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Live From Death Row

by Mumia Abu-Jamal

(Review by David Gilbert)

"Perhaps we can shrug off and shred some of the dangerous myths laid on our minds like a second skin--such as ... the 'right[s]' to a fair trial even. They're not rights -- they're privileges of the powerful and rich .... Don't expect the media networks to tell you, for they can't, because of the[ir] incestuousness ... with government and big business ... I can. Even if I must do so from the valley of the shadow of death, I will. From death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal."

Setting the tone for the immediacy and hard-hitting reality of Live From Death Row. The author had been a member of the Black Panther Party as a youth, and later became a supporter of the radical M.O.V.E. organization. By 1981, Mumia Abu-Jamal was an award-winning journalist and an outspoken critic of police brutality in Philadelphia, when he was framed and railroaded to the death penalty for the murder of Police Officer Daniel Faulkner. Despite a plethora of injustices and legal irregularities in his case, Mumia is now stalked more closely than ever by execution. Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Ridge signed Mumia's death warrant on June 2nd, setting an execution date of August 17th, at 10:00 P.M.

As of October, 1994 there were 2,948 people locked in death rows in the U.S. Some 40 percent are African Americans, who constitute only 11 percent of the U.S. population. And the disparity based on the race of the victims which lives are or are not deemed valuable is even starker. Meanwhile the death penalty is exceedingly rare for anyone with money and resources no matter how heinous the crime.

Last year National Public Radio (NPR) contracted Mumia to do a series of recorded commentaries about life on death row and then, after intense political pressure, canceled them for "editorial reasons." Now, thanks to the publishing house Addison-Wesley, you can read for yourself what NPR censored. Live From Death Row is comprised of those commentaries along with several of Mumia's previously published essays. In addition, the book includes an insightful introduction by the acclaimed novelist, John Edgar Wideman, and an informative afterward by Mumia's attorney, Leonard Weinglass.

The invaluable heart is the raw power of Mumia's description and analysis. In my scores of book reviews over the years, I've never used the following phrase, so I don't use it lightly: this book is a must read. The government carefully shields its citizens from glimpsing any human qualities in the condemned and from learning of the glaring inequities as the justice system grinds forward with the most premeditated of serial murders. Mumia Abu-Jamal's eloquent writing lifts the shroud hiding some 2,948 souls inhabiting the netherworld of our death rows and thus exposes a darkness that sheds indispensable light for understanding our society as a whole. What is death row like?

Mix in solitary confinement, around-the-clock lock-in, no-contact visits, no prison jobs, no educational programs by which to grow, psychiatric "treatment" facilities designed only to drug you into a coma; ladle in hostile, overtly racist prison guards and staff; add the weight of the falling away of family ties, and you have all the fixings for a stressful psychic stew designed to deteriorate, to erode one's humanity ...

Pennsylvania's new death row maintains virtually around the clock solitary confinement, with a mere five hours a week for recreation in outside cages. For many, there is no psychological life. Mumia, always with a sharp eye for irony, notes that the prison permits the inmates TVs, which numb the mind, but not typewriters, which could be tools for legal liberation. Even family visits are turned into exercises in humiliation. In many states, non-contact visits are the rule, preventing the family and the condemned convict from touching. The denial of physical contact, along with all the other difficulties of making a visit, can atrophy emotional ties over time.

In addition to vivid, human detail on the conditions, Mumia challenges the broader politics of capital punishment. He shreds the pretense of "deterrence" by showing that the states that have led in executions have the highest murder rates. He provides a sobering example the systematic perjury of a medical examiner who provided key testimony in thousands of criminal cases of just how easy it is to condemn an innocent defendant to death. He dissects the McClesky v. Kemp (1987) decision where the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the data showing extreme racial disparity in the application of Georgia's death penalty but let it stand nonetheless. He sounds an alarm about the rapid march to eviscerate habeas corpus (the traditional right by which prisoners can bring constitutionally based challenges to their convictions before the federal courts).

Unlike other prisoners, " ... death row inmates are not 'doing time.' Freedom does not shine at the end of the tunnel. Rather, the end of the tunnel brings extinction. Thus, for many here, there is no hope."

But there are also many continuities. Indeed, while Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg's Life Sentences was so loudly promoted as providing the 'real story of inside prison,' Live From Death Row does a much better job. Mumia provides graphic examples of vicious beatings of inmates by guards, of psychological deterioration and suicides, and of medical neglect tantamount to attempted murder. Yet the perpetrators in the well-documented cases presented have not been indicted. As the author explains, "... words like 'justice,' law,' civil rights,' and, yes, 'crime' have different and elastic meanings depending on ... whether one works for the system or against it."

While these violent incidents are the most dramatic, Mumia maintains perspective in explaining that violence is not the pressing daily issue for most prisoners: 'The most profound horror of prisons lives in the day-to-day banal occurrences .... Prison is a second-by-second assault on the soul, a day-to-day degradation of the self, an oppressive steel and brick umbrella that transforms seconds into hours and hours into days."

The strength of Mumia's writing is best seen in his vivid descriptions of prison life and in his ability to always educe the human element, even in brief sketches. The broader political essays in this collection are also short and crisp, usually to spotlight one key point or to expose a glaring hypocrisy rather than to present a comprehensive analysis. Thus, "Musings on Malcolm" doesn't attempt a complete exegesis of his entire politics but does confront the latter-day efforts to water-down his message. Mumia forcefully reclaims the real Malcolm, the uncompromising scourge of American racism who died for the human rights of self-defense and self- determination. This book includes numerous other short essays on politics and criminal justice that are well worth reading: the pervasive national pattern underlying the infamous beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles; the danger, nonetheless, of the double jeopardy entailed in the federal retrial of the four police perpetrators who had been shamefully acquitted in a state trial; the sham behind the "get tough on crime" mania, which is a proven failure at reducing crime but a great success as a social program of public employment for a predominantly white sector of workers; the dark, repressive trend toward "Super Max" prisons in the U.S. with conditions of almost total lockdown and solitary confinement.

Mumia perspicaciously cautions against writing off today's youth as "a lost generation," as he outlines the social and cultural conditions to which they are responding and indicates the potential seeds for positive rebellion. "If they are lost, find them." His two pieces on Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party show a rare ability to appreciate both the brilliance and the shortcomings of the man. Mumia also brings back into focus the crucial role the murders of 38 Panthers played in destroying the party and makes an impassioned appeal to revive the Panther Party 10-point social program:

The very conditions that gave rise to the party in the 1960's brutal cops, racist courts, ineffective education, joblessness and the like still plague our people to this day.

The release of Live From Death Row ignited a public controversy. The same forces who generated the pressure to cancel the NPR series the Policemen's Benevolent Associations and Officer Faulkner's widow (who understandably is antagonistic to the man she believes killed her husband) tried to stop publication of this book. They protest that murderers should not be allowed to profit from the notoriety of their crimes. The only counterpoints acknowledged in the mainstream media are the right to free speech and the interest of writings about death row.

As happens so often, the terms of debate turn reality on its head. It was not the notoriety of the case that created, spanking-new, a broadcast or publishing opening for Mumia. He was an award-winning journalist and had already appeared on NPR before the 1981 incident occurred. It was precisely his articulate voice for the African-American community and his sharp critique of police brutality that made Mumia a target of police harassment and attack. The result was Dec. 9, 1981, when Mumia was gravely wounded and beaten and then unscrupulously framed for murder despite several witnesses who saw the actual shooter flee.

The armies that occupy the ghettos and barrios can't abide an effective tribune for human rights and Black self-determination. They tried to kill Mumia to silence him in 1981; they are trying to kill Mumia to silence him today. This vibrant human being, with his robust voice for freedom, must live.

To demand that the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal be stopped, call or fax:

1. Governor Thomas Ridge, (717) 787-2500; FAX (717) 783-3369.

2. Presiding Judge, The Honorable Legrome Davis, Chair of the PCPRA (which hears the petition to set aside the death penalty) (215) 686-9534; FAX:(215) 686-2865

To contact Mumia's Defense Committee: Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal P. O. Box 19709, Philadelphia, PA 19143 (215) 476-8812.

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