On Air: voices from death row, killed by NPR | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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On Air: voices from death row, killed by NPR

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"My name is Mumia Abu-Jamal. I'm a journalist, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and an African American. I live in the fastest-growing public housing tract in America. In 1981 I was a reporter for WUHY and president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. Currently I'm a writer and a public radio commentator. I've been a resident on Pennsylvania's death row for 11 years. Tune in to hear my regular reports from death row . . . on your public radio station."

So begins each of the 25 commentaries in a series titled "From Death Row--This Is Mumia Abu-Jamal," recorded in Pennsylvania's Huntingdon prison by the Prison Radio Project, a Maryland-based group of radio producers and engineers who record the stories of prisoners to give voice to their side of crime issues.

But the series won't be running on WBEZ, as Abu-Jamal's tag might suggest. Instead it's being broadcast starting this weekend by the Peace and Justice Radio Project, which was founded in 1991 with the goal of starting a community radio station in Chicago. The group hasn't reached that goal yet, but it does broadcast a half-hour show called Real World Radio, produced by volunteers and covering a wide range of issues and events, on three stations each week: WLUW, WXAV, and WZRD. Topics covered in the past year include the Tenants' Bill of Rights, CHA lockdowns, NAFTA, the Chiapas rebellion, and various other struggles for self-determination. Currently the group's also working on a women's radio project.

The first local airing of the Prison Radio Project series comes just four months after National Public Radio canceled their own series of Abu-Jamal commentaries. Last February the Prison Radio Project auditioned its tapes for NPR, which chose not to use them but decided to hire Abu-Jamal as a monthly commentator on All Things Considered and produce its own series. The Prison Radio Project served as coproducer, setting up and helping record the series in April. According to Jane Henderson, a spokesperson for the Prison Radio Project, NPR even postponed the broadcasts for a month to have time to promote it.

Then suddenly the day before the first broadcast, NPR canceled the series, stating they had misgivings about having a convicted murderer as a commentator. Many observers believe that NPR was actually bowing to pressure from Philadelphia's Fraternal Order of Police and feared losing congressional support for funding after Bob Dole made a speech to the Senate denouncing the series. WBEZ's Gary Covino broadcast one of the Prison Radio Project's commentaries and summarized the text of one of the NPR tapes on his show The Wild Room one week after the cancellation, a decision supported by WBEZ management, says Ira Glass, Covino's cohost. Meanwhile, Henderson says, NPR has refused to release the tapes, even to the Prison Radio Project.

As many critics of NPR's decision have observed, crime is discussed daily in the media, but rarely from the point of view of the people in prison. "We see a lot of things about crime and about prison in the paper, but it's very rare that we see anything from people who have to live in those prisons day by day by day," says the Peace and Justice Radio Project's Tyehimba Jess. "Especially with the crime bill, that's going to make many more crimes punishable by the death sentence, I think it's essential that we hear more than one side of the story. Mumia Abu-Jamal is probably the most qualified person on death row, and one of the most qualified people in the prison system period, to speak on these types of issues."

It's not just Abu-Jamal's decade on death row that qualifies him--it's also his history as an activist and prominent journalist. As a teenager in the early 70s he was minister of information for Philadelphia's Black Panther Party, and from there he became an advocate for fair and accurate reporting on the African American community. At the time of his arrest--for the killing of a Philadelphia police officer--he was an NPR reporter. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982.

Many observers question the fairness of his trial; the human-rights organization Equal Justice USA calls his case "a microcosm of the injustices that plague the death penalty and overall legal system." But Abu-Jamal doesn't discuss the details of his case in the Prison Radio Project tapes. Instead he comments on life on death row, the prison system, and racial and economic injustice and how they affect the criminal justice system. The series includes segments on the "three strikes and you're out" clause and other parts of the crime bill President Clinton signed into law earlier this week, and on recently retired Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun, who denounced the death penalty earlier this year, almost 20 years after casting a deciding vote to reinstate it.

"These are issues of freedom of speech, the rising tide of the prison-industrial complex, the questions surrounding the death penalty, such as the racial disparity in how the death penalty is applied, and prison conditions in general," says Jess. "I think that when we listen to the commentaries, people will understand that all of these issues are interconnected. And [Abu-Jamal] is a crossroads for all of these issues that we need to discuss."

The Peace and Justice Radio Project will play 10 to 15 of the tapes Friday, September 16, at 7 PM at the Center for Inner City Studies, 700 E. Oakwood; cosponsoring the free event are the Prison Radio Project, Equal Justice USA, the Chicago Conference of Black Lawyers, the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and the Crossroads Support Network, which provides support for people in prison. There'll be breaks between tapes for discussion, moderated by Salim Muwakkil, Sun-Times columnist and senior editor of In These Times, and attorney Elizabeth Whitaker, who is on the board of directors of the Chicago Conference of Black Lawyers and has worked building support for Abu-Jamal's defense.

"Listening to these tapes is going to be kind of like listening to what is between the lines in the newspaper," says Jess.

The series will also be broadcast September 18 through October 13 on four local stations according to the following schedule: Sundays at 7:30 PM on WLUW (88.7 FM) and 9 PM on WHPK (88.5 FM), Mondays at 11:30 AM on WXAV (88.3 FM), and Thursdays at 7:30 PM on WZRD (88.3 FM). Call 427-2533 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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