This article was first published by Global Womens Strike
by Selma James
When Niki Adams, Legal Action for Women London, and I visited Mumia Abu-Jamal in prison a couple of months ago, we knew him only by reputation: an ex-Black Panther who had remained a movement fighter despite being made a political prisoner in 1981 and being on death row since 1983. We couldn’t treat it as a personal visit by bringing him any material gifts: food treats, books, videos, photographs, after-shave lotion – we weren’t allowed to bring him anything. A small but infuriating restriction.
There was a glass barrier between us and him, but it couldn’t hide a handsome and together person with a big smile. It was clear even before we talked that he had kept himself together. And we did talk, with never a lapse for want of something to say. The three hours we had was much too short. Besides, they give you notice about a half before the visit is up, and you fight the desperation of your impending departure, trying to keep it visit time rather than wasting thirty minutes in a long goodbye.
Mumia is full of energy. I just can’t imagine how he has managed this. First the physical factors. The food is bad, and gets less all the time. After all, these private prisons have to produce a profit. He’s had some health problems but has used mainly alternative herbs, etc., rather than allowing the state to impose their medicine and drugs on his person.
He is allowed two hours a day out of his cell and into a small area where he can exercise and move. The problem is, he has made himself a ‘jailhouse lawyer’. That is, he is one of those inside who study how the law actually works. Other prisoners have only these two hours with him to get his help on their cases. He tried to do both, and has managed to stay fit despite 22 hours in a cell and two hours for what is in essence a legal clinic. If refusing to be defeated by persecution is his full-time job, this is his second.
He seemed up to date politically, both about what’s in the news and what’s happening behind the news. How has he done that? Allowed seven books at a time, he has an ordered archive of excerpts from publications that have passed through his cell. He remains a working but unwaged journalist for the movement – one of the few – recording weekly Dispatches From Death Row, radio commentaries, with Noelle Hanrahan, for Prison Radio, which goes out on 100 stations, as well as writing for other publications. This is his third ‘career’. (We loved his support statement to the Strike in 2004, and want more this year!) The other woman in his political life is Pam Africa from MOVE, who, rain or shine, in or out of political fashion, remains dedicated to justice for Mumia. We were struck with the way he lets you know about injustices he suffers. Matter of fact, even angry, but not wasting too much energy or emotion on what is not immediately fixable and can distract you from getting on with living your life. For example, we asked him about his family and visiting, and learnt that there are real problems. First, of course, he’s a Philadelphian imprisoned five hours from his home, in the middle of nowhere. There’s a grandchild he’s never held. We’re hoping Legal Action for Women in the US can be useful on problems with visits. (Mumia also hates to talk about health problems. The homeopath from the Global Women’s Strike has been working with others to deal with these.)
He was eager to know what we thought about things he’d written about women in the Panthers, and listened when we were somewhat critical. The man is open to what others think. I don’t know how he manages that openness considering that those of us outside who have far more opportunities to exchange ideas and impressions are likely to be far more fixed, far less flexible. He knew of and thought highly of the writings of CLR James (my late husband) and he commented that he agreed entirely with Nello’s rejection of the left assuming it’s a vanguard.
When we finally left at the very last possible minute, we were so sorry to go. There was much more to say, much more to learn about him, about those of us who are imprisoned in the belly of the monster. We made plans to work together so we can better incorporate the working class inside into all we say and do. After all, more and more of us are in one jail or another, from Iraq to Pennsylvania. To demand that Mumia finally have a chance to tell his as yet untold story at a new trial is one with demanding justice everywhere and anywhere.
© Selma James