Let's take first things first. I believe that one December night in 1981 Mumia Abu-Jamal shot and killed Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner. The official story says that Abu-Jamal came across Faulkner beating his brother and shot the officer.
Abu-Jamal was tried for the crime. Friends either from or living in Philadelphia tell me that, during the trial, Abu-Jamal insulted and questioned the integrity of his black attorney and insulted jurors. In other words, Abu-Jamal acted as biliously and truculently as any member of MOVE - a militant, "back-to-nature organization." Then he pouted and proclaimed his innocence when the inevitable guilty verdict came in.
Lately celebrities across the land have been doing the former radio reporter's pouting and proclaiming for him, insisting that Abu-Jamal not be executed for killing Faulkner, because, well, the man is innocent, dag nab it.
Fool me once, shame on you, the saying goes. Fool me twice, shame on me.
About 30 years ago, I might have joined the "Mumia Is Innocent" brigade. I certainly joined the "Free Huey" frenzy of the late 1960s, believing in my heart of hearts that Black Panther leader xTC Huey Newton was innocent of killing Oakland, Calif., police Officer John Frey. I wore my "Free Huey" button proudly. Newton was released after serving two years in prison. Years later, author Hugh Pearson, in his book, "The Shadow of the Panther: Huey Newton and the Price of Black Power in America," claimed that Newton confessed to killing Frey. Other portions of Pearson's book indicate killing Frey was the least of Newton's sins.
Perhaps the fact that Abu-Jamal is a former Black Panther who still views Newton as some kind of hero (Newton was "assassinated," in Abu-Jamal's worldview, not killed in a crack deal gone bad) makes me kind of leery of his claims of innocence. That's why I'm convinced of Abu-Jamal's guilt. So why am I disturbed that Temple University decided last month to cancel a series of public radio commentaries by Abu-Jamal?
Julie Drizen, the producer of the Pacifica Radio network show on which the commentaries were scheduled to be heard, called Temple's decision "the most pernicious form of censorship." What's the title of the show? "Democracy Now." How's that for irony?
Drizen's comments were subdued. Temple is guilty of outright cowardice, as was National Public Radio when, in 1994, it decided not to air a series of Abu-Jamal commentaries on prison life. Some folks have speculated that both Temple and NPR knuckled under to pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police.
That the FOP wouldn't want a convicted cop killer's views on the air is understandable. But I feel some voices need to be heard. Sometimes, regrettably, though the idea may make us cringe, that voice may be that of a convicted murderer.
Whatever else he's done, Abu-Jamal makes us face questions that, as a society, we don't have the guts to ask, much less answer. If someone else would do it, maybe the convicted cop killer wouldn't have to. But somebody has to fill the void.
I came to this reluctant conclusion after reading Abu-Jamal's book of prison essays, "Live From Death Row." The Abu-Jamal inclined toward silliness when he claims Newton was "assassinated" is notably absent in other passages, like when he criticizes brutal corrections officers or challenges our very notion of crime:
"Guards who steal, who brutalize, who intentionally humiliate people, in the name of the people, are a mockery of the term 'correctional officer.' A department of government that tolerates, ignores, conveniently overlooks such acts of state criminality, while sanctioning prisoners for the most trivial of alleged transgressions, is not worthy of the name 'corrections.'"
" ... words like 'justice,' 'law,' 'civil rights,' and, yes, 'crime' have different and elastic meanings depending on whose rights were violated, who committed what crimes against whom, and whether one works for the system or against it."
Does Abu-Jamal speak the truth? Do we define some crimes based on morality or expedience? The state of Maryland now makes millions of dollars doing what it had wanted to jail West Baltimore businessman Little Willie Adams for doing years ago: running a lottery. Slavery at one time was legal. Runaway slaves and anyone who helped them were criminals. It's only when Northern industrialists found slavery no longer economically viable that the practice was ended. (Anybody really think the Civil War was fought because of widespread white American revulsion to slavery?)
Here's another question Abu-Jamal didn't pose, but one which he would have had every right to: If Abu-Jamal had stumbled upon a black male civilian beating his brother that December night and shot him, would he be on death row? Or would he have been paroled years ago after serving a minimum amount of time for a manslaughter conviction?
Pub Date: 3/15/97