What Is The City From Below? An Opening Night Address From Mumia Abu-Jamal

What Is The City From Below? An Opening Night Address From Mumia Abu-Jamal

What is the city but the concretized collection of both wealth and poverty? It is formed by great aggregations of wealth and predominantly people by those at the polar opposite of that dynamic.


Baltimore, of course, is no different. In the structure of houses and the layout of its streets, it really resembles Philadelphia. 


All cities are similar; and all cities have their own idiosyncrasies, quirks of history and tradition that sets it apart from other cities. Now I've never been to Baltimore, but I do know of it. How, you ask?


Have you seen the series "The Wire," and is that your source? Well yes, and no.  I've seen the series; but my favorite source is none other than Frederick Douglass, who worked and lived in Baltimore. After escaping from bondage, he used the name Stanley during  his stay there, and met his first wife among the city's free black population.


In his classic autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Douglass recounts his struggles and battles when working as a ship carpenter at the docks.  He had to single-handedly fight a white mob of ship workers who objected to the presence of black workers.  


Of course, this was 150 years ago, and the same thing could have happened in Philadelphia, or Boston, or New York ... but it happened in Baltimore.


It is part of our common history, whether we know it or not. But for damn sure, it's better to know it. For this allows us all to really see a city, warts and all. For only by truly seeing it can we hope to change it. And change it, we must.


What better opportunity could there be but now, when the economy is in free fall.  This is the time to build, not buildings but movements, community organizations, coalitions of common interests.


 That is the meaning of the City From Below; for there the people are, there the problems are, there the foreclosures are, there the layoffs are, there homelessness is, there repression is, there poverty is, and there, we are.


If we mean what we say, that almost all of our struggles have some element of unity, these aren't just problems, they're opportunities, as well.


I've said the economic problems are an opportunity.  How so, you wonder? Well, one thing for sure is that the previous reigning paradigm, that the market is a "free" and self-regulating entity, is shattered.  Similarly, the theory that the market knows best is yesterday's garbage. That means there's room for new ideas, ones that are more suited to human needs and not inhuman greed.


The economy, because it is so broad in its impact, affects things we've previously seen as separate and unconnected. For instance, Maryland, gripped in economic straits, is seriously thinking about nixing its death penalty; and it's doing so more because of the budget than protests. Several years ago, New Jersey came to much the same conclusion, and Kansas is struggling today over this same question.


The housing problems being faced by millions mean there's now room at the tables of power to build safe and affordable housing and also provide meaningful jobs to young men and women in the construction trades.   


Consider this: what would the nation look like today, if almost six months ago, some 300 billion dollars or so was put into a mass housing and jobs program instead of some locked vaults of some banks and investment houses? 


Yes, the City From Below is the site of some problems, but also the birthplace of a wealth of solutions. But that's only so, if you come together and fight for it. 

No election will do it. No politician will do it, especially from an imperialist, warmongering, capitalist political party.


New times call for new ideas, and new arrangements of social, political, and, yes, economic struggle. That means talking together across boundaries of race, of class, of education, of ethnicity, and of gender. But it means more—it means listening, and it also means working.


As a student of history, I'm often troubled by the tragedies that have turned the country towards paths of  hatred, violence, and repression. I think of Bacon's Rebellion, perhaps one of the most impressive interracial rebellions against the lords, ladies, and elites. What followed is, of course, racialized slavery for Africans, to attempt to ensure that such unity would never rise again.


Of course, it did, again and again, all throughout American history. But the student of history wonders what if: what if those people of Nathaniel Bacon's 17th century insurrection in Virginia had won? Well, perhaps our entire history would have been profoundly different, and a lot of suffering, centuries of suffering, could have been averted. 


When people come together, that's dangerous.  For it suggests that they may begin to work together, to hope together, to struggle together, to fight together, for not crumbs from the master's table, but for change, for social justice, for environmental justice, for an end to empire and wars for lies, for an egalitarian economy, for a new order. It is our power to build a movement for social transformation; indeed, it is our duty to do so. 


For within our common history is Bacon's Rebellion, the abolitionist movement, the Knights of Labor, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Liberation movement, and beyond. Behind us is not only the genocide of Native Americans, the land lust that sent them to reservations to die slow and bitter deaths, or the vicious capture and enslavement of millions of Africans, or the exploitation of millions of workers to enrich the few. 


There's also a long and distinguished history of resistance: from the heroic struggles of the red and black Seminoles as seen in the exploits of Wildcat and John Horse, to the resistance of Leonard Peltier, from John Brown to the SDS, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Angela Davis, from Martin King to Malcolm X, from the Deacons of Defense to the Black Panther Party, from the Mau Mau to MOVE. From those days to these days.  Resistance is also our patrimony, if we claim it and if we join it.


The people of the city's bottom have never just accepted their repressive conditions.  They organized. They worked together. They dreamed together for better day, for better way.


So, organize. Work and dream together, as you come together today to change the nation. 


Your work is more precious than you know. The ancestors of the past dreamed of you today. 


Those to come in the future will look back to see how you dealt with the challenges of today. Let them say, we did our best and made their lives better. 


I thank you all for your invitation to open this conference.  On the MOVE, long live John Africa. From Death Row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.