Noam Chomsky on Mumia Abu-Jamal, Prisons, and the Counterinsurgency War at Home

In early October 2002, MIT Linguistics Professor and anarchist, Noam Chomsky visited Philadelphia. The first day here he spoke at the University of Pennsylvania about the war waged on Iraq and the rest of the Middle East by the United States. During the question and answer session, I asked him about Mumia Abu-Jamal. The next day Noam spoke about the media at a church in Center City. Afterwards I asked him about the post Sept. 11, 2001 political repression.

Photo taken at the University of Pennsylvania


Hans: Looking at the counterinsurgency war here at home, you’ve written about the FBI’s repression of the Black Panther Party & personally attending the funeral of the assassinated BPP leader Fred Hampton. Being here today in Philadelphia, could you please say something about anti-corporate journalist and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal?

Noam: You know all about Mumia Abu-Jamal so I don’t really have to say anything about it in that regard, and my opinion is probably the same as yours. We have to keep in mind that it’s one case that is symbolic of something much broader. Around the world, the US is almost alone in applying the death penalty. I don’t even want to mention the other countries that we are in league with in this regard. That’s one of the reasons that Europe will not extradite people to the US. The U.S. prison system is simply class and race war. Class and race correlate in the US so much that it is hard to distinguish them. The whole incarceration movement is a neo-liberal program to get rid of “unnecessary” people. Take a look at the way the prison population has gone up since 1980. Before it was approximately the same as the rest of the industrialized world. Now it’s five to ten times as high. During the Clinton years it went up about 50%.

Mumia Abu-Jamal and other prisoners are the kind of people that get assassinated by what’s called “social cleansing” in US client states like Colombia. They’re put away. A very substantial part of the poor population (which happens to be largely Black and Latino) are just stuck away. Add that to unemployment figures and the famous unemployment rate of the United States would disappear pretty fast. These are policies of class and race war. The Mumia’s case is just one illustration of that. Its an important case, but is also a much more general phenomenon.

Hans: How do you think the counterinsurgency war at home has changed since you wrote about COINTELPRO in the 1970s, and specifically since Sept.11?

Noam: If John Ashcroft and his buddies have their way, we’d be living in a fascist state. That’s what they want. They’re using 9/11 as a pretext for it, but they’re not succeeding because there is too much resistance among the population. People have won many rights through a hard struggle and are resisting. The US government is definitely doing some very ugly things but mostly against highly vulnerable populations. It’s done against people who can’t defend themselves –like immigrants. They had hoped to discipline the rest of the population in this way. I think they failed and I don’t think they’re going to succeed. It’s not the same country it was 30 years ago.

Hans: You think we’re stronger since then?

Noam: Much stronger –and they know it. That’s why they tried so desperately. Even the courts have been somewhat reasonable in defending people’s rights. It’s not because they’re nice guys, but because they are reflecting popular sentiment. You can go back in our history and look at say, Wilson’s Red Scare. Eugene Debs –a main US labor leader and leading figure in 20th century American life—was put in jail because he refused to worship at the shrine of Wilson’s war.

Wilson was so vindictive that he wouldn’t let Debs out when the general amnesty came. The Red Scare threw perhaps 4,000 people out of the country and initiated the national political police. It also initiated the ACLU as a counter to the political police. The efforts to restrain authority were much weaker back then.

The information about COINTELPRO actually came out at the same time as the Watergate Crisis (the mid-70’s). It was not a media issue. Here’s the national political police --for 4 administrations—carrying out a massive campaign of repression leading all the way to assassinations. It targeted everyone –including the women’s, New Left, and Black movements—and the media simply didn’t care.

The only thing they cared about was that Nixon called some powerful people bad names. So the Watergate was a huge issue, but COINTELPRO --which came out at the same time—was a non-issue. That shows how human and civil rights are valued by the political and intellectual elite. But I don’t think that’s true of the rest of the US population. They don’t want that to happen. 

Photo from Seattle anti-WTO protests November 30, 1999 after masked anarchist black bloc targeted transnational corporations for property destruction.

"The U.S. prison system is simply class and race war. "


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