An interview with Mark Lewis Taylor, founder of Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal
by the Jamal Journal
May 21, 2021 – Mark Lewis Taylor has been a professor in religion and society at Princeton Theological Seminary since 1982. He is also the founder of Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ), which was first known as Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal (AMAJ). In 2007, he co-authored “20 FAQs: The Pedro Polakoff Crime Scene Photos” with Journalists for Mumia. In recent years, he has also been working as Mumia’s spiritual advisor.
In this new interview, Professor Taylor covers many topics including his personal observations from Judge Sabo’s 1995-97 PCRA (Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act) hearings. Taylor also confronts Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s Feb. 3 brief filed in opposition to all of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeals. In support of the critiques made previously by Pam Africa and Dr. Ricardo Alvarez, Taylor now makes his own response to DA Krasner’s continued defense of Mumia’s unjust 1982 conviction.
If you have not yet done so, please sign our Color of Change petition to DA Krasner.
A shortened version of this interview will be featured in the Jamal Journal Newspaper Issue #2. We are now fundraising through the end of May for both printing and postage costs. Please consider making a donation here.
Jamal Journal: How did you first learn about Mumia’s case?
Mark Lewis Taylor: I still remember a rainy day in 1994 when I was just back from a summer of research and connecting with Maya activist groups in Guatemala, struggling then as it long had against European colonization, now against the neocolonialism of U.S.-backed governments in Central America. At the time of that 1994 trip back to the U.S., I was also taking up again some of the prison activist work I had done even earlier in the 1970s when working in the Virginia State Penitentiary investigating prisoner complaints.
So in the midst of all this, on the way into a New York City coffee shop to wait out the rain, I purchased a thin newspaper sold by a grassroots homeless organization – Street News, I think it was. There I read my first column by Mumia. I’m quite sure it was “War on the Poor,” which was also recorded by Prison Radio.
Afterwards I began using many of Mumia’s writings in graduate-level classes. His writings ignited student thinking on the politics of imprisonment, policing and the death penalty. I resolved that if officials ever signed a death warrant to silence Mumia, “I couldn’t live my life as usual” (at least that’s what I found myself muttering to myself then).
Why that resolve? I often ask myself that. The answer I give is that by committing forthrightly to the movement to keep alive and release Mumia, I would be involved at the same time on multiple political fronts of liberation. I had already found that to support any one prisoner in the archipelago of U.S. mass incarceration demanded one’s utmost. It is to face a kind of abyss of human need.
While I’ve had to maintain some work for other prisoners too, the work for Mumia was such that by working for him, I felt, I was also working for so many more, and also on the larger fronts of national and international social change and liberation. (I do not accept the current squeamishness of U.S. academic culture making them reluctant to use the word “liberation,” even though I believe we should define it and use it carefully.)
Being at work as a full-time professor, in work that itself required far more than 40 hours a week, I needed every hour of my “outside” movement work to count politically in as comprehensive a way as I could imagine. Work for Mumia enabled that. That’s what I felt.
So, when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge signed Mumia’s death warrant in 1995, I requested educators’ support for Mumia. I learned that many other educators had been using Mumia’s writings. And they too found his execution intolerable. My fax machine and email inbox blew up with responses from colleagues who wanted to go to work.
Thus began years of struggle to find ways to build educators into the larger movement for Mumia headed by International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal. We undertook years of organizing press conferences, newspaper ads and seeking other ways to build educators’ contributions into the larger movement.
We immediately took out ads in the Philadelphia Daily News, holding press conferences in Philadelphia. It was struggle, and we often faltered, got too busy with academic meetings and minutiae, with career advancement and more. But our moments of struggle went forward, and we continue. Our largest ad campaign culminated in a Sunday New York Times full page in the “Week in Review” section in May 2000. So, we were launched.
JJ: Why did you decide to attend the 1995 PCRA hearings in front of Judge Albert Sabo?
MLT: Well, I don’t remember any “deciding,” really. It was just a necessary stage of the movement work at the time. Besides, there was urgency in the air since Gov. Ridge had given Mumia an execution date. We joined the many who Pam Africa organized to pack the courtroom. I cannot recall who all among educators were present. I’m certain that Cornel West was (more on that below). There were other Philadelphia educators who had stepped forward for our ad campaigns and press conferences, who may also have been there: Achille Mbembe, E. Ann Matter, Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, Farah Jasmine Griffin (all four, then at UPENN), also Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of Columbia University.
Cornel West, Angela Y. Davis and Manning Marable had already been to the fore of the struggle for Mumia long before me. They supported EMAJ (Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal) in very helpful ways. Manning Marable once told me, for example, “Always use my name in support of your events.” I am not sure if Davis and Marable were at the PCRA hearings or not. Marable at Columbia was a formative teacher for Dr. Johanna Fernández who assumed so many leadership roles in EMAJ and now coordinates the campaign to Bring Mumia Home.
I remember so much about those PCRA hearings: Pam Africa and MOVE organizing the seating in the courtroom and the rallies outside, Mumia coming into the courtroom in shackles and greeting us with raised fist, and Mumia’s lawyers drawing the ire of Judge Albert Sabo.
JJ: What do you think of Kiilu Nyasha’s description of Sabo’s courtroom in her essay, “Witness to a Lynching”?
MLT: I still find Nyasha’s write-up to be accurate, especially in its description of the general ethos of humiliation and intimidation that Judge Sabo stoked and allowed prosecutors to inject into the proceedings. I personally did not see Sabo nod off, but he ran the courtroom indeed as the notorious “hanging judge” who had sent so many other Philadelphians to death row and long prison sentences with the racially biased demeanor that so many of us have long denounced. Even reporters working for established news venues in Philadelphia recognized this bias to be in operation.
Sometimes you wished Sabo would have fallen asleep more. What was so enraging was his continual denial of Mumia’s lawyers’ motions and his affirmation of the prosecutors’ objections. Sabo would also make off-hand remarks about Mumia’s plight, almost taunting him with references to the pending execution date.
I remember in one of the earlier hearings, when the antics of Sabo were so egregious, as he made so many off-hand racist comments and ran such a one-sided prosecutors’ courtroom. I was sitting beside Dr. Cornel West, then during his first stint at Harvard. At one point after a Sabo comment, Cornel rolled forward in his seat and gasped in loud whisper, “Mississippi 1955!”
Only toward the end of the hearings did Sabo finally relent and issue a stay of execution, precisely because of the large rallies in Philadelphia at the courthouse then and the presence in the courtroom of key dignitaries. On the day of the stay, I think the movement had helped facilitate the presence of Rev. Jesse Jackson in the courtroom among Mumia’s many other supporters. The stay came during one of the later hearings of the PCRA in 1995, really only 10 days away from the execution date in August.
JJ: In light of your experience observing Sabo, what is your response to DA Krasner’s Feb. 3, 2021, brief where he puts his stamp of approval on literally every single decision Judge Sabo made at both the 1982 trial and the later PCRA hearings?
MLT: Well, Krasner has to know what establishment reporters in Philadelphia know: All of Sabo’s courtrooms show at least a potential for racial bias as well as many comments that offer clear evidence of racial bias. Krasner also knows that the bar for tolerating racial bias in courtrooms is set exceedingly low. This “low bar” has been confirmed more than once, in a 1986 case (Batson v. Kentucky) and a 2008 case (Snyder v. Louisiana).
This means that the smallest amount of racial bias is often grounds for ruling in a defendants’ favor. One U.S. circuit court judge, Thomas Ambro of the Third Circuit, thought the low bar should be extended to Mumia, in keeping with the precedent confirmed by the Snyder case just a few weeks earlier. (See Ambro’s dissent in Abu-Jamal v. Horn et al, p. 78.)
But in the case of Mumia, who is often forced to labor under what Linn Washington has termed “The Mumia Exception,” the bar for proving racial bias was set so high that he is denied redress for what he has suffered. Krasner shows no interest in lowering the unfairly raised bar against Mumia. To perpetuate the state’s performance of that exception is to fail to be a prosecutor “for the people” of Philadelphia.
Krasner has a tendency to cite “the many other legal cases similar to Mumia’s” and the “many other problems and issues” that he wants to address progressively. He and his supporters often speak as if Krasner cannot keep up this “progressive” agenda, that he does need police cooperation to a certain extent to enact his reforms and can’t afford to alienate them.
The idea is that if he goes too far in challenging the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police), such as by pursuing litigation favorable to Mumia, the Philadelphia police and other political powers will block his larger agenda for change. It can appear that Krasner is sacrificing Mumia “for the greater good.” It is as if there is an unspoken deal with the FOP that Krasner gets to enact some positive reforms, so long as he doesn’t do anything that might lead to Mumia’s freedom.
I suggest, though, that with this kind of approach, Krasner risks losing even his more modest and comprehensive gains regarding other legal cases and issues. Remember, Mumia and his death remain a comprehensive aim of the FOP. Mumia remains the FOP’s “public enemy number one.”
If Krasner does not challenge the FOP at their own declared front-most battle line – on Mumia Abu-Jamal – then he really has not challenged the FOP fundamentally. He may achieve some short-term gains for “progressive” prosecuting, and indeed he has, but he has not really challenged the police power of the state that wants to kill Mumia and defeat the revolutionary and more humane form of the state for which Mumia fights.
JJ: In their recent SF Bay View newspaper articles, both Pam Africa and Dr. Ricardo Alvarez criticize page 5 of the Feb. 3 brief where Krasner endorses the official police version of Mumia’s arrest by writing that Mumia “resisted arrest” and “refused to walk” into the hospital. Dr. Alvarez writes: “The presumption that Mumia violently resisted arrest and then confessed is wrong, can be easily proven wrong, and is a form of harm that denies Mumia’s humanity.” What is your response to this section of Krasner’s Feb. 3 brief?
MLT: Well, I think that both Pam Africa and Ricardo Alvarez make their cases quite well for disproving these points as they occur in Krasner’s brief. Also, Pam’s and Ricardo’s claims have been underscored numerous times by several of Mumia’s attorneys.
What is further concerning about Krasner’s arguing these points is that, to my knowledge, while his brief introduces no new characters or events into prosecutors’ view of the crime, it does rephrase the story in slight but significant ways. In the brief, the DA’s Office is not recreating a new story, but the arrest scenario is tweaked so as to emphasize many of the excuses that we now receive from police who handle protestors or who rationalize their killing of Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples in the U.S. Doesn’t this language sound familiar – “resisting arrest,” “would not walk” or was “reaching for a gun”? This language is consistent with current state power’s attempts to rationalize and describe police beatings and killings of protestors and others.
The police have still not provided an account for the evident physical battery that Mumia suffered at the hands of the police upon his arrest. Mumia was so badly beaten, said his sister, Lydia, that she hardly recognized him. Mumia has recounted how, after being shot, he was also beaten and rammed into a street light pole. In all likelihood, he was beaten more in the back of a paddy wagon headed for the hospital before being dumped on the floor of its ER. Instead of considering any of this as possible, Krasner’s brief foregrounds notions about Mumia “reaching for a gun” that an Officer Shoemaker reports seeing “eight inches away from Mumia’s hand?”
Krasner knows cops have been found lying and has himself spoken out about police disinformation and perjured testimony. So, why not consider them to be lying about this story? The brief says Mumia was “resisting arrest” and then is reported to have “refused to walk”? This language is especially passable and plausible for that part of the public – still all too many – who today buy into cops’ arguments designed to rationalize racialized police violence.
JJ: Returning to the topic of lynching, what do you think of Pam Africa’s assertion that police attempted to lynch Mumia on the morning of Dec. 9, 1981?
MLT: Well look, we know that the young journalist Abu-Jamal had received threats from the police long before they found him at the curb of Locust and 13th on that early morning of 1981. Terry Bisson’s biographical reflection on Mumia, entitled “On a Move: The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal,” cites more than one occasion when Philadelphia police would drive slowly by Mumia making hand gestures of a pointed gun and moving trigger finger, as if they had him targeted for killing.
The 1981 police attack on Mumia occurred well after Mumia had served not only in the Panthers, but also after he had written to expose police practices against MOVE and other residents and after he had directly challenged the Rizzo pro-police regime. So, after all this, finding Mumia vulnerable and shot on a curb on Dec. 9 was an opportunity for attack the police could not pass up.
And yes, battering Mumia as they did that morning qualifies as an attempted lynching. If we recall the history of lynching, we know that those actions were not carried out only by mobs of general citizens. Lynching participants also included such officials as police, lawyers, even judges and local pastors, clad in Klan costumery or other disguise. And some felt emboldened to turn up and take pictures for posterity with no disguise at all!
Sure, maybe the early morning beating did not have the same status of spectacle that the “burning and hanging lynchings” had, but surely, if you add on Mumia’s later very public trial and death sentence, the function of Mumia’s overall brutal treatment is indeed that of a lynching. Lynching in the USA, like crucifixions in Rome were intended as a kind of public service announcement to the poor and repressed: “Act up like this one hanging before you now, and this too will become your fate!”
JJ: What do you think about the Medical Professionals for Mumia petition co-written by Dr. Alvarez?
MLT: The petition was a great thing to see. Even more, I think, is the way the group, “Medical Professionals for Mumia” is mobilizing the conscience of medically-trained personnel to act on the myriad health issues posed for the increasing numbers of infirm and elderly who are incarcerated and on the ways white supremacy is at work in the profession and in the U.S. healthcare establishment. Elite higher education is also often rife with pervasive white supremacist postures and practices.
Moreover, it is so important that Dr. Ricardo is taking the advocacy and work for Mumia into his own profession. Of course, he has been a participant in the larger diverse movement. But his instincts are so right, it seems to me, to attempt to integrate the broader movement for Mumia and for all political prisoners and the incarcerated into the work-world he inhabits. I think all of us need to attempt something like this in whatever be our places of work. Not everyone can take the movement work into their work-world, into their everyday spaces of employment. I know that. It is important, though, to try where we can.
Our founding reflex of Educators for Mumia was to integrate the broader movement into the daily educational labor of teachers, as well as to enable teachers to participate in and support the larger national and international work of the movement. So, I view the petition and its vision to be an exciting development as it seeks to take the concerns of our movement into the medical profession.
JJ: A central piece of evidence cited by our Color of Change petition to DA Krasner is the 2010 ballistics test conducted by Dave Lindorff and Linn Washington, where they concluded that “the whole prosecution story of an execution-style slaying of the officer by Abu-Jamal would appear to be a prosecution fabrication, complete with coached, perjured witnesses, undermining the integrity and fairness of the entire trial.” Pam Africa has now issued a public challenge to both Michael Smerconish and DA Krasner to try and disprove the conclusions of the 2010 test. How significant do you think are the conclusions of Lindorff’s and Washington’s test?
MLT: Very significant indeed. Here are two investigative journalists who know the case inside and out. Neither of them can be dismissed as a naïve advocate who might quickly throw out claims that have no evidence. On the contrary, both have a thorough knowledge of the trial transcripts. Linn Washington has written and researched the case continuously since he visited the crime scene within one hour of the incident. Dave Lindorff has written a detailed, book-length and fair analysis of the entire case. And here, in the video of their 2010 ballistics test, they raise serious questions about the veracity of prosecution claims that Mumia stood over Officer Faulkner lying on his back and executed him with a shot to the head with other shots hitting the sidewalk. So Pam’s challenge is right-on. Let DA Krasner and media talking head Smerconish respond to the video.
The Lindorff-Washington ballistics test joins other forms of exculpatory evidence that need revisiting in the form of media attention and more adequate judicial review. Among these forms I would include the following: (a) the argument for racial bias in jury selection that emerged with training-tapes by prosecutor Jack McMahon advising young prosecutors about how and when to keep Blacks off juries, (b) Veronica Jones’ 1996 recantation of her being pressured by cops to lie against Mumia at the original 1982 trial and (c) court stenographer’s sworn affidavit that during the trial she heard the notoriously racist Judge Sabo say out of court in another room, “Yeah, and I’m gonna help them fry the n***er.” Some of these have been reviewed quickly under judicial review, some totally ignored.
None of these forms of evidence for Mumia will see the light of day, much less receive serious judicial review without public pressure. And that’s why Pam’s challenge to Krasner and Smerconish on the ballistics test is so significant.
JJ: Let’s shift to looking at your role as Mumia’s spiritual advisor. What can you tell us about that? How has it been communicating with Mumia in recent months, since the COVID and congestive heart failure diagnosis in late February and then heart surgery in April?
MLT: Yes, I had been in to visit Mumia about once every month, often for visits as long as 3-4 hours, for four years prior to the arrival of the COVID pandemic. I saw him in January 2020, and then didn’t have a visit until video visits of 2021.
Obviously, I value every minute of any visit with Mumia, whether in person or on video (limited by the DOC to 45 minutes). Moreover, I try to make the visits count for the movement, by facilitating communication between Mumia and other family members and the movement when I can.
I visited by video once with him, between the time of his COVID diagnosis, and then his going into the hospital for surgery. It is especially enraging to experience Mumia’s “being disappeared,” as he was when taken in for heart surgery. To deny his family and friends – as well as outside medical advisor – knowledge of his whereabouts exacerbates the medical trauma for everyone. This is part of the state’s violence against the incarcerated and their families, which the state seeks to justify with its concerns for “security.”
I put a minister’s collar on and searched out some nearby hospitals and eventually confirmed where he was hospitalized. But of course, neither I nor Dr. Ricardo Alvarez, with whom I was in touch about this, were given any kind of access (even by phone). Ricardo and I sent a communication into the hospital, urging its supervising officials to keep the shackles off Mumia and to open all necessary communication between Mumia and his family and key supporters.
We received nothing but denials from hospital security that Mumia was even there. After much phoning of the prison, the governor’s office and the hospital, I did receive a brief call from the PA DOC’s (Pennsylvania Department of Corrections) special counsel saying that his lawyers would make sure that Mumia could call his wife 15 minutes a day. That did happen, as I understand it, because two of Mumia’s lawyers, Bret Grote and Bob Boyle, kept pressure on DOC officials.
I don’t view the role of a “spiritual advisor” in prison to be primarily that of a sharer of words from sacred texts or the imparting of religious wisdom per se. Maybe there’s a place for that at times when it is requested by prisoners. But recall, the notion of “spirit” in most languages refers to breath, to breathing that makes for life. To work spirit, to facilitate spirit, then, is to open up passages that allow life to occur and grow. In that sense, fostering connections and opening passageways between Mumia and his family, his friends and his necessary advocates – all this is spirit work even as it is also very material, often also a kind of political practice.
The established religions of colonizers and imperialists have regularly instilled in people the idea that spirit is somehow antithetical to body. In fact, the spirit is the life of the body, the life animating our struggle to liberate all realms of material creation that suffer from oppression and injustice.
JJ: How does Mumia and your work with him relate to your scholarly interest in “liberating spirit?”
MLT: Well, as your question indicates, you know I’ve explained this notion of “liberating spirit” elsewhere, as at my website. Liberating spirit creates freeing ways of being amid global and local structures and during the daily practices that grind us down, that destroy humanity and earth – that oppress. Liberating spirit names a way being “political” in the broadest sense of engaging the powers that subjugate us. It is material life struggling and fighting, acting up creatively through the many arts and mobilizing new community with a steady relentless, resilience in our social movements to revolutionize our lives against a state that represses.
I guess that in the U.S. my participation in the work for Mumia has been a way to observe and feel “liberating spirit” to be at work in a profoundly full sense. Consider how many political issues and fronts are encountered through the movement for Mumia. The U.S. white supremacy that rationalized and then grew stronger in the wake of the slavery that built the U.S. capitalist system – well, Mumia writes in a way that remembers and foregrounds all that. He has been a vocal critic of the surveillance and police state that enforces the alienation of labor and protects the rule of capital.
He has been a spokesperson for the earth – “mother earth” as he writes with MOVE – the earth that nurtures us all. He has written my class with special commentary on the frequent erasure of women’s leadership from Christian and other religious organizations of colonizers and empire builders. He dreams, writes and works for futures free from empires and capitalists and for “the return of nature” and of a genuine “socialism and ecology.” (These latter phases are from the work of a writer whom both Mumia and I appreciate, John Bellamy Foster.)
This fullness of liberating struggle, across so many issues and up against so many fronts of resistance, has been evident from the time of Mumia’s earliest columns to his most recent writings. See for example the collection edited by Johanna Fernández in “Writing on the Wall.” Note the breadth of concerns covered in the three-volume work Mumia authored with Stephen Vittoria, “Murder Incorporated.” Again, one person cannot take up all that “liberating spirit” demands of thought and practice, but to work through the movement for Mumia Abu-Jamal is to find oneself at work, directly or indirectly on so many of the important challenges of our time. This is one of the reasons that even though I cannot be involved in as many actions of the movement for Mumia, I continually introduce my students to Mumia and the movement.
Let me give just one example of the way those struggling for and with Mumia have impacted others. In my video visit that occurred between Mumia’s COVID diagnosis and his heart surgery, he mentioned to me how deeply moved he was by words from his relatively new prison doctor, Dr. Baddick. That doctor had read Federal District Judge Robert Mariani’s decision in favor of Mumia in 2017, allowing him to be treated with antiviral meds for his Hepatitis C infection. Mumia with the help of the movement and legal work was not only saved, but something more happened. As Dr. Baddick said to Mumia: “You saved thousands of other lives.” (Indeed, Missouri is just one other state where I understand that Mumia’s case for his Hepatitis cure has since become precedent-setting for many other prisoners).
In a revised version of my 2015 work, “The Executed God” (397-450), a book which I dedicated to Mumia, I added a new final chapter on Mumia, explaining his importance. I borrowed literary Marxist critic Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “great criminal” to explain that the terrorizing and repressive state often makes certain figures into “great criminal” figures. They do this to demonize them to the fullest, because the state sees them as especially threatening, able to expose the founding violence of the state and also to stoke popular revolt and revolution against the state.
This is why the struggle for Mumia has been so hard. This is also why the struggle for Mumia remains so necessary: Mumia exposes the state’s violence and equips our comprehensive resistance to it.
The Jamal Journal is published by the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Visit www.jamaljournal.com.