Few inmates have garnered more international attention than Mumia Abu-Jamal. Martin Luther King, Jr., Madiba Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi: these are some of the names that certainly surpas Abu-Jamal in terms of international recognition, but likely equal his in terms of active dedication to disenfranchised people of all backgrounds. And Abu-Jamal is likely a close fourth to these former prisoners in terms of notoriety, as well as the sheer size of the cross-racial, international community dedicated to his release.
As it stands now, Abu-Jamal also equals these leaders in terms of the level of infamy and public vilification they experienced while mired in the dark, heady, uncertain struggle of the freedom movement.
Many forget, and schoolchildren rarely learn, that, at the height of their activism, King, Mandela, and Ghandi were all considered threats to the state. Imprisoned for passionate, dedicated activism that would subvert the social systems that suppressed brown people in the countries where they lived, each was labeled terms akin to terrorist by government, law enforcement, even ordinary citizens. Only after the success of their activism – with King initiating a shift in Jim Crow policies and shepherding the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in this country, the overthrow of Apartheid and Mandela’s release from Robben Island in South Africa, and India’s independence because of Gandhi’s relentless, nonviolent protests – did each achieve consecration as one of world history’s Good Guys.
“Mumia”, who is sufficiently well-known to be internationally recognized by only his first name, is still trapped in a kind of historical limbo. His name has not been cleared. He still sits in prison, as all those other leaders did in the heyday of their political engagement. He also still writes, still leads, still inspires countless others to participate in fevered protest intended to liberate the masses.
Yet, unlike those three icons in the global struggle for human liberation, Abu-Jamal was not leading a movement for social change when he encountered law enforcement officials and was arrested. Instead, Abu- Jamal was moonlighting as a taxi driver to supplement the income he earned as a journalist to help support his growing family. Indeed, even when he was an active participant in one of the most important organizations dedicated to the freedom struggle, he worked as a writer within that group, documenting their work for the masses to read and know.
As Abu-Jamal himself says in the film, he has been “punished for communicating.”
The documentary does not examine the details of the case that led to Mumia’s incarceration, and instead documents Abu-Jamal’s boyhood, his work as a journalist working for the Black Panther Party newspaper, the impact of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program on the Panthers, Abu- Jamal’s rise in mainstream media, and the circumstances that led him to moonlight as a taxi cab driver, a job he was doing during the night Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner was killed.
Some of the most brilliant thinkers of our time, including Alice Walker and Cornel West, contribute their thoughts on Abu-Jamal to “Long Distance Revolutionary.” Given Mumia’s prolific work as a writer, the film appropriately utilizes the talents of poets, performers, and artists, including Giancarlo Espisito, who support Mumia in their work. Actual footage of Mumia and of national and local Philadelphia elected officials creates a compelling, powerful documentary.
Some television footage used in the documentary includes images of Philadelphia’s MOVE members, including women and children, who were literally bombed by the Philadelphia police in 1985. Mumia had been fervent in his reportage of the animal rights / vegan / Black liberation group, which was founded by John Africa in 1972. When a police helicopter dropped a bomb on their Osage Avenue home, 11 people, including 5 children, were killed, and 65 other homes were destroyed as the entire city block burned.
The film also includes the voices of women and men who believe Abu-Jamal should be executed. In 1982, Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering Faulkner and sentenced to death, but that sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2011, largely due to the worldwide activism associated with his case.
“Long Distance Revolutionary” links police harassment of MOVE members to Mumia’s imprisonment. It also links federal policies initiated by presidents as far back as Nixon to the level of intimidation employed by local officials to curtail the work of groups and individuals deemed subversive by the state.
The film provides a line from Nixon that helps explain the racist underpinnings of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy: “The whole problem is really the blacks,” President Nixon is quoted as saying. “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” This expression of institutionalized racism, the film asserts, enables the local harassment of black people. During his 4 year term the city’s Police Commissioner, former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo is quoted as saying, “I’m gonna make Atilla the Hun look like a [expletive].”
Of course, to justify physical assaults on brown bodies, officials must demonize all African Americans. In a city where, as one sports writer in the film explains, there is no monument or statue to honor Philadelphia’s real-life boxing hero Smokin’ Joe Frazier, yet there is a prominently-placed statue to honor the fictional Hollywood character Rocky Balboa, the brutality against black people was so thorough that even white hippies in the 60s and 70s knew to be careful in Philly, where racist cops were known to openly call them “white [expletive].”
Now, in 2013, there are more African American men trapped in the criminal justice system than there were African American men enslaved in the plantation system back in 1850, just 11 years before the start of the Civil War. In 1992, a million people were in U.S. prisons. In 2002, that number had doubled to 2 million. As one academic says in the film, incarceration rates have soared, so that now population rates equivalent to an entire nation of people live behind bars, and these numbers have soared regardless of whether crime rates have gone up or down during the same 10 year time period.
In this context, the movement to request a re-examination of the trial that convicted Mumia Abu Jamal seems justified. Indeed, in this context, a movement to insist on the re-examination of this nation’s relationship with brown people seems justified.
“Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary” articulates an interrogation of the state, a state that seeks to silence the voices of prisoners and the circumstances that led them there, a state that, as Abu- Jamal says in the film, “would rather give me an uzi than a microphone.”
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is author of the novel Crystelle Mourning. She can be reached online at EisaUlen.com or on Twitter @EisaUlen.