Human beings are capable of doing terrible harm to one another. The US prison system does not provide justice, accountability or safety — so how can we build a world that does? Walidah Imarisha confronts this question through three intertwined lives in Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption. Order this remarkable book by making a donation to Truthout now!
In the following excerpt, Walidah Imarisha describes how her awareness of racism and the US prison system began, putting her on the path to becoming a political organizer and activist:
There were a total of seven Black people in my high school of over a thousand. Some, like Floyd with his skateboard cool and laid back attitude, hung out with the group of slackers, punks, metal heads, and weirdos I ran with. There was Angela, a star athlete. Her lean frame ate up the track like a prairie fire. Rather than feeling pride in her accomplishments, she made me feel even chunkier and clumsier than I was. Others, like Troy, were part of the Blacks and Browns, Black and Latino hip hop kids, classified by the school as a gang because they wore baggy jeans and hard faces, and because they chose not to associate too closely with white students.
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I had lived in a racial borderland, shielded to a large degree by my mother and her white privilege. I was more easily accepted by white people because of her, and because of my “appropriate” manners, my “articulate” speech, my lighter skin, and my less nappy hair. “Oh you speak so well!” has plagued me my whole life, as has the Black counterpart of “How come you sound like a white girl?” It stands not as a challenge, but a test: will you abandon those darker who grew out of scorched earth, with no white mothershade to mitigate? Or, to put it more plainly, when the shit goes down, whose side are you gonna be on?
It was not until I moved to Springfield that I began to understand what Blackness was, what Blackness meant in America. Pickup trucks with gun racks adorned with the confederate flag started to wake me from my deep race sleep.
I worked on the high school newspaper. One April Fool’s edition was full of fake stories advocated sowing the US/Mexico border with landmines, which was an actual proposal from a US congressman at the time.
White male students, all baseball caps and tobacco can rings in their back pockets, carried copies of the issue. They read aloud from it over greasy school cafeteria lunches. Others snickered and exchanged glances any time a Latino student walked by.
When two white students pushed a Mexican girl down the stairs, her books spilled all over the stairwell as her tears spilled all over her cheeks. They shouted at her, their voices echoing all the way down, “Go back to where you came from!”
I knew the line had been drawn for me.
I found guidance in the most unlikely of places. Mrs. Borrevick wore bright lipstick drawn around her actual lips to make her mouth appear bigger. She didn’t have to do the same with her heart. She was the guidance counselor who took in the misfits and rejects. Mrs. Borrevick became my Advance Placement History Independent Study teacher after I quit AP History on the first day. I opened the textbook, saw five pages of glossy photos labeled “Before Columbus” out of the five-hundred page book. I slammed it shut and announced I was dropping out of school. Mrs. Borrevick handed me Howard Zinn’s radical history of this country, A People’s History of the United States.
“Get to work.”
I asked about an internship. I wanted to be a historian. I thought I could work at the pitifully small local museum that shared the same building as the library.
“Oh you don’t want to do that,” she said dismissively. “I can’t imagine you being happy locked away with dusty memorabilia from the pioneer days. You should give these people a call instead.” She slid me a card with the number to something called Clergy and Laity Concerned.
“What’s that?” I asked suspiciously, thinking she was trying to recruit me for some Christian youth group.
“Just check it out,” she said, shooing me out the door and waving another student in.
I had to take the bus from Springfield to the transit center in Eugene, the larger town over the bridge.
Then I caught another bus to the Whiteaker neighborhood. My skin shivered slightly. Never go to the Whiteaker neighborhood, they said — especially after dark. I was too young politically to know “bad” and “unsafe” parts of town meant “brown.”
Clergy and Laity Concerned’s Eugene office was in a creaky old building with pipes that rattled when you did the dishes in the faded kitchen. On the frayed worn couches near the bay window, I first heard the words “communism” and “socialism” as more than a dangerous evil sent to devour. I typed stories for the newsletter into an antiquated box of a Mac. Talk of the Zapatistas, US political prisoners, Sandinistas, Central America, Cuba, apartheid, Assata Shakur, and the Black Panther Party all swirled around me. I didn’t know what the hell these people were talking about. But I was beginning to get the feeling there was a whole world out there I knew absolutely nothing about.
I was damn sure going to find out, though.
One day, I timidly asked Jon if he could recommend something for me to read. A young white indie rocker with cardigan sweaters and converse sneakers, he looked more at home in a ’50s car hop poster than organizing in support of farmworkers.
He reached up without hesitation and handed me a small black book. A dreadlocked man stared solemnly out of the cover.
“I think you might find some good stuff in here.”
I started Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Live From Death Row on the long bus ride home. I stayed up until three in the morning, neglecting schoolwork and my favorite show on TV, to finish.
Mumia: an award-winning independent journalist in Philadelphia and former president of the Black Journalists’ Association, became a resident on Pennsylvania’s death row for thirty years. His reporting helped lay the foundation for Philadelphia police being one of the only police departments ever indicted by the US Department of Justice for brutality and corruption. He was convicted of the murder of a white police officer in 1981. Millions around the world believe him to be innocent.
Many more believe Mumia did not have a fair trial. The stenographer heard the blatantly racist judge say he was going to help “fry the nigger.” The prosecutor repeatedly violated Mumia’s constitutional rights. The incompetent defense attorney was later disbarred. There were no resources for research or experts. Mumia was physically bound and gagged when he tried to assist in his own defense, and was found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to the death penalty. Entire books have been written by and about Mumia.
Let me state clearly, I believe Mumia is innocent.
But I have come to feel that doesn’t really matter in the final equation. Over the years, “guilt” and “innocence” have become cloudy terms.
It’s not what you do but who you are that lands you in prison. As Michelle Alexander notes, “Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been Black or Latino.” With endless statistics like these that show the chasm between who “does the crime” and who “does the time,” it is very clear that it is identities and not actions that are criminalized.
“Every crime that I do is petty/ every criminal is rich already,” sang rap group The Coup. Mumia led me to other political prisoners, older ones. Some have been incarcerated for more than forty years, casualties of America’s war on revolution, waged in the 1960s and 1970s. Overwhelmingly Black and brown, along with some white allies, most are veterans of the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Movement, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, the American Indian Movement, and the white anti-imperialist struggle. They organized protests, wrote articles, cleaned up streets, fed children, taught people to read, engaged in civil disobedience, observed the police in their community — legal and armed — operated free health clinics, provided security for prominent movement figures, went to every political trial happening, took over the Statue of Liberty and Alcatraz Prison. They were part of a global struggle to recreate a more just world. Some of these people have become my mentors, my support system, and my family.
Many of these political prisoners were framed, like Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt, Black Panther leader, framed for the murder and robbery of a white couple on a tennis court. He served twenty-seven years in prison, even though the FBI had wiretaps that prove he was at a Panther Central Committee meeting hundreds of miles away when the murder occurred.
There are some of these political prisoners, though, who do not deny the “crimes” of which they are convicted. Their language subverts the images we are given. Bank expropriation (read: robbery). Retaliatory strikes (read: shooting police who brutalized communities). One person’s terrorist is another community’s freedom fighter. As Kuwasi Balagoon, Black Liberation Army member and prisoner of war, said in his trial statement where he was convicted of expropriating funds (robbing a Brinks truck): “Expropriation raids are a method used in every revolution by those who have got to get resources from the haves to carry on armed struggle. When George Washington and company crossed the Delaware, it was to raid the British, to take money, supplies and arms…”
George Washington is an American hero, but he was a terrorist to the British.
Like Balagoon, folks locked down who hold this framework do not call themselves political prisoners. They call themselves prisoners of war, because they believe that the United States has declared war on their communities. They feel they should not be tried as criminals, but as soldiers captured during battle. They claim their actions not as crimes, but acts of warfare, of armed resistance. Any occupied country or nation has the right to fight back for freedom, by whatever means are necessary. They believe in the words of United Nations Resolution 3246, passed in 1974, which “reaffirms the legitimacy of the peoples’ struggle for liberation from colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle.”
They were not the only ones who felt that way. When Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur escaped from prison in the early 1980s, signs sprouted like dandelions across the Black community: “Assata welcome here.” The same happened for Angela Davis when she was placed on America’s Most Wanted list and forced underground; she was accused of owning the guns used in a failed 1970 attempt by seventeen-year-old Jonathan Jackson to negotiate freedom for prisoners (including Panther prison leader George Jackson) by taking a courtroom hostage.
So I believe Mumia is not guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted. And I also admire the ways he stands in solidarity with those incarcerated for practicing their right to self-defense, here and around the world. This was one of the many lessons about the complexities of life I learned as his writing leaped of the page at me.
Mumia’s words in Live from Death Row sparked a path that led me to the gates of countless prisons, from the SHU in California to Texas’s death row. They connected me with others who refuse to let their voices be buried under concrete and bars, who organize concerts, events, newsletters, and campaigns from rooms the size of my bathroom. Others, like Mumia, wrote only with the ink refill inside of a pen; the pen casing confiscated because “it could be a weapon.” That is how Mumia brought the book that captivated me to life, hid it away until it could escape free, like an enslaved Black person heading towards the North Star.
So many times in my life, Mumia has acted as my North Star. Through Live From Death Row and researching more about his life and work, I learned what integrity looks like when it carries the weight of death on its back. In his essay, “LA Outlaw,” Mumia challenged the legal right for the police in Rodney King’s beating to be retried. At first I was horrified when I read it: why would Mumia be siding with these racist, brutal cops? It was a mistake that they hadn’t been found guilty, and now we were supposed to give up the scraps thrown to Black communities after their deferred dreams exploded? It must have been on my fourth reading of this essay (so short — less than three pages — like the majority of his essays) that I came to realize what he meant when he wrote this: “To be silent while the state violates its own alleged constitutional law to prosecute someone we hate is but to invite silence when the state violates its own laws to prosecute the state’s enemies and opponents. This we cannot do. We must deny the state that power.”
There is a strategic mind here — if they come for you at night, they’ll come for me in the morning. But there is also a mind fixed on integrity. We must not let the state have the power to change our principles, our values. We cannot allow them to break us and reshape us as they attempt to do inside and out of prisons every day, and as they have attempted to do to Mumia for thirty-five years. He has refused both their stick and their carrot: the insidious psychological games designed to compromise your character, your very soul.
This was never clearer than when ABC’s “20/20” filmed a segment on Mumia’s case in 2000. The level of national exposure could have greatly helped Mumia’s struggle for justice. Even if the piece had been biased, having even the briefest clips of Mumia speaking would be certain to stay with those who heard his brilliance, his clarity, his insights. However, because there was a strike happening at ABC during that time period, Mumia refused the interview, saying he would rather die than cross a picket line. From most, this would be hyperbole. From Mumia, who has come within hours of having the state take his last breath, it is a declaration of the highest form of integrity.
Mumia’s words in Live from Death Row sparked a path that led me to the gates of countless prisons. His words are elegant, poetic, searing. Undeniable. He wrote life on death row real, vignettes about the people around him, the supposed scum of the earth. He wrote them human: beautifully awed and tragically human.
Mumia wrote of his youngest daughter Tiny’s first visit to death row. She became infuriated by the glass barrier between all Pennsylvania death row inmates and their visitors. She did not understand why Mumia had not been allowed to touch his wife or his children for over thirty years — why he had grandchildren he had never touched.
Sadness and shock shifted into fury as her petite fingers curled into tight fists, which banged and pummeled the Plexiglass barrier, which shuddered and shimmied but didn’t shatter. “Break it! Break it!” she screamed… “Why can’t I hug him? Why can’t we kiss? Why can’t I sit on his lap? Why can’t we touch? Why not?”
Mumia illuminates why prisons exist, who benefits from them, who is getting rich on the trading of flesh, and whose flesh is traded to create dollars — poor and Black and brown. Illiterate. Those with mental health issues.
His book was not about himself. He was eyes, ears, mouth, and heart recording. He showed me the web of oppression threaded through my life, ensnaring me.
And Mumia showed me how to begin to hack away at those threads.