By Walidah Imarisha
In high school in a small town in Oregon, 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, took in the misfits and rejects. Mrs. Borrevick became my AP History Independent Study teacher after I quit AP History on the first day. I opened the textbook, saw 10 pages of glossy photos labeled “Before Columbus” out of the 2000 page book. Slammed it shut. 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. Though 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 a card with the number to 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. Caught another bus to the Whittaker neighborhood. Never go to the Whittaker neighborhood, they said. Especially after dark. I was too young politically to know “bad” and “unsafe” parts of town meant “brown.”
Clergy and Laity’s Eugene office was in a creaky old building with pipes that rattled when you did the dishes in the dingy 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 antiquated box of a Mac, reading them while I did and learning about the activists of white supremacists in the region, and the resistance movement of Cesar Chavez. Talk of the Zapatistas, U.S. political prisoners, Sandinistas, Central America, Cuba, apartheid, Assata Shakur, Malcolm X 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.
And I was damn sure going to find out.
One day, I timidly asked one of the staff members, 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 1950s carhop 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 3 in the morning, neglecting schoolwork and my favorite show on TV to finish.
Mumia. Award-winning independent journalist in Philadelphia and one time president of the Black Journalists’ Association. Now resident on Pennsylvania’s death row. His reporting helped lay the foundation for Philadelphia being one of the two police departments ever indicted by the U.S. 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. A blatantly racist judge who the stenographer heard says he was going to help them “fry the nigger.” A prosecutor who repeatedly violated Mumia’s constitutional rights. An incompetent defense attorney who was later disbarred. No resources for research or experts. Mumia physically bound and gagged when he tried to assist in his own defense. Found guilty of murder. Sentenced to the death penalty. Entire books have been written by and about Mumia.
Let me state clearly, I believe Mumia is innocent.
Though over the years “guilt” and “innocence” have become cloudy terms.
“Every crime that I do is petty/ every criminal is rich already,” rapped hip-hop group the Coup.
Mumia led me to other political prisoners, older ones. Some incarcerated for 40 years. Casualties of America’s war on revolution, waged in the 1960s and 1970s. Overwhelmingly brown and black, some white allies. Veterans of the Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Movement, Puerto Rican Independence Movement, 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, 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 and caring world. Some of these people have become my mentors, my support system, and my family.
There are some, not all, who do not deny the “crimes” for which they are convicted of. 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. When Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur escaped from prison in the early 1980s, signs sprouted like dandelions across the Black community “Assata is welcome here.”
Those who do not deny the acts they were convicted of claim them not as crimes, but acts of warfare. This country was and is at war against people of color and oppressed peoples, they say. 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:
Reaffirms the legitimacy of the peoples’ struggle for liberation from colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle.
So while I believe Mumia is not guilty of the crimes for which he was convicted, I also admire the ways he stands in solidarity with those incarcerated for practicing their right to self-defense, here and around the world. One of the many lessons about the complexities of life I learned as his writing leaped off the page at me.
Mumia’s words in Live from Death Row sparked a path, which led me to the gates of countless prisons, from the SHU (Security Housing Unit) in California to death row in Texas. Connected me with others who refuse to let their voices be buried under concrete and bars. Who organize concerts, events, newsletters, campaigns from rooms the size of my bathroom. Others, like Mumia, who 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 this book 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 this book and learning 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, “L.A. Outlaw,” Mumia challenges 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 dreams deferred exploded? It must have been on my fourth reading of this essay (so short, less than three pages, like the majority of his essays) I came to realize what he meant when he wrote:
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. Cannot allow them to break us and reshape us, as they attempt to do in prisons and outside every day. As they have attempted to do to Mumia for over 30 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 of 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 going on at the time, Mumia refused the interview, saying he would rather die than cross a picket line. For most hyperbole, for 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 – 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 flawed, tragically human.
Mumia wrote of his youngest daughter Tiny’s first visit to death row. The glass barrier between all Pennsylvania death row inmates and their visitors infuriated her. She did not understand why Mumia had not been allowed to touch his wife and his children for over 25 years. She did not understand why he has grandchildren he has never touched.
… Sadness and shock shifted into fury as her petite fingers curled into tight fists, which banged and pummeled the Plexiglas 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?’
The pain and frustration of a father completely powerless to comfort his child.
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, heart recording. 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.
The flyer said to gather at the entrance to the University of Oregon. Unfamiliar with activist time, I showed up 20 minutes early. A group of patch-worked pants, patchouli-downed white dreads sat in a circle with replicated African drums, happily banging away. Completely off rhythm. Frat boys in polo shirts with upturned collars stared at every passing woman’s ass. I sat on the low wall awkwardly. Maybe no one was coming. Maybe they already left. How would I know who they were if they did show up? My palms started to sweat.
Then 10 young people, some in all black with patches on their ripped up hoodies, approached me. Carried signs reading “Free Mumia!” “Free All Political Prisoners.”
A woman with a mouth wide as a skateboard asked, “Are you here for the Mumia protest?”
I nodded my head so quickly I injured my neck.
“Great,” she handed me a sign. “We’re almost ready to start.”
In 10 minutes, the group of 40 folks began to stride past the shops and bars. The sound of chanting, of drums banging. Slogans brand new to my ears rumbled from voices all around me. Traffic stopped for us. Waited as we marched through the street. Since that day I have marched in crowds that numbered tens of thousands, knowing we were marching at the same moment as millions around the world. But I never felt as inspired as that first protest, where I learned a collective of people are Strong. Powerful. Unstoppable.
Someone jabbed play on a boom box. Mumia’s rich voice, honey and steel, burst forth. Rained down on the boutiques and pizza shops. On me. The first time I heard his voice speaking hidden and forgotten stories. Smuggled out from the watchful eyes of the guards.
Mumia said the name Rabbani. Rabbani, a 15-year-old manchild sentenced to as an adult. 15 to 30 for robbery. His life. Two of his lives.
His first six or seven years in this manmade hell found him constantly locked in battles with guards, and he logged more years in ‘the hole’ than he did in general population status. He grew into manhood in shackles, and every time I saw him, he seemed bigger in size but more bitter in spirit. I was always struck by the innate brilliance of the young man – a brilliance immersed in a bitterness so acidic that it seemed capable of dissolving iron. For almost fifteen years, this brilliance had been caged in cubes of time and steel.
Snapshots of prison life. Pull back to see the web. Not one single failure. A systems failure. A system functioning perfectly.
[Rabbani] has been ‘corrected’ in precisely the same way that hundreds of thousands of others have been, that is to say, warehoused in a vat that sears the very soul. He has never held a woman as a mate or lover; he has never held a newborn baby in his palm, its heart at hump with new life; he hasn’t seen the sunrise, nor the moon glow, in almost fifteen years. For a robbery, ‘armed’ with a pellet gun, at fifteen years of age.
I knew then why Mumia’s voice was more dangerous than a gun. You could not listen without being moved. You could not listen without wanting to fight. For Mumia. For Rabbani. For all the Mumias and all the Rabannis.
Live from death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The sound of bars slamming echoed from the speakers.
I hoisted my “Free Mumia NOW” sign high. Joined the rumbling voices around me.
Brick by brick, wall by wall we’re going to free Mumia Abu-Jamal!
That day I was sure we could. Powerful. Unstoppable. Led by Mumia’s voice, full of “musings, memories, prophecies.”
I have since learned the bricks of prison walls are much stronger than I imagined. And incredibly resistant to dismantling. But I also have the example given to me by Mumia, that the resilience of hope and determination is a wild flower growing through concrete. And given long enough and enough pressure, those flowers’ roots will break apart concrete, to continue growing free and unfettered.
Get involved with the Free Mumia Movement
Visit the Bring Mumia Home website
Connect with the Bring Mumia Home campaign on twitter
Contribute to the “60 for Mumia’s 60th Birthday” Indiegogo campaign
Sign the petition to Free Mumia on change.org
Walidah Imarisha is a writer, organizer, educator and spoken word artist. Her first collection of poetry, Scars/Stars, was released in October 2013. Walidah is the co-editor of the upcoming anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.
She has taught in the Portland State University’s Black Studies Department, Oregon State University’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department and Southern New Hampshire University’s English and Literature Departments.
This work is excerpted from Walidah Imaisha’s unpublished creative nonfiction piece Angels with Dirty Faces: Prisons Gangsters and Redemption. Angels explores the concepts of prisons, crime and alternatives to incarceration through the lives of three people: Imarisha, her adopted brother and an Irish Mob boss.
ActivismBalck LiberationCulturefeminismMumia Abu-JamalpedagogyPrisons
During an interview in the 1980s, Black female science fiction writer Octavia Butler was asked her how it felt to be THE Black female science fiction writer. And Octavia replied she never wanted that title. She said she wanted to be one of hundreds of Black female sci-fi writers. She said she wanted thousands of folks writing sci-fi and writing themselves into the future.
My co-editor Adrienne Maree Brown and I didn’t even know explicitly we were answering the call Octavia laid down when we started working together on Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, an anthology of radical (or what we call visionary) science fiction by organizers, activists and those immersed in social change. We just knew we felt the power, the potential and the necessity of visionary science fiction.
We have a series of videos on YouTube called Voices of Octavia’s Brood, where writers talk about their pieces as their connection to science fiction.
Science fiction is as vital as air to our communities of color, for the future of the earth. Science fiction/speculative fiction/fantasy/etc. is the only genre that allows us to step outside of the confines and rules of this society, this world, and to completely re-envision the present and the future.
This is the premise of Octavia’s Brood; we have over 20 change makers from across the country who have written stories using sci-fi to explore issues from prisons to climate change to colonialism to gentrification to the “War on Terror.” We also have two essays, by Tananarive Due and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Many of these organizers, activists and visionaries had never written science/speculative fiction before. In fact, when we reached out to folks, many of them responded with skepticism and trepidation — “I’ve never done that before, I don’t think I can do it, I wouldn’t even know what to write about.”
But we knew that wasn’t true, because this was work they were living every day. All organizing is science fiction. What does a world without poverty look like? What does a world without prisons look like? What does a world with everyone having enough food and clothing look like? We don’t know. It’s science fiction, and it is as foreign to us as the Klingon homeworld (which is called Q’onos in case you were wondering). But being able to envision it and imagine it means we can begin seeing the steps it would take to move us there.
Overwhelmingly, those folks we contacted to write for the book reached back out to us in a few weeks, excited about the 15 or more pages they had already written. Many are now working on novels coming out of this project! They had these stories living inside of them, and all they needed was a little space to bring them into the world.
Obviously, there have been countless mainstream movies and books that create a future where the current issues and inequalities with power and hierarchy are replicated. In fact, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s essay in the book analyzes Star Wars in the context of U.S. imperialism, serving as a reminder we must engage with and deconstruct these types of narratives.
But to differentiate between reactionary sci-fi (and also to avoid hardcore nerd arguments about what does or does not qualify as sci-fi), we call the work in Octavia’s Brood visionary fiction. We consider science fiction visionary when it sees the world through the eyes of the oppressed, when it is aware of institutional power inequalities, when change happens from the bottom up rather than the top down, when it is aware of the impact of intersecting identities on our experiences, when change happens collective rather than through one lone white hero.
Because for anyone from communities that have experienced historic oppression and trauma, every single of us, of you, are science fiction. Your ancestors dreamed you up, and then bent reality to create you. For Adrienne and myself, as two Black women, we think of our ancestors in chains dreaming about a day when their children’s children’s children would be free. They were visionary science fiction creators and alchemists. By dreaming of us, they gathered the courage, the strength, the ingenuity and the creativity to reshape the entire world, to birth us.
And that is a heavy responsibility. We often think of fantasy as frivolous, indulgent, selfish. Nothing can be further from the truth. Octavia Butler laid down a challenge to us in that interview — are we brave enough to face the realities of the world we live in? Can we grow dreams from that reality like wild flowers through the cracks in sidewalks? Are we strong enough to do the work of making those dreams reality?
The incredible response to Octavia’s Brood reinforces my belief that the answer to all those questions is yes. When we were unable to find a publisher interested in putting out the anthology, Adrienne and I decided to do it ourselves, with the support of our community. We launched a crowd-funding campaign — something neither of us had done before. We had no idea if we’d raise anything at all. In the end, the response was overwhelming; 550 individual contributors donated more than double our original goal.
The successful campaign ensures not only that Octavia’s Brood will be published (release date is June 2014, in honor of Octavia Butler’s birthday), but that there will be a national tour that will include not only book readings, but writing workshops, organizing strategy sessions, book clubs and sci-fi-themed community parties. It is important for us the tour is multi-faceted, to reflect the complex lives and realities and needs in our communities, and to create space for all of us to participate in this collective dreaming. Because we are all part of the legacy of visionary elders and ancestors, like Octavia and so many others, when we engage in this work: We all become part of Octavia’s Brood.
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