Mumia Abu Jamal on Democracy Now
In a Democracy Now! exclusive, Mumia Abu-Jamal phones in from the SCI Mahanoy prison in Frackville, Pennsylvania, where he is being held in general population after nearly 30 years on death row. Although he now lives in a bigger cell than what he calls the "small dog cage" of the last three decades, Mumia says his life sentence is akin to "a slow death row. It’s bigger in terms of the time differential, but it’s slow death row, to be sure." After having his death sentence overturned in late 2011, Abu-Jamal says he is determined to win his release from prison over allegations of racial bias and judicial misconduct in his conviction. "We want freedom," he says of the movement calling for his release. Supporters have long argued racism by the trial judge and prosecutors led to Abu-Jamal’s conviction. He notes that during his trial a court reporter overheard the judge in his case, Judge Albert F. Sabo, say in his chambers, "I’m going to help them fry the nigger." "This was heard by a court reporter, a member of the court staff, a court employee, and a person that is perhaps the best listener you could ever have for any conversation, because that’s her job," Abu-Jamal says. "We didn’t know about it until years later, but when we put this into our papers, our filings, it has been essentially ignored by every court it’s come in front of. How is that possible? And so, I mean, that’s certainly one indication, as you can see, one example of an unfair system."AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to interrupt the broadcast, because right now we have just gotten a call from Mumia Abu-Jamal from prison in Pennsylvania. Mumia Abu-Jamal is speaking to us for the first time no longer on death row.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, can you tell us where you are? Welcome to Democracy Now!
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Good morning, Amy. And good morning to Democracy Now! I am in the open room, the block out area of SCI Mahanoy, a prison in Schuylkill County in northeastern Pennsylvania.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mumia Abu-Jamal, can you say how the conditions there are different from the prison from which you were moved?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, in many ways, they’re similar. But in only in kind of dimension are they different. That is to say, everything is bigger. For nearly three decades, I was in what could be called a dog run or a small dog cage with one other fellow from death row. The difference between that and going to a cage, a yard that is about a mile wide with about 400 or 500 other men, is pretty profound.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal, can you talk about what your reaction is to be taken off of death row, to no longer have death hanging over you, but to be in jail for a life sentence without parole?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, you’ve kind of answered the question with your question. That is to say—
OPERATOR: This call is from the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy and is subject to monitoring and recording.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: You’ve probably heard me refer to life as "slow death row." It sounds a little dramatic, but it is really more truth to it than hyperbole. And that’s because, you know, in Pennsylvania, it has the highest population, or one of the highest populations, in the state, of lifers—in fact, juveniles with life sentences. And in Pennsylvania, there’s no gradation: you know, all lifers are lifers, and that’s for their whole life. So, and I guess, in that sense, too, it’s bigger. I mean, it’s bigger in terms of the time differential, but it’s slow death row, to be sure.
And when you see, as I’ve seen, going to chow or going to a meal and seeing what I call the "million man wheelchair march," it makes an impact on you. You know, you look up in the morning, and there are 30 or 40 guys going through the handicap line, and they’re in wheelchairs. And although some are young, most are quite old. And so, you know, life means life in Pennsylvania.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal, there was a protest at the Justice Department yesterday, Occupy the DOJ, A24, for your birthday, April 24th, as people there called for—called for the Department of Justice, the attorney general, to open a probe into your case. What do you want to happen in your case?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, as I said to our people there in Washington the other day, yesterday, frankly, we want freedom. I mean, I was thinking this morning, as I was being told that, you know, we could possibly talk to you, about a case that’s in the federal law books called U.S. v. Brown. The person is perhaps known better as Rap Brown or Gerold Brown. Imam Jamil is his name today. This is an old case, I think from the '70s, perhaps. But in this case, a federal case, the judge referred to Brother Jamil, at a golf course with other people around, as: "I'm going to help get rid of this nigger."
Think about that in the context of Judge Albert F. Sabo of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia, not saying it on a golf course among friends, but saying this in his chambers in the courthouse during a trial. "I’m going to help them fry the nigger." This was heard by a court reporter, a member of the court staff, a court employee, and a person that is perhaps the best listener you could ever have for any conversation, because that’s her job. She takes notes during trials for a living. Now, we didn’t know about it until years later, but when we put this into our papers, our filings, it has been essentially ignored by every court it’s come in front of. How is that possible? And so, I mean, that’s certainly one indication, as you can see, one example of an unfair system.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal, Danny Glover is here also to talk about your case.
DANNY GLOVER: Hello, Mumia.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Yes, Brother Danny. How are you?
DANNY GLOVER: How are you doing, brother?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Good, good, good, good. Good to hear your voice.
DANNY GLOVER: It’s good to hear you, as always. And I certainly would be—feel a lot better, be a lot better, if you were out of jail, not simply just off of death row.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Me and you both.
DANNY GLOVER: But certainly, I just want to tell you that—and I’m really emotional because I didn’t expect to hear your voice this morning—that we continue to struggle and will continue to struggle to fight for your release. We sent a letter to the attorney general, Holder, that we convene a meeting and the federal government use its own authority to investigate your case. And certainly, we—people are out here, and we love you, brother.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Thank you so much. I assure you I did not expect to hear your voice, either, and I’m pretty emotional about that. You are a hero, for the acting community and the arts community and the drama community and, of course, the black community, and, beyond that, the international community, for the work you've done in the arts. And I am as pleased as punch and thrilled to hear you there. Thank you. Thank you very much.
DANNY GLOVER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia, I think it’s interesting that you are talking to Danny Glover, who is currently playing Thurgood Marshall—that’s going to be coming out in an HBO series on Muhammad Ali—the Supreme Court justice.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: I think—I think Thurgood himself would get a real chuckle out of that. That’s wonderful. I mean, so—
DANNY GLOVER: Good, good.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: This is—you know, you’re—
DANNY GLOVER: Well, I’m looking forward to seeing you soon. All right, brother?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: We shall make that happen.
DANNY GLOVER: We will make that happen, OK. All right.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal, your access, outside of death row right now, to people, to the media, to the phone? You have had so much trouble reaching out over the years, though you have managed.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, if you recall, it’s been—it’s maybe 15 years, I think, since I last called your show. I was in conversation with you, perhaps 1996 or thereabouts, and the phone went dead. And I looked out of my cell, and I saw a guard come up and literally pull the wire out of the wall that connected the phone. And I remember saying, "Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?" And it was dead because there was no wire to connect us. So, as you can see, the wires are a little tighter now. But—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you sued—you sued the Pennsylvania prison authorities over them pulling out the phone from the wall when we were speaking on Democracy Now!
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Indeed, I did. And thanks to the efforts of some really brave and conscientious lawyers and judges, I won—at least most of the issues in that suit. Abu-Jamal v. Price I think was the name of the case.
OPERATOR: This call is from the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy and is subject to monitoring and recording.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: And thanks to that case, I was able to write and continue to, you know, be in contact with our people. So, I’m real glad he pulled that wire out the wall. That was very helpful.
AMY GOODMAN: Danny Glover, what do you think Thurgood Marshall would do in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal?
DANNY GLOVER: Well, surprisingly—no, not surprisingly, I think Thurgood Marshall would have been one of the few justices who would perhaps hear the case, would argue to hear the case, even though there were moments during the civil rights movement that Thurgood Marshall had even trouble with Martin Luther King and disagreed a great deal. But I think—I feel that he would be one who would want to hear the case. Thurgood Marshall—for nothing else, during those dark years in the ’30s and ’40s, Thurgood Marshall was there, before Brown v. Board of Education, fighting cases all the time of men who on death row who were about to have—for murder or for rape, all over the South, you know. We often know Thurgood Marshall from his work on Brown v. Board of Education, but clearly his work around inmates, around prisoners, around those who have been accused, accused falsely, and fighting for them was something he did all over the country.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m afraid we’re going to lose Mumia Abu-Jamal in a moment. Mumia Abu-Jamal, your thoughts on what Danny Glover just said about the Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, and also if you could comment on the Trayvon Martin case and the Occupy movement?
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, I would concur largely with, not surprisingly, Danny Glover’s remarks, because, you know, from what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, Justice Thurgood Marshall was not just a brilliant legal mind and not just a brilliant judge or jurist, he was an incredible lawyer who fought for people who were poor, who were dispossessed, who were powerless, in the apartheid South. And also because he was a black lawyer, his experiences in the South were such that not only were his clients endangered, but he himself was endangered. And many times he would be told that he had to leave town before nightfall, or he would face death. I mean, this was the American South in the middle 20th century.
The good thing about that, if there can be a good thing about such an experience, is that when he came to the Supreme Court, those experiences of being a defense lawyer of the poor and the dispossessed and those facing death, he was able to share with his fellow justices, because these were people, largely, who, let’s say, came from a completely different background. And I don’t mean racially; I mean class, and I also mean that many of them—most of them were not defense lawyers. They were either lower court judges, or some were legislators, and, you know, mostly they were prosecutors and so forth. So, he was able to expand their perspective of what the law really meant in the real world and—through his own life experiences. Now, I think he had a profound impact, if you really check it, on the former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. If you look at her early jurisprudence and then look at her later jurisprudence, I think it’s a direct effect of the influence of Thurgood Marshall.
As for Trayvon, the little boy who could have been the son of the President of the United States, when we look at what happened in that case, and in my—my real view is that, in a matter of weeks or months, or months, we may see an immunity hearing that will wipe out the charges completely, and Mr. Zimmerman will never see the inside of a prison.
As for the Occupy movement, I think it’s one of the greatest advances in the democracy movement in our modern period. And it’s pushed because of the economic crisis—
OPERATOR: You have 60 seconds remaining.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: It’s pushed because of the economic crisis that’s facing the United States and especially young people who have come out of college and have no hope for a job, have no hope for a future, have no hope for a life without terrifying, crippling loans over their heads. I think they did something wonderful, but it’s a first step. They have something else to do, something more important to do, and that’s to connect with other people’s movements around the country and—
OPERATOR: You have 30 seconds remaining.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: —and build a kind of resistance that can transform this country. I thank you all for these brief moments. I really do. Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal, happy birthday. Happy 58th birthday.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Oh, thank you. Thank you, Amy.
DANNY GLOVER: Happy birthday, Mumia.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Thank you, Danny.
DANNY GLOVER: OK.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: All the best. On a move.
DANNY GLOVER: See you soon.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: All right, brother.
DANNY GLOVER: All right.
AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal, speaking to us from SCI Mahanoy, the prison in Pennsylvania where he is no longer on death row. Are you still there, Mumia? His phone has been cut off at this point. Danny Glover, your thoughts right now as you sit down and hear Mumia Abu-Jamal speaking to you, no longer from death row?
DANNY GLOVER: Well, it’s a beginning, as he says. As he mentioned in terms of the Occupy movement, it’s a beginning. We have to find, by—as someone would say, by any means necessary, legally, to free—and collectively, as a community, not only in this country, but around the world, to free and to bring him home.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Danny Glover, your thoughts on Trayvon Martin and Mumia Abu-Jamal? We’ve just spoken to. Is the criminal justice system very different now than it was when Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted?
DANNY GLOVER: Certainly, it’s framed now in a different way. It is simply still the place. I know those places, and I visit those places Mumia talks about, where there is a wheelchair caravan of men who are serving life sentences. You take, for instance, Soledad State Prison in California. Forty percent of the prisoners there are on death—excuse me, on life sentences. And you take Vacaville, two places that I visited last year. Also 40 percent of the prisoners are life—lifers, as they’ve been calling them, lifers. So, the reality is that that has not changed. The course, from prisons to—from high school to communities to prison, is still the same course that has happened.
What is essentially—and we must be reminded that at the point that Mumia was charged with this crime—and certainly, there were a number of activities, the COINTEL program and other programs, to incite and not only to dismantle those movements and to dissuade young people from becoming progressive and radicalized in different ways within the community. So, here’s a journalist. And that’s what Mumia is first—
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
DANNY GLOVER: —is a journalist.
AMY GOODMAN: And then we'll continue off air.
DANNY GLOVER: He’s the person who is attacked—a journalist now, first—who’s attacked in here because of what he has to say.
AMY GOODMAN: Danny Glover, we want to thank you very much for being with us. We’re going to continue this conversation and post it online in a web