‘We are here to save a life’: Mumia Abu-Jamal to undergo heart surgery; supporters call for his release

Pam Africa speaks at a protest outside the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

Pam Africa speaks at a protest outside the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office on March 12, 2021. The group was asking for the release from prison of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who recently tested positive for COVID-19. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal hosted an emergency press conference Thursday, after news that the activist and former journalist, incarcerated for the killing of a Philadelphia police officer 40 years ago, will undergo heart surgery in the coming days.

According to Wadiya Jamal, his wife, and MOVE member Pam Africa, who normally speaks with Abu-Jamal daily, they had been unable to reach him for four days. On Wednesday, Abu-Jamal’s lawyer informed his close supporters that he complained of chest pain while on a walk at SCI-Mahanoy in Schuylkill County and was taken to the prison infirmary. From there, Abu-Jamal was taken to an undisclosed hospital, where it was discovered that several of his coronary arteries were blocked, for which he will receive surgery.

Abu-Jamal had previously been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, diabetes, liver cirrhosis and, most recently, COVID-19.

“We are here to save a life, and we are here to fight for justice,” said Marc Lamont Hill, a Temple University professor and owner of Uncle Bobbie’s Books in Germantown.

Organizers of the press conference had a list of explicit demands regarding Abu-Jamal’s care:

  • That before surgery, Abu-Jamal be allowed to call his wife; Pam Africa; his chosen doctor, Ricardo Alvarez; and his spiritual adviser, Mark Taylor
  • That Abu-Jamal not be shackled in his hospital bed.
  • That Abu-Jamal be immediately released from prison.

Johanna Fernández, a longtime advocate and supporter of Abu-Jamal, said that there are also concerns about the lack of information being provided to Abu-Jamal’s closest allies, and that it went against his right as a patient that he was unable to contact his loved ones for days after his hospitalization.

“Think about the barbarism of a system that feels there is no right of a prisoner that the state must respect,” said Fernández, a history professor at Baruch College in New York.

Alvarez, Abu-Jamal’s chosen physician, has had little access to Abu-Jamal’s current medical team and has not been informed regarding his patient’s health and the steps being taken to treat him. During Thursday’s press conference, Alvarez said he believes Abu-Jamal will undergo open heart surgery to treat his clogged arteries, but he added that demands for more information regarding his treatment have gone unmet.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said they cannot comment on a prisoner’s health.

The latest calls for action for the release of Abu-Jamal come a month after a press conference at which his supporters said that he was diagnosed with COVID-19, that his breathing was “labored,” and that he was experiencing pain in his chest.

“A question we have … Mumia was just hospitalized … and if he had blocked arteries and they conducted a battery of tests, shouldn’t some of that been identified?” Fernández asked. “You are clearly not doing what needs to be done to save the life of another human being.”

Angela Davis, a renowned scholar and political activist for incarcerated people, said Abu-Jamal’s condition mirrors that of so many others behind bars.

“He needs us to stand with him as he confronts the brutal power of the state and as he tries to grapple with his medical condition, produced and exacerbated by prison authorities,” Davis said. “This is our time to represent our collective rage over his treatment and treatment of other aging prisoners.”

As Abu-Jamal’s personal physician, Alvarez said that his patient has medically documented evidence of harm, noting that his cirrhosis of the liver is due to the deliberate holding back of lifesaving medications to treat the disease.

“One of the greatest harms to Mumia is state violence,” Alvarez said. “We support Mumia from the only possible treatment, which is freedom.”

Hundreds of people across the world attended the press conference via Zoom, including participants in Austria, Greece, Martinique, and elsewhere in the United States.

Abu-Jamal’s 67th birthday is April 24. A weekend of action was already planned prior to his latest health problems, including a City Hall rally on his birthday.

In December 1981, Abu-Jamal was charged with the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Throughout his 40-year incarceration, Abu-Jamal and his supporters have maintained his innocence, despite several upheld convictions and denied appeals.

In December 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a petition filed by the slain officer’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, asking for District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office to be removed from handling future appeals in the case.

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