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The somber baritone of Mumia Abu-Jamal is unmistakable. Before we can exchange greetings, one of several automated announcements interrupts the call, reminding us that our conversation will be subject to recording and monitoring. Abu-Jamal is phoning from State Correctional Institution Mahanoy, a medium-security prison in Pennsylvania. Convicted in 1982 for the alleged killing of white Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in a racially charged trial that, according to Amnesty International, failed to meet international standards, Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2011. In April 2019, a new path for Abu-Jamal to appeal his life sentence was opened by reform-leaning Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who withdrew his initial opposition for a new appeal to go forward in the courts. Yet, 64-year-old Abu-Jamal remains skeptical when it comes to criminal legal reform in the United States. Despite calls to defund the police and a string of electoral victories for more progressive prosecutors like Krasner, the current administration is actively rolling back reforms. Most notably, Donald Trump has lifted the 17-year moratorium on federal executions and reinstated Department of Justice contracts with private prisons. For Abu-Jamal, with whom I spoke about abolition, the history of slavery and racialized state violence in the United States, this fraught political moment requires an entirely different mindset that allows us to think about decarceration in new ways.
Maresi Starzmann: Donald Trump claims to have instituted prison reforms, because he introduced the First Step Act, a bipartisan federal sentencing and reform bill, and granted clemency to several select, high-profile or celebrity prisoners. What do you make of this?
Mumia Abu-Jamal: Trump is a wolf. He does not understand the meaning, much less the function of the word “empathy.” One cannot seek to help the people who are caged in this carceral state without empathy. Trump really has no substantive prison reform programs at all. But he takes a thimble and makes a bucket out of it. I’ve heard him in debates talking about prison reform, but that’s not really what he supports. It is a political tool meant to pry people away from other candidates in support of his reelection. While it is true that some people have gotten out on the First Step program, Trump has also supported the reinstitution of some of the most repressive institutions in the carceral state — private prisons. This takes us far back to post-Civil War traditions in American life when the state sublet its function to private corporate entities and Black people were forced into slavery by another name.
Can you explain this term, “slavery by another name”?
I refer to the post-Civil War era of the 1870s and the period after Reconstruction that resulted in the eruption of what can only be called a fascist state — openly at first in the Southern half of the United States, then suddenly and quietly in the rest of the country. Against Black life, Black freedom, Black liberty and ostensibly Reconstruction. The people, who were formerly enslaved, were now submitted to Black Codes — laws that only applied to Black people. It was a form of legalized bondage of African Americans under the power of the state. This continued throughout the beginning of the 20th century, which was itself marked by pogroms and race riots in major American cities against Blacks. At the time, white workers were mobilized, both north and south, because Black people were considered threats to their jobs. It was absurd and it was patently unconstitutional.
Can we still see remnants of this today?
We will never heal the social wound of mass incarceration by changing the prosecutors.
Many Americans think that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were introduced to grant freedom and equal rights to Black people. In fact, however, they did nothing of that kind. We are living in a period where Black people are attacked by forces and agents of the state, like the police, with very little control or comeback. This is the kind of unspoken, unwritten impunity that targets Black people in the North, in the South, in the East, in the West, in their homes, in their cars, on the streets, at the job, anywhere…. Black people speak openly about driving while Black, walking while Black and breathing while Black.
Could you talk more about the historical roots of this system, in particular with regards to American policing, and what this means for the present political moment?
American policing really differs from the police systems that emerged in European states. There is no co-referent to these systems, they are distinct. Most people lazily believe that American policing emerged as an offspring of Scotland Yard in London. Nothing could be further from the truth. The American police system emerged from the slave system and from a perpetual war against the freedom, movement and liberation of Black people from the land of their oppressors. It was designed to terrorize, humiliate and often destroy Black people as a message to other Black people, who dared to run away from slavery. Forces known as the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, and similar organizations performed a super-policing of Black people through terrorism. This was fascism in every sense. Fascism is not [only] an Italian or even a German thing; in many ways, it’s an American thing. And we saw what that means when we looked at that video of George Floyd dying, begging for his life and calling for his mother. The cop kneeling on his neck could not be more nonchalant, more comfortable, more arrogant, because he is doing his job.
And yet, we also see reform movements in the criminal legal system, like the election of progressive prosecutors, many of whom are Black women who ran on platforms to reduce racial disparities in prosecution. Isn’t that a positive development?
We must move for what we want, not for what we think the system can produce, because the system is the problem, not the solution to the problem.
Reform movements are playing around the edges of the problem. It is interesting that people think progressive prosecutors could mend this broken system, because, in the end, they are still prosecutors. Their job is to put people in prison. And why are we not talking about changing judges or legislators, who are also engines in this system? Or the media? The media play a remarkable role in driving mass incarceration in America. When people work their way out of the system after 20, 25, 30 or 35 years, it is the media making money by selling stories about the prisoners’ redemption. When you look at the scope of the problem — the fact that millions of people are incarcerated and that the prison system has become a generational employer for the white rural working class — then you see the kind of economic and political impediment to the abolition of this system. We will never heal the social wound of mass incarceration by changing the prosecutors.
Can you elaborate?
Reforms allow us to ignore the structural element that has created mass incarceration. You cannot decarcerate by using the tools of incarceration, because they have a specific function. Decarceration calls for a completely different mindset. I prefer the term adopted by Dr. Angela Y. Davis: abolition. We must move for what we want, not for what we think the system can produce, because the system is the problem, not the solution to the problem.
Given your own experiences with the system, do you at all believe that deep, systemic change is possible?
I obviously think all things are possible. The question is, is it probable? That’s an open political question, because freedom has always been contested in the land that claims to be the land of the free. This is also the land of the incarcerated. There is a reason we speak of “prison nation,” because the numbers in the millions are an American phenomenon. And mass incarceration is a direct response to freedom movements in the United States. Change is contested. But where there is struggle, there is progress. That’s the lesson of Frederick Douglass, and we do well to listen to the original abolitionists to get a sense of what is necessary for this moment. It is relentless, continuous struggle wherever it’s possible — and sometimes even in places where one may think it to be impossible.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. A German translation of this interview was published on October 2 by the German daily, Neues Deutschland. The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Vera Institute of Justice.