The Mis-Education Of Mumia Abu Jamal
While commercial Hip Hop would like to forget its past, there are those who rose to prominence during Hip Hop’s early days who continue to struggle and never forget where they came from.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, journalist, father, activist and political prisoners is one of them.
For nearly 30 years, Abu-Jamal has resided on death row, convicted in 1982 for the murder of Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner during a traffic stop.
The story of Mumia Abu-Jamal ignited the country and subsequently, the world. Abu-Jamal’s supporters say he represents the worst of the American criminal justice system, one that unfairly rail roads, convicts and imprisons those who dare speak out against those in power. His detractors paint him as little more than a cold blooded cop killer who has pulled the wool over the eyes of millions and deserves not freedom, but death.
Hip Hop has been relatively silent on Abu-Jamal as of late, with much of his main stream support coming not from today’s chart topping rappers, but rock group Rage Against the Machine and several prominent Hollywood actors. Independent Hip Hop artist and member of the Arizona-Local Organizing Committee of the National Hip Hop Political Convention Grime, believes that today’s emcees aren’t speaking because of ignorance about Mumia’s case, but fear of corporate backlash.
“Rappers are afraid not because they don’t believe or afraid of alienating their, but a lot of rappers get corporate sponsors for tours and clothing lines and if they take on controversial issues, they risk losing corporate sponsors,” he says of the pressure rappers are under to conform to the mainstream. “Anytime you take on people’s money, you have restrictions and a lot of cats aren’t careful about whose money they take.”
On May 17, 2007, arguments for what could be Mumia’s last chance for appeal were heard by the Federal District Court in Philadelphia. The court’s decision is literally life or death for a man who gave his life to the struggle for equality.
But before we can look at what is, we have to look back at what was.
My Mind’s My Nine, My Pen’s My Mack Ten
Mumia Abu-Jamal was born Wesley Cook, on April 24, 1954 in Philadelphia, PA. His life of activism began at the young age of 14, when most teens today are more worried about a science test and 106th and Park’s Top Ten countdown. Ironically, his introduction to activism came at the hands of Philadelphia’s infamous police department.
Abu-Jamal and three friends participated in a protest for then presidential candidate George Wallace (who was a segregationist) on the cities north side. During the protest, Mumia and his friends were attacked by a mob of whites. When Mumia yelled to area police for help, the responding officer did the opposite and joined the mob in the beating.
Mumia never identified the officer, but gives thanks the officer for kicking him “straight into the Black Panther Party” in his book, Live from Death Row.
One year after the infamous police incident, Abu-Jamal co-founded and became the minister of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party. Mumia’s involvement with the Panthers catapulted a teen that was not yet old enough to vote or join the military into the spotlight of the local media, police and even the FBI. This seemed to foreshadow Abu-Jamal’s ultimate fate as embattled political prisoner.
The Panthers also introduced Mumia to the world of journalism. In 1970, he spent his summer in Oakland, California working on the Panther’s newspaper. Honing his skills over the summer months, Abu-Jamal returned to Philadelphia after discovering the power of words. His life would never be the same.
As a journalist, Mumia earned the moniker “the voice of the voiceless.” In the '70s, he was one of a handful of journalists willing to cover MOVE, an organization that openly opposed the oppressive grip Philadelphia Police and government held on the black community at the time. While he had many detractors in the government and police, Mumia won the praise of several in the media. Philadelphia Magazine called him “one to watch” and the Philadelphia Enquirer branded him as “an eloquent activist not afraid to raise his voice.” The latter may have been the very thing that spelled the beginning of the end for Mumia’s freedom.
Things began to reach a boiling point in 1978 when Frank Rizzo former police chief and then mayor of Philadelphia erupted during a press conference. His target was what he called a “new breed” of journalists. In "The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal," which appeared in New York Newsday in 1995, writer Terry Bisson quoted part of Rizzo’s fiery outburst: "They [the people] believe what you write and what you say," he said, "and it's got to stop. One day--and I hope it's in my career--you're going to have to be held responsible and accountable for what you do."
Apparently, “new breed journalists” like Mumia were not the only ones with an eye on Frank Rizzo and the brutality in the name of “justice” carried out by the Philadelphia Police under his watch. In 1979, United States District Court asserted that “Rizzo and 18 other high-ranking city and police officials either committed or condoned ‘widespread and severe’ acts of police brutality.”
Rizzo’s second term as mayor ended in 1980, one year before Abu-Jamal’s life changed forever (he failed to change a city charter that would have allowed him to run for a third term). However, the culmination of his eight year run was not enough to stem the growing tide of anti-activist sentiments that brewed within the Philadelphia Police Department, justice system and government.
In the Still of the Night
For Mumia’s supporters and detractors, December 9, 1981 will go down in history as a day of infamy.
There are several different accounts of what took place in the early morning hours that day; however, there are several concrete facts. Officer Daniel Faulkner pulled over William Cook (Abu-Jamal’s brother) around 4:00 a.m. Mumia was in the vicinity in his cab (due to some of his views, he was unable to support himself fully as a journalist, thus, the cab driving job). Mumia intervened (or interfered) in the traffic stop. Officer Faulkner died of gunshot wounds to the face and back, Mumia was also shot.
What happened in between depends on the person relaying the story.
Mumia alleges that Faulkner beat his brother, which prompted his intervention. During the altercation, another man, shot and killed Faulkner before fleeing the scene.
The prosecution alleges that Mumia interfered with the traffic stop, shot and killed Faulkner, who wounded Mumia before dying.
When back up arrived at the scene, Faulkner was dead and Abu-Jamal lay on the concrete, in a pool of his own blood from a gun shot wound to the chest. Mumia was arrested and charged with the murder of Daniel Faulkner. His trial began in 1982.
Trial and Error?
Many would charge that in a justice system that is supposed to grant all U.S. citizens a right to a “fair” trial, Mumia never had a fighting chance. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right of counsel to all defendants in the court system. In numerous cases, the Supreme Court asserts that defendants have a right to represent themselves, the Court has also held that this right can only be denied by the trial judge if “the defendant simply lacks the competence to make a knowing or intelligent waiver of counsel or when his self-representation is so disruptive of orderly procedures that the judge may curtail it.”
The presiding judge, Albert Sabo (a retired police officer) denied Mumia the right of self representation on the grounds that his dread locks made jurors “nervous.” Mumia was then granted a court-appointed attorney, who according to the Bisson article was a “reluctant incompetent who was later disbarred.” Sabo also had a history of harsh decisions and in his time on the stand, sentencing 31 men to die (two were white) before being forced to retire.
With no money to hire an attorney of his choosing, no funds to effectively mount a defense, a biased judged and a police department determined to see him locked away for the murder of one of their own, Mumia didn’t stand a chance. In June of 1982, a jury of ten whites and two blacks found Abu-Jamal guilty of the murder of Philadelphia Police officer Daniel Faulkner.
He was sentenced to death.
Since the original trial, new pieces of evidence and allegations of questionable trial procedures and police conduct have surfaced. Two of the three eyewitnesses for the state initially told police that Faulkner’s killer fled the crime scene, but later changed their stories. The fatal bullets that struck and ultimately killed Faulkner came from a .44 caliber handgun, while Mumia’s gun (which he legally carried) was a .38. No ballistics tests were ever conducted on Abu-Jamal’s weapon and police claim to have lost the fragments from the crime scene.
According to an article on the Peace and Freedom web site, Judge Sabo allowed the state to read excerpts from old Black Panther pamphlets and newspapers in an effort to paint Mumia as “a violent hater of police who was just waiting on his chance to kill a cop.”
With so many allegations of police misconduct, bias from the judge and evidence not used during the trial, it may come as a surprise to some that the mainstream media (which prides itself on investigative reporting) has not taken a harder look at the claims of Mumia’s supporters. However, Hip Hop historian Davey D believes it’s no coincidence that pro-Mumia evidence has been ignored by the press.
“The press over the years have become totally dependent upon police to fill them in on crime, gangs and others criminal activities,” he says of the relationship between law enforcement and journalists.
“The end result of this symbiotic relationship has been the press not digging too deep on controversial topics, including ones like Mumia and other political prisoners. It’s the nature of the beast… The press usually lightens up in exchange for exclusive stories, leads and interviews later down the road,” he adds.
Life After Death (Row)
Since the 1982 conviction, the Free Mumia movement has crossed ethnic, economic and international grounds. A list of Abu-Jamal’s supporters reads like a who’s who of entertainment, academia and activism, including Rage Against the Machine, The Beastie Boys, Chuck D, Pam Africa, Maya Angelou, Cornel West, and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
Mumia himself has not said much about the case, or his own plight, opting instead to do what he’s done all along: use his platform to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. He has written several books while in prison, spoken at several college commencement ceremonies and continues to take the government to task for questionable practices.
Justice Delayed is Justice Denied
On February 19, another blow to Mumia’s efforts for a new trial took place. The Philadelphia Supreme Court rejected an additional appeal regarding the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). According to a report in Abu-Jamal-News.com, the court—in a ruling made by rejected the appeal on the grounds that it was not “timely.” The PCRA was filed based on an affidavit stating two key witnesses perjured themselves during the original trial.
The ruling did not come as a shock to any of Abu-Jamal’s closest supporters. “It comes as no surprise to hear that the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court has rejected yet another appeal by Mumia Abu-Jamal, the state's longest-surviving death row prisoner. The court, which is led by former Philadelphia D.A. Ron Castille (who helped fight Abu-Jamal's appeals in his role as DA and has yet to recuse himself from decisions involving this case), has never issued a ruling favorable to Abu-Jamal,” Dave Lindorff, author of 2003’s Killing Time: The Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal said of the outcome.
In a country that prides itself on the fairness of its justice system, it may come as a surprise that Mumia Abu-Jamal, now armed with a better defense team has been repeatedly denied appeals for a new trial. With supporters and detractors firmly believing in his innocence or guilt, a new trial will not only validate the case for or against Mumia, but take the weight off of a justice system that has long been accused, with good reason of railroading the poor, the unpopular, or in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, those who speak out against it authority.
Check out the newly discovered crime scene photos at Abu-Jamal-News.com.
A Life in the Balance: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. 17 February 2000. Amnesty International. 17 June 2007. <http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/engAMR510012000>
Assistance of Counsel. FindLaw. 17 June 2007.
Bisson, Terry. “The Case of Mumia Abu Jamal.” NewYork Newsday 1995.
17 June 2007. <http://www.terrybisson.com/mumia.html>
Frank Rizzo. 17 June 2007. <http://www.dsl.psu.edu/civilrights/articles/frankrizzobio.html>
Free Mumia Abu-Jamal: Free All Political Prisoners. 1999. Peace and Freedom Party.
17 June 2007. <http://www.peaceandfreedom.org/Mumia.html>
Mumia Abu-Jamal. 17 June 2007 < http://www.answers.com/topic/mumia-abu-jamal>