Live from Death Row

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Live from Death Row, published in May 1995, is a memoir by Mumia Abu-Jamal, an American journalist and activist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who was convicted of the murder of a city police officer and sentenced to death. He wrote the book while on death row. Abu-Jamal has always maintained his innocence. His sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole after he had been held for 29 years on death row. Publishers Addison-Wesley paid Abu-Jamal a $30,000 advance for the book.

Maureen Faulkner, the widow of Daniel Faulkner, the Philadelphia police officer whom Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing, hired a plane to fly over the publishing company's headquarters while trailing a banner that read "Addison-Wesley Supports a Cop Killer." This display promoted a boycott of Addison-Wesley by the Fraternal Order of Police. Abu-Jamal's essays were finally published. National Public Radio backed out of an agreement to broadcast a reading of some of his work on All Things Considered, due to pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police and Senator Bob Dole. Abu-Jamal referred to this incident with the title of his 2000 book, All Things Censored.

Context[edit]

Abu-Jamal explores many important historical events of relevance to the standing of blacks in America. Using numerous references to law and court cases, he demonstrates that the Dred Scott ruling is still relevant to racial relations. He believes blacks are still far from free denoting Nelson Mandela's plight. He expresses a dislike for William Rehnquist's conservative slant and Sandra Day O'Connor's "Rehnquistian" dissent in Penry v. Lynaugh, allowing the execution of the intellectually disabled. He mocks Lewis Powell's dismissal of statistical evidence of racial discrimination in capital sentencing in McCleskey v. Kemp and his dissent in which he states "McCleskey's claim, taken to its logical conclusion, throws into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system". He also mentions Harry Blackmun's vote in Gregg v. Georgia, which ruled the death penalty to be constitutional. Abu-Jamal notes that Blackmun changed his mind; in Callins v. Collins the justice stated, "from this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death ... I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed".

A former Black Panther, Abu-Jamal recalls some of his past experiences with the organization; his one-time role as bodyguard for Huey P. Newton, whom he regards as a hero; the feuding between the Newton-led West Coast members and the Eldridge Cleaver-led East Coast and, ultimately, its decline. He recounts his protest of a George Wallace rally with three other black teens, their subsequent beatings at the hands of white attendees, and his appeal for help to a police officer. The man kicked him in the face while he was on the ground.

Abu-Jamiah frequently refers to the MOVE organization, its founder John Africa, and the massacre of 11 people (5 of them children) on May 13, 1985 by the Philadelphia Police Department. He compares this to the federal law enforcement raid at a militant complex in Waco, which resulted in the deaths of xx people. He also explores the trial of Rodney King, and the succeeding riots in Los Angeles after the officers were acquitted of a beating that was caught on tape and widely seen. He said that he believed each of the indicted officers had their constitutional right of double jeopardy violated by being twice put on trial for the same offense.

Synopsis[edit]

Told as anecdotes, most of Live from Death Row details the prison system; in an additional end section titled "Musings, memories, and prophecies", Abu-Jamal discusses past events in his life and he commemorates some prominent blacks in America. He delves into the purported purpose of prison, finding it hard to believe that "corrections" and deterrence are its true goals: he notes that there are barriers to educating inmates and that psychological problems are caused by isolation and non-contact visits. He suggests that prisons are operated in order to "erode one's humanity". He describes the procedures of death row blocs where twenty-plus-hour solitary confinement is offset by a few hours of recreation and exercise "outside" on penned-in plots of land and minimal[clarification needed] conversations with fellow inmates often regarding their attempts at appeal and their battles with the law. He details two suicides of fellow inmates, one by hanging and one death caused by self-inflicted burns, and the drugging of inmates to make them more sedate even at the expense of one epileptic's health. He reports the interactions between "urban" prisoners and "rural" guards in which prisoners are subject to brutal beatings, cavity searches, racial harassment, and human rights violations after insurgencies.

In addition to prison conditions, he discusses social issues and their relevance to prison. He expresses dismay toward "three strikes" mandatory sentencing and politicians using "tough on crime" slogans as political gateways, offering the fact that the United States has the most incarcerated individuals in the world. He hints at racial discrimination, as proposed in the McCleskey v. Kemp case, by reciting statistics on America's death row population in comparison with America's population by race; the numbers are not proportional. He then looks at the elements of the judicial system, believing it is subject to racism; he mentions the choosing of "peers", often white jurors who are pro-death, as jury members and expert witnesses who suppress or distort evidence to suit the criminal justice system. He also explores the topic of uneven justice with examples of police officers being acquitted with compelling evidence against them and, more often than not, guards receiving minimal,[clarification needed] if any, punishment for inappropriate actions against prisoners.

  • Political-rock band Rage Against the Machine is observed as a supporter of Abu-Jamal. Singer Zack De La Rocha has spoken to Congress, condemning the U.S. government's treatment of him. Guitarist Tom Morello visited Abu-Jamal and has interviewed him.
  • Political hip hop artist Immortal Technique featured Abu-Jamal on his second album Revolutionary Vol. 2.
  • The punk band Anti-Flag has a speech from Mumia Abu Jamal in the intro to their song "The Modern Rome Burning" from their 2008 album The Bright Lights of America. The speech is actually on the end of their track "Vices", which precedes "The Modern Rome Burning".

References[edit]

  • Espada, Martin. "All Things Censored." Progressive. July 1997, Vol. 61 Issue 7: 20-22.
  • Featherstone, Liza. "Abu-Jamal and Son of Sam." Columbia Journalism Review. September/October 1995, Vol. 34 Issue 3: 9-10.
  • Tabor, Mary B.W. "Book Notes." New York Times. 15 February 1995: C14.

External links[edit]