55 Years Ago this week Pacfica’s first station KPFA first took to the airwaves in Berkeley in order to give voice to the voiceless. Today we go to inside the prison walls to speak with the often censored death row journalist Mumia Abu Jamal. We spoke with him by phone from the San Francisco office of the Prison Radio Project. [includes rush transcript]
This week marks the 55th anniversary of the Pacifica Radio Network. And it all began just a short distance from where we are broadcasting today in San Francisco, California. Last night in Berkeley, the home of Pacifica Radio, hundreds of people gathered for an event to mark the occasion. Democracy Now! is here broadcasting from the Bay area, where we have just kicked off a 70 city tour to mark the release of our new book “The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers and the Media That Love Them.” Over the coming weeks, Democracy Now! will be broadcasting from cities and communities across the country, highlighting independent media outlets and community media. To kick off today’s program, we turn to a story Democracy Now! has covered extensively over the years and that is the case of Death Row prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal.
Abu Jamal has been on death row for 20 years after being convicted in 1982 of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. A journalist, Black Panther, MOVE member, and outspoken critic of police brutality, racism and the death penalty, Mumia Abu Jamal has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence.
In addition to being the home of Pacifica Radio, California’s Bay area is also home to the Prison Radio Project, which for years has served as the primary way Mumia Abu Jamal has gotten his voice to the outside world. The group regularly records his dispatches and distributes them to radio stations across the country. Since 1996, Mumia Abu Jamal’s commentaries have aired regularly on Democracy Now! His latest book has just been released. It is called “We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party,” which is part autobiography, part historical analysis.
Well, shortly after we got into town here in San Francisco, we stopped by the Prison Radio Project and while we were there, Mumia called in from death row in Pennsylvania. We were able to speak with him for only 15 minutes, when the phone line cut off.
- Mumia Abu-Jamal, speaking from death row.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu Jamal has been on death row for more than 20 years. Yesterday at 3:00, he phoned in to the Prison Radio Project. We were able to speak with him for only 15 minutes until the line was cut off.
AMY GOODMAN: Hello?
COMPUTER VOICE: You have a collect call from — Mumia Jamal. An inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Greene. This call is from a correctional institution and is subject to monitoring and recording. Custom calling features are not allowed during this conversation. The cost for this call is — $4.35 for the first minute and 59 cents for each additional minute. If you do not wish to accept this call, please hang up now. To accept the call, press zero. Thank you for using Verizon Select Services Incorporated. Go ahead with your call.
AMY GOODMAN: Hello, Mumia?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Hello.
AMY GOODMAN: Hi, this is Amy Goodman.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Hello, Amy, how are you?
AMY GOODMAN: Very good. Welcome to the airwaves of Democracy Now!.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, welcome to hell.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re still on death row, even though a judge more than two years ago, federal judge Yohn, says that you had to be resentenced within 180 days. He overturned the death penalty or you would be given life in prison. Why are you still there?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, it’s something called an operation of law, the Commonwealth appealed virtually immediately, and that acted as a stay upon the judge’s order, so it’s — almost as if there was no order at all.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what it’s like where you are?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, it isn’t really difficult because it’s the same as it was (laughs) before, you know. I’m still on death row, and in every sense of the word. I’m a death row unit and I’m in a death row cell surrounded by guys, about 24 on a pod on death row, and you know, 22 and 2 as the saying goes. 22 hours in, and if you want to go out, two hours out.
AMY GOODMAN: 55 years ago today at exactly this time on April 15, 1949, the conscientious objector, Lou Hill, the founder of Pacifica Radio, went on the air for the first time and welcomed people to a new station, KPFA, to a noble experiment that pioneered independent media in this country. Can you talk about how you get your voice out, the role of the independent press, as we have this conversation on the 55th anniversary of Pacifica Radio?
COMPUTER VOICE: This call is from a correctional institution, and is subject to monitoring and recording.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, it’s probably very close to how you do it. I probably have considerably less resources, obviously, and — in both senses, but you wonder about the people that aren’t being heard and you listen for their voices. You listen for the people who call for help and are not heard. The people who are powerless. The people who are closest, really, to you and me. Average people. Most, as you — I think very ably reported in your new book, most journalists really cater to the powerful. You know, they go to these dinners, you know, $100 a plate, $200 a plate. I think the one where you were given the Indonesian Award was $1,500 a plate. Come on. I mean, there’s adequate press for those kinds of things, and those kinds of people. There really isn’t adequate press for the people without power, the people without influence, the people who are walking in the streets. The people who are terrified of losing their job or anxious about getting a job, or fearing being kicked out of the house or living in a cage in a prison, you know. And those are the people who really go unheard, unseen. Unappreciated. They’re the people who are constantly at war for survival, and those are the voices, the human voices that must be heard.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal, you have written a new book, “We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party.” Before I ask you about your life in the Black Panther Party, which might well have played a role in your sentence to death — to the death penalty, I wanted to ask how you actually write your books. What is it like to write a book in prison?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Each one is really, I think, quite different. The first one, “Life on Death Row,” was written, virtually all of it, by hand. It was a collection of essays, really. And someone had approached me and asked about, you know, doing some writing about things that were interesting to me, and I was writing a series of essays, and Noelle Hanrahan just got together a bunch of them and said, “This would make a great book.” and I said, “Get out of here.” She really continued to fight and push and harangue, you know, that, this was a great idea. She was right. I never believed it was a great idea because, you know, I didn’t think it was such a big thing. I’m writing about average people, and it doesn’t seem like it’s anything extraordinary. Each book is kind of developed on their own, in their own way. Today, I might use a typewriter, but it’s a solo effort, and it’s done in a solitary, solemn situation. I just try to keep my eyes open and my ears open and to think about those stories that are untold. My last two, the one you just named and Faith of our Fathers before that, are my first works of history where instead of looking at present, I look at the past. Faith of our Fathers looked at, I think the last 500 years of African and African American spiritual life in the Americas. We Want Freedom looked at perhaps 30 years ago, the emergence and development of the Black Panther Party. Those are voyages into the past, into history.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your life in the Black Panther Party, how old were and what this view of the Black Panther Party is that you want to convey from prison?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, when I joined, I was —- I had just turned 15 or 14, I believe. I had the pleasure of serving not just in Philadelphia, but also in the Bronx in New York and in the National Office in Berkeley, right outside of Oakland in California. I met some really pretty remarkable people. In all of my readings, and I have read most, certainly not all, but most -—
COMPUTER VOICE: This call is from a correctional institution and is subject to monitoring and recording.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: We didn’t know that, right? I read most of the books about the Black Panther Party, and I felt, really, that important stories were not told. Most of them had to do with the women in the party, and there were women that wrote about their own experiences in the party, there was no one who wrote about average, less well known, everyday women who were members of the Black Panther Party who were really the soul and the spirit, you know, who — the backbone of the party. You know, everybody knows about Huey and everybody knows about Eldridge of course and if you talk about women, everybody will tell you about Kathleen and Elaine Brown. Everyday women really held that organization together. What the programs motivated people, went out into the community to do community work. You know, people like Sophia Bucari, and hundreds, thousands of other women who virtually remain nameless, and I — I guess that was the impetus to tell that story, and I hope I did it well.
AMY GOODMAN: Right now, Mumia Abu-Jamal, there’s a discussion after 9-11 whether there should be a domestic spy agency. You write about the empire striking back, that’s chapter 6, COINTELPRO. Can you talk about its effects?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well COINTELPRO, it was really, I think, the beginning of what was really facing — what we’re facing now. Everything that was illegal 30 years ago, the stealing of mail, the illegal break-ins, what they used to call in the FBI jargon, “black bag jobs.” All of those things were illegal back then. You know, the uses of informants and agency provocateurs to really destroy people’s organizations who were working for — I’m putting quotes up with my hands, “constitutional rights guaranteed bit first amendment.” All of those things were illegal. Many of the people who engaged in those acts on behalf of the government were warned by their supervisors, “if you get caught, you are going to jail.” These were FBI agents who were going around breaking into people’s houses, looking in their stuff and photographing stuff, and, you know, framing people. Everything. Well, that was illegal back then. But under the laws that have become law today, under the so-called Patriot Act, all of that becomes legal. You know. They can go in people’s houses. They are taping people’s phones. Accessing computers. Going through library records and — you know, building these files and infiltrating organizations, and all of these kinds of things. But it’s now under the protection of the so-called law. That’s — that’s obscene. You know, and it shows you the lengths that people will go when they’re motivated by fear. And I’ll never forget, I was watching BET shortly after the Patriot Act passed, and a respected black member of the House of Representatives got on TV and he said, you know, “I signed the law. Most of us in the house, we signed the bill, but I didn’t read it.” And I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I mean, the guy was saying, you know, “we were told we have to do it now, and we have to do it immediately,” and this is the time of the anthrax scares and all of that kind of stuff. They were so afraid of saying no, with the exception of Barbara Lee, you know, that they signed a law that essentially signed away, certainly, the Fourth Amendment, and, in some senses, the First Amendment, and, in another sense, the Sixth Amendment. You think about people who don’t have any representation of any means when the government can listen while you are talking to your lawyer. It’s obscene, and it shows you how fear, once again becomes the reigning principle in government, just as it was back during the COINTELPRO days and indeed, when you go back further to the Palmer Raid days, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. When fear reigns, rights go down the drain.
AMY GOODMAN: We have a few more minutes hopefully extended from that, but you wrote in “All Things Censored,” you have talked about your experience, for example, being on Democracy Now!, and having the authorities rip the phone out from the wall. Can you describe what it’s like to get word out?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: In many ways, especially when I think I have —
COMPUTER VOICE: This call is from a correctional institution and is subject to monitoring and recording.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: I was saying in many ways, especially when I think I have done a good commentary, a good story, it’s liberating, because you are sharing with people something that you think is important, and that may have a liberating effect or an enlightening effect on the people. Other ways, I’m never forget that experience to which you refer, because I remember, you know, I talked to some of your production people and you had me on hold for a minute. We got going and I got into it, and all of a sudden, the phone went dead. I was like, hello, hello? Hello? I thought it was like a technical problem, which sometimes happens. And I saw the guard, you know, just really — give me the phone. Give me the phone. I was like, “what’s up?” “Give me the phone!” And he wouldn’t tell me anything, but a group — I looked at the sergeant and he said, “look, I got a call from upstairs.” It’s as simple as that. That’s the only thing that I have heard.
COMPUTER VOICE: You have one minute left to talk.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia, I have to ask a question. will you be able to call back for another 15 minutes?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: No, the computer shuts down. After this call, I will not be able to call for another 24 hours anyone. Anywhere.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask — let me ask you one more question, many people ask you or ask why you haven’t openly denied that you killed the police officer. What is your response to that?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, the fact of the matter is, that’s not true. I have done that. I did it to the people where it mattered the most. I did it to the jury that I was in front of. I told them that I was innocent. That jury, the people who —
COMPUTER VOICE: You have 15 seconds left to talk.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: The 12 members of my jury who sentenced me to death, they heard that. They also heard the trial where I was essentially unrepresented.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal speaking from death row in Pennsylvania. At that point, the conversation cut off. This is Democracy Now!.