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Tom Morello (RATM) visits Mumia Abu-Jamal
I just returned from a visit with Mumia Abu-Jamal. It was an amazing visit with an amazing man.
SCI Greene, the prison which holds Mumia, houses 1600 inmates. The prison is a sprawling series of one-story buildings, connected by long corridors, and surrounded by two huge fences draped with razor wire. There is also razor wire many feet below the ground, to prevent inmates from tunneling out. In the seven years that the prison has been open, no convicts have ever escaped.
The prison is built on a piece of flat land in the midst of hilly country in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, in the old coal mining town of Waynesburg. Most of the miners in the area were fired from their jobs during the Reagan era, and there is a tremendous amount of unemployment. Now the chief industry in the region is SCI Greene maximum security penitentiary. Most of the guards are white rural Pennsylvanians; most of the inmates are African-Americans from hundreds of miles away, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. It is a model of the 90s and early 2000s corporate jail. Rather than mining black coal, the new product is black men.
I arrived at the prison and was met by a young rebel by the name of Adam, who was to shepherd me through the very complicated and often antagonistic procedures that one must go through to meet with a prisoner on death row. Adam has a citizen's license to monitor the prisoners to make sure that they're not being abused. He's friends with a lot of the prisoners and a lot of the guys on death row. He was sort of stalling in the waiting room to hang out with me to make sure that everything went alright. They were trying to force him to either go visit someone or to get the hell out of there. He managed to stall for a while before finally having to go to visit one of the other prisoners. There's all sorts of rules there; you can't use a cellphone, or a pager, or a laptop computer in the waiting room, presumably because you're going to be tapping into the mainframe of the prison and finding out where all the air ducts were and things like that. They kept yelling at people for trying to do that.
The first guard that we encountered was really a dick. He was doing everything he could to make my visit as difficult as possible. When I arrived, he said "Well, Mumia's meeting with his attorneys, so you can't meet with him." I said "I understand that visiting time is until 3:30, so that gives me four and a half hours. He's expecting me, and I'm sure he'll soon be done." He then said "are you on his visiting list?" "Yes, I am." I could tell that he was crossing his fingers and hoping like hell that I was not on the list, but he finally dejectedly said "I guess I see you there." Like a crabby-ass hall monitor, this mustachioed guard kept chastising us, telling me and my new friend Adam that we had to keep it down.
I befriended one of the other guards. These guys are people from poor coal-mining families now making pretty decent money from these relatively well-paying jobs keeping the blacks at bay. It's sad in a way, because the class backgrounds of both guards and inmates is probably very similar, and yet… I learned a bit about this guy and his coal-mining background, since the Morellos were Illinois coal miners. And since both he and I were football fans, we kind of made connections over that, and that ended up helping facilitate my entry into the prison.
After you complete your paperwork and pass through the metal detector, you wait for the first electronic iron door to swing back, at which point you pass the threshold of terror. You can look out the windows in the hallway that you're walking down, and see the point where you pass the razor wire-covered fence, meaning that now you are on the Inside. Clark Kissinger had cryptically warned me to make sure that I did not go to the prison alone, and to make sure that whoever was waiting for me had a contact number, just in case I disappeared Guatemalan-style. So it was really a weird moment when you finally crossed that threshold. I thought "my fate is now in the hand of a guy that I hope will one day open that door so I can return. But right now, that is not in my control." And that is a very, very scary feeling. At each exchange, you show a guard behind bullet-proof glass your paperwork, and are allowed to proceed past the next set of scary doors. In the deepest recesses of the prison is death row.
I passed through the waiting room area, and entered the visiting room, where at long last, through thick glass, I got to meet Mumia.
The thing that was most striking about the whole experience was how vital, alive, intelligent, humorous and free Mumia Abu-Jamal seems after having spent 23 hours a day for nearly 20 years, in a cell smaller than the average bathroom. We spoke for two hours about matters of great and small importance, and treated each other like long-lost friends. Mumia remained handcuffed throughout the entire visit.
The night before I was to visit Mumia, I called up JK, and requested that he put a message on the Rage website asking if any of our fans wanted to send messages to Mumia. What followed was an amazing outpouring of feelings and well wishes from Rage Against the Machine fans, in a very short period of time. From Serbia, Ireland, Canada, Australia, England, Germany, even Mumia's Philadelphia, messages of support came flooding in. Sadly, I was warned in advance that I would be unable to bring the messages in, even to read them to Mumia. So I jotted down some of the highlights on a small piece of paper and smuggled it into the visiting room. As I unfolded the piece of paper, I was sure that some secret camera was videotaping me and soon I would be dragged away. But I managed to get some of your messages through verbatim, and Mumia was tremendously touched by the sentiments expressed by Rage fans. It's clear that this man, through his struggle, has touched many of your lives, and as one person wrote, Mumia has already won the war, even if they may win the occasional battle, because he has struck a spark from which thousands will spring and fight injustice. So thank you for your messages, he was very touched by them, and we will be mailing all of your messages to him in their totality to his address at the prison.
Mumia was very grateful for all of the support that he has received from RATM fans. He said that he receives letters every week from people who have found out about his case via the band, and that at every pro-Mumia demonstration Rage fans can be counted in large number. He sends his thanks and deep appreciation for all of those people's efforts on his behalf.
Mumia and I talked about many things, including several of the columns that he has written recently. We talked about the heroism of the American revolutionary Tom Paine, and how he was the Che Guevara of his time-fighting injustice in the American colonies, in Great Britain, and in the French Revolution as well. One of the things that Thomas Paine wrote about-which was rejected by some of the Founding Fathers who were from the slave-owning aristocracy-was about the importance of a social safety net, that part of guaranteeing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was making sure that there would not be none who were destitute or poor. There are echoes of that today, where corporate welfare continues to run rampant. Millionaire owners of corporations are bailed out when there's a dip in the stock market, whereas people in rural America and in the inner cities who cannot feed their children are forced to find some way to do it, through crime or prostitution or whatever. This is a gross injustice because, as Mumia pointed out, there is no greater fear, no cop's gun pointed at you, no horror movie in existence, that is as scary as not bringing home a paycheck when you have mouths to feed. And it is that kind of fear that eventually lands a lot of people in jail, and that is perpetuated by an economically unjust society.
We talked about the police in Philadelphia, and how they had responded very differently to three recent incidents. They diverted a gathering of African-American fraternities away from yuppie-esque South Street, to the ghetto. They stood by with a "kids will be kids, whaddya gonna do?" attitude when predominantly white Mardi Gras revelers looted and flipped over cars on that same street a few months later. And most pointedly, the police arrested by the hundreds and bashed heads when a mixed race gathering of people of a leftist political orientation let their feelings be known at the Republican National Convention. Those who are sworn to serve and protect, clearly function as agents to maintain the economic and political status quo, by any means necessary.
We talked about Mumia's current legal situation, which is in flux. He has asked the court to allow him to dismiss his current legal council because one of the junior attorneys was on the verge of publishing a tell-all account of Mumia's trial, while it's entering one of its most critical stages. He feels that this is a tremendous conflict of interests, and will be seeking to handle his own legal affairs the rest of the way.
We talked about history. Because of our education system and consumer culture, history is presented to kids as nothing more than boring statistics-dates, facts, and the aberrant military behavior of white men-and how this is one of the major crimes of our educational system, that young people are not taught that they themselves are historical agents. A tether is not drawn between those who have fought for, and achieved progressive, radical, and even revolutionary change in the past, and young people today. Mumia brought up the example of Harriet Ross, a slave who one day had had enough. She was harboring a young man who was to be beaten by his owner. She squared off against one of the slave masters, basically kicking his ass, and then rode off to freedom on the back of a cow. This woman was Harriet Tubman's mother. Clearly, Harriet Tubman, one of the greatest Americans and founder of the Underground Railroad, knew her history. Mumia and I bemoaned the fact that young women today see as their role models people like Gisele, or Christina Aguilera, or Destiny's Child. Those are the doors that are left wide-open and ringed with neon lights for women to dream about entering, while the doors of our radical past are kept hidden from view.
Mumia is tremendously well-read and made several book recommendations to me which I will pass along to you: "The Black Jacobins" by C.L.R. James, "The Many-Headed Hydra" by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, and "Rogue States" by Noam Chomsky.
He was very kind and thanked Rage Against the Machine for the work that we had done on his behalf, paused momentarily and said "you've got balls." I thanked him, but reminded him that if anyone had balls, it was him, for his ceaseless struggles for justice from behind bars, as well as those within the movement who had continued to fight at the grassroots, not only for a fair trial and for his release, but for continuing his struggles against injustice in every quarter.
One of the things that was most impressive about Mumia is that he seeks no pity. It seems to me that the hell on earth that is death row, has not damaged his spirit in the least. He pointed out that Amadou Diallo was not on death row, and yet he met his end as a "free man." This message was driven home to me later that day when I heard from my mom that a childhood friend of mine, Larry Jones, a black man in his prime, had OD'd on drugs and died that day, on his birthday. He was faced with the kind of hopelessness and dead-end options that one can face in the ghetto, circumstances that are insured by economic and social injustice. Larry Jones was not on death row, yet he too, met his end, in part, at the hands of a fucked-up system.
We talked about figures that have been inspirational to us, like Bob Marley - who Mumia had actually interviewed (and shared a big fat joint with) during his days on the outside as a journalist - and Muhammad Ali, and what a tremendous inspiration they were to both of us. They were two people who had found loopholes in the system. Bob Marley's talent and spirit were able to transcend race in order to bring a message of freedom and solidarity across the globe. Muhammad Ali, through his athletic prowess, was one of the principal reasons for putting and end to the US involvement in the Vietnam War, by galvanizing blacks and whites alike, with his reminder that "no Vietcong ever called me 'nigger.'"
We also spent a lot of time laughing and joking about the irony of Rage Against the Machine winning a Grammy, about some of our musical tastes, and just having a really nice time chatting like old friends. I told Mumia that through the tremendous impact he has had on people around the globe, that through his amazing insightful articles that he continues to publish (available at http://www.mumiabook.com), his ongoing struggle against the corrupt American legal system, his effervescent spirit and the fact that his voice continues to challenge, and change the world, makes him a person who is much more free than many of us who walk around in society, drive through the KFC, numb ourselves with cable TV, and live our lives without our hands on the wheel of history. With a rich laugh, broad smile, and light in his eyes, Mumia paused, looked at me square in the face, and said "I know."
When the guard came in and said that my time was up, we pressed our fists together through the thick glass (his still in handcuffs), exchanged farewells, love and respects, and spontaneously shouted "power to the people!" in unison.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is a great man, a great revolutionary, and a friend. Thank you again for your outpouring of support, which we will forward to him. Together, we will continue the struggle for a fair trial for Mumia, his eventual release, and to keep fighting against injustice wherever it rears its head.
www.ratm.de - RATM Fanpage with lots of information
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