Book Review from Behind Bars
On a Move, The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal
By C. Clark Kissinger (with a little help from my friends)
Revolutionary Worker #1092, February 25, 2001, posted at rwor.org
On a Move; The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
By Terry Bisson. Litmus Books, 215 pages.
An important new book for the people has just been published. On a Move, by
Terry Bisson, tells the life story of Mumia Abu-Jamal. On a Move was the
first book by or about Mumia Abu-Jamal I have been allowed to receive in
prison and, between work detail and being sent to the hole at the whim of my
captors, working on this review was a treat.
On a Move is a cool read--and a deep read. Written in short, punchy
chapters, it includes never before published photos from every stage of
Mumia's life. Bisson's new book is also a fun read! That may sound like a
strange description for a biography of a man on death row, but it's true.
And it was one of Mumia's key ground rules for this authorized biography:
"It was time to go," Bisson writes. "For one of us, sunlight and air; for
the other, a humiliating strip search and a narrow cell. We pressed our
hands together against the inch-thick glass, and I said, 'fun?'
"'You know what I mean,' Mumia said, 'Don't make me out to be some saint or
martyr. Being a revolutionary is hard, but it's fun. I was having fun. Hell,
can you believe it, I'm still having fun!'"
Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, as well as France's Gran A Prix de
l'Imaginaire--Terry Bisson is the author of numerous science fiction novels,
short stories, motion picture novelizations, and a biography of Nat Turner
for young adults.
Bisson met Mumia about 15 years ago, when political prisoner Dr. Alan
Berkman suggested that Bisson send Mumia an article he was writing for The
Village Voice about the murder of Michael Stewart, a young Black graffiti
artist savagely beaten to death by New York police. Mumia wrote back to
Bisson and over the next years Bisson visited him several times.
Bisson's biography takes readers on a journey with Mumia, from child
storyteller in Philadelphia's Black housing projects (the "PJ's")...to
running with the Black Panthers in Philly, Oakland and New York, from
radical radio journalist on a mission...to the pre-dawn sidewalk encounter
with a brutal cop that led to an outrageously unjust trial...that led to
death row. The face on the poster moves into three dimensions as we meet
Mumia as son, student, radical, lover, husband, father, cub reporter, and
"voice of the voiceless."
There is a film-like quality to Bisson's imaginative style. Short sketches
put you right into the scene, dramatizing situations--through interviews
with colleagues, comrades, loved ones and Mumia himself.
"California!? Wesley Cook, what in the world!"
You hear Mumia's mother Edith on the phone with Mumia after he takes off for
Panther headquarters in San Francisco without telling her.
"I should get out of this car and kick that baby out of her stomach."
You hear the voice of Detective George Fencl threatening Mumia and his first
wife Biba as they walked down the street. Like the coldhearted police
inspector who hounds the hero of Les Miserables, Fencl pops up again and
again--as Bisson's story weaves a living picture of the pattern of political
persecution that sent Mumia to death row.
Bisson moves deftly from scene to scene--telling the story of one of the
stormiest periods in American history and of the young rebel who came of age
in its crucible.
In his Afterword, Bisson says: "These brief impressionistic sketches were
designed to give the contours and flavor of a life that Mumia insists (with
characteristic modesty, and not inconsiderable truth) is not exceptional at
all, but representative of the lives of many of the youth of his generation,
and particularly Black youth, who were informed and set into motion by the
welcome upheavals of history."
On a Move begins with a forward by artist Chuck D who recently visited Mumia
on Pennsylvania's death row. Chuck D tells how he first found out about
Mumia by reading posters on the street in Naples, Italy--and focuses on how
the government at the highest levels targets revolutionaries like Mumia, and
what's at stake in this battle.
"The State has a lot of goods at stake in this case. If Mumia's lawyers ever
get a fair chance at proving how totally foul it is, a lot of heads are
gonna roll. That's why they have to shut him up, even if he's already on
death row. It's also why spreading the word about him is like making a 911
"Mumia's story is an American tragedy--not just for him, but all across the
"It is the story of other revolutionaries tucked away behind prison walls,
of the powder-kegged ground we stand on, and the robotic-minded time we live
in, when human beings are often treated with less respect than
diamond-studded watches or cars.
"It reminds us that we cannot keep our heads 'wide shut' forever, that we
can no longer deny the fact that the structures around us and beneath us are
rotten from the core and crumbling fast."
Historian Howard Zinn has said that "to read this book is to gain deep
insights into issues of race and poverty--and the pretenses of our nation
with regard to equal justice before the law."
Weaving through the up close and personal sketches, Bisson grounds Mumia's
story in a historical context:
"...our story really begins in the North, twenty years after the Civil War,
when the victorious Yankees decided to ally themselves with the slave owners
they had defeated rather than the slaves they had helped set free. That
fateful decision was to shape all our futures, black and white."
One result of that decision was "one of the greatest migrations in world
history," as millions of black sharecroppers were forced off the land and
into urban ghettos as the age of imperialist world war caused a demand for
cheap labor. A specific result after World War 2 was the creation of vast
federally funded housing projects. Modern slave quarters, these
projects--the "PJ's"--were overwhelmingly Black and poor, and they were
where Mumia grew up.
Mumia is a product of the "deep north."
With four brothers and one sister, and dozens of other kids near by, Mumia
quickly earned nicknames like "Scout" and "United Nations" for his constant
inquisitiveness about his neighborhood and other peoples. But the segregated
years of Mumia's childhood were also the years of the rise to power in
Philadelphia of Frank Rizzo, the urban emblem of white power. Rizzo first
made a national reputation by ordering a police attack on demonstrating
Black high school students who were demanding Black studies programs in
As the march came past his junior high, Mumia like many others poured out to
join them, but soon saw the opportunity to ditch school, and headed for
home. When the march reached the Board of Ed, Rizzo unleashed his
club-swinging cops, yelling "get their Black asses!"
Back at the crib, Mumia was deep into his Spiderman comics and missed the
action that day, but as Bisson reminds us: "He made up for it by attending
the rest without fail."
Wesley Cook had the advantage of a high school teacher from Kenya at a
moment when African American studies burst into the curriculum. Timone
Ombima not only taught his students Swahili, but also assigned them African
names. Wesley became Mumia.
Shortly afterward followed the famous incident when Mumia and a group of his
friends crashed the George Wallace for President rally. He was beaten by the
white racists and cops so badly his mother couldn't recognize him. And Mumia
was charged with assault.
"Two days later, at the arraignment, the judge heard the cop's testimony and
grimaced. 'Assault? This kid's face assaulted your fist? Case dismissed.'
"It was Mumia's first police beating, and his last encounter with a
As Mumia has said, the incident literally kicked him into the Panthers.
"A few months later Mumia was walking down Broad Street when he was
approached by a much older woman (probably seventeen, he says now) in a
leather jacket and beret. A radical, dangerous, exciting-looking woman.
"She stuck a paper in his hand and said, 'Read this, kid.'"
A real strength of Bisson's book is how it connects to the young and
restless--bringing alive a time when, for thousands of youth, coming of age
meant becoming a revolutionary.
"The job of a sci-fi writer is to make strange worlds familiar," Bisson
writes, "and what could be stranger today than the sixties (which lasted
well into the seventies), when white supremacy and corporate hegemony seemed
not only threatened but actually on the run in Vietnam, Latin America,
Africa? How could we describe to today's youth what it felt like to know
that the Revolution was just around the corner? That the world was changing
every day for the better?
"'Listen, Terry, if you can do Mars, you can do the sixties,' Mumia said
with a hopeful, slightly wistful, homesick grin."
The chapters on the Black Panther Party are some of the strongest material
in Bisson's book. We follow Mumia from the founding of the BPP branch in
Philly through his work on the Black Panther newspaper in Oakland, to the
assassination of Fred Hampton in Chicago, and the defense of the Panther 21
in New York City.
Bisson highlights what attracted Mumia to the Black Panther newspaper and to
a passion for journalism:
"It was seeing a brotha or sista light up when they saw the paper. It was
their paper, and it expressed their voice, their hopes and dreams, their
rage. Mumia and his comrades were serving the people and living out their
deepest desires--for self-determination, for revolutionary nationalism, for
a life free of the double scourges of racism and capitalism."
With the birth of his son Jamal, at age 17, Wes Mumia Cook became Mumia
Abu-Jamal--"father of Jamal."
In the summer of 1970, the Black Panther Party held their national
Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. (This writer and Mumia were both
in attendance, although we didn't know each other in those years.) Yet by
the end of the year, Mumia and the Philly Panthers had resigned from the
Party in response to the growing factionalism and political differences over
the way forward.
Amazingly, Mumia returned to high school where he was elected President of
the student body--and then promptly kicked out of the school for leading
protests to change the name of the school to Malcolm X High.
Bisson goes on to fill in the years between Mumia the Panther and Mumia the
radio journalist. Midwife for the transformation was Goddard College. The
semesters at Goddard in rural Vermont were light-years away from the PJ's in
Philly, but Goddard introduced Mumia to something that would change his
life: radio. Bitten by the radio bug at Goddard's student station, Mumia
returned to Philly and his own program on the Temple University station,
WRTI. Ironically, years later, WRTI would censor his recordings made in
prison. But it was at WRTI that Mumia began to wield the political potential
"He was fired with the same passion that he had felt as a Panther, and now
it was heightened with a showbiz buzz. Mumia wanted to light people up
again--the way he had seen them light up when he had sold them Huey P.
Newton's Message in The Black Panther."
Moving into commercial radio, however, imposed new constraints. With two
children to support, Mumia needed a real job. To get it, Mumia assumed yet
another identity: William Wellington Cole, urbane news reporter.
Here readers will find a detailed refutation of the slander published in
Vanity Fair several years ago that Mumia never really was a professional
journalist. Not only did Mumia cover regular breaking news stories all over
the city, but he interviewed major public figures. Once he was even
congratulated by President Jimmy Carter for the probing questions he had put
to the president.
Now married to his second wife, Peachie, Mumia Abu-Jamal was on his way to
becoming the "voice of the voiceless."
It was as an established radio reporter that Mumia encountered the MOVE
family. In the late 1970s, MOVE was news; in Philadelphia, big news, and
Mumia began covering the city's war on MOVE.
In 1978, Mumia covered the police siege of the MOVE house in Powelton
Village, an incident that attracted international attention. The siege ended
with a police shoot-in. Of the 11 adults captured, two agreed to renounce
MOVE and were let go. The remaining nine were sentenced to 30 to 100 years
in prison. And the incident marked a turning point for Mumia:
"Mumia quit pretending. He was a revolutionary journalist, a partisan, not a
cold-blooded 'objective' observer. He attended all the MOVE trials and
expressed his outrage on the radio as much as he was allowed (and a little
more). He quit hiding his dreads under a hat."
Mumia was fired. William Wellington Cole was no more. Mumia Abu-Jamal, now
with his third wife Wadiya, needed a job real bad. He was doing occasional
stories for Mutual Black Radio and NPR, but out of necessity, he started to
drive a cab at night.
"Mumia didn't exactly hide the fact he was driving a cab, but he told Linn
Washington not to spread the word unnecessarily. The 'voice of the
voiceless' didn't want to become known as the 'wheels of the wheel-less,' he
In brief but powerful sketches, Bisson recounts the well-known incident of
December 9, 1981, when driving his cab, Mumia came upon a cop beating his
brother Billy. That night a police officer died and Mumia was gravely
We share the shock as one by one Mumia's comrades and family hear that Mumia
has been seriously wounded and is under arrest.
And we find Detective Fencl and his political police on the scene, as the
railroad of Mumia Abu-Jamal for the murder of a cop is in the making:
"Fencl and his CD Squad were among the first on the scene, even though it
was four in the morning. It was almost as if they had been waiting for it to
Ending his story with chapters on the injustice of Mumia's trial and the
growth of the international movement for justice for Mumia--Bisson opens the
door for readers to find out more about Mumia's case and the movement to
stop his execution:
"Mumia is not dead today only because his case has attracted world-wide
attention and support.
"Some support him because he is innocent.
"Others because they believe that innocence is not the issue; that any
conflict between a well-known black radical journalist and a police force as
famously racist and violent as Philadelphia's is more self-defense than
"Others because of the demonstrated racial bias of the death penalty; and
still others because they oppose the death penalty on principle.
"Some support Mumia because they see him as a martyr, like Sacco and
Vanzetti, Joe Hill, or the Rosenbergs. Some because they have been moved by
his words in support of others.
"But all agree that the central and overriding injustice is the trial.
"The so-called trial."
And, in the final words of his Afterword, Bisson recalls his conference with
Mumia about writing the book:
"You know what I mean," Mumia said. "Don't make me out to be some saint or
martyr. Being a revolutionary is hard, but it's fun. I was having fun. Hell,
can you believe it, I'm still having fun.
"Beep. From his Plexiglass booth the shadowed guard insisted: Time to go.
And the doors that we are all working desperately together to break open
before it's too late, began to slide shut behind me, one by one.
We close the book determined that Mumia Abu-Jamal will be having fun for a
very long time. Get your hands on this book. Read it and pass it on.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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