by Decarcerate PA

Pennsylvania legislators are trying to stop prisoners from speaking about their ideas and experiences. Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Vereb introduced a bill, HB2533, called the “Revictimization Relief Act,” which would allow victims, district attorneys and the attorney general to sue people who have been convicted of “personal injury” crimes for speaking out publicly if it causes the victim of the crime “mental anguish.”

Decarcerate PA Free Speech posterThe bill was written in response to political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal’s commencement speech at Goddard College (see video below) and is a clear attempt to silence Mumia and other prisoners and formerly incarcerated people. We believe that this legislation is not actually an attempt to help victims, but a cynical move by legislators to stop people in prison from speaking out against an unjust system.

While to us this seems like a clear violation of the First Amendment, unfortunately the Pennsylvania General Assembly doesn’t agree, and they have fast-tracked the bill for approval and amended another bill, SB508, to include the same language. The legislation could be voted on as early as Wednesday, Oct. 15.

If this bill passes, it will be a huge blow to the movement against mass incarceration. People inside prisons play a leading role in these struggles, and their perspectives, analysis and strategy are essential to our work. Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who write books, contribute to newspapers, or even write for our Voices from the Inside section would run the risk of legal consequences just for sharing their ideas.

That’s why we are asking you to take action Tuesday, Oct. 14, by calling Pennsylvania lawmakers to tell them that prisoners should not be denied the right to speak.

If this bill passes, it will be a huge blow to the movement against mass incarceration. People inside prisons play a leading role in these struggles, and their perspectives, analysis and strategy are essential to our work.

Please call Pennsylvania legislators and demand that they vote NO on HB2533 and SB508. You can look up contact information at http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/home/findyourlegislator/.

We are also asking folks to call the following Senate leaders and ask them to stop the bill from moving forward:

  • Senate Majority Whip Pat Browne, 717-787-1349
  • Senate Minority Whip Anthony Williams, 717-787-5970
  • Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, 717-787-4712
  • Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, 717-787-7683

For more information, as well as call scripts and talking points, see http://decarceratepa.info/freespeech.

Please help us spread the word! To help spread the word on Facebook, see https://www.facebook.com/events/720386148042475/.

Decarcerate PA, a grassroots campaign working to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania, can be reached at DecarceratePA@gmail.com, 267-217-3372 and http://decarceratepa.info/. We demand that PA stop building prisons, reduce the prison population, and reinvest money in our communities.

Why we invited Mumia Abu-Jamal

by Jan Clausen

Mumia Abu Jamal 2013, web
After nearly 30 years on death row, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death penalty was exchanged for the “other death penalty,” a life sentence without the possibility of parole. This photo was taken shortly after his release last year.

On Sunday, Oct. 5, Mumia Abu-Jamal, African-American public intellectual and death row survivor, delivered a commencement address to graduates of Goddard College’s low residency bachelor’s program. The students chose their speaker and the speech was pre-recorded, given that Abu-Jamal is serving a sentence of life without parole in Pennsylvania.

Following announcement of the speaker choice, Goddard endured a barrage of scornful press reports, hate-laced phone messages, and social media backlash. Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey pressured the college to rescind its invitation, with police and corrections officials issuing similar calls.

As a Goddard faculty member and longtime social justice activist, I’ve been much distressed by the high volume of shrill, one-dimensional press coverage. You would never know that “convicted cop killer” Abu-Jamal (in Fox News parlance) was found by Amnesty International to have been deprived of a fair trial, nor that he and an impressive group of supporters here and abroad credibly claim he was framed.

Nor could you grasp why Goddard would let its graduates pick their speaker and stand firm as the controversy severely taxed the small Vermont college’s resources – or why so many faculty and staff see upholding our association with Abu-Jamal, who received his own Goddard B.A. in 1996, as not just “the right thing to do” but an affirmation of everything we’ve long been about.

Not that you would really expect any of this context to be clarified by sound-bite journalism and Facebook flame wars. Abu-Jamal represents a tradition of uncompromising progressive activism within grassroots African-American communities, a political lineage relentlessly marginalized in the current political environment.

This photo is posted on Watchdog.org with the following caption: “Gov. Tom Corbett, at podium, and state lawmakers want to give victims power to stop offenders from inflicting more anguish after a convicted cop-killer gave a commencement address at a Vermont college.” – Photo: Andrew Staub, PA Independent
This photo is posted on Watchdog.org with the following caption: “Gov. Tom Corbett, at podium, and state lawmakers want to give victims power to stop offenders from inflicting more anguish after a convicted cop-killer gave a commencement address at a Vermont college.” – Photo: Andrew Staub, PA Independent

Meanwhile, Goddard’s own roots in a radical educational philosophy that values critical dialogue and social engagement don’t make sense to a public encouraged to see higher education as job market training, worthwhile only when “learning” can be quantified and monetized.

Yet, in a wonderful irony, the obfuscating public uproar has sparked a rich internal conversation among Goddard’s faculty, staff, students and alumni. Does our penal system deserve the label “prison-industrial complex”? If so, why?

Do recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, illuminate historical dynamics between police and low-income communities of color on levels relevant to what happened when Officer Faulkner was killed in Philadelphia in 1981 – the crime for which Abu-Jamal was convicted?

Apart from the specifics of this case, what are the implications of the fact that the name Mumia Abu-Jamal still sparks outrage in people who would never blink at academic honors for men like William Burroughs and Louis Althusser, both of whom killed their wives?

How can we uncover and name the often hidden ways in which race and class assumptions are buried within these reactions? Most challenging of all, how might we as faculty and students in a small, nontraditional liberal arts college begin to address our own participation and complicity in the oppressive aspects of the larger education system?

In 1970 when he was only 15, Mumia was already serving as minister of information for the Philadelphia Black Panthers, working as a journalist on The Black Panther newspaper. – Photo: Philadelphia Inquirer
In 1970 when he was only 15, Mumia was already serving as minister of information for the Philadelphia Black Panthers, working as a journalist on The Black Panther newspaper. – Photo: Philadelphia Inquirer

Goddard alumnus Kevin Price, who works on Abu-Jamal’s defense, has written eloquently (see below) of how his own enrollment at Goddard was partly inspired by his contact with the man. He concludes that despite many “wonderful symbolic reasons to support Mumia as a commencement speaker, Mumia is not a symbol. He is a man who was wrongfully held in solitary confinement on death row for nearly 30 years and is now being wrongfully held in general population with no legal possibility for parole. … He is a man with a brilliant mind and an unstoppable pen. … With so much at stake it only seems right that we listen.”

The example of this student’s educational journey bears out the observation of Dr. Herukhuti, Goddard Faculty Council chair, that it is our educational philosophy rather than the political content of our academic program that makes Goddard a radical college: “We have created a space for people, like Mumia and our thousands of students and alumni/ae around the world, who have tremendous obstacles to their educational ambitions to unshackle their dreams and achieve their goals. We have created an incubator for thinkers, artists, healers, activists and writers who have decided not to allow their brilliance to be diminished nor snuffed out behind the walls of any form of prison — real or metaphoric.”

How I wish that Goddard could “publish” our internal dialogue, thereby usefully complicating the seductively simplistic mainstream media account. What a teachable moment that would be!

Jan Clausen is a poet whose most recent book is “Veiled Spill: A Sequence” (GenPop Books, 2014). She teaches in the Goddard College M.F.A. in Writing Program and can be reached on her website, Aflationsite. This story previously appeared on Inside HigherEd, with this caveat: “The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.”

The Commencement controversy and the real Mumia

by Kevin Price

Mumia and his messages are followed and admired around the world. Every December in Mexico City, Mexican supporters hold Mumia Solidarity Week. This is Jorge Salinas, a former political prisoner, singing to the crowd on Dec. 9, 2008.
Mumia and his messages are followed and admired around the world. Every December in Mexico City, Mexican supporters hold Mumia Solidarity Week. This is Jorge Salinas, a former political prisoner, singing to the crowd on Dec. 9, 2008.

Three weeks ago I visited imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Mahanoy in Pennsylvania. I’ve been visiting with Mumia, sometimes regularly, for the last decade. Despite the polarizing rhetoric from those who’ve fought for three decades for Mumia’s state sanctioned murder, the man I met is one of the kindest, funniest and most intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to know.

The first time I visited with Mumia, on death row at SCI Greene in 2004, the conversation was so engaging that the visit was halfway over before I realized his hands had been shackled the whole time. After years of organizing around his case, I knew he was a brilliant thinker, but I was pleasantly surprised by his sense of humor and silliness.

I learned of Mumia’s case as a teenager in 1997, when my world was rocked by reading his gripping book documenting death row life, “Live From Death Row.” The same week I purchased his newly released collection of musings, essays and poems, “Death Blossoms.” I stayed up all night reading it, inspired by the empathy and insight coming through the pages.

At that point I was a freshmen in high school and had begun to get politicized by an active punk scene in Norfolk, Va. Mumia’s writing opened my eyes to worlds I had never even considered. I started organizing heavily for a new trial for Mumia as well as working on many other causes and movements. After over 15 years studying this case, I know that his trial was a travesty of justice – as do Amnesty International and many international governing bodies – and I believe that he is innocent.

In person and in his writings, Mumia rarely focuses on his own case, instead focusing on broad international struggles for justice. On our most recent visit, we talked about books we’re reading, world events and mutual friends. For a few years he’s been studying musical composition and when I told him that I didn’t know how to read music, he spent an hour passionately explaining the basics to me. I learned a lot.

These visits have been some of the most educational hours of my life. It’s easy, absorbed in conversation, to forget that we are in a prison. It’s hard to comprehend that this man was nearly put to death on two separate occasions and that the mere mention of his name will send many into a fit of rage.

Support is strong for Mumia in Pennsylvania, despite his demonization by the governor and some legislators. This is the crowd that came to National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Dec. 9, 2011, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Mumia’s imprisonment. – Photo: Joseph Piette, Workers World
Support is strong for Mumia in Pennsylvania, despite his demonization by the governor and some legislators. This is the crowd that came to National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Dec. 9, 2011, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Mumia’s imprisonment. – Photo: Joseph Piette, Workers World

If they actually met Mumia, they wouldn’t recognize him next to the violent cop-killer straw man the media built in his image. Mumia has been characterized by much of the mainstream media as an unrepentant murderer. When word got out that an audio recording by Mumia would be the commencement address at Goddard College this Sunday (Oct. 5), Fox News and other media pundits manufactured a media controversy.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of backlash by the Fraternal Order of Police and others who want Mumia dead. When Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys organized a massive benefit show in his defense, there was media uproar and pressure to shut down the show. When Mumia was made the first honorary citizen of Paris, France, since Pablo Picasso, and Saint-Denis, France, named a street after him, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 1082 condemning Mumia and Saint-Denis, France.

The hysteria over having Mumia as the commencement speaker at Goddard is just the most recent in a long series of similar media spectacles. This one hits a bit closer to home for me because I graduated from Goddard College in 2012 and have friends who will be graduating this Sunday. I love Goddard and am very protective of it. Conversations with Mumia were part of the catalyst for my enrolling in Goddard. He attended Goddard in the ‘70s and finished his degree there in 1995, knowing he might be executed before graduation.

It’s difficult to watch a person that you love and respect routinely slandered in the media. Goddard College and their graduating students have been condemned for their decision and attacked as well. I’m impressed with the way the school and the graduating students are defending their decision.

There are a number of symbolic reasons it’s valuable to have Mumia speak at commencement. The United States is the largest jailer in the world history, with over 2,000,000 people in the prison system. Racism plays a key role in deciding who will be convicted and the sentence they will receive, and as a result Black men are incarcerated at vastly disproportionate numbers.

Mumia holds his little daughter Goldii, who is now a mother and well known hip hop artist in Philadelphia.
Mumia holds his little daughter Goldii, who is now a mother and well known hip hop artist in Philadelphia.

The lack of educational opportunities and diminishing job options are a huge factor in our skyrocketing rates of imprisonment. If we seek to change these conditions, I can think of no better speaker than Mumia Abu-Jamal, an accomplished academic and brilliant Black man who is wrongfully convicted. With the rampant police murders of Black people, notably Eric Garner and Mike Brown, it’s important to publicly assert that Black lives matter and that the victims of police brutality and judicial misconduct must be defended.

These are wonderful symbolic reasons to celebrate the choice of Mumia as a commencement speaker. However, Mumia is not a symbol. He is a man who was wrongfully held in solitary confinement on death row for nearly 30 years and is now being wrongfully held in general population with no legal possibility for parole.

He has children who have had children in the years he’s been away. He is a man with a brilliant mind and an unstoppable pen. Those who oppose him have been fighting for decades to silence his voice. Yet every week, often twice a week, Mumia continues work as a journalist, writing and recording audio commentaries over the prison phone calls. With so much at stake it only seems right that we listen.

Mumia is not a symbol. He is a man who was wrongfully held in solitary confinement on death row for nearly 30 years and is now being wrongfully held in general population with no legal possibility for parole.

To hear Mumia’s commentaries go to http://www.prisonradio.org. For more information on who Mumia is, his case and his writings go to http://www.freemumia.com

Kevin Price, a social justice activist, musician and horticulturalist, can be reached on Facebook. His activism focuses on U.S. prison issues, political prisoners and the death penalty, and other liberation struggles. His blog is TruthThroughStruggle.

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