to Abolish Police Violence.
City Lights Open Media Series.
San Francisco: City Lights Books.
16 pp., $5
Mumia Abu-Jamal, the imprisoned journalist known worldwide for his writing and speaking, has, not unsurprisingly, hand-typed a document about fighting as he battles to get the needed medication that could cure his Hepatitis C. A memorable pamphlet responds to the current moment with both stationary (historical) and fluid (current) thought, and this one doesn’t disappoint. In his first pamphlet in nearly three decades, the former Black Panther Party member attempts a tutorial for the Black Lives Matter movement. The radical writer gives a revisionist history of the Civil Rights Movement that centralizes the blood and anger of young people. He reminds his symbolic charges that movements come from oppression and will guarantee violent resistance. A brief-but-serious examination of the cost of struggle as Black America heads into the 50th anniversary of both the Black Power movement and the founding of the Black Panther Party during 2016, Abu-Jamal continues to step into the role of social historian legends Lerone Bennett Jr. and Howard Zinn, in his own, deceptively simple agitprop style.
Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Edited by Johanna Fernandez. Foreword by Cornel West.
San Francisco: City Lights.
370 pp., $17.95 (paperback).
If the fight earlier this year for the right of imprisoned writer Mumia Abu-Jamal to get correct care for his diabetes had failed, this book, his eighth, would have been possibly the last he would get to approve under his name. The diabetes complication was not just a shock to his system. There is an insane sense of normality that has now developed around the idea of Abu-Jamal’s work—the assumptions that he is writing, and will be writing frequently, that his commentaries will get emailed around the world, that his recorded voice will be on YouTube. Frankly, Abu-Jamal’s rat-a-tat journalistic contribution would be almost taken for granted if he hadn’t almost died. The ubiquitousness of the author and product shows how much he has succeeded in creating a foothold in Black radical thought in the last 20 years.
And that Panther-inspired bootprint continues here. Following in the steps of Noelle Hanrahan’s 2000 Abu-Jamal column collection “All Things Censored,” Fernandez, an assistant professor of history and Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Baruch College/City University of New York, creates a second unofficial “Mumia Reader” of 107 columns and speeches that span from the former Black Panther Party member’s 1981 arrest for the killing of a white Philadelphia police officer to 2014. The editor takes significant time to explain the how, when, what and why of Abu-Jamal’s essays. She shows that the intellectual scope and depth of Abu-Jamal’s writings precede Hanrahan’s mid-1990s recordings—the ones that, along with a 1995 death warrant and a ready-to-go international anti-death penalty movement, jump-started the “Free Mumia” movement and pushed it straight to the international Leftist stage.
The “new” gems discovered here are, ironically, among his oldest. “Christmas In a Cage,” his rarely read 1981 account of his own arrest and treatment by the police (“Where are the witnesses to the [police] beating that left me with a four-inch scar on my forehead? A swollen jaw? Chipped teeth?”) is worth the price of the book alone.
The editor situates the first few columns in a way that explains him, not just his opinions. Upfront, his love for the MOVE Organization and its founder, John Africa, is clearly articulated, using the 1982 trial and conviction statements he made as an understandably angry young man. (“John Africa is not a slave to this foul, messed up system—he is not bought and sold.”) An example of what he told the court after it decided it wanted his death: “On December 9, 1981, the police attempted to execute me in the street; this trial is just a result of their failure to do so.”
And as the wall writing progresses with a combination of memories, obits and news riffs that, policy-wise, string Reagan to Obama, the reader feels the air from the older Abu-Jamal’s steady, intellectual darts thrown at, for example, the post-911 legalization of COINTEL-PRO under George W. Bush, the devastation that followed Katrina, et. al. Abu-Jamal’s commentaries, taken together, target the contradictions of the established order, pointing to its corrupt nature versus the natural power of people-fueled resistance. (“The objective of all politics is power,” he writes in a 2000 column about the police killing of Amadou Diallo, a Black man shot in his building’s vestibule in New York City. “No major political party in America can even begin to promise Black folks in America the power to stand on their own doorstep[s], or ride their own car[s], or walk the streets of the urban center, without the very real threat of being ‘accidently’ blasted into eternity.”) The book, therefore, is a half-lifetime of well-researched, historically radical Black print rage, from waxing nostalgia about his brief political brush with Huey Newton in and the Black Panther Party circa 1970 to predicting in advance the acquittal of George Zimmerman of the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin.
It is now assured that, whatever his future health in prison, Abu-Jamal’s body of work will outlast his actual one. The writer, as Cornel West discusses in the preface, belongs in “that cultural continuum of struggle that shaped urban Black people between 1950 and 1980.” It remains to be seen in a 2015 world of social media if the masses of “Black Lives Matter” Tweeters will develop the skill, discipline and commitment of their now- elder statesman Abu-Jamal, who wrote in the margins of the society decades before it became cool.