LectureHop: Live from Death Row
Written by Bwog Staff
Last night, Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Lucha, and nine other student organizations organized Live From Death Row: Mumia at the Crossroads in the Age of Obama, a massive conference on one of America’s most famous death row inmates. Bwog’s Questionable Incarcerations Bureau Chief Jon Edelman was in attendance.
This was the rare moment of academic urgency. While the object of last evening’s event, as described by moderator Professor Johanna Fernandez, was to place Mumia Abu-Jamal in the context of a political moment of change that has failed to deliver complete justice, it was impossible to forget that, at every moment, his life was hanging in the balance.
Abu-Jamal, a writer and activist, was sentenced to death for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1982. Ever since, questions of race and legality and Abu-Jamal’s possible innocence have complicated his sentence, with many calling for a new trial. Despite a brief escape of his death sentence, a recent court decision this past January has placed Abu-Jamal in danger of execution once more. In this context, last night’s event was not so much a conference, as a rally of individuals convinced of the man’s innocence and galvanizing his supporters for further action.
The first speaker was Pam Africa, a member of MOVE, a largely black back-to-nature movement in Philadelphia. Africa called on supporters to “organize as [they’ve] never organized before,” citing several examples of what can be achieved by successful organization. She left the stage to cheers and chants of “Ain’t no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people don’t stop!”
Africa was followed by Jamal Joseph, Chairman of the Columbia School of Art’s Film Division. Joseph told the story of his own involvement with the Black Panthers, and introduced two children from his Impact Repertory Company, who performed a piece called “Frankenstein.” Although not explicitly linked to Abu-Jamal, the piece was powerful, reflecting anger about America’s mistreatment of its African-American youth. Joseph was interrupted, however, by Abu-Jamal himself, calling from Death Row.
Although the climactic moment was dampened somewhat by technical difficulties with the phone line, the room erupted as Abu-Jamal’s first words–“How’s everybody?”, came through. Despite the call’s relative brevity, and repeated interruptions by automated messages from the correctional facility, Abu-Jamal spoke composedly and eloquently on a number of subjects, including justice in the Age of Obama–“there’s still torture happening, you still have the machinery of repression … we still live in … the new Jim Crow of the criminal justice system.” Abu-Jamal’s words both carried an important message, and humanized the matter at hand.
The following speaker was Trinity College Historian Vijay Prashad, who described Abu-Jamal as a symbol of the dehumanization made permissible by power. Linking Abu-Jamal to the multitudes living in slums all over the world, Prashad vigorously criticized the power structures that allow humans to be perceived as disposable, and urged the movement onward, not only for Abu-Jamal, but for people everywhere.
Similarly broad was the speech by the night’s final speaker and main draw, Princeton Professor Cornel West. West seemingly linked Abu-Jamal’s case to every injustice in the news, from corporate welfare to privacy violations to torture. The speech was wild and tangential and captivating, and the final portion was drowned out by a standing ovation. Again, the attendees were left chanting: “Brick by brick!/Wall by wall!/We’re gonna free Mumia Abu-Jamal!”
The conference did little more than to stress that Obama has not magically eliminated injustice. Nor did it explain much about what is in store for Abu-Jamal, legally speaking. But it was a powerful event, and kept the case of Abu-Jamal from growing dry and rusty – kept it alive and active.