Professor Johanna Fernández talks with Tikkun about Mumia, Bernie Sanders, Love, and the Power of Radical Empathy

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"Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal" by Mumia Abu-Jamal, edited by Johanna Fernandez (City Lights Publishers, 2015).

In honor of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s recent birthday, we here at Tikkun Daily thought we would mark the day by publishing an interview with Johanna Fernández, a professor of History at Baruch College (CUNY) who edited Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal that was published last year.
We caught up with Fernández in February after she, activist Angela Davis, and KPFA host Walter Turner held a public discussion about the book in Oakland. The talk was anchored by discussions of Abu-Jamal and his writing but also expanded on the themes of mass incarceration, systemic racism, class warfare, and the promise of modern social uprisings, through the lens of what they referred to as black radicalism and the black prophetic tradition.
Fernández and Davis describe Abu-Jamal’s work in Writing on the Wall as being measured and reasonable as well as honest, strong, and transparent. They read passages from the book that shared the voice of someone calling upon readers to engage with American history as a history of brutality – an America Abu-Jamal sees as accurately reflected by practices like the torture at Abu Ghraib.
“When will these dismal days of our mind-rending pain, our oppression, our accustomed place on the bottom rung of the human family, end? When will our tomorrows brighten? It will come from ourselves, not from this system. Our tomorrows will become brighter when we scrub the graffiti of lies from our minds, when we open our eyes to the truths that this very system is built not on ‘freedom, justice and brotherhood’ but on slavery, oppression and genocide,” Davis read from the book.
Davis, Fernández, and Abu-Jamal each assert that until the public grapples with this history, the history of oppression and violence that they see as at the core of all systems of power, there will be no meaningful change, and the dignity of all human beings will not be reflected by the governing powers.
Despite Abu-Jamal’s assertion that the only way to live in a just society is through “scrubbing the lies” of a dishonest history from the collective mind and grappling honestly with the violence and conquest at the heart of Western history, Davis and Fernández were clear that this was a man rooted in a deep and abiding sense of love, hope, and what Fernández dubbed “radical empathy.”
This “radical empathy” is Abu-Jamal’s community based counter to what he sees as neoliberal individualism. It is a call for radical global community that acknowledges the intersectionality of oppressions and the common struggle against elites.
Here is our interview with Professor Fernández:
Grace Mungovan: At one point during the evening … [it] was brought up that challenging mass incarceration has a way of unraveling other forms of oppression, that critiquing the prison industrial complex leads to a critique of other forms of oppression … I was wondering if you could speak to that notion, that mass incarceration relates to other forms of oppression and why it can be useful as a primary focus for critique?
Johanna Fernández: If we think about how we got to this moment, when the nation is incarcerating a disproportionate number of African-Americans in particular and people of color generally, what emerges is a question about the priorities of our society. The majority of people who have been imprisoned are poor people, people who were unemployed or underemployed at the moment of their incarceration and what that raises for this conversation is the question of how society responds to social problems that are endemic and structural and have to do with poverty and unemployment. So, the crisis of imprisonment in the United States asks questions about what kind of society do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a society that addresses its problems by incarcerating people or do we want to build a society that allows people to exist in society through decent and dignified employment, decent and dignified education and healthcare and healthy communities. So, the issue of mass incarceration raises issues of class oppression and exploitation, it also raises the issues about poverty among women of color . . . black women today are the fastest growing population in American prisons and you have to ask the question: why are those women there? A disproportionate number of those women have been imprisoned for defending themselves, for example, against domestic violence. And so, the major response is that the crisis of mass incarceration really raises questions about the values and priorities of our society.
GM: Angela Davis … said … that the state was not the solution to the problem of mass incarceration, [because] the state is the problem … I’m curious, this is an election year, how [do] you recommend people engage with the political process, do you think it is useful to engage with electoral politics and to take seriously the things that the candidates are saying, or do you recommend … moving away from that and into movement-building and solely focusing on that? How do you encourage people to engage with the political process especially in an election year?
JF: I think history and even the most recent develop[ments] in American society can answer that question. If you look at American history we see that significant substantive change capable of addressing the problems of most people in society has come about through mass protest and organization, at the bottom of society, independently of the mainstream formal political process. A few examples: we have unemployment insurance today, whatever’s left of it, and we had a social safety net, as a result of the fierce strike actions of workers seeking better wages and unionization in the 1930s. The labor movement in the 1930s connected the notion of American freedom to economic equality. And it was, again, the fierce actions of workers and the labor movement that pressured the FDR administration to deliver on these reforms for fear that if substantive reforms were not afforded to the American people there might actually emerge a revolutionary situation here. In the 1950s the Brown v Board of Education decision was passed, which desegregated public schools, but that decision did not translate into the desegregation of public schools. It took a movement led by ordinary people in the streets to force a modicum of integration in the public schools and to pressure politicians to pass the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. And most recently, it wasn’t until the people in Ferguson and in Baltimore took to the streets in no uncertain ways that the conversation around racism in the United States and police violence in particular entered the public dialogue in a substantive way. That is to say that historically, social movements, people organizing in their schools, in their places of employment, in their communities, is what has produced significant change. Nothing else has. And so my personal recommendation is that the activists and movements that are fledgling and beginning to assert their voice and their interests in American society continue to do that work on the ground. Historically, elections and the election of Democratic presidents has been the graveyard of these social movements, which are the only certain vehicle to significant social change.
GM: I’ve heard a critique of, for example, Bernie Sanders’ Democratic presidential campaign … that he is ultimately going to fail because he is encouraging people to put their faith back into the electoral system, so he’s bringing these ideas of economic justice and [ideas] like that into the public, but then kind of re-directing it back to the electoral system as if it will work. Do you think that there’s a way to have both happening at once, where maybe if the grassroots movement had enough pressure on someone like Bernie it could … be affective to go that route [of electoral politics]?
JF: … I’m critical of Bernie Sanders, especially the fact that he calls himself a socialist or social democrat but is operating within the boundaries of a capitalist party that has shown over and over again to side with the interests not of ordinary people, working-class people, even middle-class people but of the one percent. However, I think that the level of political debate and discussion in this nation is so base, that having someone like Bernie Sanders go at it with the likely candidate for the Republican party on issues of class inequality in this society and the roots of white workers frustration with society, and with this nation, is very, very important. That is a conversation that Bernie Sanders is more likely to have in the public sphere more forcefully than Hillary Clinton. But the Democratic Party is a machine that will risk losing the election by upholding Hillary’s candidacy than actually allowing someone like Sanders to have at it and have this public conversation in the run-up to the November election.
GM: Touching a little bit on some of the struggles of having a [social justice] movement in a capitalist society, I once watched a recording of Cornel West speaking at Wheaton College, where he mentioned that he thought that courage was a virtue that we are missing in society today … I’m wondering if there are any qualities or virtues that are essential to this battle for justice and … for treating other human beings with dignity that you see … not being encouraged in a capitalist society or not encouraged in academia; is there any [quality] that you wish you could see stoked in young activists and people today?
JF: … I think that young people across the nation are being courageous today. We saw that in the fundraiser hosted by Hillary Clinton in South Carolina during which a young woman attempted to raise the issue of mass incarceration and the ways in which the Clintons were central to the warehousing of young black people and African-American men in particular, when she raised Hillary Clinton’s statement that if men should be charged, that young predators, super-predators which she called them, referencing the work of criminologist John DiIulio, had to be “brought to heel” and essentially warehoused … that was courageous, this young woman in this atmosphere that would surely be hostile to her, to raise these questions … young people are beginning to exert the courage necessary to ask hard questions of the candidates and of our society.
I generally do think that many people in academia, professors, like Cornel West said, haven’t exercised courage and haven’t participated rigorously in a public debate about the nation’s and the world’s social problems. But that may be changing in part because of the social movements. So, I have noted that in the last year or two, for the first time, universities and their professors are beginning to host conferences on racism and mass incarceration and the relationship between the academy and society. But American universities don’t encourage public debate and discussion. And in fact, as we are seeing across the nation, professors who engage in speech that challenges dominant ideology have been fired summarily. There’s the woman in Chicago at Wheaton College, the African-American woman who donned the hijab in solidarity with Muslims, she’s being dismissed if she hasn’t been already, then there was the professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign whose job offer was rescinded after he made statements about Palestine. So, we are seeing, we have seen, over the past number of years, an enormous amount of repression in the university and an attack on academic freedom. And even, as regards someone like Mumia Abu-Jamal who has written now eight books from prison, including a bestseller Live from Death Row which really opened up a conversation about the racist character of the death penalty in the United States, and who’s contributed to the African-American literary tradition but [also] the US literary tradition in general, he’s not the subject of debate and discussion generally in the academy.
I am one of a very small number of professors who consistently have taken a stand on his case, which is riddled with constitutional rights violations, but a case in which there is clear evidence of police corruption and tampering with evidence on the part of the police to obtain conviction. There is clear evidence that Mumia Abu-Jamal was framed by the court system which includes the judge, the prosecution, but also includes the police. Again, this is the most famous case in the world today, Mumia is perhaps the most famous prisoner. And it’s not a particularly popular subject in the university.
Unfortunately, many of my colleagues across the nation have taken a lead passively from the propaganda that’s deployed against him by the state and by the police. So, courage is a very key ingredient in the process of social change because often you have to take positions that are unpopular. So for example, Bernie Sanders won’t take a position on Palestine and the crisis of the Palestinians, because he doesn’t want to offend particular interests in his party, and in American society, when the mass displacement of Palestinians in their own land is a human rights catastrophe of epic proportions. It’s the battle of David and Goliath in the Middle East and I assure you that Bernie Sanders won’t have the courage to take a stand on Palestine for the purposes of political expediency or because taking that position will interfere with the larger political and power structures of the society.
GM: And yet, as you have mentioned, the only thing that will actually work to truly change the system from your perspective is aggressive challenge coming from the grassroots and not from working with the systems of power as they currently exist.
JF: Exactly.
GM: And would you agree that working with the systems of power as they already are, as Bernie is kind of doing, in order to get the votes and presumably then from the position of President make better choices … reinforces the power that’s already there and … helps to strengthen it?
JF: Definitely helps to strengthen it. But ultimately his logic and that of politicians is driven by the notion that ordinary people are incapable of governing themselves and transforming society. It’s founded on a pessimism about ordinary people and their potential to be full actors in their society.
GM: I’m curious about the spiritual dimension of Abu-Jamal’s struggle and what you see as the role of love and a broader understanding of life and the human experience in social justice movements. What vision of society are we moving towards with these struggles, and what is love’s role in these struggles?
JF: Since Mumia began calling my classes, live from Death Row in 2005, my students have always marveled at Mumia’s voice, which has a distinctive, relaxed timbre that elicits attention and emanates love.
In these conversations my students discover the spirit of a man who is without bitterness and whose warm disposition is infectious. In the process of discovering a man whose temperament seems so diametrically opposed to the image of him constructed by the media, my students begin to ask questions about his case and the entire apparatus that has imprisoned him as well as the more than 2 million people who now sit in America’s prisons.
Mumia’s political perspective is humanistic and his voice and commentaries are filled with love. In fact, he often quotes Che Guevara on the subject and in a message to the occupy movement, which he penned in 2012, Mumia writes:
“Treat each other as brothers and sisters, compañeros y compañeras. Care for each other, for that in itself will distinguish your movement from the market driven carelessness and selfishness that characterizes the age of globalized capital.”
Immediately after his transfer to the general prison population in the early months of 2011, Mumia wrote a letter to the men and women he was leaving behind on the row. His statement captures Mumia’s humanism:
“I write to tell you all – even those I’ve never met – that I love you, for we have shared something exceedingly rare. I have shared tears and laughter with you, that the world will neither know nor see. . . . But, Brothers and Sisters of the Row, I write not of death, but of life. . . . Love fiercely. Learn a new thing. . . . Keep your mind alive. Keep your heart alive. Laugh! . . . No matter what the world says of you, see the best in each other and radiate love to each other.”
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Editor’s Note: Tikkun does not and cannot endorse any political candidate.
Johanna Fernández received a PhD in History from Columbia University and a BA in Literature and American Civilization from Brown University. Professor Fernández teaches 20th Century U.S. History, the history of social movements, the political economy of American cities, and African-American history at Baruch College in New York.
Grace Mungovan is an editorial assistant at Tikkun. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in philosophy, mysticism, and rhetoric.