By Chris Hedges
This undated file photo shows Mumia Abu-Jamal, who now faces life in prison instead of the death penalty. Jennifer E. Beach / AP Photo
FRACKVILLE, Pa.—Tens or even hundreds of thousands of Americans, like those in the visiting room of the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy, drove often for hours on the Fourth of July weekend to visit relatives or friends who are locked in cages. Millions suffered the painful absence this weekend of a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a son, a daughter or a friend. These people, mostly poor people of color, understand a dark truth about the cruelty and ultimate intentions of the corporate state. They know that “freedom,” “justice” and “liberty,” especially if you are poor, are empty slogans.
“We live in one of the most un-free systems on earth,” said the black revolutionary and author Mumia Abu-Jamal, whom I visited Saturday. “Mass incarceration is a reality endured by millions of people in prison and in the systems of repression that exist outside of prison. What does freedom mean to poor people who cannot walk freely down a street? What does freedom mean when they cannot find work? What does freedom mean when there is no justice in the courts? What does freedom mean when black people cannot attend a Bible study in a church without the fear of being murdered? Where is this American freedom they keep telling us about? I don’t see it. Black folks are more in danger, and being killed in even greater numbers, than during the reign of terror that was lynching and Jim Crow.”
Abu-Jamal, who is fighting off hepatitis C that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and the privatized prison medical service refuse to treat, scoffed when I asked him about the differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump is the real face of the ugly American empire,” he said. “Yes, he ain’t pretty. He ain’t black. He ain’t a woman. He has a fake tan and orange hair. His rhetoric is cruder. But his ideas are the same. The two major political parties are the abject servants of Wall Street and American empire über alles. They each support militarism, at home and abroad. They each support the indiscriminant murder of civilians from drones. They each support the worldwide archipelago of secret prisons. They each support mass incarceration of poor people, the suspension of habeas corpus and torture. It is only their talk that is different. What is the difference between being beaten up by a black cop or a white cop? The only solution is to rise up to stop the cops from beatin’ our asses and shootin’ us in the streets, our homes and our cars. I can assure you voting for Hillary Clinton won’t make a damn bit of difference. The Ku Klux Klan, after all, once served as the unofficial armed wing of the Democratic Party. You can’t invest hope in an organization with a history like that.
“The black political elites, including Barack Obama, are powerless,” he went on. “They are emblems. They are not the voice of black America. They are like a ventriloquist’s dummy. They mouth the same words the white corporate masters mouth. They do not make white America uncomfortable. They do not name unpleasant truths. They never lifted their voices to denounce Bill Clinton’s decision to massively expand our system of mass incarceration. And they do not lift their voices now. They go right along with the repression. And they are well paid for it.”
Abu-Jamal, a journalist and author of books such as “Live From Death Row” and a former member of the Black Panther Party, is serving a life sentence in the killing of a Philadelphia police officer. Despite flagrant irregularities in his trial and evidence tampering, he was sentenced to death in 1982. His sentence was later commuted to life without parole. He spent 30 years on death row.
The prison’s visiting room, with a wall lined by vending machines that only the visitors were allowed to use, was crowded with families. Children played in groups or ran across the floor, darting in and out of rows of chairs.
A guard, seated on a raised platform, periodically bellowed through a loudspeaker. He recited every admonishment twice. “Children must be supervised by an adult. Children must be supervised by an adult.”
“… Like every prisoner must be supervised by a prison guard who is a racist and an idiot,” Abu-Jamal muttered when one announcement ended.
Abu-Jamal understands that radical change exacts a high price. It takes years, sometimes decades, to achieve. It requires dedication, self-sacrifice, unwavering belief in a new vision of society, a trenchant understanding of the mechanisms of power, a willingness to suffer persecution, go to jail and even, when the elites truly feel threatened, face the daily possibility of being murdered. No political revolution was ever achieved without these qualities and this acceptance of risks and steadfastness.
“Black people will probably vote for Clinton,” he said with resignation, “but this symbolizes the emptiness of hope. They fear Trump. They should look closely at the pictures from Trump’s third wedding. Hillary Clinton is in the front pew of the church. Hillary, Bill, Trump and Melania are shown embracing at Trump’s estate afterwards during the reception. These people are part of the same elite circle. They represent the same financial interests. They work for the same empire. They have grown rich from the system. The words they shout back and forth during political campaigns are meaningless. Trump or Clinton will deliver the same political result. They will serve, like Obama, corporate and military power. And if they were not willing to serve these centers of power they would not be allowed to run. Their job is to manufacture hope during election campaigns that ultimately end in betrayal. This is why they spend billions on elections. They need to feed the illusion that our voices matter, that we are participants in their closed systems of power.
“The liberals and the Democrats are in many ways more dangerous than the right wing,” he said. “Repression and neoliberalism are more effectively instituted by Democrats such as Bill and Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. They sound reasonable. But because what they do is hidden it is more insidious and often more deadly.”
“Do not leave your trash in the cup holders. Do not leave your trash in the cup holders,” the loudspeaker blared.
Abu-Jamal looked toward the guards, all of whom were white.
“Bill Clinton developed a rural employment program called prisons,” he said. “Prisons are the economic lifeblood of these poor white communities. The only time these people have any contact with black people is when they put them in cells or escort them in shackles. Prisons are the gift William Jefferson Clinton gave to poor, rural whites that keeps on giving.
“The system is broken,” Abu-Jamal said. “It has to be torn up, root and branch. And this has to be done from the bottom up. If we keep electing and re-electing these puppets we will keep getting played. We have to form political parties that reflect our political ideas. We have to stop surrendering to false parties and politicians that do not represent us.”
He said he places his hopes in groups such as Black Lives Matter that have taken to the streets. He said that if he could he would be in the streets of Philadelphia, where he was raised, during the Democratic convention.
“This is our hour of protest,” he said. “We have to physically resist. We will reclaim our power when we say no, when we refuse to cooperate. We must, in everything we do, defy the architects of imperialism, neoliberalism and mass incarceration. We cannot enable, in any way, this system to perpetuate itself.
“It is time to raise holy hell,” he went on. “We need to demonstrate in the streets. We need to use megaphones. We need to hold teach-ins. We need to sell radical books. We need to make the streets our commons.”
Again the loudspeaker boomed: “Children must put away the toys they took out of the children’s room. Children must put away the toys they took out of the children’s room.”
Prisons, like the rest of the society, have been privatized. Prisoners are billed for an array of services and items that once were the responsibility of the state. Corporations, which make billions off the prison system, run phone services, food services, medical services and commissaries. They have established for-profit prisons and detention centers. Prices for basic services and necessities such as shoes have soared.
“Services that were once the responsibility of the state have been outsourced to corporations, as in the rest of society,” said Abu-Jamal, who works as a trash collector. “We are worth what we are able to pay. If we pay nothing, in their eyes, we are worth nothing.
“When [prisoners] fill out a sick call slip, a request for medical attention, we have to also sign a cash slip,” he said. “The medical visit costs five or 10 dollars. This may not sound like a lot. But a prison job only pays $30 a month. Prices are constantly going up. Wages in prisons have remained the same since the 1980s. Most prisoners can only go to buy items from the commissary after begging their mothers, grandmothers or girlfriends for money.
“In February, Global Tel Link began selling electronic tablets in the prison for $150,” he said. “They charge 25 cents for an email and $1.80 to download a song. And you have to pay them in advance. The state pays Wexford Health Services $298 million a year to run the medical services. The more medical services are cut, the greater the profit. You go to medical and most of the time they tell you to go to the commissary to buy Tylenol or throat lozenges. If you fall in the yard and need a wheelchair they charge you $25. If you can’t sit up they charge you $75 for a motorized cart. They will not treat my hepatitis C, saying it is not advanced enough, but of course it is because the medicine is expensive. It costs between $87,000 and $95,000. A price like this exists solely to enrich pharmaceutical companies. I could get the same drug from India for a few thousand dollars. There is a guy in my block, Joseph Kish Sr., with stage four hepatitis C and cirrhosis. They have denied him treatment because, they said, he will get out soon. There is always a reason not to treat us. Prisons have replaced state psychiatric hospitals. MHM Correctional Services is paid $89 million a year to handle the mentally ill. It does little more than medicate them. And remember most guards, especially with overtime, make more money, about $100,00 a year, than a full professor at a university.
“They are doing to us on the inside what they are doing to us on the outside,” he said. “They are letting poor people die or killing them for profit. Things will get worse and worse until people can’t take it anymore. These corporations won’t stop. No one in the political class will make them stop. It is up to us.”