By Marc Lamont Hill
These slightly edited remarks were given April 24 at the “U.S. Empire vs. Political Prisoners” webinar teach-in sponsored by Mobilization4Mumia and held in honor of the 66th birthday of political prisoner and revolutionary Mumia Abu-Jamal, incarcerated for 39 years by the U.S. state.
It’s such an honor to be here tonight, surrounded by so many brilliant thinkers and courageous activists, freedom fighters who have been long distance runners, and political prisoners who have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their all, their very bodies to the struggle.
Tonight what brings us together is the 66th birthday of our dear brother Mumia Abu-Jamal, one of the great freedom fighters, one of the great truth-tellers that we’ve ever seen — and a political prisoner.
Since 1981 we’ve been battling and fighting and struggling to liberate Mumia. Mumia is such a passionate voice, such a courageous voice, we need him so desperately on the other side of the dungeon. And we’re gonna continue to fight until we do.
If anybody knows Mumia, they know that he wouldn’t want us here talking about him. Mumia would want us to talk about his case, but he’d also want us to put his case in the context of everybody else.
Mumia is being held under the most absurd, violent and ugly circumstances that we’ve seen. Just last week, people received a phone call saying that he had been taken to the hospital with COVID-19, making us think that he’d been given a death sentence. That’s the type of cruelty and the type of evil the prison industry, and the prison specifically targeting Mumia Abu-Jamal, demonstrates every single day.
It’s not just about Mumia, because right now we are in a human rights crisis, a crisis of carcerality, a crisis of mass incarceration. The U.S. Empire feeds off of mass incarceration. Ever since the slave enterprise, when African people were brought here and enslaved, the U.S. has made its money, it has built an empire, it has expanded its economy off of human captivity.
Even as we moved into a postslavery moment, all we did was shift the means of captivity. Now, instead of putting people on plantations, we have people in a cage, in what we call “correctional” facilities, jails and prisons, juvenile facilities and such.
We continue to take all of our contradictions as a nation and put them behind bars, whether it’s mental illness, whether it’s poverty, whether it’s homelessness, whether it’s drug addiction — and of course, political dissent. Anyone who dares speak out against this empire ends up in a cage. That’s why we have Mumia Abu-Jamal in a cage. That’s why we have Sekou Odinga in a cage. That’s why we had Herman Bell in a cage. That’s why we continue to have everybody from here and around the globe caged, when they have the audacity to speak out against the empire.
We call for the release of all political prisoners right now because it is the right thing to do. But we also make a bolder call, a more radical call, and that is the abolition of prison itself.
Moving outside the ‘logic’ of prison
We must move into a moment that no longer uses the prison as the resolution to our social contradictions. The prison must no longer be a resolution to harm that is done. The prison must no longer be the resolution to all of our challenges in society.
We must call for the end of prison construction right now. We must call for decarceration. That means we must begin to let people out of prison immediately. We must call for ex-carceration. That means we have to stop putting people in prison. That means we have to legalize things, that means we have to dismantle laws that criminalize. We have to decriminalize, get rid of this logic of criminalization. We must think about restraint of the few; we must think about how we can protect society from harm that is done, but outside the logic of the prison.
And we must build a caring community. We must develop the resources and the infrastructure; we must find ways to protect those who are vulnerable. We must find ways to invest in those who have not been invested in. We must find ways to provide food, clothing and shelter for every single person.
That’s what this is about — what abolition is about. But we not only have the long-term abolition goal, we need to exercise abolitionist principles right now because COVID-19 has created a human rights crisis that amplifies the already existing human rights crisis.
To live in a U.S. prison right now is to live with a death sentence. Whether you’re there for three months or six months, whether you’ve gotten a life sentence, you are on death row right now if you’re in a U.S. prison. The type of social distancing that the best medical experts — not the president, but the best medical experts — suggest can’t be exercised in prison. The type of protection that you want to be able to engage in, you can’t in prison.
So anybody who’s incarcerated right now doesn’t even have the means to defend themselves. What they’re getting is cruel and unusual punishment. In areas of the world right now, infection rates were 1 and 2 out of 1,000. Then you go into Rikers Island in New York City, and you got 54 out of 1,000.
Can you imagine being anywhere in the world with 54 out of 1,000 people as the infection rate, and not see that as a human rights crisis? Unless it’s poor people, unless it’s Black people, unless it’s Brown people. Free all political prisoners!