May 24, 2013
The Unsilenced Voice of a ‘Long-Distance Revolutionary’
Posted on Dec 9, 2012
By Chris Hedges
The breadth of his reading, which along with his writing and 3,000 radio broadcasts has kept his mind and soul intact, is staggering. His own books are banned in the prison. In conversation he swings easily from detailed discussions of the Opium Wars between 1839 and 1860 to the Black Panthers to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the series of legislative betrayals of the poor and people of color by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. He cites books by Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Huey P. Newton, Assata Shakur, Eric Foner, Gore Vidal, Cornel West, Howard Zinn, James Cone and Dave Zirin. He talks about Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, “Cinque,” Harriet Tubman, Charles Deslondes, Denmark Vesey and Sojourner Truth. He is reading “Masters of War” by Clara Nieto, “How the World Works” by Noam Chomsky, “The Face of Imperialism” by Michael Parenti and “Now and Then” by Gil Scott-Heron. He wonders, as I do, what shape the collapse of empire will take. And he despairs of the political unconsciousness among many incoming prisoners, some young enough to be his children.
“When I first got out in the yard and I heard groups of men talking about how Sarah was going to marry Jim or how Frank had betrayed Susan, I thought, ‘Damn, these cats all know each other and their families. That’s odd,’ ” he says. “But after a few minutes I realized they were talking about soap operas. Television in prison is the great pacifier. They love ‘Basketball Wives’ because it is ‘T and A’ with women of color. They know how many cars Jay-Z has. But they don’t know their own history. They don’t understand how they got here. They don’t know what is being done to them. I tell them they have to read and they say, ‘Man, I don’t do books.’ And that is just how the empire wants it. You can’t fight power if you don’t understand it. And you can’t understand it if you don’t experience it and then dissect it.”
Abu-Jamal’s venom is reserved for politicians such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, whom he correctly excoriates for speaking in the language of traditional liberalism while ruthlessly disempowering the poor and the working class on behalf of their corporate patrons. And he has little time for the liberals who support them.
“It was Clinton that made possible the explosion of the prison-industrial complex,” he says, speaking of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill.
“Most of these people wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Bill Clinton,” he says of the other inmates. “He and Barack Obama haven’t done anything for poor people but lock them up. And if our first African-American president isn’t going to halt the growth of the prison-industrial complex, no president after him is going to do it. This prison system is here to stay. The poor and the destitute feed it. It is the empire’s solution to the economic crisis. Those who are powerless, who have no access to diminishing resources, get locked away. And the prison business is booming. It is one of the few growth industries left. It used to be that towns didn’t want prisons. Now these poor rural communities beg for them. You look down the list of the names of the guards and see two or three with the same last names. This is because fathers, brothers, spouses, work here together. These small towns don’t have anything else.”
The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world—742 adults per 100,000. There are some 2.2 million adults incarcerated in federal and state prisons and local jails. About 5 million are on probation or parole. Seventy percent of the inmates are nonwhite.
The Omnibus Crime Bill, pushed through the Senate with the help of Joe Biden, appropriated $30 billion to expand the nation’s prison program. It gave $10.8 billion in federal matching funds to local governments to hire 100,000 new police officers over five years. It provided $10 billion for the construction of new federal prisons. It expanded the number of federal crimes to which the death penalty applied from two to 58. It eliminated an existing statute that prohibited the execution of mentally incapacitated defendants. It instituted the three-strikes proposal that mandates life sentences for anyone convicted of three “violent” felonies. It ordered states to track sex offenders. It permitted children as young as 13 to be tried as adults. It set up special courts to deport noncitizens alleged to be “engaged in terrorist activity” and authorized the use of secret evidence. The prison population during the Clinton presidency jumped from 1.4 million to 2 million. The United States has spent $300 billion since 1980 on the prison system.
Abu-Jamal talks in the interview about being a Black Panther and the use of violence as a form of political resistance throughout history. He speaks of visiting the Chicago apartment where Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was shot to death by Chicago police and the FBI while he slept on Dec. 4, 1969. He calls Hampton, who was 21 when he was killed, “one of the bright lights.” Abu-Jamal chokes up and his eyes glisten with tears. “Fred … ,” he says as his voice trails off.
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