by Mark Lewis Taylor
A new film, Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary (A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal), opens May 3 at Philadelphia’s Landmark Ritz on the Bourse for at least a week. Film-goers again consider Mumia Abu-Jamal, the revolutionary journalist who recently won federal court rulings that his death sentence was unconstitutional. He is now serving a life sentence in prison, after having served nearly 30 years on death row.
The film comes as new “Bring Mumia Home” campaigns build momentum. A petition to the Department of Justice supports claims to innocence that Abu-Jamal has maintained ever since he was arrested for the 1981 shooting death of Philadelphia Officer Daniel Faulkner. In calling for his immediate release, the petition cites the “cruel and unusual conditions” of his long-term confinement, recent exculpatory evidence and Amnesty International’s 2000 judgment that Abu-Jamal’s trial was “irredeemably tainted by politics and race.”
The film at Philadelphia’s Landmark Ritz already has achieved “Official Selection” at multiple film festivals, ranking number 3 nationwide when it opened in New York City (number 1 in Los Angeles and the Bay Area). It has played on campuses such as Princeton and Temple Universities.
The film dispels a number of myths about Abu-Jamal, not the least of which is the most flagrant and defaming one, that he was just an angry young Black Panther “out to kill a cop.” The real story of Abu-Jamal is carried in the film-title phrase: “long distance revolutionary.”
“Revolutionary” for what, some may ask?
The answer, as dramatized by the film’s riveting, historical treatment of Abu-Jamal, is freedom – a mode of freedom the media and mainstream rarely treat. It would be a freedom for America’s poor communities which, since the late 1960s, have been trapped in a pincers movement of social dispossession and police repression, resulting in a seven-fold increase in the U.S. prison population since the 1970s (“One in 100” Americans imprisoned, the Pew Center reports).
Numerous scholars meticulously explain this pincers movement (Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Bruce Western, Loïc Wacquant). As “safety nets” were slashed for the socially vulnerable, state powers offered only “dragnets,” ramped-up policing that swelled the prisons. Across decades of social service cutbacks for the poor, like the 1996 “Welfare Reform” bill that cast 6.1 million off welfare (315,000 being children with disabilities), there arose across the same period omnibus crime bills, mandated long-term sentences, media-hyped racial stereotypes of the poor, and a failed drug war that didn’t stop drugs but did fill prisons with non-violent drug users.
Law professor Michelle Alexander argues in her new book, The New Jim Crow, that the real problem lies in the prisons’ scandalously disproportionate confinement of people of color, often on drug charges despite the majority of users being white. No other nation incarcerates its racial/ethnic groups at a higher rate. A new racialized “caste” has emerged, Alexander writes, like the old Jim Crow. Especially Black communities are locked into an ever-deepening politics of disempowerment.
So, “long distance revolutionary” for what?
For a freedom from this legacy of the 1960s, freedom from powerful structures that dispossess and incarcerate the black, brown and poor, freedom from racist regimes that undermine national ideals of justice for all. Abu-Jamal has been a “revolutionary” for that freedom.
Martin Luther King, in 1963, named prisons and policing as threats to full freedom in rarely-cited words of his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” There, he intoned, “Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.”
King felt even greater persecution and surveillance after his 1965 speech criticizing the Vietnam War, U.S. imperialism and corporate power. A White House advisor termed this “Martin throwing in with the Hanoi Hawks.” Authorities feared rising national alliances of Blacks, Asians and other war-dissenters.
The film dramatizes Abu-Jamal’s struggle through these times. From his youth in the late-1960s, he organized among his city’s racialized poor communities. He was personally “staggered by the winds of police brutality,” recalling King’s words.
Abu-Jamal and Black communities in Philadelphia suffered this in full measure in the years of former Mayor Frank Rizzo: high schoolers beaten for peaceful protests, whole neighborhoods suffering police brutality, community leaders harassed. In 1985, police dropped a military explosive on the MOVE family/activist home, decimating 65 neighboring homes.
As funding grew for policing in cities like Rizzo’s the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) under Director J. Edgar Hoover acted out its fear of a “Black messiah” rising from urban communities. While Abu-Jamal had never been charged with a crime, the FBI compiled over 600 pages about him. COINTELPRO targeted King and other leaders in the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, American Indian and Chinese-American movements. This is meticulously documented in works like Kenneth O’Reilly’s, Racial Matters.
In sum, the state’s fear of activists organizing in their communities of color prompted both repression of those activists, and also the “drug war” policing of activists’ entire communities, thus driving U.S. mass incarceration to unprecedented levels, and anchoring the racialized caste regime of today.
Altering these state practices will require, as Alexander warns, nothing less than a “mass movement.” This is because ending mass incarceration demands ending the politics of dispossession and repression that drive it. It will require anti-racist advocacy, and ending government’s dispossession of the poor. It means also, she stresses, ending the ways U.S. weapons industries and private companies now invest heavily in U.S. prisons.
For such a mass movement, whole communities must tap into a collective “long distance revolutionary” spirit.
Abu-Jamal, alongside other political prisoners, has been an exemplar of this spirit, from days as a young activist to his present writings from prison. Across seven books and thousands of essays, he has exposed, explained, and resisted the political maneuvers creating today’s “prisons for profit complex.” Moreover, he has linked that complex – as did Martin Luther King, Jr. and others –to U.S. wars abroad.
The film, Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary, shows no stereotyped revolutionary. Instead it foregrounds the long-distance struggle of one whose journey has been to create life in the face of systems of social death. That struggle delivered Abu-Jamal into a racist trial, decades on death row, and now prison. But this film is one more testimony to the power of his struggle, a “long distance revolutionary” struggle – for a comprehensive and liberating justice, for all, which is the mark of any real freedom.
Mark Lewis Taylor is the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture, Religion & Society, at Princeton Theological Seminary.