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Interview with Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Sister Lydia Barashango on 15th Anniversary of His Arrest

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On the 15th anniversary of the arrest of Mumia Abu-Jamal, his sister Lydia Barashango recalls the night of the arrest, the roots of his activism and the effect of his imprisonment on her family. We also speak with activist and former Black Panther Safiya Bukhari about a massive protest planned for Abu-Jamal in New York City.

Abu-Jamal is an award-winning journalist whose writing from his prison cell has reached a worldwide audience through his Prison Radio commentaries and many books. A former Black Panther, he was convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner but has always maintained his innocence. Amnesty International has found he was deprived of a fair trial.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today is the 15th anniversary of the arrest of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the African American journalist from Philadelphia who in 1982 was convicted of killing white police officer Daniel Faulkner and sent to Pennsylvania’s death row. Since his 1982 trial, Mumia Abu-Jamal has maintained that the justice system was biased against him, that the judge, a member of the Fraternal Order of Police and a strong death penalty zealot, was predisposed to find him guilty, and that witnesses were coerced into giving false testimony against him.

Thousands of anti-death-penalty advocates and supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal are holding a day of action today on Wall Street. Coming up, Safiya Bukhari, co-chair of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition, will explain why Wall Street. But first we turn to Lydia Barashango. She’s the only sister of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and she is headed to New York right now to participate in the protest. I caught her just before she left her home in Philadelphia and asked her about her thoughts on this day, on the 15th anniversary of her brother’s arrest.

LYDIA BARASHANGO: On this day, matter of fact, I was working night shift as a nurse, when one of my brothers came to me and said something had happened during the night. One of our brothers was in the hospital, and one was in the police lockup. My concern was for who was in the hospital. I went to the hospital. I spoke to a doctor, and the doctor explained to me that Mumia had been shot. He was in serious condition. And if the bullet was not removed, he might — he was in critical condition if it wasn’t removed soon. And my job at that time was to try to talk Mumia into having surgery.

I was led to my brother’s room, not knowing where I was and, in fact, that was him. I could not recognize him. He was beat up, badly beat up. He was unrecognizable, bleeding everywhere, tubes everywhere. And he was not conscious when I walked in the room. There were no less than five police officers in the room at the time with guns on him. He was strapped to a stretcher. He had a bag coming from his bladder so that he could urinate. He had a tube in his nose. And he was bandaged up. When I approached him, he was not alert or conscious. And I shook him and shook him until I could get him to realize who I was, and tried to explain to him what the circumstances were. And his response to me at that time was “I’m innocent. I’m innocent. They’re trying to kill me. They’re trying to kill me.” And that was all he would say.

Again, I explained to him what was going on with him medically. And I guess because he felt comfortable with me, he agreed. I was nursing at that time. But I understand that he had refused surgery prior to that. And after the surgery — of course, that was successful — you know, after some healing, they took him to jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, there’s a lot said about what he said that night.


AMY GOODMAN: And at the site where the policeman was shot, the police, many months later, said, either there or when they were taking him to the hospital, that he said, “I shot the MFer. I hope he dies.”

LYDIA BARASHANGO: Mm-hmm. When I came upon Mumia, he definitely couldn’t have not — he could not have been that strong. He could not have said that. He was barely conscious when I got to him. Mumia, several months later — and I think it was about February or March — pressed charges against the police force for police brutality, because they beat him badly on the street that night, after being shot. And after he pressed those charges against the police force, then they discovered, “Oh, we found this evidence that he made a statement.” But clearly, during the trial of 1982, there was an officer that said, “Male Negro made no statements from the street to the hospital.” But they would not allow that officer in the courtroom during the trial. They said he was on vacation.

AMY GOODMAN: Lydia, what’s happened to your family since that night 15 years ago? In fact, that night, it seems like you lost two brothers.

LYDIA BARASHANGO: I did. After that night — excuse me — my baby brother Bill was also involved. He was at the scene of the crime. Prior to that night, my baby brother Bill worked in Center City as a street vendor, a very good street vendor, did very well at that, and was friends with police officers, first name basis, because he had been there so long. He had established a rapport. After December the 9th, 1981, Bill was no longer able to work as a vendor on the street, because he was harassed by License and Inspection. He was harassed by the police force. They would take his stand, not return all his merchandise, lock him up for, you know, no special reason, just to be checking him out or whatever. And since that time, he has been able to work at his trade, and he has steadily gone down. They want him to come forward and testify, but at this point it’s worthless for him to come forward and testify, unless we get a new trial. So he’s actually in hiding. At some point in these 15 years, he had been on drugs. He had been homeless on the street. He just has been unable to pull his life back together.

The rest of my family has been — our whole lives have been on hold, until Mumia comes home. We just can’t go on with life as usual. We’re talking about our brother, you know, my mother, who’s since died, her son, his grandchildren and his children. Their life has just been on hold.

AMY GOODMAN: What it is it about Mumia that has made him — I mean, there are hundreds of men on death row, but Mumia is by far among the most famous. What has made Mumia such an international symbol?

LYDIA BARASHANGO: Mumia has, over the years, been in the forefront of being an objective reporter. He’s reported what he’s seen on crime, the other side of the story, which is why he’s gotten a title of “the voice of the voiceless.” He has been out there fighting on the forefront in terms of journalistic writing or reporting. And people, in turn, are giving that back. And also the fact that he is clearly a political prisoner because of the type of life he lived or the things that he believed in. And I believe people are getting annoyed at that. Hey, we have a right to live how we choose to live. I don’t think that they want to hear — I don’t think people appreciate being coerced into doing things. When you look at things like the Fraternal Order of Police of Philadelphia, that stop radio broadcasts or try to stop TV broadcasts from the HBO special, that means that what we’re hearing and seeing is being censored.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you — explain what you mean. The HBO special about Mumia?

LYDIA BARASHANGO: Yeah. There was a — A Cause for Reasonable Doubt was a documentary done on HBO about this case. And the Fraternal Order of Police actually harassed and intimidated the producers of this program so bad that she feared for her life. And to back up and say the reason why his book, Live from Death Row, was printed is because he tried to do a radio series on police life, and the Fraternal Order of Police blocked that. That’s saying that we’re having controlled media. You know, that’s saying that someone is censoring what we hear, read and see. And people are not going to take any more of that at all. The coalition that supports Mumia is broad — Black, white, old, young. You know, all kinds of — all kinds of people, all kinds of religions, everything, are out there, because they believe in their right for free speech, free religion and all those kinds of things. And this smacks in the face of all of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did Mumia’s convictions come from and his political activism, as you were all growing up? Are you his older sister or his younger sister?

LYDIA BARASHANGO: I’m his oldest, only sister. There are five boys and one girl, which is myself. Mumia also has a twin who’s in the military.

But Mumia grew up learning as a young child. He read very young for some reason. He read much, much earlier than the rest of us. He was curious about his world much earlier than the rest of us. While we were playing hopscotch and jumping rope and all those kinds of things, he was visiting the neighborhood synagogues trying to find out who is God, what is a god. And he had no problems about where he went. He went to the Jewish synagogue, to the Catholic church, to the missionary and those kinds of things. So, he was always — it is naturally within him to be conscious of people. He’s always conscious of oppressed people and people that don’t have and those kinds of things.

And he fought for those things as a child. As a child, he tried to change the school of his — the name of his high school. In a community that’s 95% Black, you have a high school called Ben Franklin. Why does that school not reflect the name of the people that live in that community? So here you have a 15-, 16-year-old boy trying to change the name of his high school to Malcolm X, because that reflected the people that lived in that community.

AMY GOODMAN: Lydia Barashango, the only sister of Mumia Abu-Jamal, headed to New York today for a major protest that is taking place today on Wall Street. And right now we are joined by Safiya Bukhari, and she is co-chair of the Mumia Abu-Jamal Support Committee that is here in New York. In the background, you’re hearing the sounds of protest not of today, because that protest hasn’t quite taken place today, but of about a year ago, when Mumia Abu-Jamal first went to court after he had been on death row for more than a decade.

PROTESTERS: They say death row! We say hell no! They say death row! We say hell no!

AMY GOODMAN: Now, these were the sounds outside the courtroom when Mumia Abu-Jamal was in court, a thousand strong, and it, in fact, disrupted the court proceedings. Safiya Bukhari, what do we expect to see here in New York? And why Wall Street?

SAFIYA BUKHARI: Well, we expect to see thousands of people from all over the country and from around the world. And we’re going to Wall Street because, to us, that after going to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., that we felt that we needed to take it into the belly of the beast, which is the financial capital of the world, Wall Street. And dealing with the demands that we are talking about here today, we’re talking about stopping the frame-up of Mumia Abu-Jamal and getting a new trial, end the racist death penalty, stopping police brutality, freeing all political prisoners, dismantling the prison-industrial complex and ending the war on the poor. All of that, you can go right to Wall Street and find all of that, because it’s the racism and greed of these wealthy people and wealthy corporations on Wall Street that cause the suffering of the poor. And with everything that’s going on, with the new welfare rights bill, with the new death penalty acts passed by the Congress and Clinton and everything else, the Wall Street, it keeps going on.

And one of the things that we recognize clearly is that when we talk about the sufferings of the poor, we talk about the homelessness, we talk about all of that, those are the issues that Mumia dealt with. Those are the reasons why Mumia is on death row, because of speaking out against police brutality, speaking out against the war on the poor. And so, we’ve got to take it back to the source, back to Wall Street, to the financial capital of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Who’s coming today? We know that members of Mumia’s family will be there. But what about people from other parts of the country and the world?

SAFIYA BUKHARI: Yes, Father Berrigan is going to be there, members of Rage Against the Machine, members of the college campuses of all over the country, people from Hawaii, people from France and Japan and — oh, and talk about Japan.

AMY GOODMAN: I hear a busload from Kent State is coming.

SAFIYA BUKHARI: Oh, a busload, and three busloads from Vermont, two busloads from — and vans and everything from North Carolina.

AMY GOODMAN: California?

SAFIYA BUKHARI: People are coming, because this is an issue that when we talk about all of those demands, it centers on the same thing. We have to stop this death penalty. We have to stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. And in doing that, we have to educate people about what the real situation is in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us a little background on what’s happening now in the courts. We know about Veronica Jones, the witness who came forward only about a month ago and said that she was forced to give wrong testimony during Mumia Abu-Jamal’s trial, that in fact she had seen two people running from the scene, and those two people couldn’t have been Mumia because he had been shot.

SAFIYA BUKHARI: Well, Judge Sabo decided that her testimony was not believable, you know, because of who she is and even though she was the same person she was in 1982 when she testified for the state, but now that the fact that she was clean and sober for the first time made her uncredible, and she was testifying for the defense. Anyway, he decided it’s not believable and wouldn’t add it to the PCR, what the Supreme Court is listening, hearing and is supposed to hear in January. And we are expecting they’ll come down with a decision in January about whether or not Mumia should have a new trial. And we’re not hopeful that the Supreme Court will do the right thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, they could also decide just to hear oral arguments.

SAFIYA BUKHARI: They could decide to hear, but we don’t anticipate that. But if they do, we’re prepared for that. If not, we’re prepared — that Ridge can sign a new death warrant and —

AMY GOODMAN: The governor of Pennsylvania.

SAFIYA BUKHARI: Governor of Pennsylvania. And then we’ll be back on phase two and trying to stop the execution all over again.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Mumia has got support from, in fact, presidents and leaders around the world.


AMY GOODMAN: Who are some of those people?

SAFIYA BUKHARI: The president of France, the right-wing president of France, is adamantly opposed to the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal —

AMY GOODMAN: Jacques Chirac.

SAFIYA BUKHARI: — because he hasn’t received a fair trial. Nelson Mandela has written to the president. People have been writing, and the Japanese Diet and everybody has been writing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Safiya Bukhari, co-chair of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition. Here, major protest is going to be on Wall Street today. And, folks, if you want to find out about Mumia Abu-Jamal, you can just go to the web — well, you can, instead of giving you a website, just —

SAFIYA BUKHARI: Just search.

AMY GOODMAN: Put in his name, right, and you can just search with Yahoo or AltaVista, and you’ll get many of the websites that deal with his case.

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