Mumia's Last Stand

A Celebrated Death-Row Inmate Implores Angela Davis to Organize the People on His Behalf


In the wake of AIA's Cop Killer pamphlet, supporters of Abu-Jamal have embarked on their own campaign to free him. It began with an October 13 pilgrimage to death row by Angela Davis. Now a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Davis had been trying for months to arrange a meeting with Abu-Jamal.

Much to the dismay of Accuracy in Academia, Davis has been touring college campuses touting her crusade to organize a new civil rights movement to overhaul a prison system that she says locks up a disproportionate number of blacks, Latinos, and other minorities. But on the eve of the signing of Abu-Jamal's death warrant, Davis and Pam Africa, the prisoner's longtime confidant, were wading through the rigid protocol for visitors at the State Correctional Institution in Greene County, Pennsylvania.

"I walked in with Pam Africa and a number of other people into the main waiting room," Davis told the Voice. "The fact that we were about to visit a prisoner on death row was quite evident. I had trouble making it through the metal detector because I wore a top that had a zipper. And after we were finally ushered into the second waiting room, we entered a little door when Jamal's name was called. Simply an announcement, 'Jamal!' And of course, for those who weren't familiar with the ritual, one wouldn't know what to do. At that point we walked down a long corridor and could glimpse the windows of some of the death- row cells that were basically narrowed slits of Plexiglas with mostly metal. Finally, we went into the third waiting room and waited once again for the announcement, 'Jamal!' at which point he was brought into one of the tiny cubicles separated by a Plexiglas window."

The ritual conjured up memories of Davis's own harrowing experience in a California prison. "It is, on the one hand, very familiar, but at the same time distressing," she says. In the late '60s and '70s, Davis dominated the national spotlight as one of the most formidable members of the Black Panthers. In 1972, she served 18 months in jail awaiting trial on charges of aiding in the kidnapping of three San Quentin prisoners and supplying the gun used to kill four people during the incident. She was acquitted.

Davis and Africa strode over to cubicle 14, taking their place next to a representative of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, who was visiting a Haitian American death-row inmate. "I walked into the cubicle and immediately saw this man with this wonderful smile," Davis recalls. "It was the first time I've ever seen him. The first impression I got of Mumia was that he is an extremely warm human being and very easy to converse with. There were no formalities. We didn't have to go through a protocol of meeting each other. We immediately began to talk as if we'd known each other for a long time."

Davis spent almost two hours chatting with the renowned prisoner. Abu-Jamal had done some catching up on the activist, having read Joy James's The Angela Y. Davis Reader in preparation for the visit. After discussing history, philosophy, and Abu-Jamal's unfinished master's thesis, "A Life in the Party," Davis asked him what he felt she could do to energize the campaign for his freedom. Abu-Jamal suggested that she dredge up the story about her politically charged trial.

"Well, I asked him why. I was just a bit shocked," says Davis, adding that more than 30 years had gone by and she did not intend to talk publicly about her case anymore. But Abu-Jamal argued that such a strategy would force people to think about the parallels in their predicaments. He persuaded her to reminisce.

"During the time my trial took place, there was an enormous movement that was organized all over the country and the world," Davis remembers. "We had resources that came directly from the work that the movement had done. So that, had I found myself in the predicament in which he found himself in 1981, the outcome of my trial more than likely would have been the same. I would not have been able to count on excellent attorneys. One of the points he asked me to talk about is that there were 400 prosecution witnesses listed when we received the discovery material in my case. Had we not had the resources, it would have been impossible to even discover what it was they were going to testify about."

That made a lot of sense. Then Davis tried to get Abu-Jamal to talk about the troubles he's seen; she had spent only 18 months in prison while he was marking his 18th year behind bars. How is he able to survive the torment of such a long confinement?

"What I found most impressive about Mumia was that he was very reluctant to talk about his case," Davis points out. "He always conceptualized it, just as his writing focuses on other prisoners on death row, on the sort of immensity of the problems that we're confronting. He thinks collectively. He said that he always thinks about himself in relation to others, never about himself. Even if he is able to win his case it would not be a personal victory."

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