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Freedom Sentenced to Death

- an interview with Mumia Abu-Jamal

Natalija Grgorinic & Ognjen Raden

november 2004.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is one of the most widely known political prisoners in the USA. In 1982. he was found guilty for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer, and has since been kept on the death-row. Many international institutions and individuals have raised questions about the legality and credibility of the case against Mumia Abu-Jamal. Former Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party, Mumia still daily provides his political commentary for Pacifica Radio – “Live from Death Row”. This interview was conducted through letters, questions sent from Los Angeles, CA, answers arrived from Waynesburg, PA.  


You are experiencing very acutely the limitations put on your freedom by the system. What insight does it provide you with in respect to your fellow countrymen? Do they seem almost as imprisoned to you by the carefully programmed ignorance (television, entertainment industry…), by the almost exclusively material approach to existence, and by the resulting inability to connect or emotionally respond to other people?

When one mentions “America”, for many people around the world, the very name evokes the image (if not the reality) of freedom. But freedom is very precarious in a national security state, such as this one. We live in a nation (and, increasingly, a world) which is rife with the imagery of freedom, but every day, the reality of freedom continues to diminish.

Case in point: the prison industrial complex. This country has perhaps five percent of the world’s population; yet it also boasts over twenty five percent of the world’s prisoners.

That’s why, when I write about it, I usually use the term “prisonhouse of nations”. How could one do otherwise, when an estimated three million (three million!) men, women and juveniles are encaged in prisons and jails across America.

The power of TV is that it conditions millions of Americans to divert a way from the horrific realities in this country, to dream away into visions of nice, sweet illusions about how people live today. Most Americans interact more often with machines (TVs, radios, computer screens, etc.), rather than with living, breathing beings. This is to use your term, “programmed ignorance”. Thus, until people cut that vicious electronic umbilical cord, folks will be even more isolated and alienated from their fellows.


How is it possible that the ruling minority continues to receive approval and support from the majority it exploits? An average American works 350 hours a year more than his or her West European counterpart. 45 million people do not have any health insurance. 36 million people are below the limit of poverty. We have been in this country for over a year and are yet to discover that good life Americans are convinced they are living.

Again, American “good life” is beamed virtually directly into the brains of millions of allegedly “middle class” Americans. If you ask the average truck driver, cop, delivery man, or prison guard to self-denote their class, I would bet you that the overwhelming majority would report: “middle class”.

That’s because the long anti-communist, anti-worker, and anti-union, pro-corporate stream of propaganda makes most folks look down upon working-class existence. By these measurements, America has the biggest “middle class” in the world. Of course, this is an illusory middle class. So, a powerful tool of ruling-class dominance is the power of the media.

But, it’s also the illusion that there is no ruling class in America. Unlike Europe, there is no tradition of a “royal house” (apart from the relatively brief example of Britain). The rich exploit their commonality with the poor, and the rags-to-riches myth satisfies millions of Americans to think that they too can be a Donald Trump. If you critically examine US popular media (primarily TV), one can only be struck by the plethora of shows that humiliate so that a few can win twenty five or fifty thousand dollars. People eat worms, lie in crypts with snakes, eat bugs, or submit to some other form of self-abasement.

I think this trend really reflects the deep psychological anxiety in the American working-class heart.

The other reason why there isn’t any real progress in social gains, is because there isn’t a working-class party in national American (electoral) politics. The field is controlled by corporate parties (Democrats and Republicans).


What is it that’s keeping Americans so strongly together? The exploiters together with the exploited. In spite all of the differences and conflicts, what is the force that’s preventing them to come up with a more potent alternative to the existing system? More than any other nation Americans are always prepared to divide the world into us and them. When will the people of color of America, when will the women of America, the underpaid and underprivileged realize they are “the others”, together with the rest of us? What will it take to make them understand they are separate only in the fact they are worked over separately from the rest of the world, with less witnesses than people of Iraq, or people of South America?

I think what ties it all together is a shared psychological perception of “whiteness”. This quality explains why white folks see Blacks as the “eternal enemy”, and don’t acknowledge their ruling class. (Scholar David Roediger wrote about this in his book, “The Wages of Whiteness – The Making of the American Working Class”, New York, Verso, 1991.) In fact, the great Black scholar, W.E.B. DuBois describes this as “psychological wages”. He examines how white workers accepted lower wages for the social “pay” of being considered “white”, and not Black. This kind of blindness hasn’t left Americans yet. It’s a part of US Imperialism, or the “us-them” thing. For, it isn’t surprising that many, indeed most, of the countries invaded, bombed, or occupied by the US were non-white nations. Indeed, that comes from the occupation, elimination and genocide against Indians. The day Americans begin to really see themselves as part of the rest of the world, instead of as its imperial overlords, is the day imperialism begins to die a natural death.


What is at the root of the fact that American alternative movements are simply not capable of working together? What are the inner divisions at work in the American society, preventing people to unite around any larger common cause? Is the purpose of millions of protesters on American streets in past few years only to enhance the illusion of democracy? What is the alternative? Surely not terrorism. What then? How can the minds and the hearts of Americans be awaken?

Again, the deep nativist strain in American politics spelled the death knell for socialist ideas in America. This fear, masquerading as nationalism, funded by corporate sources, worked to keep Americans divided, and that same divide is reflected in alternative groups. People must develop alternative media that really connect with people. Way back in the ‘60s, the Black Panther Party published a newspaper that peaked at approximately two hundred thousand copies per week. It created an alternative that presented a communal, united, indeed, multi-racial view of a new US. That’s what really made it so dangerous.

If we look back at the vast and impressive anti-war demonstrations, while it must be heartening, in truth, it was rare to find anti-imperialism expressed. For some groups the predominant slogan was: “bring the boys home”. It did not address the imperial nature of the invasion.  


The foundation of the American society is inequality. The premise of the American Dream is exploitation. If those are applied to the entire world there will be no world to apply them on. Who or what is taking the responsibility from the shoulders of Americans so that they do not feel it?

Marx said, in his “The Communist Manifesto”, that the bourgeoisie “creates a world after its own image”, and it “betters down all Chinese walls…” (page 18)

When we look at what the corporate media called globalism, we see this in its naked form. For, why is capital globalized, and labor nationalized? Why not globalize labor, so that people in Mexico, Guatemala, or South Africa make the same wages as workers in the States? We must therefore work to unite workers of the world, against the divisiveness of nationalisms. But, sadly, because of globalism, Americans are indeed beginning to see the personal impacts of globalization in their withering paychecks. For as capital goes further abroad in search of profit, manufacturing is leaving the States, and Americans are getting poorer paying service jobs. Unless they see their interests tied to those of workers abroad, they’ll never beat the capitalist at their game, and Americans will descend into a real working class, and even a Lumpenproletariat class.


The question of race is the major paradigm of America. The very term is used to divide people into those who supposedly have race, and feel it, live under its weight, and others, those of white race, which is no race at all, not in the sense it has been used on non-white, non-Anglo population. Terms like “people of color” are in official use only in America, and are never used to include white people, which makes it quite obvious that the society is built on divisions. So what is then that makes all the other colors participate? One third of America are not of the right color, and yet they have no impact, no say, no alternative voice.

As I’ve already noted earlier, America is a nation that is drunk with the illusion of race. Why do I say “illusion”?

Doctor DuBois, (in his “The ABC of Color”) noted that most Americans are, in fact, “octoroons”, or have at least an eight of African ancestry. Race is a social construct, meaning that people who are defined as Black in this country would be in “white” in Southern Europe, and in Brasil, and in the South Africa “colored”. Race, for many people, is malleable and therefore subject to change.

That said, race determines important measures of social mobility in America; where people live, where they work, where they go to school, who they love and how soon they die – these and other life chances are determined, more often than not, by the social label of race.

Because the underlying theoretical bases for America is white supremacy (or white nationalism) it isn’t really possible for folks to organize against this delusion, for it lives in the psyche. That might change with the so-called “browning” of America, but I don’t think so. From I’ve read and studied, Latin America has as great a tragedy of racist hatred against “people of color”, as does the US. We shell certainly see.


Looking at American history it is clear American democracy does not work for indigenous people, for people of color, for people of low material status. But today, arguably more than ever, American democracy doesn’t work for people of the countries that cannot match American military or economic power. Is the type of democracy practiced in the US outdated? Do American people realize that the concept of wartime economy, a war propelled economy is inherently barbaric? Do people of America realize they will be the ones paying for the destruction of Iraq, together with the people of Iraq?

There is a long and ugly history of anti-democracy in America that isn’t widely talked about now. But many of the so-called “founding fathers” (better: “founding slavemasters”) were deeply opposed to democracy, and sought to, and did create a system that protected against what they thought a great evil: democracy. To quote Alexander Hamilton, President George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, when he spoke at the American Constitutional Convention: “Can a democratic assembly who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily to pursue the public good? Nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy… It is admitted that you cannot have a good executive upon a democratic plan.”

This was not a rare or unpopular point of view in 1787. It was he who also said: “The people, sir, are a great beast.” Those dudes built a structure to protect their wealth and their class, without seeming to do so. That is America.

How can you have a “democracy” when a bare minority of people even participate in elections? Do Americans know or care that they will be paying the bill for Iraq for generations? Many, perhaps most, don’t know – because they are blinded by the dust of nationalism.

We don’t live in a democracy. The people do not rule. Indeed, they are ruled by the illusion of self-rule.

How else can millions of Americans really believe that Iraq was responsible for 9/11?


For a very long time America has tried to get to and remain at the top. But when will America realize the rules of the game have changed? The things it was striving to obtain, the goals, have changed. Are we going to find ourselves being threatened by a maniac not holding a gun to our head, but holding a gun to his head? How many wars, how many missiles, how much exploitation, and pollution do Americans think world can take before it self-destructs?

Americans, I think, are in precisely the same situation as Rome, at the time of Vandals; or Britain, after they were cast out of India. Empires never see their step into the abyss. Rome thought it would rule forever; and the British claim: “The sun will never set on the British Empire.”

They really believed those predictions.

They are history because they didn’t see the end coming.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that no empire lasts forever.

Americans really think they can re-write that historic edict. But when you see this imperial arrogance, this blithe dismissal of the will of the international community, it can be sensed. To quote Toynbee: “Great empires do not die by murder, but by suicide.”

That historical rule, I think, has not changed.


Part of the reason for the collapse of socialist experiment was the inability of people to realize the importance and function of the public property. Will this also be a reason for the collapse of the capitalist experiment? What are Americans going to do when every aspect of their lives becomes privatized? Health care, social security, water, power, education… Why not (openly) privatize government, law…? Why are they convinced they are going to be the owners? Don’t they realize that it is mathematically impossible to have more owners than those who are owned? Or do they maybe think they’ll be better off when they lose even the last remaining possibility of control?

I am convinced that Americans will come to realize that this loss is grievous one, but it will take time. You must understand that Americans are subjected to the most powerful mind-control imaginable. A corporate media that immerses its people into its imagery.

People, unless given a clear alternative, literally can’t conceive of one. Socialism, in its Soviet variety, is largely discredited and it is precisely that failure that lends credence to the privatization movement.

Therefore, you have the President, telling people that he wants to “privatize” Social Security, and invest their moneys into private accounts.

Because greed is such a powerful motivation, young people look at this with interest!

Where greed, fear and anxiety reign, analysis is lost.

It will take painful reality, and the expansion of the sense of commonality to spark a mass counter movement against the forces of avarice.  


What is your take on the current political situation? It seems that all breaks are off, America today is a runaway locomotive pulling the large portion if not all of the world. In what direction? What is the alternative? Is there anything the rest of us can do about it?

I really think that the hope of the people of the world is a real globalization of labor interests, and of anti-globalist resistance. Seattle really rocked the world. In many ways, (despite the failure of the socialist examples) Marx, when he said “the worker has no country” was absolutely right.

What we all have in common is far more important than our differences. People can prevail over the corporate model. But, it must be done internationally. That really means that people in the trade union movement must push their union heads to organize internationally. What would GM do if UAW (United Auto Workers) organized Mexican autoworkers to demand an equitable wage?

It’s not just about our economic interests. The current economic model is disastrous on environmental issues. Such a question is also an international one, for national borders are no real barrier to industrial pollutants and air born toxins. The solution, as ever, is for us to organize.


What are the alternatives to violence, inequality, injustice, aggression, exploitation? What are the means available to fight them? What can the oppressed do to stop being the oppressed and not to become the oppressor in the process?

Again, organize. The great Trinidadian revolutionary historian C.L.R. James has written clearly and cogently about revolution in a way that I’ve not seen anywhere else. He wrote: “People are not by nature revolutionary. A revolution takes place because people are so conservative; they wait and wait and wait and try every mortal thing until they reach a stage where it is absolutely impossible to go on and then they come out into the streets, and clear up in a few years the disorder of centuries.” ( James, C.L.R., “Modern Politics”, Bewick Editions, Detroit, 1960. page 53)

That said, it is still important to organize, to take advantage of the revolutionary moment. Again, to quote James, “It takes two people to form an organization.”

The oppressed will ever be oppressed unless and until a revolution is waged to bring forth social transformation. It is as simple as that. Anything else prolongs the inhuman sufferings of the oppressed, for it doesn’t address the oppression.


Finally, you have retained your right to free speech by broadcasting your daily commentary from the death row, but you are physically removed from the society. What is that fact saying about the system?

My speech is not, nor has it ever been “free”. I was thrown in the “hole” for writing, and for being a “journalist”. If I didn’t fight for it, I’d still be there.

But, in a state where the few, the corporate few, own the lion’s share of the capitalist media, they control the ears and the minds of the people. I might speak to a few thousand, but they influence millions.

Capitalism doesn’t equal freedom. Neither does democracy.

One is either free, or not. It is as simple as that.