Personal Panopticons / by Jeff Hunt


MUMIA ABU-JAMAL is one of the more famous prisoners in America, and whether or not you have an opinion regarding his guilt or innocence – and an awful lot of people do – it is impossible to deny that he has become a lightning rod to which opponents and proponents of the death penalty are inexorably drawn. Furthermore, Mumia has made a peculiar entry into popular culture, as musicians, rappers, artists and filmmakers flock to the mere mention of his name. While it’s tempting to resort to cynicism when rock stars get politicized, there is a genuine wave of support for a reevaluation of Mumia’s case and trial, and one can only assume that he welcomes whatever help he can get. Finally, beneath all of the trans-media bluster, there is the man himself, a concise, soft-spoken former journalist from Philadelphia who, in both print and audio recordings, has put forth numerous essays, articles, and poems on everything from the state and efficacy (or lack thereof) of the US prison system and institutionalized poverty, to the social obligations and responsibilities of rap music. The aural documents, in particular, are of pronounced significance, as reporters are no longer allowed access to the death-row cellblock where Mumia is confined.

The incidents surrounding Mumia Abu-Jamal’s arrest, trial, and conviction are, obviously, a point of contention; they’re also a matter of public record that any interested party can readily research at length on the Internet. The abbreviated version: In 1981, Mumia was arrested for the slaying of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner during a routine traffic stop; Mumia was convicted of first-degree murder sentenced to death. He maintains his innocence. From a mainstream perspective, Mumia was a controversial figure. He had an extended background in far-left politics; he had been a member of the Black Panther party; he was a print and radio journalist for a number of radical outlets; and he was prolifically active in Philadelphia’s African-American community. The prosecution presented as evidence a confession, which Mumia claimed was fraudulent. The gun used in the crime clearly belonged to Mumia, and he was wearing a holster when arrested. His appeal was heard by the Third Circuit Court, but refused by the United States Supreme Court. He awaits execution.

Mumia’s background as an author and journalist helped galvanize support for his predicament. He has written several books while incarcerated: Death Blossoms: Reflections from a Prisoner of Conscience is an examination of his own spirituality and religiosity. All Things Censored delves into issues of prison and punishment. We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party is both a history of the group and first-person autobiography. As international interest has swelled, organizations including Amnesty International, the NAACP, and Human Rights Watch have advocated on his behalf. The liberal schools Antioch College and Evergreen State College attempted to have him deliver their commencement addresses. An HBO film, Abu Jamal: A Case For Reasonable Doubt questioned the circumstances surrounding his conviction. 

Authors and academics such as Howard Zinn, Alice Walker and Cornel West have rallied support for Mumia. In the realm of pop culture, he has become a cause célèbre. Artists that have called attention to him in song include KRS One, Snoop Dogg, Rage Against the Machine, and Massive Attack; UK provocateurs Chumbawamba inserted a “Free Mumia” chorus into a performance of their hit “Tubthumping” on Late Night with David Letterman. Still, the cogent recordings are those featuring Mumia himself. Mumia Abu-Jamal/Man Is The Bastard (1997) is inventive project that combines spoken-word pieces with music, sound bytes, and cut-up electronic pastiche. All Things Censored (1998) is a more direct series of verbal essays, salvaged from a debacle in which National Public Radio’s All Things Considered program caved to censorship. The best of the lot is 175 Progress Drive (2002), in which Mumia recounts his experiences, and examines topics of art, politics, and social justice with reason, humor, and quiet aplomb.

Again, the specific matter of guilt or innocence is – or should be, in an optimal, rosy-hued world – a matter for the courts. But as incendiary epithets like “cop killer” are lobbed rather than dispassionate verdicts, the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal merits close and objective consideration. This nation’s ethical posture and moral equity continue to sag and devaluate beneath the weight of Guantanamo Bay, the dodging of the Geneva Convention, state-sanctioned disregard for habeas corpus, and general, blithe indifference as breathing human beings are whisked away and deposited in concrete sarcophaguses in Florence, Colorado. While we shuffle collectively through the corridors of our own, digitized Panopticons, poking obliviously at our iPhones in slow-zombie mode, it’s worth stopping for a moment of lucidity. Regardless of guilt or innocence, Mumia Abu-Jamal is a thoughtful, informed scholar, and he’s providing a reasoned, clarified voice to an international discourse about the fundamental nature of imprisonment, punishment, and justice. In short, he’s making a valuable contribution to our fragile global détente, and that alone negates the basic justifications for the death penalty. In a world in which we all bear a degree of indirect yet culpable responsibility for clandestine torture, bogus jurisprudence, and unprincipled captivity, maybe there’s a broad objective more important than vengeance and retribution: dialogue.


Jeff Hunt
Atlanta, Georgia