Mumia Abu-Jamal and Me


Once upon a time I was a young Barnard woman full of writerly hopes and dreams of saving the world, one idealistic mission at a time. I worked with adolescents struggling to make it through high school, second graders needing a place to go after school, addicted adults studying for their GED, Earth Day, Rock the Vote, Planned Parenthood. I marched on Washington for a woman’s right to choose, I protested the war, I railed against the demolition of the Audubon Ballroom. I petitioned and cold-called and rallied.

I wanted to equalize education, improve the lives of farmers, help battered women escape.

Animals, children, the addicted and abused – I wanted to wrap them in my skinny brown arms, lift them up, make their lives better. I believed I could make a difference, that with my heart in the right place, my brains, and my stubborn streak, I could be the catalyst for change, maybe not in the lives of all, but I could certainly touch a few.

The essay I wrote for my law school applications perfectly encapsulated this idealism, discussing my desire to use my law degree to improve our education system, focusing first and foremost on improving the books – both textbooks and literature – our children encountered on a daily basis.

Fast forward a year or so and I was sitting in my boss’s office – he of the New Yorker profile, wildly successful criminal law practice, and supposed mob connections – when he handed me a book he thought I would enjoy: LIVE FROM DEATH ROW, by Mumia Abu-Jamal. I studied the front, read the back cover blurb, thanked him, and devoured the book in a night.


In less than twenty-four hours, I went from disillusioned law student – I was the girl whose professor told her one day she was going to write the “next great American novel” but while I was in her class, I was going to learn to “write like a lawyer” – I always knew law wasn’t for me! – to young woman with some serious fire in her belly. I spent the remainder of that summer contacting anyone and everyone involved in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeal of his death row conviction, offering my admittedly limited legal knowledge and skills, my heaps of righteous anger, my enthusiasm for fighting a corrupt, racially-biased legal system.

By the time second year started in the fall, much to my boss’s surprise and amusement, and my friends’ shock and awe, I was working for Mumia’s lead attorney at the time, Leonard Weinglass, helping him do anything and everything he needed done to overturn Mumia’s conviction or in the alternative, overturn the sentence of death. It was exhilarating and exciting and exhausting and I learned as much about myself and my limits as I did about our criminal justice system and the horrors of death row.

Mr. Weinglass was a kind soul, a good man, and towards the end of my law school career, he mentioned wanting to hire me to continue working with him on Mumia’s case, admitting he had very limited means to pay me, offering me twenty-seven thousand dollars a year to join his practice. I swallowed my shock, tamped down my disappointment, and thanked him for almost three years of the most exciting work I could imagine doing. I told him I had never been more frustrated and angry and full of despair as when working on Mumia’s appeal, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I begged him to keep in touch and he promised to do so and as quickly as we came together, so, too, did we diverge.

I continued keeping track of Mr. Weinglass and Mumia as I began my career in big law, defending big tobacco from the big bad government before moving on to defend other biggies from the big bad government, all the while dreading the day I would read of Mumia’s execution. Instead I read on December 7, 2011, that prosecutors would no longer seek the death penalty in Mumia’s case – hardly freedom, but at least life on death row would no longer be Mumia’s reality.

Perhaps that victory eased my mind somehow because I must admit around this time I stopped my obsessive googling of “Mumia Abu Jamal” and allowed my conscience to move onto worrying about other things such as dragons and vampires and sex scenes and word counts. I got caught up in my characters and my books and my words, my political priorities turned back to women’s rights, gun control, equal education, I focused on The Kid and The Step Daughter and myself.

Then today an email arrived in my inbox: Mumia Abu-Jamal: Chained Up and Left to Rot. I read about his plight – how the prison guards and administrators are denying him the daily pill needed to alleviate the ravages of his Hepatitis C – signed the petition, and once again, felt the fire of righteous anger brew in my belly.

I’m not going to tell anyone how to feel about Mumia or the death penalty or anything along those lines – that is not what struck me as I read the email about Mumia’s current state and it is not my place nor my desire to bring you over to my line of thinking. What I am going to say, what I am going to wonder here after reading about a man shackled to his bed and denied medical attention, what I have wondered with each mass shooting, each black man murdered, each innocent woman raped is this:



My thoughts are with Mumia and his family and I hope this current campaign succeeds in getting him the medical attention he needs.

My fears, my concerns, my disbelief – they are for us, all of us. We need to come together, embrace our better selves, and make serious strides towards rediscovering our humanity – it’s quite simple and really, it’s our only hope.

*UPDATE: this Brexit decision to leave the EU only adds to my angst for finding and realizing our humanity. I’m hardly a religious soul, but seriously, may the gods help us.



3 thoughts on “Mumia Abu-Jamal and Me

  1. thank you madhuri for this very clear and horrible following of this terribly imprisoned man. i have not learned about his case at all—-just that there was some terrible injustice out there. now this! we are unbelievable in this country how we use revenge as a basis for our prison system and so unfairly fill it with minority peoples. looking at europe—say germany and especially sweden, they do not do this but do everything to regain that person’s place in society by teaching social skills or whatever is needed. you probably know this. but it seems to me that the patriarchal greed system in this country overwhelms all—along with all those people who still believe the us of a is the “greatest country in the world”. those of us with open hearts and feelings just don’t get all the cruelty of our country. but i do believe continuing to speak up is necessary because i do feel we are in a time of transition and change where so many people do not believe the establishment is working for them at all. and it is spreading—look at the completely unexpected brexit vote yesterday. so there is hope, i hope, for change to rumble from below in small ways–perhaps locally. but who knows what’s around the corner. bernie sanders very very successful campaign was totally unexpected by the wash dc insiders.
    so thank you for writing this. maybe we can “keep the faith” together!
    all the best and love,

    • Daniel, thanks for stopping by and reading this – for so long, the Mumia case was part of my life and just when I thought all was going so well, this bit of news about his current state. Like you said, this concept of revenge and vengeance in our society often results in nothing good. I understand the desire, but have never understood the actual undertaking. I do hope you are right and there is a change on the horizon, both in thought and actions, but then I see events like Brexit and fear-mongering and Islamaphobia sweeping a nation, and I wonder what is to become of all of us when the dust settles (I am already thinking ahead to the US elections and that monstrosity named Trump). may the gods help us…

      • you say: “I understand the desire, (for revenge and vengeance) but have ever understood the actual undertaking.” this is so right, so mature, so grown up—-but i do fear with you that, in this country, there are so many who have not grown up, not given up the old lex talions (eye for an eye), and do not understand how a family works. i guess i so often blame men for this, but also patriarchy which so rigidly holds down so many classes of people, except for the privileged, the greedy……this is the basis of capitalism and a kind of a bullying playground world where you hurt others and take what you want. while trump is a disaster, i go with bernie sanders and democratic socialism in seeing that it is the system itself which is the problem…….thank you for the privilege of being able to discuss this intelligently together… much more of this is needed, Madhuri…….

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