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:
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO OUR HUMANITY?
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.