Strangers probably do not go unnoticed in the town of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, where Mumia Abu-Jamal is incarcerated. Waynesburg is a small rural community of Western Pennsylvania with a total population of 4,000. It is certainly not racially diverse: roughly 97% of the inhabitants are White. Thus, you have to work hard to see a Black or Hispanic person walking around in this town. In fact, according to the U.S. Census, there are only 68 Blacks, 4 Native Americans and 27 Hispanics in the whole county of Green, Pennsylvania, which includes within its boundaries the town of Waynesburg. This is certainly very much in contrast with Springfield, Massachusetts, where my journey to visit Mumia Abu-Jamal began on May 23, 2006.
Yet, what is more striking about Waynesburg is not the lack of racial diversity, but the widespread poverty. This is a town where White people are still employed in jobs that usually minorities do in other communities: fast food restaurants jobs at the local truck stops, agricultural jobs of different sorts, some manufacturing employment (for the lucky ones) and construction jobs. The local supermarket, not far from the town’s entrance, is not even stocked with the latest products in the market. After all, it is surrounded primarily by trailer parks and residences of families that have to live on meager incomes and poorly paying jobs (the income per capita is only $15,000). Waynesburg, by the way, supported George Bush in 2004.
One of the major employers -if not the most important one- is the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Green, located in the outskirts of Waynesburg. The economic significance of the correctional facility can be gauged perhaps by the name of the street where it is located: Progress Drive. It reminds me a lot of upstate New York and some of the prisons located in small towns, like Hudson or Poughkeepsie, where I worked as a teacher for a prisoner’s education program years ago. Everything revolves around the prison complex. For instance, the biggest and fanciest hotel in Waynesburg the Comfort Inn- is about two minutes from SCI at Green, and it actually offers its guests a clear view of the prison’s entrance. Talk about a room with a view! Visitors are allowed to enter SCI at Green from Wednesday to Sunday, as a general rule. Accordingly, you cannot find an empty hotel room in Waynesburg, except on non-visit days. A lot of people -merchants I mean- seem to be making money out of the arrangement of housing relatives of death row inmates on visiting days.
On the positive side, the correctional institution has the racial diversity that the town of Waynesburg lacks. I did not see too many inmates inside the correctional campus (this is a close-security facility), but the ones that I saw where Black. Strangely, I felt some relief inside the prison walls, at least culturally and racially speaking. The lack of ethnic diversity of the town is, simply stated, suffocating.
In any case, I had a powerful reason to feel excited: I was in Waynesburg to visit Mumia Abu-Jamal, a friend of the Rosenberg Fund for Children and a revolutionary thinker who I admire. We spoke for about three and a half hours. The interview that follows cannot capture entirely what this experience has meant to me. Suffice perhaps is to say that in that small room at SCI, listening to Mumia and exchanging ideas with him, I was able to escape from the overpowering sense of hopelessness that permeates our culture at large, even amongst leftists. I know that this might sound odd, but I came out of my visit to the death row section of the State Correctional Institution at Green -thanks to Mumia- with more hope on mankind than before. The toughest part of the whole journey was leaving the confines of those oppressive walls, knowing that such an extraordinary person, Brother Mumia Abu-Jamal, is still there, unjustly incarcerated.
Question # 1: I want to begin this interview with a question about revolutionary journalism. In you opinion what made the Black Panther’s newspaper an effective revolutionary tool for communicating with the masses? Are there any lessons to be applied to this time when communication via the internet has replaced the role of the traditional revolutionary and militant journalist?
The Black Panther newspaper was indeed a collective effort, not just of people assigned to the Party’s Ministry of Information (such as myself) , but of the Party as a whole. That is because the paper received proposed articles from chapters and branches from around the country (at its height, the Party had some 44 chapters and branches), sometimes written by chapter information officers, sometimes by branch leadership, but just as of ten by rank and file Panthers, who felt moved to write about their city’s events and struggles. In that sense, it was extremely democratic in character. If a new people’s medical center opened, excited Party members wrote; if any Panthers were busted, or brutalized by cops, we’d receive detailed accountings, with Polaroid photos.
What made it invaluable to the revolutionary project was that people interacted on a weekly and often daily basis, while selling papers. To organize folks, you must talk with them. The deficit disclosed by today’s internet usage is that one interacts w/ a keyboard, not with a living, breathing person.
Some who do extensive internet work may disagree, but, in point of fact, while it’s obviously true that you’re interacting w/ a “person”, it is hard to determine whom that ” person” really is. (Not to mention the spying by the State.)
When you are organizing, either trying to get support for your project, or for a specific event, you talk to folks, you listen to folks, also, by this give and take, you learn what “works” w/ folks, by how they respond. Are they really listening? Are they engaged? Etc. Those facial and bodily tics and cues can’t be ascertained when mediated through the keyboard.
At it’s height, between 150,000 to 200,000 papers were sold on ghetto street corners, in bars, in beauty shops, in restaurants, and in barbershops all across Black America every week-with no advertising! This was unmediated Black revolutionary news, coming straight to the folks, for over a decade.
Because young people were writing, editing and selling this product, it had the language, tone and fearlessness of youth, mixed with the revolutionary, quasi-Marxist terms that were made popular by global revolutionary struggles and movements.
Finally, it was invaluable in the way it got out the Party’s perspective, instead of relying on the corporate, bourgeois press.
Question # 2: In your book We Want Freedom, you talk about the influence that the 1960’s struggles in the Third World had on the internationalist perspective of the Black Panther Party. What impact do you think that the current revolutionary and progressive movements in Latin America are likely to have on the struggles of oppressed people in the United States?
As I noted in We Want Freedom, the BPP developed an internationalist perspective, because Huey P. Newton (the Party’s Minister of Defense & co-founder) was curious about revolutionary struggles and liberation struggles that came before, whether in China, in Cuba, in Congo-Brazzavile, wherever.
What Party members learned was that people should study struggles in other parts of the world–and take what is useful, applicable, in their own struggles here.
What we see now, for the most part, is precisely the opposite: where folks from the so-called First travel to Third locations, and presume to teach lowly third-world populations how to struggle. I call this tendency “left imperialism”, because those people, usually white leftists, base their claim to supremacy not upon their specific, or organizational work, but upon their privileged place in the Empire; their U.S. nationality, and often their Western background- their whiteness.
From what experience base can U.S. leftists claim supremacy? What project can they point to that is successful, and should be replicated anywhere else in the world? The mass incarceration? The poisonous public school system? The crumbling environment? The deepening racial rifts? The Clinton Administration?
Nothing succeeds like success; and U.S. “leftists” have precious little success to boast about–at home or abroad.
An example of “left imperialism” can be found in how easily so-called liberals applauded U.S. bombing, takeover and occupation of Afghanistan, and later Iraq. Liberals typically argue that Afghanistan was a “good” war and occupation; yet Iraq was “bad”. In point of fact, both, if I’m not mistaken, violated international law. But beyond that, the Afghanistan war was allegedly justified on the basis that the Taliban regime “‘harbored” terrorists.
At the same time that U.S. politicians were barking such charges, the country was flush with terrorists, who waged wars against their own peoples in defense of their American masters.
People who have waged bloody massacres against Haitian workers and students live in peaceful solitude in the U.S. Anti-Castro terrorists who have bombed planes, and poisoned crops, and bombed hotels live in splendid peace in Miami-today. Meanwhile, the Cuban Five are unjustly incarcerated in this country for fighting against U.S. sponsored terrorism.
I can’t count how many dictators, generals, cut-throats, have been kicked out of their home countries, and found refuge in the U.S. One final note about ‘harboring terrorists’…. more people have been taught torture techniques in the U.S. School of the Americas (since renamed), than in any dusty camp in Afghanistan. Latin Americans call the school, la escuela de golpes de Estado: coup d’état school.
How many graduates of this ‘School of the Americas’ have raped, tortured, garroted, blown up, killed–terrorized the people of Latin American countries?
The point is not to simply be anti-war, but to be above all anti-imperialist. That’s something that left imperialists find impossible to, do.
Question # 3: Fidel Castro is turning 80 on august 13, 2006. What is the meaning of the Cuban revolution in the year 2006?
Cuba holds a special place in my heart. Not only for their great revolution against an American-supported puppet (Batista), but their internationalism in practice, when they sent their own people -troops- to help a sister country, Angola, fight off the brutal cross-border raids from the apartheid regime in South Africa. In a place called Cuito Canavale, Cuban troops stopped South African advances in their tracks, and taught them the meaning of mortality.
And just as Black troops during the Civil War taught white Confederates about the falseness of white supremacy, Cuba’s Black, white and brown troops taught them important lessons.
They learned the value of negotiating a settlement, and suddenly the African National Congress (ANC) didn’t look so bad. South Africa certainly still has daunting problems, and things are still far from equal. But the apartheid regime was an affront to every Black person of earth. Cuba–little, besieged, embargoed Cuba–made a momentous difference. And they did so in a time when Ronald Reagan advocated “constructive engagement” with the racists!
Fidel, with his determination, his profound humanism, has become a legend of the 20th, and now the 21st century.
I’m sure people around the world, in the US, in Brazil, in Venezuela, in South Africa, and beyond join me in wishing millions of birthday greetings to this revolutionary: Feliz cumpleaños Fidel!
Cuba represents the power of resistance and survival against tremendous odds. It also represents the power of the small over the mighty. It is, in the words of Assata Shakur, a Palenque like Palmares (in slavery days, Brazil). It is a place of freedom amidst capitalist tyranny.
Question # 4: The COINTELPRO program was able to promote division within the Black Panther Party and also in Puerto Rico. What allowed them to be effective in promoting such operatives within the Black Panther Party? What are the lessons for today?
During an interview w/ the British journal, Race & Class, former political prisoner, Geronimo Ji-Jaga, former Dep. Minister of Defense of the Party (in L.A.) told an interviewer that they (members of the Party) never thought that the government would go so far, to break its own laws, etc. , to stop the Party. He reasoned that ‘we didn’t think we were that important.’
It’s also true that in a revolutionary era, to be part of that revolution was as natural as breathing. Plus, young people are inherently rebellious. They long to be part of Change.
But what COINTELPRO represented was war against dissidence, whether in the Black community, among socialists, among anti-Vietnam war activists, or Puerto Rican independentistas.
During the Church Committee hearings, a high-ranking FBI official stated it all when he said (of FBI tactics against US radicals): “This is a common practice, rough, tough, dirty business; whether o not we should be in it or not, that is for you folks to decide. We are in it. To repeat, it is a rough, tough, dirty business, and dangerous…. no holds were barred. We have used that technique against foreign espionage agents, and they have used it against us.”
When the Church Committee Chief Counsel asked the official if these techniques were used against Americans, he replied, “Yes; brought home against any organization against which we were targeting. We did not differentiate. This is a rough, tough business.” [U.S. Senate Hearings, Nov.-Dec. 1975, vol. 6. P.24.1
Question # 5: What are your thoughts about the recent mass mobilizations of millions of undocumented immigrant workers in the United States? Are they natural allies of other oppressed minorities, particularly Blacks?
The massive, spirited demonstrations were a joy to see; I think they marked the emergence of an oppressed people, from the shadows into the light. It brought back memories. I think it also demonstrated ‘the browning of America’, and thereby activated a reservoir of fear in white America, which looks down their nose at people south of the border. Given the power of media to shape ideas, we shouldn’t be surprised that some Black Americans echoed the xenophobia of whites, and looked at Brown America’s emergence with concern. What it reminded me of was our little-known, but shared history. In the 1830s, the US was at war with Seminoles, because they were one of the few Indian tribes who refused to return Blacks to slavery in Georgia and Carolina. The Seminoles fought at least 2 wars with the U.S. on precisely this principle. After years of war, the Red and Black Seminoles found freedom in fleeing Florida, and finding new homes in Mexico. The Seminoles, led by a warrior named Coacoochee (called Wild Cat), and assisted by a Black warrior named John Horse, took their soldiers and tribesmen, across the Rio Grande.
Mexico abolished slavery in 1829.They offered not only land, but posts in the Mexican Army. Thousands of Black men, women, and children found freedom in Mexico years before a war brought legal (but false) freedom in the lands of their birth. From such intertwined histories, alliances can be made.
For Black folks, and Red folks, fought, not for the US Empire, but for Mexican independence, and for freedom (literally!).
So, the ‘browning’ of America doesn’t fill me with alarm; for I know that “brownness” comes from Aztec, Seminoles, African, and others.
Question # 6: Can you talk also a little bit about the experience of the Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican communities in places like New York City?
The Black Panther Party had the most impact on Puerto Rican communities, I think, in NYC, and in Chicago. Both cities had chapters of the Young Lords Party, a socialist, independence group which had its origins in a youth gang in Chi-town. There, at the urging of Fred Hampton the Lords became increasing politicized, and in many ways, were inspired by the BPP. (Among Mexican-American brothers and sisters, the Brown Berets grew in Chicago, as well as in California). In New York, former YLP people joined the BPP, in part, because they were Afro-Puerto Ricans. We had a number of such members of the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn chapters. Offhand, I remember Denise Oliver, who came from Harlem, and Sol Fernandez, who was in the Bronx.
Their membership was important, not just symbolically, but because of their ability to speak to communities that usually couldn’t hear, or read, our works.
Question # 7: What are the obstacles to building a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-racial revolutionary movement in the United States in the year 2006?
There are not enough substantial opportunities for us to work together, and by so doing, to learn the worth of such a project. We argue over crumbs. For example, on black radio and in black conversations in response to the mass immigration demos, people could be heard saying, “They want our jobs.”
What, pray tell, is so good about many of the jobs Black folks have in the US? As it stands, we probably have the highest unemployment already!
Rather than fighting each other, we need to find ways to work together, to deepen, broaden, and give new, real meaning to democracy.
The obstacles are false consciousness, white supremacy, and linguistic barriers. But, I really believe that all of these can be surmounted.
Question # 8: Is the struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico still meaningful for revolutionary politics in the United States?
Once again, I look at it from the perspective of a learner, not a teacher. I say that because the PR independence movement has demonstrated, on the ground, the power of its political mobilization, when it freed many (not all) of its political prisoners. There is no movement in the US that has duplicated this–even among the white so-called ‘left’. That is impressive.
So, puertorriqueños have more to teach us about community mobilization, principled struggle, and broad unity over revolutionary goals, than we think we have to teach them.
Plus, given the increasing levels of aggression shown by the Empire, the independence movement can only heat up. How many young Puerto Rican men and women will join the imperial army, to fight wars, when Puerto Ricans on the island can’t even vote for President (Emperor)? When they sense their colonial position costs them far more than it benefits, the independence movement can only be fueled.
Question # 9: What I, in your opinion, the state of political persecution in the United States?
In the late 60s, and early 70s, when COINTELPRO was revealed, folks were genuinely shocked. It was in every conversation, every paper. It was in the air. “Can you believe it? ” “Did you hear—”
Flash forward 30 years, and everything that was unlawful under COINTELPRO, is now legal under the US Patriot Act.
What is the response to revelations of wiretaps? Of mail covers? Of internet snooping by the govt.?
Not surprise. It’s kind of like, “Well, I knew they were doing that …. “What else is new?” “So what? If it’ll stop another 9-11 …”
Instead of shock, one finds resignation; a kind of inside knowledge, reflected in the culture in flicks like “Enemy of the State.” Of course, the things happening have been occurring in the so-called 3rd world, primarily. Well, finally, the chickens have come home to roost (to quote Malcolm X). The things that America did abroad are now returning from the periphery to the interior of the Empire. And given the logic of globalism, even the false shield of whiteness will not long protect people here, who have grown up thinking, ‘it can’t happen here.’
I am reminded that Germany had the most cultured, most intellectually sophisticated, most technologically progressive, and most educated bourgeoisie in Western Europe; but all of that didn’t stop the rise, and then the flood of fascism. Indeed, if we are honest, we learn that both they, (and the South Africans!) learned much of their segregation, reservation, and racial ‘hygiene’ ideas from the turn-of-the-century Americans.
The fever unleashed by 9-11 has let loose something in the culture, like a fervor, that is still afoot. It portends something quite unhealthy is coming.
In the very beginning, with rhetoric of ‘democracy’, the rulers looked over the span of ages, and selected a model to embrace. Having just rejected and defeated a king, one isn’t surprised that the royal model wasn’t emulated. But about the parliamentary model? While it certainly has its critics, it allows a wider range of political representation than the winner-take-all of the present structure. Americans, students of history, looked to, admired, and sought to imitate Rome, by choosing a Senate.
By emulating Empire, it inherits the infirmities as well as the glories. Weak senates create overweening executives. In Rome, we remember, it was the Senate that gave Octavianus the titles of Prince of the Senate and Emperor. They paid for it. The US Senate gave unlimited powers to Bush. We’ll pay for that too.
If there is one lesson that echoes down the corridors of time and history, it is this: No Empire Lasts Forever. But people are not an empire; they can transcend such things. In order to survive, they must.
Rafael Rodriguez-Cruz is an attorney and a member of the Board of Directors of the Rosenberg Fund for Children in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Founded by Robert Meeropol, the youngest son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the RFC is a non for profit agency that provides for the educational and emotional needs of children of targeted progressive activists in the United States. He also writes for the Puerto Rican newspaper Claridad. He can be reached at: RRodriguezCruz@ghla.org