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By Gabriel Teodros
A distant father figure who I’ve never once met. A living hero who’s words written from a prison cell had a deeper effect and helped raise me more than most teachers I’ve ever had. Mumia let me know with every offering that I wasn’t alone, and he did it from a place of isolation that I can’t even fathom. I hear his voice via collect phone calls from death row that are broadcast over FM radio stations, and hear such brilliance and fearlessness in such a warm, and gentle tone… and I still hear the kind of man I want to be like in my lifetime. Mumia makes me want to be a better writer. Even in honoring him with words now, I feel like mine could never be enough. He has lived through a hell on Earth that I am still terrified of seeing, and he has been there most of the time I’ve walked on this planet.
I was 16 years old the first time I read Live From Death Row. My family had just moved in the middle of my 10th grade year, and I went from a fairly diverse high school, located in Seattle’s only historically black neighborhood, to an almost all-white high school in what was then the West end of Las Vegas. Prior to this move I didn’t think I would live to see 18 years old. Those years in Seattle, so many young people were dying that I went to school every day wondering who died the night before. Whether you were involved or not, it affected you. I don’t know if you would say that I was suicidal, but I didn’t really see the point to living. We were reckless because we couldn’t see a future.
In Seattle, we called Garfield High School a slave ship. The building had 3 stories, and the top floor had what was called “advanced placement” classes, and they were all white. Those students were on track to graduate early, and go to University. The 2nd floor was much bigger, mostly black & brown, and it felt like a daycare. Those students were on track to enter the work force as soon as they graduated. The bottom floor had a room for “special education”. It was all black male students that had gotten kicked out of other classes (in my experience it was because of racism: white teachers that were scared of their own students) and it was a sort of punishment. Those students were on track for prison. I hear students at Garfield still call it the slave ship to this day.
This new school in Las Vegas, called Bonanza, had an ROTC program (students preparing to enter the military) working out every morning when we got to school. The building had no windows, and they had what was called a Police Sub-Station in the middle of the building. The police in the school routinely harassed the few students of color that were there. I had to sit in that police office more times than I can remember, and usually for hours at a time. One time it was because a white student (who actually had a swastika tattoo) elbowed me really hard in the chest as I was walking between classes. I turned around and said something to him, and I immediately was taken to the police office. I believe the other student just went on to class.
Some of the classes I was taking in Seattle were much more advanced then the classes I got put in at Bonanza. For example, I remember they just didn’t believe I knew the math that I did, so in the 10th grade they put me in some basic algebra class, literally covering what I was doing in the 4th grade. The fact that I could finish a week’s worth of homework before the teacher could take attendance didn’t matter, they kept me in that class. When I discovered I could check out library books from the community college down the street, it was over. I showed up to classes on test days, and skipped the rest. I realized if I was going to have any future, I needed to take my education into my own hands.
This is when I discovered Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Live From Death Row. He helped me give language to describe exactly what was happening. Understanding at age 16 that there was a system in place that wanted kids like me to want to die, made me want to live more than anything else. It was an instant knee-jerk kind of reflex. Seeing Mumia’s dedication to telling the truth no matter what the consequences, even from a place as horrible as death row, was motivation for me to never give up on what I believed in.
Then there was MOVE. The organization who named Mumia “Voice of the voiceless”. Everything they stood up for was centered around protecting life and the Philadelphia police bombed their entire neighborhood. They had an extremely profound affect on me as well. When I read about a group of Black people in a major city who home-schooled their children, who grew their own food, and changed all of their last names to Africa… I realized you didn’t have to leave the planet to create the world you wanted to see in it. MOVE simply unplugged from the system, while still living inside its borders. That was precisely what made them such a threat. They had the radical notion that people don’t need to go to schools, hospitals, grocery stores, or any of it… if there’s enough people looking out for each other, you just create a new system: one that honors all life. Looking back at it now, MOVE was the first example I ever had of sustainability, before I even learned what the word meant.
Also when I was 16, there was an article I read in The Source magazine about Hip Hop vegetarians, with people like KRS-One, Erykah Badu and Jeru the Damaja. I learned from this article that heart disease was the actual #1 killer of black men, and #1 cause of heart disease was diets with a lot of meats and fried foods. When I was younger, I remember always saying I could never give up meat. I loved chicken too much, and I come from a culture that eats raw beef. But because of my environment, and the books I’m reading…. realizing there is a system in place that wants kids like me to want to die… I wanted to prove to myself that I could do anything, even give up something I love, for the sake of protecting life. I wanted to be like MOVE. No one around me supported this decision at all, but I became a vegetarian anyway. I told myself then I would just go veggie for a year… it has now been 17 years and I’m still vegetarian. Raw kale is one of my favorite snacks.
One day, like any other, I was walking from my high school to the community college’s library down the street. At this time, a lot of the area around Bonanza was still undeveloped, so there was actually a piece of desert the size of the schools that I walked through to get there. On this day, there was a police man on a bicycle who followed me through the desert. I didn’t notice him. When we were almost in the middle of the desert he gets off of his bike and yells “freeze!” and something else I didn’t really hear. I turn around and say, “excuse me, did I do something wrong?” and then I notice his gun is pointed at me. I also realize we are far enough away from anyone that if he pulled his trigger no one would of even heard the sound. He then takes the safety off his gun and says “place your hands on your head and lay down on the ground”. A few minutes later he’s got my face in the dirt, I’m handcuffed, and he tells me to stand up. Have you ever tried to stand up with your hands tied behind your back while your laying with your nose on the ground? I have never felt so powerless.
He calls for back-up and we walk back to the street. I then spend the next hour leaned up against the hood of a squad car while a group of police officers search the entire parking lot for any drugs that I must of “dropped”, looking all over places I didn’t even walk near. When they finally don’t find anything, it’s back to Bonanza’s police office where I sit with sore wrists for the rest of the day.
My family moved to another part of Las Vegas around this time, so the school changed, and I actually started getting in fights with teachers at every school I went to. I got a GED before I was supposed to graduate, only after going to 6 different high schools.
I believe that if I had just trusted in the school system it would of killed me. Or I’d be in prison. As easy as that police man in the desert could have squeezed that trigger, no one would have even heard the sound.
Mumia Abu-Jamal and The MOVE 9 are literally part of why I am still on this planet. If it wasn’t for their inspiration I don’t know how I would have survived that desert. I can’t even imagine life without them in it. To say they should be free is an understatement. They should have never been sent to prison at all.
I encourage anyone reading this to look deeper into Mumia’s writings, into his story and the story of MOVE. We need to take a stand for the people who stood up for us.
It is very hard to stand up again when you’ve been kicked to the ground and now have your hands tied behind your back. As Teju Cole brilliantly put it, “Love perhaps includes the promise that when the mob comes for you I’ll go against the mob.”
Free ’em All
Get involved with the Free Mumia Movement
Visit the Bring Mumia Home website
Connect with the Bring Mumia Home campaign on twitter
Contribute to the “60 for Mumia’s 60th Birthday” Indiegogo campaign
Sign the petition to Free Mumia on change.org
Gabriel Teodros is a musician, writer and teaching artist from Seattle, WA. He first made a mark with the group Abyssinian Creole, and reached an international audience with his critically-acclaimed solo debut “Lovework”. He has since set stages on fire all across the US, Canada, Mexico and Ethiopia. 2012 saw the release of 2 more critically-acclaimed albums, Teodros’ solo “Colored People’s Time Machine”, as well as CopperWire’s “Earthbound”; a space opera of a hip hop ride (set in the year 2089) that Teodros recorded with fellow Ethiopian-American artists Meklit Hadero and Burntface. In 2014 Teodros is set to release his newest solo project “Children Of The Dragon”; another journey through time, Hip Hop, Ethiopian musical traditions and shifting homelands with Washington, DC-based producer AirMe. For more information log on to www.gabrielteodros.com