The racism embedded in our criminal justice system has been at the forefront of public consciousness this year. Debates about defunding the police, prison abolition, and how to actually dismantle the entire machine have gone from the fringes to the streets, to the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times. In the process, these debates have opened a rift between those in the Democratic Party who believe this discussion will alienate centrist voters and people at the base who marched over the summer, taking this analysis as the clarion call of the future.
What we haven’t seen this year, somewhat surprisingly, is a national reckoning over the lifetime imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal. For years the most famous death row prisoner in the United States, the former Black Panther’s innocence in the killing of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner was once an article of faith on the left. Mumia’s conviction was the symbol for everything racist and corrupt about the police, the prison system, and the politics of death row.
While behind bars, he has broadcast more than 3,000 commentaries around the world and is about to release his 12th book, Murder Incorporated—Perfecting Tyranny: Book 3, so he has hardly been invisible. But since Mumia has been taken off of death row, only the lifelong devoted have remained vigilant about his case. That could change, now that exiled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has entered the fray.
Kaepernick has, of course, spent the last three seasons out of the NFL, following his year of taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racist police killings. He said in August of 2016 after first kneeling, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder…. This is not something that I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed.… If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
They did, in fact, “take football away,” but that hasn’t stopped him from speaking out. In the last year, he has become a symbol of the protest movement, with people wearing his jersey to demonstrations, kneeling during marches, and carrying signs that read, “Kaepernick Told The Truth.” He has also curated a series on Medium about prison and police abolition: a how-to of essays from leading thinkers about how and why we should actually dismantle the criminal justice system. Now Kaepernick is turning his attention to Mumia, an act of courage that could hold the potential to revive Mumia’s case in the lexicon of the struggle. In a video statement published first by the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, Kaepernick goes through the case in detail, in effect educating this new generation about the facts of Mumia’s story.
He also says,
When I was invited to speak on behalf of Mumia, one of the first things that came to mind was how long he’s been in prison. How many years of his life had been stolen away from him, his community and his loved ones. He’s been incarcerated for 38 years. Mumia has been in prison longer than I’ve been alive. When I first spoke with Mumia on the phone, I did very little talking. I just listened. Hearing him speak was a reminder of why we must continue to fight…. Today we’re living through a moment where it’s acceptable to paint “end racism now” in front of the Philadelphia Police Department’s 26th district headquarters, and yet a political prisoner who has since the age of 14 dedicated his life to fighting against racism, continues to be caged and lives his life on a slow death row. We’re in the midst of a movement that says Black Lives Matter. And if that’s truly the case, then it means that Mumia’s life and legacy must matter. And the causes that he sacrifices life and freedom for must matter as well.
By connecting the struggle for Mumia with the current moment, Kaepernick is further putting himself in a different kind of space than athletes who are testing the political waters by calling for police reform. Kaepernick is saying that the police cannot in fact be reformed and any movement worth its salt needs to have solidarity with revolutionaries behind bars: revolutionaries like Abu-Jamal.
I reached out to Johanna Fernandez, associate professor at Baruch College of the City of New York, a leading member of the movement to bring Mumia home, and author of the book The Young Lords: A Radical History. She said, “Moments of social upheaval produce individuals of great integrity willing to risk everything for the common good. But rarely does history bring together symbols of resistance from different epochs. It has in the case of Colin and Mumia. Colin’s defense of this black radical, connects the battle against police violence with the one against imprisonment—and ushers in hope for abolition and the reorganization of society we need. Like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Colin has experienced the unforgiving consequences of challenging the status quo, in the world of sports. His defense of Mumia cements his place in history as someone willing to stand on principle and demand justice above all.”
What Kaepernick is doing is daring for someone still trying to get back into the NFL—a league that does police appreciation days. He is putting it all at risk for a man described as the voice of the voiceless.