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Cornel West & Mumia Abu-Jamal a Conversation

Recorded 3-3-10 at Labyrinth Books in Princeton NJ

1) Cornel West in Conversation with Mumia Abu-Jamal 11:40 MP3

2) Cornel West in Conversation with Mumia Abu-Jamal 11:40 Aiff

Cornel West in Conversation with Mumia Abu-Jamal
Recorded March 3, 2010 at Labyrinth Books in Princeton, New Jersey

Cornel West:  My dear brother, my dear brother, how are you doing there, man?

Mumia:  So pleased to hear your distinctive “Oakland” introduction.

Cornel West:  No, Brother, we love you, we respect you, and we want you to be free. So many of us believe that you didn’t do it, and that your voice is so very important. We know you believe in justice for everybody, from president to policeman. But we believe you are innocent, and we thank God that your voice is still alive, and you’re sounding so rich and deep, my Brother.

Mumia:  Thank you, my Brother, thank you.  On the move, and I love all of you, and I thank you for coming. I know it’s a cold, somewhat snowy-night, at least it is in Green County, Pennsylvania. I thank you all for coming. Welcome. This is from the preface of Jailhouse Lawyers:

(Below Mumia is quoting directly from the preface of his book, Jailhouse Lawyers­­­­—Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.SA, pages 27-29).

I mean, c’mon—seriously! What in the hell is a “jailhouse lawyer”?

Depending  on your station in life, the term is apt to evoke a variety of responses. Disbelief. Laughter. For some, perhaps confusion.

Jailhouse lawyer? The term implies a dissonance, a kind of contradiction in terms.

Yet, even if some shun the title, there are tens of thousands of men and women who actually are such a thing, and like most people, they’re heir to all the winds of whim, good and bad, competent and incompetent, large-hearted and petty.

Years ago, before I entered the House of Death, I interviewed a man in Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison who was quite opinionated on the subject. His name was Delbert Africa, a well-known member of the revolutionary MOVE organization, who soon would face a de-facto life sentence in Pennsylvania’s dungeons for being among nine people who had the temerity to survive the deadly police assault on their home and headquarters on August 8, 1978. 

Delbert Africa was an eloquent interviewee who spoke with a distinctive country accent, his conversation peppered with passion, reason and commitment. He spoke disparagingly of jailhouse lawyers, and when I asked him why he felt this way, he responded, “Them dudes get in there, read alla them law books, and before you know it, they be crazy as hell!”  “What do you mean, crazy?” I asked.

“Well, they may not be crazy when they get here, but after a while, after a few months reading that shit, they go down to City Hall, and when they see that them folks down there in City Hall, in the System, don’t really go by that so-called law, well!—it plum drives them dudes crazy!”

“Yeah, man, but why it drives ’em dudes crazy?”

“’Cuz they cain’t believe that the System don’t follow they own laws!”

“But why?” I continued.

“It drives they ass crazy ’cuz they can’t handle the fact that the System just make and break laws as it see fit. How many treaties they done signed with the Indians? Ain’t a one of ’em they done kept! Some of ’em broke ’em befo’ the ink was dry on ’em old treaties! Them the same folks who run this System today! If they couldn’t keep a treaty with Indians when they first got here, what make you think they gonna keep they so-called law today, especially when it come to me and you, man?”

“Bro—I get that; I understand that. But what’s up with them crazy jailhouse lawyers—I don’t get that.”

“They go crazy becuz, Mu, they really believe in the System, and this System always betray those that believe in it! That’s what drives them out they minds, man. They can’t handle that. It literally drives them out they mind. I see ’em around here, walkin’ ’round here dazed, crazy as a bedbug!”

It took me a while, but I got it. When he told me those words, I was a free man—as free as a Black man can be in America—and working as a reporter and producer for a Philadelphia public radio station. When Delbert Africa broke it down for me, I had no idea that, years later, his words would take on such significance. (End of quote from preface of Jailhouse Lawyers).

From Death Row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Cornel West:  Yeh, my dear Brother, that’s powerful though, man.

Voice/Interruption:  This call is from a state correctional institution at Green and is subject to monitoring and recording.

Cornel West:  Are you still there my Brother?

Mumia:  Yes I am.

Cornel West:  Yeah, indeed, indeed. I’ll tell you though, Brother, it’s not just  powerful and important in words, but it’s also the style and the form that, man, I hear a little Curtis Mayfield in your voice, you know what I mean? That rich, rich tradition that flows through you, and that connects to each and every one of us who are concerned about justice from below, which holds across the board, but begins with poor folk catching hell, in the language Malcolm X taught me. And I salute your witness, because the thing is, it’s as if you are a free Black man on death row…

Mumia:  Don’t tell nobody (Mumia laughing here)…

Cornel West:  Well, no, we want you free on the outside, but there are different kinds of freedom, you know what I mean? Believe me, we got a whole lot of folk out here who are still in prison in their minds, and hearts, and souls.

Mumia:  That’s right, that’s absolutely true. I’m reminded of Harriet Tubman when she was commended for freeing those hundreds of Black folk. She said she could of freed a whole lot more, if they knew they were slaves.

Cornell West:  That’s exactly right, and she was only four feet and about seven inches, and she had some six-five folk who got scared. She had to put the gun, said, “Mama gonna shoot you dead if you make some noise, because you’re going to reveal all the rest of us involved.” But that’s the tradition out of which we come, my Brother.

Mumia:  That is exactly true.

Cornell West:  And it’s rooted in the struggle against white supremacist slavery, which is a form of American terrorism. But those “r o u t e s” that take us to every corner of the globe—that’s why you represent a struggle for Black freedom as concerned about the freedom of everybody, but it looks at the world from below.

Voice/Interruption:  This call is from a state correctional institution at Green.

Mumia:  Well, Brother, I certainly try, because, you know, even though we all come from different environments and different backgrounds, this is one world. We breathe the same air. We drink the same water. You know, maybe it used to be they had segregated water fountains, but they ain’t got that no more.

I would just say this, if I may. Just yesterday, I spoke with a Brother who was an anti-death penalty activist, but a global one. That is, he meets with people around the world and goes to conferences with people from around the world, and he told me something that really was quite remarkable that I had never heard of or read of. He was at a conference in California, and a scholar from Turkey was there, and the guy was telling me—now, you know, when we hear of Turkey we think, of course, remember the infamous movie, “Midnight Express” which showed a very repressive and brutal prison system in Turkey. Well, this scholar explained to him that when a Turkish politician runs for office, what he promises to get elected is forgiveness and leniency and justice and fairness for people arrested and charged with offenses. 

When he said that, my mouth dropped–I said, “Damn, it’s like that in Turkey?” And he said, “yeah.” When I thought about it, it made a lot of sense only because we know that Turkey is a non-Arab, but a Muslim country. Many Muslim countries really do follow bits of the Koran where there are provisions in the Koran for forgiveness for all kinds of offenses against communities and people. The only question of course, in such an instance is, will the family forgive? If the family forgives, then the State offers forgiveness as well. But to just imagine a politician running like that—it kind of blew my mind, because you can’t think of something similar in the American context. It’s the exact polar opposite in the United States. But it also shows us that what we think we know about another country is based on some kind of false projections over our media. We would have never thought of Turkey as that kind of country, but of course it is.

Cornel West:  Very real. Brother, I want to thank you first for your wonderful piece on science fiction, on Olivia E. Butler and Dubois’ short story in Left Turn, you know that wonderful piece?

Mumia:  Oh, I remember what you’re talking about; I’m amazed that you read it.

Cornel West: Oh, Lord, no, I try to keep track of you now, my Brother, indeed, indeed.  And I know you wanted us to read Neal Ferguson’s piece on complexity and collapse in Foreign Affairs, talking about empires that are in deep decline, culture in decay, greed running amuck, poor people/working people often times feeling so impotent, powerless, hopeless, helpless so that they don’t organize and don’t mobilize.  Did you want to give us your characterization of where we are right now in light of Ferguson’s talk about empire?

Mumia:  I read that two days ago.

Cornel West:  Yeah, so it’s on your mind, right?  It’s on mine too.

Mumia:  I was blown away by it, because this is a scholar who can be deemed a conservative, coming from Oxford and what-not, and of course, British. But when he looked at empires around the world, he found something very similar—a kind of a rise, a coasting, and then a decline. And of course there are different reasons and different eras, and I think, you know, most people understood that the empire was in decline, especially during the last administration where things were so raw and so crude, shall we say. “We don’t torture,” you know, that kind of stuff. Of course, you know, in the former administration we had Abu-Ghraib and we had Guantanamo and those kinds of things. The truth of the matter is we still have those kinds of things. We have Abu-Ghraib’s in every state in the United States; we have Guantanamo’s in every state in the United States and in the Federal system, and it’s just that we talk about it in terms of an administration. We don’t talk about it in terms of a System...

Voice/Interruption:  You have 60 seconds remaining.

Mumia:  …and until we begin looking at the empire as being a bi-partisan reality that affects people no matter who’s at the top, then we will never be able to change this reality that we’re living in—the fact that we’re all in a kind of prison.

Cornel West:  And of course we’re in a prison in space and time and the question is what kind of person are we going to be. And my brother, it’s just amazing to me in terms of the quality of your spirit. Your voice is just so humble, it’s human, it’s still firm, it’s still fortified, it’s just incredible.

Mumia:  Well, Brother, even despite this condition and this place, I feel surrounded by love by people like you and many other people, by Johanna and Mark and all our other friends. Thank you all. I love you all, and love is the most powerful force in the universe.

Cornel West:  Oh yes it is, my Brother, oh yes—we love you Brother, we love you Brother.

Mumia:  I love you too. Thank you all.



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"When a cause comes along and you know in your bones that it is
just, yet refuse to defend it--at that moment you begin to die.
And I have never seen so many corpses walking around talking about
justice." - Mumia Abu-Jamal

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