An address delivered from Pennsylvania’s Death Row to the
‘Imprisonment of a Race’ Conference, presented by the Center for African
American Studies at Princeton University on March 25, 2011
by Mumia Abu-Jamal, M.A.
Noting that “the U.S., with barely 5 percent of the world’s
population, imprisons 25 percent of the world’s prisoners” and “that the
Black working class and poor constitute a caste,” Mumia urges us to
form “a new popular movement that struggles to break this caste system
once and for all.” How long will we make this young man and nearly a
million more Black people locked up right now wait. How long must the
communities and the children they left behind suffer without them?
Dear friends, activists, scholars & colleagues: Ona Move!
Thank you for your invitation to join you and to participate in this
conference. It is an honor to share these brief moments with you – a nod
and a salute to your panelists, many of whom I know and admire.
Your topic is, to say the least, a daunting one, for the sheer
numbers are breathtaking, especially when we consider its familial,
social, communal and political impacts.
I dare say, for those among you who are African American, no matter
your class nor income, you won’t have to think very long to recall a
nephew – and far too often a niece, not to mention a son or daughter –
who, if not presently a prisoner, is an ex-prisoner of some county,
state or federal system.
That speaks to the ubiquity of the problem, of the vast numbers of
men, women and juveniles who populate the prison industrial complex here
in America. As many of you know, the U.S., with barely 5 percent of the
world’s population, imprisons 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. As
Michelle Alexander, whom many of you will hear from in this conference’s
evening program, has noted, the numbers of imprisoned Blacks here
rivals and exceeds South Africa’s hated apartheid system during its
We shouldn’t take this analogy lightly, for South African apartheid
was the epitome of the racist police state, second only to Nazi Germany
in its repellent nature. Moreover, much of its energy was consumed in a
de facto war – or, at the very least, in military-espionage jargon, a
low intensity conflict – with the Black majority that criminalized
almost every feature of African independent life, restricting places to
live, work, study and even love.
This speaks to how blind we are in this country to the scope of the
problem, much less its resolution, and how it has been normalized in
social and political consciousness, in part because the corporate media
neglects or slants such a story. For if they can fail in reportage
leading to a hot war – here I mean Iraq – they certainly can fail in
reporting the parameters of a low intensity conflict that crushes Black
Perhaps the words of a non-American – I hesitate to call him a
foreigner – but long an observer of this country can give us some
insight. At 71 years, South Africa’s great musical gift, Hugh Masekela,
gave an interview in which he made note of the post-apartheid South
Africa: “The majority of the population only got the right to vote and a
lack of harassment from the police. But any further changes would be
bad for business. Same like here in the United States – the fruits of
the Civil Rights Movement are very minimal.”
I quote Masekela here not merely because of his celebrity – nor
because I love his music – but because he, like millions of Africans,
lived under the madness of apartheid, even though he escaped it by later
moving abroad, and therefore knows it intimately. He therefore is able
to recognize its elements in American life.
But why is apartheid seen as so repellent and the U.S. prison industrial complex
(PIC) seen as so benign?
I think the answer is twofold: 1) the political elites of both
political parties reached bi-partisan consensus on this issue; and 2)
the presence of Black political actors in various offices act as a
shield repelling attacks on the racist nature of the system.
As in South Africa, Black political elites have benefited from an
economic system that is profoundly unfair to the vast majority of
African people, especially the poor and working class. Thus, race
protects a class divide and, despite its imagery, social inequality.
In essence, the post-apartheid regime achieved a result that the
apartheid era tried to but failed to construct: a buffer class that
protected the lands, property and material wealth of the white minority
It is one of the ironies of history that the government led by the
African National Congress (ANC) would achieve this result, albeit by
Let us depart from theoretical political constructs to note an
example of the real. Several months ago, a police squad raided a Black
working class home, shot into it from the outside, and killed a Black
child. That, in itself, unfortunately, can’t be called noteworthy. Yet
it has a certain resonance when we note that both the mayor of the city
and its police chief were Black. Those aware of this incident may
recognize the name of the beautiful child involved, Aiyana Jones, and
the city, Detroit. Surely this provides some insight into the political
function of Black leaders and their impotence when it comes to curbing
state action that endangers Black poor life.
One of the keynoters, law professor Alexander, addresses some of
these points in her book, “The New Jim Crow,” but what had the best
salience for me was something that I’ve not seen in any of the reviews
I’ve read – understanding that, as most prisoners don’t have computer
access, I’ve probably missed scads of reviews. It was her observance
that the Black working class and poor constitute a caste position in
In a nation that promotes democracy, one would think the charge that a
distinct racial caste exists at the heart of it would provoke
controversy. Judging from what I’ve read, this central point has been
In closing, I of course commend her book to you all for study, but I must do more.
We must call for, agitate for and, if all else fails, create a new
popular movement that struggles to break this caste system once and for
all. Indeed, it is in our collective interest to do so. For most Black
scholars, intellectuals, academics and political elites are one
generation removed from the ghettoes of distant memory. With the
collapse of the U.S. economy, where do you think the cuts will occur, as
the welfare state – and the state itself – shrinks?
Finally, we know that the impact of felon disfranchisement laws led,
inexorably, to the election of George W. Bush in 2000. Think of what the
world may’ve looked like if that political event hadn’t happened.
It is in the interest of all.
I thank you. Ona move!
© Copyright 2011 Mumia Abu-Jamal. Read Mumia’s latest book,
“Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A.,”
available from City Lights Publishing, www.citylights.com or (415) 362-8193. Keep
updated at www.freemumia.com. For Mumia’s commentaries, visit www.prisonradio.org.
For recent interviews with Mumia, visit www.blockreportradio.com.
Encourage the media to publish and broadcast Mumia’s commentaries and
interviews. Send our brotha some love and light at: Mumia Abu-Jamal, AM
8335, SCI-Greene, 175 Progress Dr., Waynesburg PA 15370.