The Ballsiness of the Long Distance Runner: A Chat With Mumia Abu-Jamal

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Mumia Abu-Jamal has been one of journalism's most outspoken voices for nearly 40 years. However, Mumia's greatest fame has come not from his written work, but from the fact that he is one of the most famous state "employees" in the country: he has been in state prison since 1982, serving on death row until just over a year ago.

Born Wesley Cook in Philadelphia, Abu-Jamal made his name as a tireless writer and journalist during the racially-charged 1970s that often portrayed the City of Brotherly Love as anything but. With his intense coverage of the M.O.V.E. organization, a black empowerment group whose ongoing battle with the police and city hall came to a fiery end in 1985, Abu-Jamal became a constant thorn in the side of the city's powerful establishment. Things came to a sudden head for Abu-Jamal himself on the evening of December 9, 1981 when he was accused of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. He received a death sentence the following year, and had been on Pennsylvania's death row until last year, when his death sentence was commuted to a life sentence in December, 2011.

Abu-Jamal's case remains one of the most controversial and heatedly debated in American legal history, with participants on both sides either protesting his innocence in the murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner or his absolute guilt with equal passion and more often, great vehemence.

As the focus of Stephen Vittoria's new documentary MUMIA: Long Distance Revolutionary, Mumia's story unfolds with the trajectory of a Greek tragedy, the truly tragic aspect being that far from being set in Greece, Mumia's story is all-too American.

In addition to their collaboration on Long Distance Revolutionary, Mumia and Vittoria are currently working on Murder Incorporated: Empire, Genocide, and Manifest Destiny, which began as a documentary in 2006 to also be helmed by Vittoria. After a year in production, Vittoria decided that "telling the 500-year story of the Euro-American march of genocide and exceptionalism across the Americas was too ambitious for a two-hour documentary." At the time, Abu-Jamal had recorded 25 short essays for the film -- essays Vittoria says "were some of Mumia's most brilliant pieces." It was this genesis that drew both men together and they decided to collaborate on a new tome of history (same title) that hopes to pick up where Howard Zinn left off. At this point, Abu-Jamal and Vittoria are writing hard and expect to be complete by the end of 2013.

MUMIA: Long Distance Revolutionary is a powerful indictment of the hypocrisy inherent in the American dream and is a must-see for any and all who are concerned with upholding the constitutional rights of all Americans. The film features appearances from a disparate group of Mumia supporters, including Dr. Cornel West, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Rubin Hurricane Carter, Tariq Ali, Ruby Dee, Dick Gregory, Peter Coyote, Giancarlo Esposito, M-1, and Amy Goodman. Eddie Vedder sings "Society." MUMIA: Long Distance Revolutionary is produced by Stephen Vittoria, Katyana Farzanrad, and Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio, and Stephen Vittoria, and is written, directed, and edited by Stephen Vittoria.

Mumia spoke with me via telephone from SCI Mahanoy in Frackville, Pa. recently. Here is what was said:

Alex Simon: I find the title of the film, Long Distance Revolutionary, fascinating, as well as the fact that the film focuses less on your case, and more on your lifetime's work as an activist and journalist.

Mumia-Abu Jamal: I'm told that the title came from the honorable Cornel West. Cornel speaks and we listen. (laughs) As far as the film's focus, I think Steve felt it was important to focus on the bigger picture.

Regarding that, where do you feel your precocity came from as a 15-year-old journalist for the Black Panther newspaper?

It came from something called Ramparts magazine and a sister named Andrea giving me a copy of the Black Panther newspaper. Those two journals blew my 14 and 15-year-old mind. I didn't think such a thing was possible. It was just electrifying and turned me on to revolutionary journalism in a way that was mind-blowing. I remember thinking while I was reading them, 'This can't be true. These people can't really exist.' They were like black angels from heaven.

It sounds like once you started writing, you found your voice almost immediately.

I think it should give some insight into what inspiration does. It charges you. It empowers you. It transforms you, actually. To have read those periodicals and then become part of the party. And that's my long distance battery. Remember the old slogan: "It keeps going and going and going?" This was a great time in black America. It was basically teenagers, manning and womaning a national and international organization and learning to do what needed to be done literally on the cuff. And we were doing it. We were writers, we were photographers, we did layout. And that paper came out without ads for the better part of a decade. And I don't know an example of another publication like that outside of the party. One hundred and fifty thousand copies every week. Not a bad piece of work. A lot of us were high school dropouts, like me. It shows what people can do when they get together and are inspired. Huey P. Newton was all of 24 years old when he founded the party with Bobby Seale.

Your late sister Lydia is prominently featured in the film. Can you talk a bit about her?

Up until the very recent time, I would never have been in existence without my sister being there. She was my older sister, although she didn't look it, and her spirit was certainly young. She was a beautiful, vibrant, always growing, always learning person. Think about a young woman growing up with five brothers. (laughs) She was a tough cookie. I always used to feel sorry for her boyfriends, because she would take no guff. I remember being a young kid of 8 or 9 years old, and I saw her knock her boyfriend over a railing. She was a tough cookie, but she loved her little brother, she loved her people and in many ways, our lives followed a similar trajectory in that she became more revolutionary as she got older. And that usually isn't the case, except with someone like W.E.B. Du Bois; most of us followed the exact opposite path: we're revolutionary in our teens and our youth and then become more conventional as we get older. But she was a great thinker, activist and revolutionary. I will love her forever and I miss her dearly.

So far, most of the reactions to Long Distance Revolutionary have been either great praise or outright vilification. What's your take on that?

I'm glad it's like that. If it's either/or, that shows they have an investment either positively or negatively. That's how change happens. We're all tempted sometimes to not rock the boat, but dammit, if we didn't rock the boat sometimes, I was about to say millions of African-Americans would still be walking around in chains, although that's a debatable issue still, given the mass incarceration so many of us are under. But change always happens in the face of controversy. We're going to need a movement to challenge this mass incarceration and the growth of the world's largest prison industry, the largest prison industry in human history. Controversy can be a good thing.

The Prison Industrial Complex is something that is addressed heavily in the film. Tell us a bit more about that.

The recent book The New Jim Crow, written by Michelle Alexander, has opened a lot of people's heads. There are generations now of people who live inside the reality of prison. It's a place where many sons meet their fathers and grandsons meet their grandfathers. It is an immense and stupefying industry of such proportions that most Americans have no idea. Michelle makes the point that there are more black men in prison now than there were slaves in 1860. I mean, damn! There more people in prison today in the U.S. than during the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Most people aren't aware of this, or they don't give a damn. So there needs to be a movement, and I hope that Long Distance Revolutionary plays a role in that movement.

What I wasn't aware of, is how much money prisons make for a whole lot of people.

It's not just prisons. It goes deeper. I watched Michelle today on C-SPAN. When she said that the drug war has cost over a trillion dollars, that blew my mind, particularly with all the economic hardship so many Americans are facing. And has the drug war been even remotely successful? Drugs are available in every prison in America. If they're available in every prison, they're available everywhere else in America: schools, street corners, office buildings. In fact, it's enriched the drug cartels. So it's a monumental failure, but it's also a trillion dollar industry.

Last year, you were released into the mainstream prison population for the first time after spending 30 years on death row. What's the adjustment been like?

In many ways, I'm still adjusting because I learn something new seemingly every day. I still have not gotten used to seeing long rows of men in wheel chairs, young men. That's something I rarely saw on death row. I'm also shocked at the age of some of these men. I mean men who've never shaved, but have been tried and convicted as adults, then on the opposite end of the spectrum, men who are very, very old. This is an incredible experience to see what prison populations are today. It ain't pretty, but it's something that people are going to have to come to grips with.

What's your opinion of the current state of American journalism?

The current state of American journalism is monstrous. I think the business of journalism has had its heyday. The reportage today, most of it is about fashion, sex, and just fluff. It's mind blowing and just painful for me to watch.

For a listing of screening locations and dates for "Long Distance Revolutionary," please visit here.

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