Martín Espada and Mumia Abu-Jamal
All Things Censored: The Poem NPR Doesn't Want You to Hear
by Martín Espada
I was an NPR poet. In particular, I was an All Things Considered poet. All Things Considered would occasionally broadcast my poems in conjunction with news stories. One producer even commissioned a New Year's poem from me. "Imagine the Angels of Bread" aired on January 2, 1994, in the same broadcast as the news of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. But now I've been censored by All Things Considered and National Public Radio because I wrote a poem for them about Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Mumia is an eloquent African American journalist convicted in the 1981 slaying of police officer Daniel Faulkner in Philadelphia-under extremely dubious circumstances. Officer Faulkner was beating Mumia's brother with a flashlight when Mumia came upon the scene. In the ensuing confrontation, both Faulkner and Mumia were shot. Though Mumia had a licensed .38 caliber pistol in his taxi that night, and the gun was later found beside him, the initial judgment of the medical examiner who removed the fatal bullet was that it came from a .44 caliber weapon. Several witnesses claimed to see an unidentified gunman fleeing the scene, leaving both Faulkner and Mumia severely wounded in the street.
What happened in court was a tragic pantomime. The trial featured aprosecutor who tried Mumia for his radical politics, including his teenaged membership in the Black Panthers and his journalistic defense of MOVE. Witnesses were coached in their testimony or intimidated into silence by police, and the trial was presided over by a judge notorious for handing out death sentences to black defendants. In August 1995, Mumia came within ten days of being executed by lethal injection. He is seeking a new trial.
Enter NPR. In 1994, National Public Radio agreed to broadcast a series of Mumia's radio commentaries from death row. The Prison Radio Project produced the recordings that April. Suddenly, NPR canceled the commentaries under pressure from the right, particularly the Fraternal Order of Police and Senator Robert Dole. Mumia and the Prison Radio Project sued NPR on First Amendment grounds. That litigation is pending.
This April, I was contacted by the staff at All Things Considered, their first communication since my New Year's poem. Diantha Parker and Sara Sarasohn commissioned me to write a poem for National Poetry Month. The general idea was that the poem should be like a news story, with a journalistic perspective. They suggested I write a poem in response to a news story in a city I visited during the month. Parker called to obtain my itinerary so NPR could give me an assignment relevant to a particular city. Fatefully, they could think of no such assignment. But the idea had found a home in the folds of my brain.
Since April is National Poetry Month, I traveled everywhere. I went from Joplin, Missouri, to Kansas City, to Rochester, to Chicago, to Camden, New Jersey. And then to Philadelphia. I read an article in the April 16 Philadelphia Weekly about Mumia Abu-Jamal. The article described a motion by one of Mumia's lawyers, Leonard Weinglass, to introduce testimony by an unnamed prostitute with new information about the case. This became the catalyst for the poem.
I also visited the tomb of Walt Whitman in nearby Camden, and wasdeeply moved. Whitman wrote this in "Song of Myself":
The runaway slave came to my house
and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs
of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the
kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and
led him in and assured him,
And brought water and fill'd a tub for
his sweated body and bruis'd feet.
In my poem, Whitman's tomb became a place ofrefuge for the "fugitive slave," first for a nameless prostitute, then Mumia.
I faxed the poem to NPR on April 21. On April 24, All Things Considered staff informed me that they would not air the poem. They were explicit: They would not air the poem because of its subject matter-Mumia Abu-Jamal-and its political sympathies. "NPR is refusing to air this poem because of its political content?" I asked. "Yes," said Diantha Parker. She cited the "history" of NPR and Mumia, a reference to the network's refusal to air his commentaries. She further explained that the poem was "not the way NPR wants to return to this subject." Such is the elegant bureaucratic language of censorship. Parker would later admit, in an interview with Dennis Bernstein of KPFA-FM, that she "loved" the poem, and that "the poem should have been run, perhaps in a different context."
A few days later, I met Marilyn Jamal, Mumia's former wife. I presented her with the poem and watched her struggle against tears. Then she said: "I promised myself that I wouldn't cry anymore." I concluded that NPR's censorship should come to light.
The people at All Things Considered expressed indignation that I was aware of their "history" with Mumia, and still wrote the poem anyway. Sara Sarasohn, the same producer who solicited my New Year's poem, told me: "We never expected you would write this!" Said Parker to Dennis Bernstein: "He should have known better."
How could I not write this poem once it came to me? How could I censor my imagination, making myself complicit in NPR's muzzling of Mumia?
I had given NPR the proverbial benefit of the doubt. I had hoped that a sense of fairness-a respect for opposing viewpoints-would compel All Things Considered to broadcast the poem, a broadcast which would address the concerns of listeners who felt that NPR "sold out" Mumia. Instead, I encountered a reaction based on cowardice and self-pity.
Confronted with the fate of a man on death row, the staff of All Things Considered could think only of their own discomfort, their own problems caused by the controversy, their own political and professional security. Worse, they insisted on implicitly comparing their suffering to the suffering of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Diantha Parker cited "safety concerns" for NPR staff in explaining the refusal to air a poem about a man facing execution. When contacted by Demetria Martínez, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, concerning this story, executive producer Ellen Weiss moaned that the NPR-Mumia controversy "will follow me to my tombstone." Her tombstone. Compare this to the tombstone of a man who may soon die by lethal injection. Surely, Weiss deserves the Liberal Media Sensitivity to Language Award.
Weiss also informed Martínez that NPR has a policy of not airing any commentaries or "op-ed" pieces about Mumia Abu-Jamal while his lawsuit against NPR is pending. Strangely, the two people who made the decision not to air the poem, and informed me of that decision-Parker and Sarasohn-never mentioned such a policy in a telephone conversation of almost twenty minutes. Yet, some weeks later, Sarasohn told Dennis Bernstein: "It's a legal thing." Note how a poem became a "commentary," not a work of art, when that definition justified censorship.
The legal justification for this act of censorship amuses me, since I am also a lawyer. As fellow attorney Bill Newman, head of the western Massachusetts ACLU, points out, "The reason for silence in the face of pending litigation does not apply. As a poet, an independent person, you are not a corporate spokesperson. You cannot bind the corporation. The reason corporations like NPR say 'no comment' is because they don't want the statements to be used against them in court. That rationale does not apply to a poet reading a poem. It makes no sense."
Furthermore, the subject of the lawsuit and the subject of the poem are totally different. The censored poem is not about Mumia's censored commentaries, nor about his First Amendment rights. Mumia's lawsuit against NPR does not concern his criminal case or his possible execution. Newman raises an ominous question: "If Mumia were to dismiss his lawsuit, would they air this poem?"
NPR's policy, even if ex post facto, perpetuates Mumia's silence by silencing those who would speak for him. "First they censor him. Then, because he exercises his First Amendment right to remedy the violation, NPR compounds that affront to his freedom of expression by refusing to allow others to comment on his behalf," says Newman.
I once asked my friend David Velasquez, who worked as a farrier, about shoeing horses. He replied: "Imagine a creature that weighs 1,500 pounds and is motivated by fear." That's NPR, at least in terms of Mumia. Of course, the liberal media is notorious for timidity.
To again quote my wise friend: "A liberal is someone who leaves the room when a fight breaks out." Editorial decisions are made for political reasons on a daily basis; rarely, however, is the curtain lifted to reveal the corroded machinery. Moreover, as a leftwing poet, I expect to be censored by mainstream media. But when so-called alternative media also censor the left, the impact is devastating. Ask Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Readers can call or write All Things Considered to urge that the poem be aired. They can urge, again, that Mumia's commentaries be aired, or at least released from the NPR vaults so that others might have access to them. NPR's web site can be found at www.npr.org.
They can inform NPR that their financial contributions to National Public Radio will instead be diverted to the legal defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal. That address is: Committee to Save Mumia Abu-Jamal, 163 Amsterdam Avenue, #115, New York, NY 10023. Checks should be made payable to the Bill of Rights Foundation ("for MAJ").
Meanwhile, I assume that All Things Considered has put my name on their blacklist. I wonder what poems I must write to be allowed on the radio again. Maybe some cowboy poetry.
Click here to read the poem