What does Obama’s promise of change mean for death row?

Last week, as I traveled through the Caribbean town of Phillipsburg on the island of St. Maarten to give a keynote address at the St. Martin Book Fair, Dennis, the taxi driver and a native of the island, asked me where I was from.

“Philly,” I said proudly.

“Free Mumia,” he called out with a smile.

I smiled, too, as I thought about similar experiences I’ve had in Germany, where they shout ‘Freiheit fur Mumia’; in France, where there is a street named in Mumia’s honor and they yell ‘Liberté’; or throughout America where they say ‘Free Mumia’ and ‘Free ‘Em All.’

These transcontinental experiences illustrate, in colorful reality, that Mumia Abu-Jamal—the African-American journalist, community activist, scholar, and father who, 28 years ago, in an unjust, kangaroo court, was convicted of murder and sentenced to Death Row—has been adopted as a symbol in the global struggle for justice and human rights.

It’s remarkable to consider that, even while on Death Row, Paris Mayor Betrand Delanoe named Mumia an honorary citizen, adding him to a list that includes Pablo Picasso and the Dalai Lama. Or that more than 25 other cities have given him honorary member status including Sicily, Venice, Quebec, San Francisco, and Palermo. Or that in 2002, he was awarded honorary membership of the Berlin-based Association of Those Persecuted by the Nazi Regime – Federation of Antifascists and Antifascist Groups.

Mumia joins a long legacy of African-American political prisoners. In 1927, scholar, activist, and Black Star Line founder Marcus Garvey was imprisoned and deported after being criminalized on a bogus charge of mail fraud. In 1951, scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois, Garvey’s rival during the 20’s, was imprisoned during the height of the Cold War for advocating world peace. He was officially charged with “failure to register as an agent of a foreign principle.”

As we arrived at the venue—the University of St. Martin—I climbed out of the cab and noticed an Obama sticker on the back window. Underneath the iconic Obama image, the word change jumped out. What does Obama, who ran on a platform of change, mean for Mumia? I wondered. What does change mean for Mumia?

Change is about more than Obama pardoning Mumia or the Supreme Court granting an appeal for a retrial, although both ideas would be welcomed. Change is about all of us reevaluating the status of America’s political prisoners and rethinking a deeply-flawed, institutionally-racist prison industrial complex that warehouses America’s poor and powerless. A brutal system that Mumia describes as “the bowels of the slave-ship, in the hidden dank dungeons of America where millions of people live, but millions of others wish to ignore or forget.”

While imprisoned, W.E.B. DuBois realized that he was connected to all African-American prisoners, writing, “We protect and defend sensational cases where Negroes are involved. But the great mass of arrested or accused black folks have no defense.”

More than fifty years later, DuBois’s words still ring true. If we, as citizens, want change, it’s important to see Mumia’s case—as well as Eddie Conway, Assata Shakur, Leonard Peltier, and other political and even non-political prisoners—as symptomatic of a larger, systemic problem that Columbia University Professor Manning Marable dubs the “new leviathan of racial inequality that has been constructed across our country.”

The late Ossie Davis believed this issue to be one of the cultural assignments of our time and reminded us, even as we face of tremendous adversity and opposition, to “Keep beating the drum, keep spreading the message, keep laughing and have a good time.”

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