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“Writing on the Wall”: Editor Johanna Fernández on Mumia Abu-Jamal’s New Book

Johanna Fernandez, who visited Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row for years, shares an analysis of racism and class exploitation.

Mumia Abu-Jamal and Johanna Fernández. (Photo: Courtesy of Johanna Fernández)

For decades, Mumia Abu-Jamal has written from prison about injustice, racism and the struggle for a better world. Writing on the Wall collects more than 100 unpublished Mumia essays, many written in solitary confinement on death row. Filled with the author’s insight, revolutionary perspective and hope, the subjects of these essays range from Rosa Parks to Edward Snowden, from the Trail of Tears to Ferguson. Click here to order the book today!

Johanna Fernández first heard of Mumia Abu-Jamal – the Philadelphia journalist whose sonorous commentaries from death row had made him world-famous – as an undergraduate at a protest in the early 1990s.

Mumia’s analysis of racism and class exploitation immediately spoke to Fernández. The daughter of working-class immigrants fleeing poverty and the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo dictatorship, Fernández grew up in the Bronx during the crack epidemic and got her working papers at 14.

She went on to become the first person in her family to graduate college. By the time she was doing graduate work at Columbia, Fernández had become a revolutionary socialist and considered Mumia “the Che Guevara of our time.” When Fernández moved to Pittsburgh, to teach at Carnegie Mellon, she started visiting Mumia.

So began a friendship and collaboration destined to last well beyond the publication of Writing on the Wall, a new collection of commentaries by Mumia Abu-Jamal, which Fernández edited.

Fernández now teaches history at New York’s Baruch College, and Mumia’s death sentence has been commuted to life without parole – though he’s facing serious illness in prison. I asked Fernández about the book and their work together:

Susie Day for Truthout: What was it like the first time you visited Mumia?

Johanna Fernández: I was petrified. Like, what the hell am I going to tell Mumia Abu-Jamal – on death row? But before long I was visiting him and about 10 other men on death row at SCI Greene. I became part of a cohort of people whose work consists mostly of visiting prisoners, including Mumia. I also taught a course at Carnegie Mellon that included Mumia’s book on the Black Panther Party, We Want Freedom. That was where we did the first “Live From Death Row” conversation in the classroom with Mumia.

My Carnegie Mellon students are big nerds and tech geeks. They helped me figure out how to have Mumia call into the classroom. He talked to the students and the students talked to him – it was transformative. I still have students from that class tell me how that changed them. And Mumia was changed. I remember their last question: “Do you think you’ve risen above this tragedy? Because yes, you’re imprisoned, but you’re known around the world and you’ve touched so many lives.”

Mumia answered, “I am not a martyr. I don’t believe in martyrdom.” Then the phone cut us off.

Yes, I often sense that Mumia’s supporters feel required to objectify him as an exemplar of “the struggle.” We forget that, for all Mumia’s accomplishments and courage, he’s also one more person among over 2 million others in US prisons.

Well, here’s the thing. I needed to have visited him. I met Mumia, and he’s this ordinary guy who has no ego – I mean everybody has an ego – but he’s cool and approachable, and he goofs around about a million things. We laugh; he curses.

Visiting prisoners grounds you. It puts things in perspective. I was petrified about meeting Mumia because it was like I was going to visit Jesus Christ. And Mumia was this ordinary man without airs. He’s an incredible conversationalist. He rejects the identity of an icon.

Good. Because I think seeing people as icons distorts your own self-image …

But I do think Mumia’s case is important because he’s the target of the state. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has identified Mumia as the world’s most infamous “cop-killer,” and they go after him rabidly. Because of that and because of Mumia’s unrelenting revolutionary writing – that’s part of why he’s a target – a victory in Mumia’s case would blow the cover off, not only political imprisonment but also the crisis of mass incarceration. Not to mention the role of police in society.

In the book’s Introduction, you say the Fraternal Order of Police is “the most powerful police organization in the world.” Really?

The Fraternal Order of Police is the largest police organization in the world. Go to its website. They fund the legal expenses of cops who kill civilians. The FOP uses Mumia’s case to advance its right-wing agenda at every turn. From Marylin Zuniga, the third-grade teacher in New Jersey, who was fired for mailing her students’ get-well letters to Mumia, to the takedown of Debo Adegbile, who was Obama’s nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the FOP is a powerful and insidious organization.

How did you decide to put together this collection?

What do you do when you visit a prisoner? You tear the world apart and then build it back up, with humanity’s highest aspirations leading the rebuilding process. So after a decade of visiting Mumia on death row, sometimes two and three times a week, I thought, “We should put some of these ideas in writing.”

Also, as a historian, I wanted to see how Mumia’s writing changed during his 33 years in prison. And to understand the post-Civil Rights era through Mumia’s writings, because that’s the period I study. Second probably only to Manning Marable, who had a column titled “Along the Color Line” during the same period, I don’t know anyone who looks at America through the lens of race and racism but also has a revolutionary critique of capitalism and imperialism.

I’d never read the essays Mumia wrote just after his 1981 arrest. Have these appeared anywhere before?

You know, Mumia believes in movements and the power of ordinary people. So back then he hand-wrote his commentaries on carbon paper, making three copies. One he kept; two he sent out to women who were the telegraphers of his words from death row.

Some of these pieces were published by a local newspaper, The Scoop USA, which is a local circular. It was then literally an 8½-by-11 mimeographed paper you could find in barbershops and local dives in North Philly. The first nine of these commentaries were published later in the 1980s by activists, in a pamphlet titled “Survival Is Still a Crime.”

Why did you include such old essays?

In one piece, Mumia unequivocally declares his innocence. That’s important because the Fraternal Order of Police wrongly repeats over and over again that Mumia has never declared his innocence; that he confessed in the hospital to killing Officer Daniel Faulkner. For that essay, Mumia actually lifted part of his statement of innocence from the public record. He’d already declared in court, before his sentencing: “I am innocent of these charges that I have been tried for … I am innocent despite what you 12 people think …”

This book includes 108 of Mumia’s commentaries. How did you pick them?

Mumia has written thousands of pieces, so choosing only 108 was very difficult. Someone helped me whittle it down to around 600. I wanted a variety, so after the 600 or so were selected, I went off and found others that addressed the politics of the Caribbean, Haiti, Africa, Puerto Rico …

The book’s objective was to place Mumia in the context of the Black Radical tradition and with other prison writers. That’s important for this new generation of young people coming to political consciousness. I also wanted to include “10 Reasons Why Mumia Abu-Jamal Should Be Freed.” That’s what’s different about this collection; it addresses the case.

I notice you included some essays on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Part of what it means to be in the Black Radical tradition is to defend the colonized and the oppressed. It would have been dishonest and unprincipled to exclude Palestine. This is one of the most important crises of our time. It’s the terrorizing and displacement of a people and their demonization by their oppressor – we forget this has a deep resonance in the African-American experience. I can’t imagine Mumia approving a book without these commentaries.

Isn’t Mumia as a journalist – even with resources most people don’t have in prison – still operating at a huge disadvantage? How do you think his work might be different if he were allowed access to the world?

I think Mumia is enamored of people’s stories, of struggle. His work would probably benefit from being able to interview the people he writes about. He really enjoyed going into the field and talking to people. In fact, that’s how he got into this crisis. He was the only journalist in Philadelphia who actually talked to the MOVE people and got their story from their perspective.

As his collaborator, is there any constructive advice that you’d give Mumia about his writing?

Well, because Mumia’s used to writing short form, sometimes I want him to deepen his analysis. I push him to do that.

Yes, often there are little nuggets of gobsmacking information tucked away in his essays. In one, he mentions offhandedly that “members of the Abolition movement were seen as the ‘crazies’ of the day, and Lincoln made jokes about shooting them!” Mumia could make that an essay in itself.

Exactly. And he welcomes feedback. I mean he pushes back because he’s trained in this journalistic haiku. But you know this is also a product of his isolation. Writing is about rewriting; it’s about sharing your work with a community of writers and people you trust. Mumia doesn’t have that.

Part of the issue now is that Mumia’s very ill but the demands on him to write are still immense. He’s constantly writing. And writing these commentaries, recording them, giving speeches hither and yon, this keeps him alive.

It’s now public that Mumia has hepatitis C. Do you know anything more at this point?

Mumia’s condition is horrific. His skin, from head to toe, looks like elephant hide. So the movement managed to get a doctor to visit and eyeball his condition. Even though this wasn’t a formal exam – he just made a regular prison visit – the doctor thinks that Mumia’s condition is a complication of hepatitis C, which Mumia acquired when he was transfused in 1981 after he was shot by Officer Faulkner. The doctor, who’s traveled internationally with Doctors Without Borders, also noted that this same condition was studied in Egypt among predominantly Black patients.

Back in 1981, I’m guessing that, if a police officer had shot and killed Mumia Abu-Jamal, there would have been no outrage of the kind that erupted after Officer Faulkner’s death. Mumia would be another statistic. Why should a cop’s life be more important than a civilian’s?

I don’t think it should be. I think Eddie Conway said that, in the post-Civil Rights era, the killing of a police officer by a Black man is the new unspeakable act, similar to the rape of a white woman by a Black man.

It’s also how police, in the aftermath of the Black Power era, have reacquired legitimacy in American society. In many ways, the cops were exposed and delegitimized in the 1960s by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. They had to launch a campaign to regain respect, which they’ve gotten on the backs of political prisoners, of Black political prisoners.

This term “cop-killer” is part of that campaign. It’s elevated the life of a police officer over that of an ordinary person. That’s dangerous because, when you enter that kind of territory, you’re living in a police state.

So Mumia’s not a martyr. But you’ve said that with his fame and his writing and the art other people make about him, Mumia’s still an icon. How do you get people to see beyond that?

When I was working on the film Justice on Trial, I interviewed Mumia’s sister. She started talking about the role Mumia played in their family. His mother had been orphaned and didn’t show much affection. His sister tells how Mumia would just grab their mother up – she was a very small woman – and would force her to hug him. She told me all these stories about the ordinary Mumia in a family unit.

I thought, “Oh my god, this is how they’re able to warehouse so many African-American men.” Because, if they’re political prisoners, we imagine them as icons. If they’re not, they’re free agents, disconnected from friends, family, partners. And I realized that one of the most important things we can do is simply to humanize incarcerated people. Political prisoners, all of them.

The problem is that the state is always on the attack. It has prison activists constantly in a frenzied state, such that we can’t think long-term. For me, there’s always some emergency, and the challenge is to step back, to figure out how we’re going to bring Mumia home.

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