of Mumia Abu Jamal
New York Newsday, 1995
1978, Philadelphia Mayor (and ex-police chief) Frank Rizzo blew
up at a press conference, threatening what he called "the new
breed" of journalists. "They [the people] believe what you write
and what you say," said Rizzo, "and it's got to stop.
One dayand I hope it's in my careeryou're going
to have to be held responsible and accountable for what you
the "new breed" was doing in 1978, and is still doing today,
was exposing police misconduct. A cop had been killed in a confrontation
between Philadelphia police and the radical MOVE organization
(the same MOVE that was fire-bombed by the city seven years
later), and the police version of who shot first hadn't been
accepted without question. Rizzo feared a new trend, and he
trend has continued. Today, the Mollen Commission, the NYPD
"party"in DC, the Rodney King case and hundreds of other local
scandals have exposed the dark underside of police misconduct
nationwide. Ironically, the most prominent of the "new breed"
of journalists at whom Rizzo's outburst was directed is awaiting
execution on Pennsylvania's Death Row, the victim--many believe--of
a police frame-up.
Abu-Jamal began his journalism career with the Black Panther
Party. The Panthers were the original affirmative action
employer, and Mumia (then Wesley Cook) was Minister of Information
for the Philadelphia chapter at age 15, writing for the national
newspaper. A heady beginning for a West Philly kid. After the
Panthers fell apart (helped by a stiff dose of FBI harassment)
Mumia turned to broadcasting. He had the voice, the writing
talent and the ambition, and by age 25, he was one of the top
names in local radio, interviewing such luminaries as Jesse
Jackson and the Pointer Sisters and winning a Peabody Award
for his coverage of the Pope's visit. He was president of the
Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, called one
to watch by Philadelphia magazine.
Mumia was still a radical. The Philadelphia Inquirer
called him an eloquent activist not afraid to raise his
voice, and this fearlessness was to be his undoing. His
vocal support of MOVE's uncompromising life-style lost him jobs
at Black stations, and he was forced to moonlight to support
his family. The mayor's outburst marked the beginning of a campaign
of police harassment that included such subtleties as a cocked
finger and a 'bang bang' from a smirking cop, and escalated
to a late-night police beating of Mumia's brother on the street.
was driving a cab that night. It is undisputed that he intervened.
It is undisputed that both he and officer Daniel Faulkner were
shot, and that Faulkner died. What is in dispute is who killed
Faulkner. Mumia says it was someone else, and several witnesses
saw another shooter flee the scene. Mumia's legally registered
.38 was never decisively linked to Faulkner's wounds.
murder trial was a policeman's dream. Denied the right to represent
himself, he was defended by a reluctant incompetent who was
later disbarred (and who has since filed an affadavit in
Mumia's support detailing his delinquencies). Mumia was
prosecuted by a DA who was later reprimanded for withholding
evidence in another trial. He was allowed only $150 to interview
best of all was the judge. A life member of the Fraternal Order
of Police, branded as a "defendant's nightmare" by the Philadelphia
Inquirer, Judge Albert F. Sabo has sentenced more men to
die (31 to date, only two of them white) than any other sitting
judge in America. A fellow judge once called his courtroom a
"vacation for prosecutors" because of bias toward convictions.
wouldn't allow Mumia to defend himself because his dreadlocks
made jurors "nervous." Kept in a holding cell, he read about
his own trial in the newspapers. A Black juror was removed for
violating sequestration, while a white juror was given an court
escort to take a civil service exam; in the end all the Black
jurors but one were removed. A policeman who filed two conflicting
reports was never subpoenaed (he was "on vacation"). Mumia's
Black Panther history was waved like a bloody flag: Had he
said, "All power to the people?" Yes, he admitted,
he had said that. Character witnesses like poet Sonia Sanchez
were cross-examined about their "anti-police" writings and associations.
with Judge Sabo's help, an award-winning radical journalist
with no criminal record was portrayed as a police assassin lying
in wait since age 15. After Mumia's conviction, Sabo instructed
the jury: "You are not being asked to kill anybody" by imposing
the death penalty, since the defendant will get "appeal after
appeal after appeal." Such instruction, grounds for reversal
since Caldwell vs. Mississippi, was allowed in Mumia's
appeals have so far gone unanswered. After being on Death Row
for thirteen years, he is now the target of a police-led smear
campaign. Last year NPR's "All Things Considered" canceled a
scheduled series of his commentaries after the Fraternal Order
of Police objected. Mumia's book, LIVE FROM DEATH ROW, has been
greeted with a boycott and a skywriter circling the publisher's
Boston offices: "Addison-Wesley Supports Cop Killers" Officer
Faulkner's widow has gone on TV claiming that Mumia smiled at
her when her husband's bloody shirt was shown--even though the
record shows that Mumia wasn't in the courtroom that day.
and his supporters want only one thing--a new trial, with an
unbiased judge and a competent lawyer. Defense attorney Leonard
Weinglass has entered a motion to have Judge Sabo removed from
the case because he cannot provide even the "appearance of fairness."
The struggle became a race against time last month, when Pennsylvania
Governor Ridge, though fully aware of the many questions in
the case, signed a death warrant scheduling Mumia for execution
Abu-Jamal was not surprised. Several of the essays in his book
deal with America's frantic "march toward the death chamber."
As he wrote several years ago in the Yale Law Journal,
"states that have not slain in a generation now ready their
machinery: generators whine, poison liquids are mixed, and gases
are measured and readied."
Mumia Abu Jamal's final petition is answered, and he gets the
fair trial he deserves, America will see its the first explicitly
political execution since the Rosenbergs were put to
death in 1953. Frank Rizzo's angry threat will be fulfilled,
for one "new breed" journalist at least. It will stop.
We won't hear any more criticism of the police from Mumia Abu-Jamal.