Mumia 911: Disturbing the Air

Revolutionary Worker #1023, September 26, 1999

Nighttime Watts fell hard on the twilight and the music pounded into the darkness. At the far end of the Watts art complex, the faint sound of shoes on gravel filled the spaces between the beats. I watched as a man I had seen in the projects for years and years--sometimes broken, sometimes strong--pulled himself up from the curb and began to dance in the night. His body--twisted from years of hard life--seemed to glide across the blacktop. He dropped the dirty green jacket from his shoulders and his arms began to speak in a tongue of their own. For ten minutes he danced--alone in the dark--just yards away from the streets he had walked all his life looking for survival, but worlds away from his everyday life. He caught me watching him, and a shy smile crossed his face. With an awkward bow he walked towards the stage and turned to say "This is real. Free Mumia."

Michael Slate, Revolutionary Worker, Los Angeles

...a snapshot of the magic that was Mumia 911: National Day of Art to Stop the Execution.

Some observers have called the efforts among artists in opposition to Mumia's execution the "hottest movement" in the arts since the efforts of the 1980s to end apartheid in South Africa. In the wake of the controversial concert by Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys, Mumia 911 brought new connections, new collaborations, and a renewed sense of urgency. As the day approached, the wild mix of signatories on the call for 911 included Alice Walker, Chuck D, Susan Sarandon, Rage Against the Machine, director Peter Sellars, Hugh Masekela, playwright Eve Ensler, Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Allen, Pete Seeger, Ntozake Shange, Chumbawamba, and Don Byron.

You could pick up the buzz from a news spot on MTV or on the syndicated "Wake Up" radio show. In New York the Village Voice "Voice Choice" cover featured musician Gil Scott-Heron, painter Leon Golub, and poets Sarah Jones and Jessica Care Moore wrapped in the yellow Mumia 911 "crime scene tape."

Voice critic Greg Tate wrote: "National police organizations have been stepping up their propaganda efforts to invalidate Abu-Jamal and his right to a new trial. Chichi froufrou un-radical chic media organs have been joining in like an off-pitch Greek chorus. Pumping up the clamor from the left seems not just a necessity but an acknowledgement of a political emergency." The LA Weekly noted that participants were "risking a nationwide boycott by the Fraternal Order of Police."

As the day dawned, Mumia Abu-Jamal emerged from the poster designed for the day by Malaquías Montoya--from Barcelona to Tasmania and from Minneapolis to Atlanta. The "Mumia 911" hip hop posse CD was spreading a hard-edged subterranean current among the youth. Yellow Mumia 911 tape--designed by visual artist Brad McCallum--wrapped galleries, clubs, and performance spaces. Thousands of artists poured out their hearts for Mumia and tens of thousands of people took a journey together.

Jackson Browne and the Wailers planned to dedicate concerts in Colorado and Virginia to Mumia 911. Everlast, Roots and Black-Eyed Peas dedicated their Los Angeles show. A marathon of voices on WBAI radio in New York featured Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, who spoke with passion on behalf of Mumia. Actor Danny Glover told listeners: "Mumia is a visionary, he is incarcerated as a visionary...our duty as citizens is to fight injustice." At the hip hop induction into Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, rapper KRS-1 wove words for Mumia into his keynote address, and Upski, author of No More Prisons was spotted in a 911 t-shirt.

Back in December 1998--when the concept of Mumia 911 first emerged from a gathering of 25 artists called together by the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist--film producer and Network member David Lester wrote: "Never were story-tellers more desperately needed so that people might learn what's being done in their name and make their feelings known."

As we go to press we can offer only a sampling of more than a hundred special events and as yet uncounted concert dedications and creative ways that artists found to answer the call to Mumia 911: "On September 11, 1999, we will stomp the earth, lift our voices, write, sing, act and paint the walls. We will create a culture of resistance to stop the killing of Mumia Abu-Jamal."

A Matter of Life and Death

"A Matter of Life and Death--Voices of the People" put together a daring mix of film and television actors--who brought their artistry to Mumia 911 in Los Angeles. Actor Edward Asner, a true heart for the people, co-hosted with KPFK News Director Frank Stolze. Joined by actors Robert Guillaume, Fionulla Flanagan, Roscoe Lee Browne, Esai Morales, Susan Clark, Lou Myers, Mike Farrell, Susan Anspach, Vanessa Williams, poet S. Pearl Sharp, and comedians Shelly Berman and Paula Poundstone, they took the audience on a courageous ride.

"May your art enlighten, enrage and inspire," Edward Asner opened with Mumia's message to the artists for 911--thanking producer Norman Lear and director Rob Reiner for lending their support to the evening. Answering the call, Robert Guillaume, who is just recovering from a stroke, inspired with Etheridge Knight's poem, "Hardrock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminally Insane."

"When I know the mighty power of my hand I will snatch my freedom from the tyrants mouth," the baritone of Roscoe Lee Browne filled the room with a poem by Lance Jeffers, which had been sent to Mumia.

Paula Poundstone swung into wicked comic riffs on the FOP boycott, providing comic relief for Asner, who has been persecuted in Hollywood because of his political stand.

Fionulla Flanagan prefaced Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise," with these words: "I come from a country where we have had, in northern Ireland, many people who are imprisoned for political reasons and whose voices are silenced.... So I feel a certain sisterhood with this particular cause. I'm against the death penalty because it shames me. I think that we only stand at the door of the cave as far as civilization goes but I would like to think that I could move out into the light without shame and I can't do that until the death penalty is erased."

"It would be hours, perhaps a full day, before I heard the name and reported circumstances leading to the death of a man identified as Lawrence Baker..." As he read Mumia's piece "For Lonnie"--about a prisoner who was accidently electrocuted in his cell--comedian Shelly Berman told the audience that he had been a supporter of the death penalty until he read Mumia's works.

And as Esai Morales read Mumia's essay "Walking in the Shadow of Death"--written at the time of the 1995 death warrant--his voice deepened, his body language changed, and like a shape-shifter Esai took the audience to Phase 2 on death row: Mumia Abu-Jamal was present.

The Beat Travels

The legendary people's artist Horace Tapscott once said, "You've got to have a song. Got to have something to dance to. You've got to have something to build up your courage, or your belief in yourself." In New York City on 9/11 you could rock, punk, samba, hip hop, move to your own beat or wrap yourself in jazz--as clubs around the city hosted shows dedicated to Mumia 911.

Late Friday night, hundreds jammed into the Wetlands for an underground hip hop show featuring Heltah Skeltah, Poor Righteous Teachers, and J-Live, hosted by MC's D'Lo and MuMs. Saturday night hundreds more kids packed ThoughtFormz where Ricanstruction, Channel Live, Reflection Eternal, Grand Ran--and more--played their hearts out; and those who stayed late heard an amazing set by Mos Def.

One concertgoer wrote: "Just around the corner was the Knitting Factory, where Gil Scott-Heron was playing for 911. As I wandered back and forth between the two throughout the evening I really felt like Mumia owned the night--like the city was ours and we were at home anywhere we went. I ran into faces I hadn't seen since Philly Freedom Summer, strangers I see every day at my train stop but never spoke to before, and all kinds of new people who mostly had heard about Mumia but didn't know that much about him. 911 has really put this case into many more people's hands--and this is a time that we really need that."

At the Knitting Factory three stages were devoted to Mumia 911. And it was a real challenge to decide where to go. Cody Moffet's Jambalaya was in the Alterknit. And downstairs Wilbur Morris and Will Connel on bass and reeds did a soulful rendition of "Spiritual" by John Coltrane--weaving the words "Mumia must live" into the bass line with quiet determination.

On the main stage Carl Hancock-Rux opened for the legendary Gil Scott-Heron. Gil shared his thoughts: "If it was easy, it would have been done already. We're talking about brother Mumia and this is of course, Mumia 911...." From the hard lines of "Winter in America," Gil moved to the infectious rhythms of "In a Bottle." "Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate...This is a rhythm called the 1-1-4," he said, "and we want you to take a little bit of it with you. It's like a piece of sunshine in your pocket. When a dark rhythm gets you down, reach for it and remember that there are other things that's happening, there are other folks who need your help. You've got to continue. You can't give up."

In Los Angeles 2000 people streamed into the seven-acre compound of the Watts Labor Community Action Center--just four blocks from the projects--for the day-long ArtSpeaks festival of music, poetry and visual arts, presented by the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist. More than 200 artists and technical folks joined with 100 other volunteers to put on the show.

Musicians--from the legendary jazz lyricist/composer Oscar Brown Jr. to Ozomatli, Leon Mobley, Money Mark and Medusa--rocked the stage all day long. Kamau Daaood and Dwight Trible--appearing with the late Horace Tapscott's Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra--took folks to another world. Hip-hop artists like Blackalicious and members of the Black Eyed Peas and Jurassic 5 were major highlights of the day. Poets, including the group ensemble Taco Shop Poets, Jerry Quickley and Joy Jones threw powerful words into the night to stop the execution. As the poet Sonja Marie put it, "Like a laser to brick, art is splitting the madness, causing chains to rattle."

"The vibe was incredible," Wil-Dog from Ozomatli told the RW. "I think it's a shame that Watts and communities like Watts all over the country don't get artists like us to come in. It's pretty much kept away from them. For us as artists, doing it here, it's really significant. Because it shows the community here, `Look, stand up for Mumia' Because I swear if Watts stands up for this, the powers-that-be are going to be so fucking scared...."

Up the coast, Angela Davis joined Michael Franti and Spearhead, The Coup, Digital Underground, and several thousand hip hop fans for a free Mumia 911 concert in San Francisco's Dolores Park. D.J. Davey D wrote in his online newsletter: "The event which was part of the National Day Of Art was a huge success as the message to Free Mumia and grant him a new trial was surely felt and shared by all who showed up. Rap stars like Saafir, Mystic Journeymen, Funky Man, Local 1200, Naru, Midnight Voices, Radio who rocked an impromptu beatbox performance and numerous others all came out to support the event."

The Coup did a dope rendition of "Dig It!" from their first album "Kill My Landlord." Their set was highlighted by a scorching extended solo by their popular and much respected turntablist Pam the Funkstress. Next came the outrageous and old school Digital Underground who supplied much humor and love. Shock G gave tribute to former group member Tupac Shakur, "You know Tupac would have been here if he were alive today!"

Spearhead with Michael Franti played a long and moving set, including the title song from their album "Chocolate Supa Highway." Michael Franti told the RW: "We just did a whole tour for Mumia 911 through Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, and there's a lot of people around the country who haven't even heard of Mumia yet.... Mumia is so important to me because he is a shining example of humanity....He has been able to keep his soul alive and to speak out not only for himself and his own cause, but for social justice across the board."

Later that night at "Slammin for Mumia," a collaboration of music and poetry, musician Jon Jang told the RW that coincidentally, exactly one year ago, Jang and saxophonist David Murray had done a duet recording inspired by Mumia: "We composed two works. One is called `Two Portraits of Capital Punishment.' That's inspired by Mumia's writings and him speaking about his definitions of capital punishment: if you do have the capital, you don't get punished--that was in reference to John DuPont, the multi-billionaire who got away with killing Dave Schultz, a former Olympic wrestler. And if you don't have the capital, then you do get punished. But on a brighter note, the second work is entitled `Free Mumia Now."' A Conversation on Art and Politics

"We need your hurricane voices, we need your sacred hands.

Sonia Sanchez, poet

An historic conversation unfolded at New York's Public Theater on September 11--where theater director George C. Wolfe launched a new series of panels on art and activism. The idea for the series was sparked by a conversation Wolfe had with Danny Hoch which piqued Wolfe's interest in "how Danny and a group of other well respected and very diverse artists--including Ossie Davis, Culture Clash and Naomi Wallace--came to be involved in this cause."

Featuring artists who had created new work for Mumia 911, the forum brought together works by playwright Naomi Wallace, theater artists Culture Clash, playwright Keith Antar Mason, and the Universes performance ensemble from the South Bronx. Sharing the night were actor Ossie Davis and poets Martin Espada and Sonia Sanchez.

One correspondent wrote: "Drums called the full house at Anspacher Theater to attention--reminding us that the drums of slaves had been outlawed. And we were so inspired as Ossie Davis related his life and commitment as an artist. Joking about his avuncular manner, Ossie spoke with grace about the need for artists to stand with the working people--the voiceless--and about moving from the `fires of the fires of resistance.'

"Actor John Shea brought Mumia's statement for the artists to life--with an intensity that caught us all off guard. And once again, you could feel Mumia's presence enter the room through the art of theater.

"We roared with laughter as Richard Montoya of Culture Clash dissected the contradictions of being human and bilingual at the end of the millennium in the U.S.A.

"We were disturbed by Keith Antar Mason's apocalyptic `Kassandra's Tale'--where Kassandra, who has survived the fall of Troy and the death of Mumia Abu-Jamal, is `conjuring revolution.' And we were moved by the candor of the author in discussing the fear for Mumia's life that motivated this work.

"We saw the youth with no future in the young prisoner of Naomi Wallace's `Standard Time'--who killed his girlfriend over a car. `We were just kids. Kids. You know what that means? But we still couldn't stop being junk. That's what they called us in our home town: J-town junk. And we didn't have a future cause we didn't have a dime but when we were driving we were nothing if not cold, hard cash, banking on the next turn to give us a spin and send us into America...where your pockets are full. Yeah, where your pockets are full. But that's where we couldn't get.'

"Martin Espada swayed, drawing us into his poem `Prisoner AM-8335 and his Library of Lions' about visiting Mumia in prison after the prison had taken all but one of his books away:

`I would rather be beaten you say,
than this assault on the life of the mind.'

"Led by Danny Hoch, with humor, the panel was a rare treat: to hear how these artists view their commitment and their work. And when Keith Antar Mason called on artists to `disturb the air, change the conversation...and create a culture of resistance' we knew that this dialogue seriously needed to continue.

"I can still see Sonia Sanchez standing before us, her small form draped in light, her voice filling the theater:

`I'm gonna stay on the battlefield
I'm gonna stay on the battlefield
I'm gonna stay on the battlefield til I die
I had come into the city carrying life in my eyes
amid rumors of death
calling out to anyone who would listen
it is time for us to move all into another century..."'

The Image Travels

The young woman had long dreadlocks and two kids at her side. She stood at the main gate, counting out her money, trying to pull together enough for a ticket to ArtSpeaks. Short a few dollars, she started to leave when a friend from the projects told her that since she lived in Watts she could get a special priced "Watts ticket." The sister's face lit up as she hurried her kids through the gate. Two hours later I ran into her again, she had just left the art gallery and tears rolled down her cheeks. The kids wanted to know why momma was crying--"Because it's so beautiful--all these different kinds of people, all the art and it's all for a good reason, for the people."

Michael Slate

At Artspeaks in Los Angeles, "Clarion Call" brought together the work of 40 visual artists--including sculptor Charles Dickson's 1985 piece "Scarecrow" and Robbie Conal's original 6 foot by 8 foot "DisArm." Photographer B+ mounted "The Dark Tree" (named in honor of the late Horace Tapscott)--a wall of photographic portraits from the last two ArtSpeaks concerts. In an adjoining room Danny Tisdale created a Warholian wall paper image of the beating of Rodney King based on his "Disaster Series." Betye Saar's serigraph print, "We was Mostly 'Bout Survival" stood in contrast to Charles Britten's vintage black and white Black Panther posters. One of the major highlights of the exhibit was Pat Ward Williams' installation called "Move?" Set as a living room with documentation and diagrams covering the surrounding black walls the piece presented the 1985 bombing of the MOVE house by Philadelphia police through TV footage of the day of the bombing.

In New York you could go to galleries all day, all over the city and still not see it all. At Gallery 1199, Seth Tobocman's cartoon story of Mumia (see centerfold) shared the wall with "Some Things Considered," Mumia's cartoon strip on the NPR censorship. At Taller Boricua's show, "Dead Time = Tiempo Muerto," Dread Scott's "Historic Correction" made the connection between the death penalty and lynchings. At George Adams gallery, Kiki Smith's "Big Crows" evoked the drawings of the holds of slave ships while across the room the bourgeois predators in Arnold Mesches "The Lighter" looked on.

Downtown, at PPOW in Soho the tender resolve in the bare shoulders of Carrie Mae Weems' African woman in "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried" confronted the solitude of James Casebere's "A Barrel Vaulted Room."

In Chelsea, at Rush Gallery, David Thorne's installation compared the shooting of a homeless man near the White House with Clinton's Lincoln Bedroom scandal. The face of Mumia emerged from many small images in Leslie Boamah's "Mumia: Self-Portrait." And "The Innocent Have Nothing to Hide" by Greg Sholette offered a little stack of paper cups in a wicked piece on the murder of Amadou Diallo and the city's plan for DNA testing of arrestees.

At Hugo Martinez gallery, in a spray can mural by DREAM and SPIE, the names of political prisoners were woven into Mumia's dreadlocks and a tiny laser sculpture by Laurie Anderson beckoned with a tale of intergalactic conversations.

The Word Travels

"We will build a wall of words to stop the execution"

Los Angeles poets

At 12:01--the traditional time of execution--S. Pearl Sharp began a piece collectively written by 20 poets in the City of Angels, as dozens of poets gathered at the Lucy Florence Café to share their works.

The word bounced to the midwest. At Randolph Café in the downtown Chicago Cultural Center, new connections were made as Reg E. Gaines, the lyricist of Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, and Chicago saxophonist David Boynton took the stage, following a soulful jazz trio led by Ted Sirota--whose composition "Song for Mumia" appears on his "Rebel Roots" CD. Crackling and haunting lines from such Gaines poems as "Don't Take My Air Jordans" and "Jamaica to Roslyn" were accompanied by Boynton's sensitive yet often explosive improvisations. Gaines also brought Danny Hoch's "Message to the Bluntman" to the afternoon audience, where tourists looking for something different mingled with those who had come out for the cause.

"I have a certain sense of freedom, as an artist, that allows me the responsibility to speak to that freedom. I can't be `locked up' in an outside prison, while people like Mumia are really locked up," Reg told the RW.

When the sun went down at Chicago's Hothouse, a festival of music, dance, and spoken word opened with the booming beat of Japanese drums--played by two women whose family was held in U.S. concentration camps during World War 2. Dennis Sangmin Kim, whose quiet intensity fuels the poetry of "I was Born With Two Tongues," told the RW, "It's crucial to raise our voice in defense of Mumia.... If we allow this precedent to take place, we have shut the door on ourselves."

The word bounced to Philadelphia where Pam Africa joined artists for music, rap and spoken word for Mumia on two flatbed trucks--right in the face of FOP headquarters. Encouraged to "Honk for Mumia," motorists joined in an impromptu people's horn symphony. "The honking became so loud at one time it was darned near deafening." Pam told the RW.

The vibe ricocheted around New York, off the walls of the Brecht Forum where Sam Anderson and Tony Medina--co-authors of the book of poems and essays In Defense of Mumia--hosted an all-day presentation of performances and panel discussions featuring: Ramona Africa; Mumia's literary agent, Frances Goldin; Laura Whitehorn; Mtulu from Dead Prez; Keith Antar Mason; and WBAI D.J.s Dred Scott Keyes, Rosemary Meali and Bernard White.

"Mumia is a moment...a glitch in the Matrix"

MuMs, poet on HBO's "OZ"

At New York's Nuyorican Café, Steve Colman and Gloria hosted an overflow crowd for a spoken word trip with some of the most powerful poets in the country, including MuMs, Sarah Jones, Jessica Care Moore, Sharif Simmons, Ngoma, La Bruja, Mariposa, Noelle Johnson, Kirk Nugit, Stacey Ann Chin, and Mike Ladd. The vibe here was intense against the system.

One participant wrote: "Mumia became both an accusation against all those who oppress and exploit as well as a call to action to those who are fed up or have any shred of humanity in them. In the movies whenever people go through death-defying adventures by the end someone falls in love--somehow brought together by these strong emotional highs and lows. By the end of the Nuyorican poetry event for Mumia 911, I seriously felt like the whole room had fallen in love--we had laughed together and raged together. We had looked deeply at the fears and the hopes the poets had captured. And we did feel, more strongly than before, that these hopes and fears were bound up with Mumia."


"This is the year that squatters evict landlords...
this is the year that police revolvers,
blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter in their palms"

On Sunday afternoon, during a final session of Mumia 911, in the quiet Lower East Side garden of the Tribes gallery, Martin Espada's "Angels of Bread" took us into the next century. As writer Alice Walker wrote on April 24, 1999, Mumia Abu-Jamal must come with us.

NOTE: Artwork is still on exhibition at some galleries in New York and Los Angeles and we urge readers to see these works. For more information check the Mumia 911 website at

Thanks to Michael Slate, Connie Julian, Debbie Lang, Larry Everest, Reiko, Mike Ely, Li Onesto and all the stringers, correspondents, and friends of the RW who made this coverage possible.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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