Why the Caged Bird Sings: Mumia Abu Jamal and the New Paradigm of Resistance

Updated on September 6, 2016

Mumia Abu-Jamal, was Sentenced to Death in 1982 for the 1981 Murder of Philadelphia Police Officer, Daniel Faulkner.

A Tale of Two Paradoxes

Philadelphia is a city in perpetual paradox.

It is from within this paradox, Mumia Abu-Jamal was born. Abu-Jamal, 62 was sentenced to death in 1982 for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment without parole.

Philadelphia in 1981 was not prepared for Abu-Jamal. He was then as he is now, a whirlwind of resistance. A member of the Black Panther Party since the age of 14, dreadlocked and outspoken, Abu-Jamal was a Peabody Award-winning radio essayist and president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. He was also driving a cab two nights a week to make ends meet.

Born, Wesley Cook in 1954, he took the name Mumia in 1968 when it was given to him by a Kenyan high school teacher instructing on African cultures. Abu-Jamal adopted his surname shortly after the birth of his first child when he was 19 years old.

The convergence of majestic and ruin meet at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. Philadelphia, once the nation's capital during the Revolutionary War and while Washington, D.C., was under construction is a sprawling metropolis composed of neighborhoods shifting and colliding in diversity and culture. In the midst of this intricate urban sprawl, rises William Penn, an English Quaker and founder of the Province of Pennsylvania and the future Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

A bronzed Penn sits atop the architecturally magnificent Philadelphia City Hall, an imposing structure of limestone, granite and marble. It was under Penn's peaceful, omnipotent gaze that Officer Daniel Faulkner was murdered beneath a bone white moon in marrow chilling cold on December 9, 1981. Faulkner was fatally shot, while conducting a traffic stop of Abu-Jamal's brother, William Cook. Abu-Jamal was at the scene with a bullet wound from Faulkner's gun and his own revolver beside him. It had been recently fired.

This is where the two paradoxes part ways. The Commonwealth of Philadelphia declaring his guilt and Abu-Jamal insisting on his innocence.

Radical Resistance: Writing from the Afterlife

Abu-Jamal spent 30 years on death row. After all of possible appeals had been exhausted, his conviction was upheld but his death sentence vacated. He was re-sentenced to life in prison without parole. In 1991, Abu-Jamal published an essay in the Yale Journal, on the death penalty and his death row experience. He published his first book, Live from Death Row in 1995.

Shortly after his essay was published , Abu-Jamal was engaged by National Public Radio to deliver a series of commentaries on crime and punishment. These first sputterings that were metaphorically similar to the inconsistent clarity of a poorly received radio signal have now blossomed into a high definition broadcast of Abu-Jamal's experiences. He can be heard regularly on Prisonradio.org, offering commentary on a myriad of subjects primarily focusing on political and societal issues.

American legal scholar and a proponent of critical race theory, Patricia J. Williams in her essay, The Executioner's Automat, examines the core of Abu-Jamal's imprisonment and it is not, to the anger of many, the death of Faulkner.

"Abu-Jamal, who denies kiling Officer Faulkner, has become the object of one of those debates that go to the core of the deepest racial divides in this country," Williams opines. "Is he the victim of a police conspiracy designed to silence his radical political coverage?" Williams asks. " ... Is he a cold-blooded killer who is now manipulating the public sentiment?"

In her deliberate and careful examination of Abu-Jamal, Williams is not starry-eyed. She does not fawn over the man who behind bars has managed to forge a life arguably larger than if he had never been imprisoned. Williams does not leave the family of Faulkner to gather dust in the shadow of Abu-Jamal.

"Add to this American drama, the passionate grief of Faulkner's widow, Maureen," Williams continues. "Who, with the help of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, mounted a concerted effort to prevent publication Live from Death Row."

However despite varied efforts to quell the storms he creates simply from putting pen to paper, Abu-Jamal will not be calmed or silenced. He rages and clangs his metal coffee cup against steel bars. It is not simply a question of Why the Caged Bird Sings? But rather, How does He Sing? In the case of Abu-Jamal, it can be argued, he roars - it is imaginable he actually roars, given his appearance in 1981; wild hair, unflinching gaze, standing as if his back bone were forged from steel.

Abu-Jamal writes from his perspective as a man living under the death penalty and later, as a man simultaneously existing in the palm of grace and on the tongue of hell. Abu-Jamal has authored or co-authored over seven books (that have been translated into nine languages) exploring topics such as justice and black life in America.

In 2009, Abu-Jamal co-authored Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners defending Prisoners with Dr. Angela Yvonne Davis, a former Black Panther Party member and famed civil rights powerhouse who has been just one of many celebrities who have rallied in support of Abu-Jamal. The litany of notable names in support of Abu-Jamal reads like a who's who of the contemporary intellectual elite; Dr. Cornell West of Yale University, poets Sonia Sanchez, Saul Williams, June Jordan and Allen Ginsberg. The names and accompanying passion demanding the freeing of Abu-Jamal are innumerable and unrestrained in scope.

"Hell is not the Dantean creation of eternal cacophony marked by the fevered screames of the tortured" writes Abu-Jamal, In Defense of Mumia: An Anthology of Prose, Poetry and Art. "No. Hell is quiet and chilled. I know. I live there."

Abu-Jamal writes from outside of his body, from a distance uncomfortable for most. He gazes upon his mortality with an unflinching eye. Abu-Jamal writes of his residency on death row and more intimately of the moment he was informed his death warrant had been signed, "The men make small talk among themselves, an attempt to chase the cold, constricting demons of fear away, as they clutch for the heart." He writes. "In an odd equation of death, the more talk equals more fear. Small talk amidst the awesome reality of impending death. Approaching death, while waiting in an icebox. The small talk amidst the awesome reality of impending death."

This ability to compartmentalize his mortality is a redefining of resistance. He transcends the silencing of his imprisonment and faces the world through the power of the written word. Just as he has resisted his confinement, there has been customary resistance to his resistance. The Faulkner family, public authorities, police organizations, and conservative groups have maintained that Abu-Jamal's trial was fair, his guilt undeniable, and his death sentence appropriate.

"On December 9, 1981, the police attempted to execute me in the street," writes Abu-Jamal in Live from Death Row. "This trial is the result of their failure to do so."

There is no greater evidence of Pennyslyvania's failure to execute Abu-Jamal or quiet the resistance that began when he was just a 14 year old boy who describes himself as being "Kicked" into the Black Panther Party by white racists who beat him up, than his body of written work.

In 2015, as he was fighting for his life in an intensive care unit due to complications from diabetes, he was metaphorically being given new life, as the ink on a new book, Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal, was barely dry. Abu-Jamal, in what has become, at least for him, customary fashion, had forged another life. In his writings, he has gathered lives like some collect lint in forgotten pockets.

The Writings of Mumia Abu Jamal

  • Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal (2015)
  • The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America Third World Press (2011)
  • Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners V. The U.S.A (2009)
  • We Want Freedom: A Life In The Black Panther Party South End Press (2008)
  • Faith Of Our Fathers: An Examination Of The Spiritual Life Of African And African-American People Africa World Pr (2003)
  • All Things Censored (2000)
  • Death Blossoms: Reflections From A Prisoner Of Conscience Plough Publishing House (1997)
  • Live from Death Row

A Lion in Winter

Prison has exposed a fragile humanity of the man with the backbone forged from steel. Abu-Jamal is now in a wheel chair, the unflinching gaze has softened, the smile bears traces of angst - perhaps these were always present but now more apparent in a man that has spent over half of his life behind bars.

He is a grandfather now and writes of his grandchildren with a tragic poignancy. The lion that seemed to perpetually roar does also weep.

"I sight, my grandson, a reddish-brown dimpled munchkin who can barely see over the public rail," Abu-Jamal wrote twelve years after he was sentenced to death. "...He is nearing four and I have never touched him. I have never seen him without a barrier between us. Yet this child radiates a love so palpable one can swim in it, and all around him, people pulsate with love, not of the flesh, but of the spirit."

This from the man, who, from birth seem deigned to live and breathe as paradox within paradox. In a city of opulence and ruin, he is saint and sinner, martyr and perhaps murderer. He has not defied time and has been to those who would oppose his cries of injustice, been given what Faulkner will never have, the gift of aging.

Yet, aging in prison without the benefit of adequate healthcare has worn on Abu-Jamal. It has been reported he suffers from diabetes, skin lesions and extreme fatigue. FreeMumia.com, a web site dedicated to securing the release of Abu-Jamal from prison, referring to his hospitalization in 2015, writes, "He was hospitalized on Monday, March 30, with life-threatening high blood sugar, but two days later was transferred back to the same prison that failed to diagnose or treat him even though he was still very ill. His diet is dangerous and his health is deteriorating. Once again, only massive pressure will prevent his death."

Still, this decline in health would not seem to come as a surprise to Abu-Jamal. If not anything, he is a pragmatist, he knew even as his death sentence was first postponed, there was hollow victory in every breath he wearily inhaled and exhaled in the confines of his cell, so far removed from the city, that at once birthed and slowly executed him.

"With 10 days remaining, the stay was admittedly welcome," Abu-Jamal writes of his 1995 stay of execution. "It does not mean, however, that I am no longer on death row. It means the government still intends to kill me - just on another day.

"By the stay, I am moved out of the lower depths of the state's hell, to a mid-range; from a dungeon to a cage," he continues. "A cage located out in the boondocks, as far from Philadelphia as is possible and remain inside the stateline; a cage where men are held behind glass and steel; a cage where men await death."

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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