Mumia Abu Jamal: A Lesson in Murder, Race, Police Brutality, Political Dissent and a Commencement Speech in Vermont

By: Carla Vestal

Mumia Abu Jamal, described by the New York Times as “perhaps the world’s most famous death row inmate” was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner in 1981. He was sentenced to death for the crime, and spent the next thirty years living in isolation on Death Row. The latter ten of those thirty years, he spent isolated on Death Row even though a Federal Court judge overturned his death sentence in 2001. Currently, Mumia is still in prison under a life without parole sentence, and living in general population. So, why is this convicted cop killer giving a graduation speech via a pre-recorded phone call to a class from a Vermont college?

Philadelphia, 1981

Philadelphia during the early 1980’s was a city plagued with racial tensions. Just two years before the death of Officer Faulkner, the United States Department of Justice had filed a federal lawsuit against the city’s mayor, Frank Rizzo, and other city officials for condoning police brutality. The suit claimed that in the years 1975-1979, 290 persons had been shot by the Philadelphia police force. During Rizzo’s tenure as mayor, fatal shootings by the police department had increased annually by 20 percent. When Rizzo left office in 1980, fatal shootings decreased by 67 percent. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives Sub-Committee on Crime and Corrections found that the police force lacked internal leadership and that cops frequently engaged in acts of “lawlessness.”[1] [2]

During this time in the city, there was a growing political movement called MOVE. MOVE is described by CNN as a “a loose-knit, mostly black group whose members all adopted the surname Africa, advocated a ‘back-to-nature’ lifestyle and preached against technology.” In 1978, the police began a siege of a house that was occupied by MOVE members. Although it remains disputed who fired the first shot, a Philadelphia police officer was fatally wounded during the hostilities. As television cameras filmed the members of MOVE surrendering to police, the cameras also caught an officer striking the leader of the MOVE political group, Delbert Africa, in the head with the butt of his shotgun as he dragged his body through the street while other officers repeatedly kicked him. The very next day officers had the house bulldozed; completely destroying the crime scene. MOVE members that surrendered to the police that day were charged with third-degree murder, conspiracy, and aggravated assault; all were found guilty and sentenced from thirty to 100 years in prison.[3]

The Shooting

Mumia, born Wesley Cook, was active within the MOVE organization. In his youth, he was involved with the Black Panther party until 1970. It was at this time, when he was a fifteen year old high school student, that he was put under surveillance as part of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, COINTELPRO. This program was operated in conjunction and with the cooperation of the Philadelphia police department.   Later in his life, Mumia was a popular radio journalist. He was also the President of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. Often his stories were critical of the police department and other city leaders. At the time of his arrest for the murder of Officer Faulkner, he also drove a cab to earn extra money.

Photo courtesy of National Lawyers Guild.

Photo courtesy of National Lawyers Guild.

At almost 4:00 a.m. on the morning of December 9, 1981, Officer Faulkner stopped a car driven by Mumia’s brother, William Cook, and a passenger nicknamed, “Poppi”.[4] A struggle was occurring between Cook and Faulkner as Mumia, on his shift as a cab driver, happened to drive by. Moments later, as other officers are arriving, Faulkner was dead with two gunshot wounds to his head and back. Mumia sat on the curb with a gunshot from the officer’s gun to his chest, and his legally owned and registered hand-gun a few feet from him on the ground. Mumia and his brother were arrested. Cook was released a couple of days later. Mumia was charged with first degree murder and possession of an instrument of crime.

The Trial and the After Effects

Mumia’s trial began in June 1982, in the midst of heavy media coverage. The interest remains today—a general Google search of “Mumia Abu Jamal trial” brings back 182,000 hits. Proponents of Mumia claim that the adjudication process was fraught with grave injustices to Mumia’s protected civil rights of having a fair and unbiased trial and these concerns were confirmed by the report from Amnesty International. Opponents of Mumia assert that the trial was conducted in an honorable fashion and the initial sentence of death was the correct result.

Mumia has had his death warrant signed two times in the course of post-conviction appeals. In December 2001, the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania upheld the conviction, but vacated the death sentence because egregious errors during the sentencing portion of the original trial. In particular finding, “the jury instructions and verdict sheet in this case involved an unreasonable application of federal law. The charge and verdict form created a reasonable likelihood that the jury believed it was precluded from considering any mitigating circumstance that had not been found unanimously to exist.” Mumia continued to live in solitary confinement, confined for twenty-three hours a day on Death Row for ten years, despite having his death sentence confirmed unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court. He was finally moved into the general prison population in December of 2011.

Goddard College and the Restriction of Speech

Goddard College is not the run-of the mill institute of higher learning. Students do not have a set schedule, textbooks or a syllabus. Faculty and students meet on campus only twice a year for two weeks at a time and students are “encouraged to question received knowledge and the status quo and to create new understandings of the world and of human experience.” Goddard College is also where Mumia began his college education in the late 1970’s, and where he later finished his degree while serving time on Death Row.

Photo courtesy of Goddard College.

Photo courtesy of Goddard College.

The latest graduating class of Goddard, which consisted of 20 students, unanimously voted to have Mumia as their commencement speaker. The class cited that they wanted Mumia to speak for his “ability to think critically and radically.”

Police and supporters took to the streets of Philadelphia to protest the speech by standing in silence at the spot Officer Faulkner was shot for thirty minutes to “drown out the voice of Mumia Abu Jamal.”

And that is not all the supporters did to try to silence Mumia once more: Pennsylvania state legislators introduced HS 2533, which amends the Crime Victims Act of 1998, by allowing a district attorney in the county were a “personal injury” crime had occurred or by allowing the Attorney General, after conferring with said district attorney, to institute a cause of action against an offender whose actions “perpetuates the continuing effects of the crime on the victim.” The bill defines actions that perpetuates the continuing effects of the crime on the victim as “conduct that creates a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish on the victim.”

Impact on the First Amendment

HS 2533 severely restricts any person ever convicted of a personal injury crime from exercising the freedom of speech found in the First Amendment. This bill does not account for the severity of the crime, the nature of the circumstances surrounding the crime, the length of time from when the crime was committed until the person does any type conduct which creates mental anguish in the victim. That is because not one of those factors matter when addressing rather or not an offender can communicate. The bill restricts all forms of speech the offender can engage in rather it is related to the crime or not.

When Mumia delivered the commencement speech to Goddard via a pre-recorded message accompanied by a slideshow, he never spoke of the crime of which he has been convicted. He never spoke about Daniel Faulkner, Faulkner’s widow, the police, his trial or any other related topic to the controversial episode that occurred back in December 9, 1981. He simply spoke.

Mumia spoke of finding one’s passion in life and following that passion. He spoke about education and how education is the key to expanding the mind, to cultivate awareness and to make change in oneself. He spoke about the perils around the world and how the world desperately needs new ideas to eradicate old problems. Mumia cited classic literary works like the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire and works of John Dewy. Social change and social transformation is what Mumia impressed upon the graduates of Goddard by telling those listening, “That your job is not to get a job. Your job is to make a difference.”

The issue that remains is not whether or not Mumia killed Faulkner, or whether Mumia got a fair trial; those opinions are for the reader to decide once he or she reviews all of the facts. The court in Pennsylvania holds that he did; thus he remains in incarcerated. The very act of Mumia still being alive is causing the victim, Faulkner’s widow, mental anguish. By HS 2533’s vague and broad standard that alone is enough to ask for a permanent injunction against Mumia. But an injunction against Mumia from doing what? Being alive? How can you place an injunction on someone’s life?

The question is when can the government silence an offender, incarcerated or not, because people do not like what that person is saying or doing. The answer is never. But it is happening. It is happening to Mumia because he spoke about making the world a better place. It is happening to federal prisoners who want to challenge their convictions by prison officials censoring the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook. A conviction of a crime does not simply obliterate a person’s constitutional rights.

And that is the beautiful thing about the country in which we live. All people get to have a voice. It doesn’t matter if you agree or not; it doesn’t matter if you like it or not; and it doesn’t matter what color a person may be; or what religion a person may practice; or where a person may fall on the social hierarchy; or what crime the person may have committed. It shouldn’t matter, but oh, how it does.

[1] For an in-depth analysis on the case of Mumia Abu Jamal see Amnesty International’s full report: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR51/001/2000/en/0987a185-dfd3-11dd-8e17-69926d493233/amr510012000en.pdf.

[2] For the response to the Amnesty International’s report from Faulkner’s representatives: http://danielfaulkner.com/docs/response.pdf.

[3] “A similar incident occurred in 1985, when a stand-off developed between police and members of MOVE. The siege was ended when a police helicopter dropped an incendiary device on the house, killing 11 of its occupants, including six children (only two occupants survived). The device also started a fire that destroyed over 60 houses in the predominately black area. In 1995, a federal jury awarded MOVE members $1.5 million after determining that the city of Philadelphia had violated their constitutional right to protection against unreasonable search and seizure when the police dropped the bomb.” (Amnesty International Report, 4).

[4] It is disputed by the prosecution that this person even exists.

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