Mumia Abu-Jamal’s book, Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? addresses the long history of racist police and state repression. It offers contemporary organizers crucial historical insights and lessons, as well as advice, on organizing to stop the war on Black America today.
For more background on the book and on Mumia Abu-Jamal, see Liberation School‘s companion article here.
- Discuss the broader historical context in which Mumia situates the movement for Black lives.
- Mumia authored the Introduction in 2017. What insights does it offer for understanding of the uprising against racism during the summer of 2020?
- How does Mumia connect the history of what would become capitalism in the Western hemisphere to the genocide of Native American nations and the enslavement of Africans? What relevance does this have for the socialist movement today?
- What insights regarding the role of the bourgeois state in this process are we offered?
- Discuss the ways the imperialist state continues to serve similar functions today, locally, nationally, and globally.
- How does Mumia explain the state’s consistent role in perpetuating anti-Black racism over time?
- How did the state’s response to the uprising against racism during the summer of 2020 affirm Mumia’s formulation?
- What historical connection does he make between the KKK and the police? Why is this an important assessment for today’s socialist movement?
- What is Mumia suggesting when he rhetorically asks if Black lives mattered to the police and to the larger state structure when Barack Obama was president?
- What does Mumia offer in terms of how and why hate crimes are defined in the U.S. as they are?
- What connections are drawn between the state (e.g., the police), the media, and the capitalist class?
- What implications does the following observation have for building campaigns and the socialist movement? “Far more dangerous than the white-robed KKK is the legalized malice of the black-robed judiciary” (p. 13)
“The law against the law”
- What are the practical organizing implications of the point Mumia makes about the inability of Supreme Court rulings to set anti-racist legal precedents in jury selection?
- What is meant by “a law against the law”? What example does he give?
“We are blind to everything but color”
- What evidence of the racist nature of the U.S. state does Mumia give in this chapter?
- How does Mumia assess the idea that the law doesn’t recognize race?
- What contemporary evidence can we point to?
- What are some implications this chapter has for organizing today?
“A history of betrayal”
- What are the practical implications for organizers of Mumia’s observations regarding the disconnect between official U.S. history and “the lives lived by millions of men, women, and children” (p. 20)?
- Once again we are reminded of the white supremacist nature of the U.S. state, a “reality,” Abu-Jamal notes, “that leads to today” (p. 23) How might these insights be mobilized to build a campaign in your own local context?
“The folly of calling the FBI”
- What is the contradiction or paradox being described in this article?
- Why does Mumia argue the cops, so called “public servants” actually serve the interests of capital at the expense of the poor and Black and Brown communities especially?
- Abu-Jamal concludes that the crimes of the cops and the capitalist class they serve must cease. How can we build a movement toward these ends? What challenges do we face?
- What did it take for movement leaders under attack from KKK terrorism during the Civil Rights movement to realize the FBI could not be counted on for protection and in fact were either just as bad, or worse, than formations like the KKK?
- Toward the end of the article, summarizing, Mumia notes that “history has taught us that the state has its interests and the people have another; and they do not coincide.” How does this assessment inform Abu-Jamal’s characterization of the FBI?
“Where is the outrage?”
- What examples does Mumia draw in making the case for what he calls the state’s “selective outrage? (p. 32).
- What importance is afforded “the unity of the people” in Mumia’s response to the fact that “it is not outrageous to the political and economic elite when Black and poor people are summarily executed by the state” (p. 33)?
- What campaigns are you involved in, or could launch, that are aimed at those things Mumia points to as outrageous and therefore demanding outrage?
“What is the Fourth of July for?”
- What correction to the myth of 1776 as in any way progressive does Mumia offer?
- How does Mumia demonstrate a continuity between the sentiments and values animating the so-called founding fathers and today?
- Gerald Horne’s grounding breaking book The Counter Revolution of 1776 offers so much to this short article” . In the book, Horne demonstrates that rather than revolutionary, meaning progressive, 1776 was counter-revolutionary as it was motivated by the desire to maintain and preserve slavery. That is, for a number of reasons London’s ruling elites were rethinking their model of economic development, and as a result, were beginning to outlaw slavery as indicated by the 1772 Somerset case. In response, Washington and other enslaving settlers were outraged, and propelled into rebellion against the Crown.
“Public servants or paid predators?”
- How does Mumia answer the rhetorical question, when is a killing not a killing?
- What more recent examples can we point to of how the police, after committing murder, routinely then proceed to assassinate their victims’ character?
- Why are Mumia’s assessments important for organizers? In the final line of the article Mumia hope for unity against the police murder of Black people “so that a vast movement can be built” (p. 40).
- What connections does Mumia make between escalating police killings of Black people and declining economic and social conditions?
- How have these facts been mobilized to build a mass movement for Black lives?
- What does Mumia advocate for?
- How might these pieces be formulated as demands and campaigns?
“Aiding and abetting ‘bombingham’”
- How does Mumia describe the difference between the FBI as portrayed in the mass media and the actually-existing FBI?
- How does Mumia explain why it took so long to prosecute and convict Thomas Blanton Jr.?
- Once again we are reminded of the nature of the U.S. state. How does this assessment help us understand current developments within the state?
“Of cops and courts”
- What connection does Mumia make between cops and judges?
- What slew of evidence does he give to support this connection?
- Throughout the chapter, Mumia notes that the evidence he is reporting “speaks volumes” about the nature of the US state. What is he suggesting? What are the implications for organizers?
“We have no country”
- What is the significance of September 11, 1851?
- What point is being made by situating 9-11 2001 next to 9-11 1851?
- Discuss the relationship between the article’s title, “We have no country,” and the content of the article.
“The other Central Park rapes”
- Discuss the open Angela Davis quote. What does it suggest about the significance and importance of information control?
- What is meant by the “other central park rapes”?
- What do these rapes add to the mountain of evidence offered throughout Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?
“When a child is killed”
- Reporting on yet another police killing gone unpunished, or even prosecuted, Mumia comments that “population” “means little if the people who comprise it have neither representation or power” (p. 56). Mumia then turns to an account of a protest of the people demanding justice for the 12-year old victim, Micahel Ellerbe.
- What does this formulation seem to suggest regarding the form of “power” Mumia notes the Black community does not have?
- Again, how might these insights inform organizing today?
“Trying to survive to 90 while Black”
- Discuss Mumia’s use of comparison in the article (i.e. the excuse to invade countries and the excuse to kill unarmed Black people).
- Why is this such a powerful comparison?
- A common theme throughout Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? is how unaccountable cops are to their crimes. Discuss this theme and its practical implications for organizers.
“Death in a cell”
- Discuss the details of the murder and after discussed in the article.
- Mumia demonstrates how the police can even kill people while they are incarcerated with impunity. In the book Mumia documents the police’s ability to murder people without repercussion outside of the system’s jails and prisons and within them. Why is this significant?
- How can organizers agitate around these conclusions or the kind of people power Mumia argues is necessary?
“Oscar Grant and you”
- In this report of another instance of police killing a Black person, Oscar Grant,” Mumia addresses “how commercial media have responded in defense of the police” (p. 64). What does this focus add to Mumia’s overall assessment and presentation?
- Mumia concludes that “until the system is changed, nothing is changed” (p. 65). Discuss the practical implications of this conclusion.
“The Arrest of Harvard scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates”
- What conclusion does Mumia make from the arrest of Dr. Gates?
- What important insights regarding the nature of the state does Mumia draw from the election of the first Black president?
- Abu-Jamal references the “low-caste” of India. What does this comparison offer to organizers?
“When a grand jury finds beatings to be ‘helpful'”
- What forces moved Barack Obama to engage with Dr. Gates, but not with the other people highlighted in this article?
- What has changed in the movement for Black Liberation since the article was written?
“When racists rule policy”
- What truth about American Capitalism was shown in this article?
- What does Mumia hint at in terms of the limitations of electoral politics in the U.S.?
“The death penalty derives from lynch law”
- What value can organizers gain from this article in regards to the move from private slavery and private lynching to public enslavement and public lynchings?
“Life in dark flesh is not equal to life in light flesh”
- Abu-Jamal states in this article “that there’s one law for some, another law for others” (p. 76). How can we use a revolutionary lens to explain the contradiction that Abu-Jamal identifies?
- How does the recount of the repression brought against Geronimo Ji-Jaga by the state mirror the repression against the Black Panther Party in general? How does it differ?
- What can we learn from Geronimo Ji-Jaga’s life before organizing with the Black Panthers?
“While rage bubbles in Black hearts”
- How would you answer Abu-Jamal’s questions in the article: “If Black politicians are to do the very same thing as their white colleagues, why have them at all? What’s the difference” (p. 80).
- What is the role of elections in bourgeois democracy?
- How do oppressed nations comprise people’s states?
- What role would oppressed nations likely play in a socialist future within what is currently the U.S.?
“Troy Davis: Movement lessons”
- Identify the limit(s) of the movement described in the article and discuss what relevance they have to organizers today.
- How can we overcome these limits?
“What do you call a judge who makes racist statements?”
- What purpose could the phenomenon described in the article have for the ruling class?
“For Rodney King the struggle is finally over”
- How can organizers work to bring an answer to Rodney King’s question transcribed in the article?
“Trayvon and the war against us”
- Abu-Jamal relates the circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s murder to the “New Jim Crow” and systemic racist oppression. How can organizers lead movements to relate systemic racist oppression to other incidents of state-sponsored violence?
“Tears of sorrow and rage”
- Abu-Jamal asks the rhetorical question “when have you seen any politicians turn their backs on either [money or power]? (p. 91).”
- Is there a non-rhetorical answer to this question?
- What insight or evidence does this article provide to the true nature of police in the U.S.?
“The Dorner dilemma” and “The Dorner manifesto”
- What are some possible reasons why Abu-Jamal expects another cop to turn against the police as Christopher Dorner did?
- What role did the corporate media play during the events discussed in the article? What conclusions can we draw about the corporate media?
“A harsh light on New York’s criminal justice system”
- How similarities does the “Central Park Five” case have with earlier cases brought against black youth?
- Discuss Abu-Jamal’s questions in this article around appellate courts.
- What are some reasons why exposure of the appellate courts were left out of the documentary?
“Will Trayvon Martin’s killer be acquitted?”
- What conclusions can we draw about the national attention to the Zimmerman trial noted in this article?
“The verdict: Black life is as cheap as day-old pretzels”
- Mumia writes, “White fear is the operative perspective from which all court action flows” (p. 101). What other court cases support this conclusion?
- How would you define “legal war” (p. 102) as it is used in this article?
“Trayvon is one, they are many” and “Trayvon who?”
- What is meant by the title of the first article and what can organizers gain from it’s understanding?
- Towards which goal are the corporate media, civil and political leaders, and national civil rights groups aligned as evidenced in this article?
- What advice does Abu-Jamal offer to organizers to counter the efforts to “keep the masses cool” (p. 105)?
- Mumia discusses the role of the Democratic Party as tamping down the “furious anger” (p. 105) of the Black community especially in response to the routine killing of Black people. What examples can we offer of the Democratic Party’s efforts at subduing the uprising against racism during the summer of 2020?
- Drawing on Manning Marable’s comments on the leading role of the Black community in organizing struggles to protect Black life, what contemporary relevance can we point to?
“The outrageous American norm”
- List examples of how the corporate media and political ruling class support the normalization of cruelty.
- How does the state use humiliation?
- How can organizers gain practical insights from Mumia’s final question from this article?
“The last day of President Obama”
- What are the limitations of bourgeois representation?
- What are the contradictions?
- List and discuss historical examples from the Obama presidency to answer Mumia’s final question.
“Snapshot of Black America”
- Apply the framework Mumia mobilizes to more recent cases of racist police violence (e.g. the murder of Ahmaud Arbery).
- What benefit does White Anxiety provide for the bourgeois state?
- How might organizers respond to “White Anxiety”?
- Have you heard people say that ‘the system is broken’? If so, please explain.
- Rather than describing the system as broken, why is it more potentially productive to advance the idea that the failure of the system to protect people’s rights and deliver their needs is by design, or structural?
- What might a local campaign in your community informed by this insight look like?
“Police in the age of social media”
- Social media has allowed the mass of people to create and distribute media on a broad scale, which was previously only possible by large corporations or organizations that had access to the resources needed to distribute media on a large scale. However, social media also contains a number of pitfalls for organizers who may use social media for their work. Discuss the benefits and potential pitfalls of social media in regards to organizing.
- Discuss the effects of social media on the movement for Black Lives starting with the police beating of Rodney King.
“A cop shot 18-year-old Michael Brown eight times”
- Discuss the movement for Black Lives since its inception in regards to Mumia’s call for “independent and uncompromising Black revolutionary collectives–determined to protect the lives and well-being of Black people, period” (p. 121).
“1, 2, 3 Fergusons”
- What do you think Mumia was communicating with the title of this article?
- How should organizers engage with local movements for justice, such as the movement in Ferguson?
“Ferguson’s real ‘outside agitators'”
- During the National Uprising Against Racism, did you hear the phrase ‘outside agitators’ used? By who and in what context?
- In Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, he writes: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” . What challenge does this quote pose to organizers?
- What contradictions of the bourgeois state are identified in this article?
- How can organizers work to keep movements and campaigns grounded in the people’s level of political development while simultaneously participating in its development?
“The meaning of Ferguson”
- How does this article provide evidence that struggle brings class consciousness?
- In Police A Field Guide, Correia and Wall write: “Police departments have long utilized the same technologies and weaponry used in colonization and warfare, speaking to the shared material mandate of militaries and police forces.” and “Police is a modality of war, just as war is a modality of police power” . What evidence does this article provide for this?
“We must fight for more”
- Abu-Jamal provides examples of “police reform” suggested by Black politicians during the Ferguson Uprising. Correia and Wall write: “Police reform does not confront police, but rather attempts to co-opt the communities that hold animosity towards police” . How would the reforms mentioned in the article achieve that goal? What are other examples of “police reform” that you have encountered?
“The Troy Davis tragedy”
- What can organizers gain from this article and how could organizers use the case of Troy Davis in their work?
“Places, names of Black pain, loss and death”
- Discuss the role of Ferguson within the national experience of Black radicalism.
- Mumia uses fever in the opening lines. What mental imagery and insights did that metaphor produce for you?
“Rule of law”
- Rule of law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to existing laws. Mumia notes that, “In a nation that legally enslaved African for centuries, one that exploited, raped, lynched and disfranchised Black folks, the rule of law means different things to different people” (p. 136). Think of the “rule of law” in the context of current struggles such as the struggle to end cash bail. As organizers, how do we engage with people who see the law as neutral and always just?
- What does Mumia offer in terms of our understanding of the youth and their involvement in progressive and revolutionary organizations?
- Take a moment and examine the local community organizations that you are aware of.
- How many youths are in these organizations as members and as leaders?
- What role do they play?
- If there is none or very few youth in these organizations, why?
- What are your thoughts on youth being involved in these and other movements?
“Operation restore trust”
- Mumia addresses the notion pushed by politicians, police officials, clergy, and community organizers to “restore trust”. He asked the question “when was there ever trust between American Blacks and cops” (p. 139).
- How do we combat the fact that so many working-class people trust those institutions and systems that are oppressing them?
“Eric Garner: I can’t breathe”
- Mike Brown, Ramarley Graham, Alan Blueford, Dontre Hamilton, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland are a few of the known names of those who are murdered by cops. Those are the names of folks that we have witnessed via video, each one more egregious than the one before. Eric Garner’s plea, I can’t breathe, is etched permanently in the minds of so many. What does Marxism offer the movement against racist police terror?
- How do we advance the revolutionary agenda in regards to the state when the dominant mantra is prison reform?
“Police terrorism: A national crisis”
- As you are reading Mumia’s words, the police continue their daily patrols and other forms of terrorism. Mumia argues the problem is far deeper and structural than “‘rotten apples’ and ‘broken windows.’ It’s about blocking movements for freedom, and protecting a system of racist repression” (p. 143).
- What does it say about the potential for revolutionary change that the demand to defund and abolish the police became a mainstream demand almost overnight during the 2020 uprising against racism?
- How do we most effectively bring the message of systemic change in new and exciting ways? Ways that will inspire and propel the movement forward?
- How have and do communities that are under the constant threat of terrorism and patrolled daily by the police like an occupying army organize against such conditions?
“Grand Jury jammed”
- What is a grand jury? How are they selected?
- What is the difference between a grand jury and a trial jury?
- Why are these considerations important for organizers?
- After state-sponsored crimes that are caught on camera and circulated on social media, outrage usually ensues. Protests, demonstrations, and rallies are the primary outlets for the rage. Yet, there is an expectation that those things must be done “respectfully.”
- What role do respectability politics play in undermining the people’s righteous indignation and demands for a new system?
“Ferguson: The epicenter”
- What was it about Ferguson that led it to be the epicenter?
- What factors were in play?
- Was it sustainable?
- What lessons does it offer the ongoing struggle?
“Black lives matter?”
- The hashtag #BlacklivesMatter first appears on July 13, 2013, on Twitter. Eric Garner is murdered in N.Y. July 17, 2014. Michael Brown is murdered on August 9, 2014. Tamir Rice is killed on November 22, 2014. On November 24, 2014, prosecutors announced there would be no indictment in the Michael Brown case.
- Looking at what has transpired since the appearance of #BlacklivesMatter, what has changed?
- Following Ferguson the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division announced an investigation into the Ferguson Police Department.
- What should organizers do with the information from those investigations?
- As organizers how do we navigate these moments many view as progress?
“Words vs. deeds”
- Brands and companies such as Disney, JP Morgan Chase, Nike, and Amazon have released statements on racial equality and have posted on social media showing support for the Black Lives Matter Movement.
- What is performative activism?
- How should organizers relate to this tendency?
- Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were shot and killed when 13 Cleveland police officers fired 137 bullets into the car the pair were riding in after a 22-mile chase that began near the Justice Center downtown ended at East Cleveland’s Heritage Middle School. Russell and Williams were unarmed.
- What point is Mumia making about the value of Black life in America?
“Heritage of the Confederate battle flag”
- In recent years there has been a push to remove confederate flags and statues that celebrate racism and glorify racist ideology. Many view these actions as symbolic and performative.
- What does the removal of these symbols do for the people?
- How can we organize around these removals?
“As Black as they are expendable”
- As organizers how do we navigate ebbs and flows in mass involvement in demonstrations for Black lives?
- What role do organizations play in keeping the movement alive and moving during times of ebb?
- How do we counter the media’s tendency to prematurely announce the end or dieing down of movement activity?
“Tamir Rice of Cleveland”
- Growing up in Black poor and working-class communities, we were not permitted to play with or own toy guns, specifically because it gave the police an excuse to shoot us. We saw that warning come into play with the murder of 12 year Tamil Rice. The fact that Tamir was a child and he was playing with a toy gun, did nothing to sway or impact the outcome for potential justice. The cop was deemed justified by two independent boards. The cop was ruled justified because he saw a gun.
- As a child what talks did your parents have with you about the police and law enforcement?
“Disturbing the peace”
- Many under-resourced schools become pipelines to prison. The rise in school-based arrests, the quickest route from the classroom to the jailhouse, most directly exemplifies the criminalization of school children.
- As an organizer, what are ways to stop the school to prison pipeline?
“Because he is a Black child”
- The 911 call that led to the police confronting 12-year-old Tamir Rice, stated they believed the gun to be fake. When the police arrived on the scene and saw 12-year-old Tamir Rice, they did not approach as if it was a child with a toy gun. They responded as if a known armed threat was on the scene.
- The 911 caller gave no description of Tamir, why did the police respond in a terroristic manner?
“Killed by cops who were ‘just doing their jobs'”
- How does Mumia use the historical continuity between white slave patrols and modern police to illustrate what it means for cops to be just doing their jobs as they murder and terrorize the Black community in particular?
“To protect and serve whom?”
- Why is it significant that Mumia ends Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? with a discussion of social movements?
- How does Mumia define the “real, essential nature of the state” (p. 181).
- Why does he argue this understanding is so crucial for today’s organizers?
- What are the reasons why Mumia argues movements emerge?
- In what context and for what ends does Mumia draw on Marx and Engels’ conclusion that “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (p. 182-183)?
- Mumia incorrectly lumps China’s security forces together with capitalist police forces suggesting that the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in the 1980s were an example of the Chinese government suppressing people’s demands for state power. In “Tiananmen: The Massacre that Wasn’t,” Brian Becker demonstrates that the Tiananmen Square protests were in fact middle-class or petit-bourgeois students selfishly demanding “democracy,” which really meant opposition to socialism and what is good for the broadest masses of workers . Becker demonstrates that the Chinese government actually demonstrated considerable restraint in response to the attacks. Given U.S. aggression toward China, correcting this issue is crucially important.
- Mumia offers a history of the police in the U.S. from slave patrols to today. What is the significance of this history for organizers today?
- How does Mumia explain how the police rioted against the people over time?
- Why does Mumia call out Black politicians as failing their constituents?
- What conclusions does Mumia come to in terms of what is to be done? He considers the age-old question between reform and revolution. Where does he fall and why?
- What does Mumia offer in terms of an assessment of Trump, and an assessment of Trump as a follow-up to Obama?
References Horne, Gerald. (2014). The counter-revolution of 1776: Slave resistance and the origins of the United States of America (New York: NYU Press).
 King, Martin Luther King Jr. (1994). Letter from the Birmingham Jail (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco).
 Correia, David and Tyler Wall, (2018). Police: A field guide (London; Brooklyn, NY: Verso), 109.
 Ibid., 169.
 Becker, Brian. (2014). “Tiananmen: The massacre that wasn’t.” Liberation School, June 13. Available here.