The Peacefulness of the Long Distance Revolutionary: A Film Review by Eric Mann
Long Distance Revolutionary: a Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal, is a compelling documentary about a riveting historical figure—a passionate, partisan, and persuasive intervention in the not at all “free marketplace of ideas.” Mumia Abu Jamal is the most famous political prisoner in the United States–Black revolutionary, author, philosopher, speaker, radio personality, and superhero for a lost generation that urgently needs to see one in the flesh.
The film is a labor of love by Stephen Vittoria—producer, director, cinematographer. In the case of Long Distance Revolutionary does not center on “action footage” (although the footage of the Philadelphia police blowing up the MOVE compound and killing 11 innocent residents is more action than we would ever want to see). Vittoria has organized the film as a collective narrative (with dozens of “witnesses” like those used by Warren Beatty, in his film Reds, about the life of revolutionary John Reed) but fortunately, Mumia is still alive to tell his own story as well. The narrative line is like a tone poem, with a who’s who of story tellers woven by Vittoria into coherent narrative with each one playing a brilliantly cast role, their own. Ruby Dee, Cornel West, Juan Gonzalez, Linn Washington, Ramona Africa, Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, Johanna Fernandez, Peter Coyote, Lydia Barashango, Terry Bisson, and dozens of others tell amazing stories and Vittoria organizes them into a coherent and powerful narrative. The cast is fascinating not just because of their vivid, provocative observations about the U.S. political system and Mumia’s role in it, but also as reflections of their own politics, their own personas.
Mumia Abu Jamal was born in 1954 as Wesley Cook in Philadelphia. By 14 years old he was a journalist, writing articles for the Black Panther Newspaper. Mumia tell us “The Panther Paper sold 250,000 copies a week in the US. and internationally. “How could they say I was not a professional journalist?” Imagine 250,000 newspapers being sold by men and women in Black leather jackets and Black berets, one by one, and the ability to talk to so many people about revolutionary ideology in the process. Then there is the use of “professional” by Lenin, as someone dedicated to the revolution and willing to get good at the job. In both conventional and proletarian senses, Mumia is a great professional. But it also explains why the system singled him out, he was not just an “outspoken journalist” but a man who understood that organization is everything. From the Black Panthers to MOVE Mumia was an affiliated intellectual revolutionary and it was his commitment to organization that made him ever so much more dangerous.
Long Distance Revolutionary tells the story that begins in the last great revolutionary upsurge of the late 50s, 1960s, and well into the 70s until the rise of Reagan and the full-blown counter-revolution. Mumia Abu-Jamal, a revolutionary Black man with long dreds, a marvelous voice, great journalistic instincts, rose in the radio journalism profession. The film documents his rise to host of a weekly radio program at WCAU-FM in 1978 and from 1979 to 1981 his work at National Public Radio affiliate WUHY, his election as the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. The film explains that Mumia received many lucrative and high profile offers–he was a man on the rise. He was offered fame, fortune, exposure, and even the ability to tell the “news” with a wink and a nod in the direction of the movement and that would have been very appealing to many. All he had to do was cut his dreds, tone down his revolutionary politics, and relinquish his role as an unapologetic partisan, “the voice of the voiceless” and an ardent advocate for Black revolutionary nationalist groups like MOVE.
Instead, and even some of his friends debate his tactical plan, Mumia became more uncompromising with his employers, which led to him greater and greater un-employment. Mumia was not the first of the “embedded” reporters—his problem, from the point of view of the system, is that he was embedded with the wrong side, the people’s side, in the war. That uncompromising stance and his diminished income led Mumia Abu-Jamal to drive a cab at night to help support himself and his family. It led him, on the night of December 9, 1981, to run to the aid of his brother, William Cook, whose vehicle had been stopped by Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. In the ensuing incident, there was an exchange of shots. Both Officer Faulkner and Mumia Abu-Jamal were shot. Officer Faulkner died of his wounds. Mumia was badly injured, beaten by the police, taken to the hospital, and beaten again. The case went to trial in June 1982, prosecuted by then District Attorney and later, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. (Twenty six years later, In 2008, then Governor Rendell, a Hillary Clinton supporter, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, during the Democratic Primaries, why he thought Obama would lose in Pennsylvania “You’ve got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate” –with the wish being the father to the thought. Some things and people never change.) This is the man who both persecuted and prosecuted Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The jury, after only three hours of deliberation unanimously found Mumia Abu-Jamal guilty of first degree murder.
In watching the film, at first I wished the film-maker had given a short presentation on the legal and moral case for Muia’s “innocence”– but after further thought, he made the right call. In reading many accounts of the circumstances and the trial the “he said” “she said” arguments would have muddied the waters and lost the focus of the film’s fundamental premise—that Mumia is a great political thinker and actor and a prisoner of war and let’s stop with the pretense this had anything do to with “the law.” In this film we take Mumia Abu Jamal at his word and the system at its words. This film, in my view, is an appeal to a very large Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, and antiracist white audience to more fully understand the political significance, more than even the injustice, of Mumia’s life and to use his ideas to truly “free all political prisoners.” Mumia Abu- Jamal has already been in prison for 30 years, and recently, through relentless legal representation his death sentence has been overturned. Now, he is in the general population, serving the cruel and unusual sentence of “life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
The film is framed throughout by what seems like one long interview with Mumia with his unique, dulcet, focused voice, compelling visage and brilliant politics. I have now “seen” the film 3 times, first at a screening by Stephen Vittoria that we were invited to by long-time prison radio producer Noelle Hanrahan, and twice more in preparation for this review. But the film, which runs 2 hours, takes me twice as long to view, because I keep pausing to write down great quotes and ideas. I think the film, especially for an audience of young revolutionary Black organizers (and organizers of all races) could be taught as a 6 session course, with each section requiring research and greater historical investigation. In a conversation I had with Mumia on my radio show, Voices from the Frontlines, we were talking about the Black revolutionary tradition and how that tradition—from Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Denmark Vesey, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Hubert Harrison, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, and so many more, has been lost on a new generation of Black people, Mumia responded that Black people today are suffering from what he called “menticide” –the loss of their full mental faculties by being denied their own history. (Alice Walker makes a similar observation in the film.) The film shows clearly hat Mumia Abu-Jamal is the latest member of that Pantheon and we need many more to “live like him.” Moreover, because of Long Distance Revolutionary, his prolific written work should get more attention—Live From Death Row, The Classroom and the Cell, All Things Censored, Jailhouse Lawyers, Death Blossoms, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party will create a great baseline for his intervention in Black and revolutionary studies.
Long Distance Revolutionary retells a history that is almost unbelievable if one did not experience it first-hand. The story of Frank Rizzo, the police chief and then mayor of Philadelphia, and his construction of a self-proclaimed police state and his intimate knowledge of Mumia’s danger to his worldview creates the clear motive for the framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal. It explains the COINTELPRO program, a F.B.I. program with the explicit objective of destroying the Black revolutionary movement of which Mumia was a key target. Parenthetically, a great vignette Vittoria captures is that of one of the Mumia-haters saying, with no sense of irony, “If he wasn’t so good looking and didn’t have such a great voice do you think people would care about him?” It demonstrates the undeniable charisma that even his enemies have to acknowledge. In Mumia’s many commentaries throughout the film, in his demeanor and voice—his transcendence of his captivity and captors is even more profound. He rises above his jailers. His contempt for their racism, their barbarism, their system is palpable. But we should never underestimate the courage he exhibits in the face of unbearable pain and suffering—otherwise we cannot even fathom what heroism looks like. Alice Walker, in the film, captures it beautifully, “Everyone has the midnight hour, with the darkness and terror. We do not see his midnight hour” –but she wants us to know his challenge is to face a greater darkness and terror than few of us can even imagine.
Mumia Abu Jamal is one of the leading revolutionary intellectuals of our time. It is essential to “free Mumia Abu Jamal” physically from bondage and the Free Mumia campaign has a plan to get him released from prison altogether. It is also of great historical significance to free his profound political perspective from the “limited release” of his present incarceration. Long Distance Revolutionary is a critical contribution to that objective.
The role of organizing. Long Distance Revolutionary will be in full release in January 2013. It is opening at several film festivals now. Readers should check to find out when the film is opening in your area and initiate an organizing campaign to turn out people to fill the theaters. The film will open in Los Angeles, where I live and work, in early February. My own organization, the Labor/Community Strategy Center, and its Bus Riders Union and Community Rights Campaigns will be giving the turn-out for the film a very high priority. We will be working with Stephen Vittoria to make sure its initial run in the theaters has very high attendance so that it is kept in those theaters. Concretely, we will work to turn out\ at least 100 people directly to the opening night and work with community allies to ensure high turnout as long as we can and hope “word of mouth” keeps the ball rolling. Then we will work to get it into community and labor education programs and use it for our own organizer training with bus riders, hotel workers, and militant high school students fighting the pre-prisoning of the public high schools. We will distribute this review, with great appreciation to the War Resisters League for asking me to write it, to every source we can—including Organizing Upgrade and our own website, Voices from the Frontlines, www.voicesfromfrontlines.com. We will have the film’s director, Stephen Vittoria on the radio show and will work to have Mumia, if at all possible, back on the show to promote the screening. Voices from the Frontlines, (KPFK, 90.7 FM, Pacifica, in Los Angeles, streaming live on the web at kpfk.org. Tuesdays from 4 to 5 PST. I raise these ideas in specificity to make “organizing” for Long Distance Revolutionary real—and as organizers, we need a very concrete tactical plan to fight to win. What is your organizing plan? How many people can you get to attend these showings? If you are public school or university faculty, how can you purchase copies of the DVD and use it in curriculum, if community or labor organizations how do we first attend the showings and then buy copies for our members. And what action are we asking people to take once they have seen the film? Certainly critical interventions would be to join the movement to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners, to end solitary confinement and Super-Max prisoners where 80,000 people are locked up 23 hours a day or more, and to abolish the barbaric sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
Eric Mann, the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers, where he worked on auto assembly lines for ten years. He is the author of Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer and Comrade George: An Investigation into the Life, Political Thought, and Assassination of George Jackson and the host of Voices from The Frontlines, KPFK Pacifica, 90.7 FM, Tuesdays from 4 to 5 PST and streaming live on the web at www.kpfk.org. His work can be found at www.voicesfromfrontlines.com
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