“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good.”
–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I saw the ad in the last issue of MediaFile soliciting signatures for the writers’ petition in support of a fair trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal. I am signing the petition and would like to share my reasons for doing so.
If Mumia is executed, those who call the shots will be putting to death one of the most insightful journalists of our time, silencing a voice that speaks for so many who have no voice, just like the shots that silenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, exterminating other geniuses.
When I see muses like Mumia Abu-Jamal and sister author and political refugee Assata Shakur condemned by kangaroo-court trials, I have Orwellian flashbacks to my parents’ times, to the Hollywood blacklist during the McCarthy days. I see my parents’ friends behind bars–brilliant political writers such as Dalton Trumbo, who brought us the antiwar Johnny Got His Gun and Papillon, and Ring Lardner Jr., writer of the screenplay M*A*S*H.
Mumia had a reputation among the Philadelphia police for writing about police repression in the black community. Like the witch hunts which used affiliation to the communist party to incriminate screenwriters, actors, teachers, union members, and other workers, the prosecutors in Mumia’s trial used his affiliation with the Black Panther Party against him, though it had no bearing on what happened the night Mumia was accused of shooting police officer Daniel Faulkner. In other cases such guilt by political association has been ruled unconstitutional.
I fear that if this system can jail our muses for their political beliefs–even sentence them to death unjustly for being Puerto Rican or black or “Red”–as in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti–all writers are potentially at risk, particularly those who are the conscience of society. Such writers must be heard, especially when they are behind bars, as a form of checks and balances. Depriving writers like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Assata Shakur, and Susan Rosenberg of disseminating their work verges on the behavior of a totalitarian state. Isn’t that what we accused the Soviet Union of doing: silencing dissent?
I suspect, the reason Mumia is not given a new trial is that it would be an admission that the 1982 trial was a sham. There is fear that the truth will out that the witnesses were intimidated and blackmailed; that old ballistics evidence was suppressed; that the confession was fabricated two months after the fact; that Philadelphia’s current mayor, Ed Rendell, who was the District Attorney for the City of Philadelphia at the time of Mumia’s trial, could be looked upon as a crook or a liar or as having had his leash jerked or pockets filled by the Fraternal Order of Police. I’m not sure of all the implications but the point is, these suspicions make the average person begin to question the layers of corruption in our judicial and economic systems, whether the rot has spread to the supporting beams or if they were rotten to begin with.
Justice for communities of color and the homeless has always resembled the kind of justice Dalton Trumbo captured in his court statement, which, like so many other statements, was never heard during his trial. If we stand idly by, it will be begin to seem less and less anachronistic to more and more of us:
“Already the gentlemen of this committee and others of like disposition have produced in this capital city a political atmosphere which is acrid with fear and repression; a community in which anti-Semitism finds safe refuge behind secret tests of loyalty; a city in which no union leader can trust his telephone; a city in which old friends hesitate to recognize one another in public places; a city in which men and women who dissent even slightly from the orthodoxy you seek to impose speak with confidence only in moving cars and in the open air. You have produced a capital city on the eve of its Reichstag fire. For those who remember German history in the autumn of 1932 there is the smell of smoke in this very room.”
Born in Mexico City, Margot Pepper is an al-revez Chicana Bay Area writer, translator, bilingual educator, and professional poet-teacher.