My North Star

How Mumia Abu-Jamal Led Me to Activism

Walidah Imarisha at a Free Mumia protestIn 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 Advanced Placement history independent study teacher after I quit AP history on the first day. I opened the textbook, saw only ten pages of glossy photos labeled "Before Columbus" out of the two-thousand-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. Thought 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 me 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 Whiteaker neighborhood. Never go to the Whiteaker 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 an old boxy Mac, reading them while I did and learning about the activities of white supremacists in the region and the resistance movement of Cesar Chavez. Talk of the Zapatistas, US political prisoners, Sandinistas, Central America, Cuba, apartheid, Assata Shakur, and Malcolm X 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 a cardigan sweater and converse sneakers, he looked more at home on 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 from 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 three in the morning, neglecting schoolwork and my favorite show on TV to finish.

Mumia. Award-winning independent journalist and one-time president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. Now resident on Pennsylvania's death row. His reporting helped lay the foundation for Philadelphia to be one of the two police departments ever indicted by the US 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. The blatantly racist judge said he was going to help the prosecution "fry the nigger." The prosecutor repeatedly violated Mumia's constitutional rights. The incompetent defense attorney was later disbarred. There were no resources for research or experts. When he tried to assist in his own defense, Mumia was physically bound and gagged. He was 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 forty 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 Island. 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.

The light from Mumia's words in Live from Death Row illuminated a path, which led me to the gates of countless prisons, from the 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 discovered what integrity looks like when it carries the weight of death on its back. In his essay "LA 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) that 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 thirty years. He has refused both their stick and their carrot, the insidious psychological games designed to compromise our character, our very souls.

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, this would be 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 was not allowed to touch his wife and his children. 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 twenty minutes early. A group of patchwork pants-wearing, patchouli-doused 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 ten young people, some in all black with patches on their ripped up hoodies, approached me. Carried signs reading "Free Mumia!" and "Free All Political Prisoners."

A woman with a mouth as 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 ten minutes, the group of forty 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 I was at 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 fifteen-year-old man-child sentenced as an adult. Fifteen to thirty 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 athump 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.

This essay was originally published by The Feminist Wire.


Civic Life, Education, Equity, Justice, Oregon, Power, Race


1 comments have been posted.

This essay barely scratches the surface of what a wonderful and compassionate person Walidah Imarisha is. We are lucky to have her and so many like her.

Ray Davies | December 2015 | Portland, Oregon

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