an open letter,  an essay from   ARGUMENTS WITH THE THOUGHT POLICE
by john bart gerald
drawings by julie maas

 

 

An Open Letter

This case is so filled with injustice that Mumia Abu Jamal has become victim, and to such psychological cruelty it terrorizes those who would attempt freedom of speech by writing their understanding of truth.

Portions of this letter were published in The PEN Newsletter #86, 1995, in "Reprieve Sought in Pennsylvania for Black Journalist Mumia Abu." My full letter appears here, with its faults, and includes portions of my own experiences with journalism because these provide some context for understanding the difficulties honest writers face when writing to the people about areas which embarrass law enforcement or government policy.

*

    I'm against any imposition of a death penalty, as I am against killing, as I am against war, against death threats, against violence and the threat of violence and abuse and psychological abuse. I think it's abusive to American writers when the literary establishment champions Salmon Rushdie's offense to Islamic Law and ignores Mumia Abu-Jamal's death sentence under our own. It's likely that Abu-Jamal's death sentence as well, is the result of his words, though America doesn't always ban dissidents so overtly who die penniless on the streets of New York like Julia de Burgos, get shot in prison like George Jackson, are found with head blown off like Richard Brautigan, are said to commit suicide in Pennsylvania like Abbie Hoffman, join up with the system or are charged with murder like Mumia Abu-Jamal. I urge all our favorite authors, poets and editors, to extend the defense of Salmon Rushdie to American writers, specifically to Mumia Abu Jamal, and to encourage US lawmakers to reject the death penalty entirely. All it does is kill people.

    Believing that Allah is compassionate but less so when funded by the CIA, I haven't been as worried about Salmon Rushdie as many of you. Though maybe you know something I don't. I surely affirm his freedom of expression and right to personal safety. But I think our writers and booksellers were poorly used when Viking/Penguin decided to flood the world market with Satanic Verses, despite Islamic law's predictable reaction. Resulting contempt for Islamic law and Islam harmed Islamic peoples in America, was partly responsible for the public's acceptance of the Gulf War, bombing of Muslim civilian populations and lethal continuing sanctions. Iraq didn't really fight the Gulf War, and to varying degrees the UN's Convention on Genocide was broken by the US and allies, or as Chomsky indicates of East Timor: a genocide, if the responsibility were anyone else's.

    If our concern is freedom of expression rather than its propaganda value in faulting Islamic Law, why isn't Mumia Abu-Jamal a constant concern? The African-American journalist waits on death row in Pennsylvania.

    The circumstances of his arrest and conviction (as presented by The Nation, 4/23/90) intimidate freedom of expression here in the US: a journalist who favored defendants on trial in the shooting death of a policeman, is subsequently almost killed, accused and convicted of shooting a policeman. The attempted murder of Abu-Jamal by police at his arrest was then covered over by charges against him. His trial, legal representation, the prosecution's tactics and evidence, raise obvious legal and ethical doubts. These doubts don't justify the killing of a policeman. They do deny the right of society to take a possibly innocent man's life in revenge. And if you've ever tried to write about crimes by law enforcement, you'll know that illegal retribution by police is a much deeper threat to freedom of expression than the usual silencing of a journalist through loss of his job.

    I know the police have been used to silence dissidence. As a young freelance journalist / march marshall from Selma to Montgomery in times of intense police brutality against the civil rights movement, I was falsely arrested, under death threat from police, and threatened with a twenty year prison term for the contents of my journal. During early Vietnam I thought I could report police violence because I had a Harvard B.A., a novel published, had worked with Schweitzer, was a medical reservist one weekend a month in Jersey, and was teaching at City College. My first article reporting NYPD police brutality in The Village Voice, was followed by a false arrest at the next peace rally I tried to cover and a secret police file (I received a version in 1989 of 27 pages with only one reference to me). I was totally stopped from writing of a very ugly police-undercover-violent-action against peacefully assembled people. Without legal recourse, I forfeited my tenure year at City College and left town.

    Of four false and arbitrary arrests I experienced, each 1. tried to silence me; 2. each got me back for trying to affirm human rights law; 3. each was an arbitrary false charge; 4. each invoked the threat of a more severe arbitrary charge; 5. each charge was ultimately dismissed in court; 6. in each, police used force for an unresisting (I believe in nonviolence) arrest, handcuffs, prison or detention; 7. each took away my freedom without compensation. So with my experiences as an American writer it would be wrong of me not to say obvious things about the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

    In the police bombing of MOVE (with the resulting burning down of a low rent district), in the sentencing of MOVE members, in issues of police brutality against the community, the injustice and disregard for human rights scared everyone. Mumia Abu Jamal became a threat to authorities because he wasn't terrorized into silence. And he was reporting actions that thinking people consider crimes, both under American law, and under international laws which the government, the legal system and the media, usually suppress. ( * See subsequent note 1)

    International laws are ignored by the national press when they counter government policies, until the politically expedient human damage is done. It is because of a very real oppression that human rights violations which the government is responsible for don't become known to the public for years. Five arbitrary (1994) examples: Robert Redford's "Incident at Oglala" (1991), gives testimony of death squads operating with government consent and support, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the early and mid Seventies. US complicity in the El Mezote massacre (1981) El Salvador, became public knowledge after release of the UN Truth Commission Report in the 90's; repatriation of Haitian refugees breaks Article 33:1 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, yet the Convention remains ignored by the press; the press remains afraid to explore the issue of depleted uranium armor and shells in US tanks, which are a health hazard to American troops and technically weapons of "radiological warfare" (used in Iraq); in exchange for government funding, medical studies by the university/medical community in Boston/ Cambridge, without appropriate informed consent gave pregnant women, retarded children, and veterans radioactive materials internally. The news was not released for twenty to forty years.

    When news is suppressed or badly slanted by the establishment, the news comes from those close to it; from those who care not because they are paid to care, or paid not to care. Although journalists like Mumia Abu-Jamal are continually trying to make a free press, we rarely have one. Ben Bagdikian (The Media Monopoly) faults advertisers. Chomsky (passim) points to government policies. Both avoid dealing with how strictly the controls are enforced, and by whom. The American literary establishment rushes to defend an English writer from Islamic Law, yet can't effectively defend our own.

    The retribution of police "framing" takes a journalist out of business, intimidates other journalists, helps discredit legal testimony of the victim journalist, and satisfies vengeance. In some countries this mechanism of retribution escalated to death squad activity. In Pennsylvania, the possibility of an innocent being sentenced to death as retribution for advocacy journalism, is a step in the wrong direction.

    Given the precedent in treatment of African American writers, and given Mumia Abu-Jamal's message, it was simply a question of how he would be taken out. No journalist good enough to be the "voice of the voiceless" as he was called by Philadelphia Inquirer, would be spared targeting by the authorities, or be able to survive any involvement with the death of a policeman. He had no previous record. Strong evidence of his innocence was not allowed at his trial. What if it was exactly his affirmation of press freedoms that brought the terrifying retribution of his arrest, trial, and sentencing ?

    Mumia Abu-Jamal is a political prisoner in a country that can not admit it makes political prisoners. He presents us all with a warning that is supposed to cost him his life, and I urge your concern for him.

*

1. If you consider the police bombing of MOVE (which may be where Mumia Abu-Jamal's reporting caused him to be targeted) as a microcosm for subsequent destructions, the bombing of Iraq, of Yugoslavia, then the obvious injustices in his arrest, trials and sentencing seem intended to offer an example to dissidence, and help explain lack of alternatives in the media to any journalism which doesn't parrot official press releases. I know of no one who has examined his case within the perspective of a psychological warfare operation against the free press.

 

 

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copyright 2002 john bart gerald
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