Echoes Of A Soledad Brother: The White Shadow Now Over Mumia Abu-Jamal

by Todd Steven Burroughs

Mumia Abu Jamal is out of death row but consigned to the twilight zone – or purgatory – of administrative custody placement, a status that seems to mean whatever prison officials say it means. “His transfer to general population, where he would have contact visits, access to prison services and programs, etc.—has been, uh, delayed.” Abu Jamal’s incarceration “echoes” that of George Jackson, shot down by guards 40 years ago...

Echoes Of A Soledad Brother: The White Shadow Now Over Mumia Abu-Jamal

by Todd Steven Burroughs

Mumia’s problems at this writing are just beginning, his story far from finished.”

John Henrik Clarke, our Pan-Africanist historian (and historical) Ancestor, is known for the following quote: “History is a clock that people use to tell their political and cultural time of day. It is also a compass that people use to find themselves on the map of human geography. History tells a people where they have been and what they have been, where they are and what they are. Most important, history tells a people where they still must go, what they still must be. The relationship of history to the people is the same as the relationship of a mother to her child.” The quote of his that I also remember, though, is less known and, perhaps, more obvious: “All history is current events.”

History continues to flow around Mumia Abu-Jamal, who “celebrated” his 30th anniversary of incarceration this past December by suddenly being removed from Death Row. And, sadly, as a result of this “victory,” his problems at this writing are just beginning, his story far from finished. There are stark echoes and painful fears not talked about in polite company. A politically uncompromising Black Panther inmate in general population. A book. A voice. A movement. Murder by the State. George Jackson, who was cut down 40 years ago this past August.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and Maureen Faulkner—the widow of the slain police officer Daniel Faulkner, who Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing in a controversial trial criticized around the world—finally gave up their lethal injection fantasy after giving a hard look at both the small number of executions Pennsylvania had carried out since the death penalty returned to America’s legal system and the long appeals process before the DA could empanel a new jury to reinstitute Abu-Jamal’s death sentence. When the U.S. Supreme Court let them down last October, refusing without comment to hear the DA’s petition to re-instate death, the appeal limbo threatened to last longer than most of them would. Why, Abu-Jamal, a vegetarian who turns 58 this April, was well on the way to outliving Maureen Faulkner and the still-remaining Water Buffalos of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police! “Our best remaining option is to let Mr. Abu-Jamal die in prison,” said District Attorney Seth Williams, a member of the “new,” post-civil rights era generation of African-American leadership. (The kind who activist Oldheads, under their breaths, would call a new generation of buck-dancing bootlickers. Williams is a Black First—Philadelphia’s first African-American District Attorney. Which meant, of course, that he actively solicited the support of the FOP, an openly racist organization most Philly Blacks despise.) He, she, and all the forces against Abu-Jamal made this announcement on Dec. 6, two days before the 30th anniversary of the controversial shooting. So, once again, the racist anti-Abu-Jamal forces turn a victory into a defeat. For a Black man convicted of killing a white man, life is never enough.

Our best remaining option is to let Mr. Abu-Jamal die in prison,” said District Attorney Seth Williams.”

Maureen Faulkner, the incessantly Weeping Widow, raged against the incredibly successful Black radical journalistic and nonfiction machine Abu-Jamal has built in prison over the last 20 years or so (1,000+ opinion pieces printed and broadcast around the world, seven books and counting), characterizing it (correctly) as a “cottage industry.” (Abu-Jamal and his activist-media “syndicate,” Prison Radio, should be pleased with that unintentional, public compliment.) She said she was satisfied that the former president of the Association of Black Journalists of Philadelphia would spend the rest of his life locked up. “Rest assured, I will now fight with every ounce of energy I have to see that Mumia Abu-Jamal receives absolutely no special treatment when he is removed from death row. I will not stand by and see him coddled as he had been in the past, and I am heartened by the thought that he will finally be taken from the protected cloister he has been living in all these years and begin living among his own kind—the thugs and common criminals that infest our prisons.”

I laughed out loud reading the article on my ancient flip-phone. “Protected cloister?” From what Mumia once called isolation so deep that he was without “even the sonic presence of people?” And “living among his own kind - the thugs and common criminals that infest our prisons?” They are never gonna get it, I smirked. The idea of Abu-Jamal in general population, writing articles on a computer while organizing and educating Black incarcerated youth, excited the hell out of me. (With apologies to Wilbert Rideau, can you imagine the internationally read prison newspaper he could—and probably would—create? And if he could have Internet access…) Talk about a silver lining! No new hearing about how the trial sentencing was flawed—no less authoritative a source than the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia reaffirmed that fact!—but a new, relative “freedom.”

Ah, but then The State of Pennsylvania stepped in. The one that prohibited all recording material to be brought into state prisons after Abu-Jamal was on HBO in 1996. The one that pulled his phone out the socket when he was on “Democracy Now!” live in 1999. That State. Abu-Jamal leaves a cell at SCI Greene where he is alone for 23 hours a day—for solitary in SCI Mahanoy! (Redundant, ain’t it?) The mid-January Mumia, Inc. activist talking points circulating around the Web: “He is shackled whenever he is outside his cell, even to shower. He is shackled around his ankles, waist and wrist – unable to walk freely. He is shackled while behind Plexiglas during visits. He is subject to strip searches before and after visits that are limited to one hour per week. Phone call privileges have also been reduced. He was forced to leave all personal belongings at SCI-Greene. He has only bits of paper to write on, with a rubber flex pen. The number of stamps and envelopes he can use is greatly limited, and his commissary privileges have been revoked. He is also barred from having a television, typewriter or radio in his cell, which has no electrical outlet. Access to personal possessions such as books is also severely limited. These conditions are worse than [those he had on] death row.” Worse than Death Row? Only in America, because only Americans can innovate that well.

He has only bits of paper to write on, with a rubber flex pen.”

So now he sits, without his typewriter—an item painfully won after decades of blisters on his fingers from writing everything, including his master’s thesis, by hand. Swallowed by a new white hole—a bookless, typewriter-less, radio-less limbo. His transfer to general population, where he would have contact visits, access to prison services and programs, etc.—has been, uh, delayed.

Sankofa. Linn Washington Jr. reminds us that Abu-Jamal had to wage legal warfare to write from prison. “A federal appeals court in 1998 stated Abu-Jamal had a First Amendment right to write while imprisoned. That ruling derailed efforts by detractors to bar Abu-Jamal’s writing. Legal experts familiar with Abu-Jamal’s plight say some of those current Administrative Custody restrictions – particularly those blocking his ability to write – arguably violate that 1998 appeals court ruling.” Will he have to fight all over again for that right, as he did after publishing his first book? (The last column I got from him was “Of Idiots—and Sages,” dated Jan. 11: One day, perhaps sooner than we suppose, we shall look back at the phenomenon of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex as proof of a mad society.”) Those who are committed to his public voice better speak out right now.

This new confinement, Washington reminds, is just the latest example of the prison system re-writing its own rules for Abu-Jamal. “Abu-Jamal does not meet any of the 11 specific circumstances listed in Pennsylvania Department of Corrections regulations for justifying administrative custody placement,” explains the veteran journalist, who is following “the ever-changing rationales prison authorities advance for keeping Abu-Jamal in AC.” At deadline time, the prison officials’ demands included that he give blood and cut his dreadlocks, the latter a recycled excuse from the 1980s and 1990s. The hair issue Washington views suspiciously, since it took prison authorities five weeks to offer it. Pennsylvania studies its prisoners well: only folks who have followed this case for years know that, early on in his sentence, Abu-Jamal, a follower of the MOVE Organization, spent eight years under disciplinary action on Death Row because he refused to cut his dreads.

Abu-Jamal does not meet any of the 11 specific circumstances listed in Pennsylvania Department of Corrections regulations for justifying administrative custody placement.”

Abu-Jamal’s new residence has no comment on the clampdown. Richard Prince’s “Journal-isms” column got a brief response from Sue Bensinger, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, about Abu-Jamal’s present status: “I'm not going to discuss in detail one particular inmate….We just house them. We just care for whatever the court sends us.”

So what happens when Abu-Jamal wins his “freedom?” How “free” will he be, being transferred from Death Row in a maximum security prison to general population in a medium security one? Free to write and organize for the rest of his life, or free to be an open target, no longer in the “protected cloister” of Death Row?

History doesn’t repeat itself, according to a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain, but it does rhyme. “Around the middle of February [1970], I picked up The Los Angeles Times and noticed on the front page a large photograph of three very striking Black men,” writes Angela Davis in her classic Autobiography. “Their faces were serene and strong, but their waists were draped in chains. Chains bound their arms to their sides and chains shackled their legs. ‘They are still trying to impress upon us that we have not yet escaped from bondage.’ I thought. Angry and frustrated, I began to read the story. It was about Soledad Prison…Soledad is the Spanish word for solitude. Solitude Prison—this name seemed to expose what the prison was trying to hide…The L.A. Times article reported the indictment of George Jackson, John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo for the murder of a guard at Soledad Prison. An entire month had elapsed since the killing took place….During the next days, I kept thinking of the faces of those brothers. Three beautiful virile faces pulled out of the horrible anonymity of prison life.” So she was pulled into the fight.

And thus it went, first as day-to-day activism, just another case. But George Jackson was not like most people, even for the 1960s. Imprisoned for one year to life (!) for allegedly stealing $70 from a gas station, he had transformed into a literate, highly disciplined revolutionary. He helped to establish a branch of the Black Panther Party, and began to write letters to family and friends about his evolution. This open activism, Davis and others believed, led to the frame-up of the trio who became known as the Soledad Brothers.

Jackson had transformed into a literate, highly disciplined revolutionary.”

Jackson wrote the following to Davis after seeing each other for the first time, in court. Anyone who has ever studied Abu-Jamal’s case hears Jackson’s story echoing the collective African-American past and Abu-Jamal’s present.

I am certain that they plan to hold me incommunicado….They hate us, don't they? I like it that way {;} that is the way it's supposed to be. If they didn't hate me I would be doing something very wrong, and then I would have to hate myself. I prefer it this way. I get little hate notes in the folds of my newspaper almost every day now. You know, the racist stuff, the traditional ‘Dear nigger’ stuff, and how dead I am going to be one day. They think they're mad at me now, but it's nothing compared to how it will be when I really get mad myself. . . .

They're killing niggers again down the tier, all day, every day. They are killing niggers and "them protesters" with small workings of mouth…. As an historian you know how long and how fervently we've appealed to these people to take some of the murder out of their system, their economics, their propaganda. And as an intelligent observer you must see how our appeals were received. We've wasted many generations and oceans of blood trying to civilize these elements over here. It cannot be done in the manner we have attempted it in the past. Dialectics, understanding, love, passive resistance, they won't work on an activistic, maniacal, gory pig. It's going to grow much worse for the Black male than it already is, much, much worse. We are going to have to be the vanguard, the catalyst, in any meaningful change….

“…..I am not too certain about my generation. There are a few, and with these few we will keep something. But we have altogether too many pimps and punks, and Black capitalists (who want a piece of the putrescent pie). There's no way to predict. Sometimes people change fast. I've seen it happen to brothers overnight. But then they have to learn a whole new set of responses and attack reflexes which can't be learned overnight. So cats like me who have no tomorrows have to provide examples. I have an ideal regarding tomorrow, but I live an hour at a time, right in the present, looking right over my nose for the trouble I know is coming….”

Letters like this were collected into a book, Soledad Brother. It established Jackson as one of the great Black revolutionary thinkers of his day. As the decades progressed, it was seen as a classic in the Africana Studies and prison literature genres. But it didn’t save Jackson from being murdered under very questionable circumstances by the end of the year. Only days after a second collection of letters, Blood In My Eye, was compiled to be published, prison guards shot Jackson in the courtyard in August of 1971. Prison authorities said Jackson was shot because he was attempting to escape. The historian Walter Rodney put it succinctly: “He died at the hands of the enemy.”

Soledad Brother established Jackson as one of the great Black revolutionary thinkers of his day.”

Davis, from The Autobiography: “Then I was left with the radio. All day long one station broadcast readings from George’s book, and the all-news station began to develop the preposterous story that George had smuggled a bulky pistol, hidden under a wig, from the visiting area to the Adjustment Center, the most heavily guarded section of San Quentin…”

Davis was forever changed. “George’s death would be like a lodestone, a disc of steel deep inside me, magnetically drawing toward it the elements I needed to stay strong and fight all the harder. It would refine my hatred of jailers, position my contempt for the penal system, and cement my bonds with other prisoners. It would give me the courage and energy I needed for a sustained war against the malevolent racism that had killed him. He was gone, but I was here. His dreams were mine now.”

y circumstances mirrored Davis’ in only one way: the first time I really paid attention to Mumia Abu-Jamal was also because of a newspaper. The first of his columns I ever read was in a New York Black newspaper in 1994. (It caught my eye because it was a tribute to Joe Rainey, a Black radio broadcaster who was an important voice of Black Philadelphia in the 1960s and 1970s. Rainey had recently died. Abu-Jamal took the occasion to recall his brief time on Rainey’s air as a teenage Black Panther Party member.) I had no idea this broadcaster and columnist was practicing multimedia journalism, by hand, from a Pennsylvania Death Row cell he said was the size of a bathroom. That changed as the year progressed. The Source, a national monthly periodical that calls itself “the magazine of hip-hop music, culture and politics,” carried a well-written feature on Abu-Jamal’s case. I quoted the article in a column about him for a national Black newspaper wire service, and moved on. But in 1995, the following year, Abu-Jamal, whose commentaries came to me via audio cassette tape, was thrust into the international scene. Two events captured the media’s attention in Europe and America. The book Live From Death Row, his first, was published. The second—a death sentence that was suspended days before doomsday—quickly followed.

Time merged then to now, using its deceptive speed. That’s because no matter how slow it is, it seems faster when you become older and grayer. From Reagan to Obama, the electric chair to lethal injection, newsprint to iPads, books to Kindles, from boomboxes and cassettes to downloads and smartphones—the long progression of Abu-Jamal’s smooth, clear but imprisoned baritone. His revolutionary, always-resisting example has happily reminded us of Jackson’s while we now openly fear that both scribes, Soledad (solitary) brothers separated by age and time but not by historical memory, will become first partners in blood and then, ultimately, twin fading echoes.

The world has changed dramatically since Noelle Hanrahan and Jennifer Beach recorded and photographed Abu-Jamal that first time more than 15 years ago. And continues to change: We are now in the paradoxical situation of being concerned about the safety of a Black inmate who is now off of Death Row in a medium security prison. History tells a people where they still must go, what they still must be. So let’s retire the “Free Mumia” puppets and stand fast—ready to fight for life, not just against the death penalty. Jonathan Jackson, George’s younger brother, gave us the rainbow sign; no more songs or poems, crowbars next time!

Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies at Morgan State University. He is writing a journalistic biography of Mumia Abu-Jamal. He is featured in the upcoming documentary feature film, “Long-Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal.”