Hello, this is Mumia.
A huge round of applause echoed through Riverside Church in New York City, as thousands of activists listened to the raspy phone voice of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a man who has spent the last 30 years on death row.
This was the second time I had heard him phone in to a rally against mass incarceration. I felt moved by the quiet determination in the room as we listened to him speak. Suddenly, though, an operator’s voice came on and before he could say a proper goodbye, the call was disconnected.
Many believe that Mumia is a victim of an unfair legal system. He was sentenced to death in the 1980s after allegedly murdering a white police officer. Last year, he finally won an appeal for his sentence which was switched to life imprisonment instead. However, the district attorney, Seth Williams, has prohibited any further appeals.
The last I heard from Mumia was on Friday, Sept. 14 — the day after the 41st anniversary of the Attica Prison riot.
Attica is a correctional facility in New York that became infamous in 1971 when 1,300 of its inmates rose to protest their living conditions. They called for reforms such as access to medical care, freedom of expression and living wages.
What ensued was a siege — with some negotiations — leaving 39 people dead. All this is very interesting, you might think, but why should I care? Simply because this is not a problem unique to New York. It’s closer to home than we realize.
Excuse me for calling Philadelphia “home,” but it is where we live. Most of us live here for at least four years and University City is hardly an appropriate answer when people ask us where Penn is.
Since we come from all over the country and the world, we rarely see ourselves as Philadelphians. Most of us spend our semesters doing what we do best — being busy within the confines of Penn’s campus. Our summers are usually spent volunteering at exotic locations, making the world a better place or working long hours at jobs that deign to give us just enough sleep to function.
But there is a local dialogue, a very important one, that we are mostly left out of. And it’s not because nobody invited us to share our opinion. It’s because we have opted out.
The crime Mumia was accused of happened in Philadelphia and there are hundreds like him who have gone through similarly complex and unfair legal processes.
Terrance Williams is one such example. Williams is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection next Wednesday, Oct. 3. He is the first person in the state set to be executed in 13 years.
Pennsylvania has the fourth largest death row population in the nation and the state spends $46 million each year on incarceration and legal costs, according to Karen Heller, columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer- state-and-federal-appeals.
There is a rallying cry from the people around us who are discontent with the justice system, who believe that incarceration in America today is — as author and activist Michelle Alexander said at the rally — “a caste-like system that has been created and that must be undone.”
Whichever side of the spectrum we are on — whether we are the ones supporting Mumia’s release at a rally or the ones protesting that very release from the other side — let us at least know who Mumia is. We must realize what certain processes and seemingly simple laws suggest a lot about the local community and society we live in.
Let’s talk about Philadelphia, and when we do, let’s talk about voter ID laws that disenfranchise a large population of eligible voters. Let’s talk about unjust curfew laws. Let’s talk about why there are first-class prisons, but also prison-like schools that treat students like the criminals they are expected to be.
Most importantly, let’s talk about the injustice system. Let’s talk about what Mumia meant when he told his supporters over the phone that “we are the hope of more people than we know.”
Sindhuri Nandhakumar is a College senior from Kandy, Sri Lanka. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org “Questions for Answers” appears every other Wednesday. Ask her your question @sindhurin.