The first time I heard about Mumia Abu-Jamal was when someone handed me a flier at a civil rights conference. I never even read it, I just shoved the flier into my back pocket. When I got home I opened the folded paper and almost died of laughter. There was Mumia, a homeless-looking black man with scraggly dreadlocks and an innocent grin. "You have got to be kidding me," I said to myself. Mumia looked like the type of guy I’d avoid if I saw him on the street. I scanned the paper and read that Mumia had been sentenced to death in 1983 for killing a white police officer. The flier said that Mumia was set up and that there was going to be a rally for his freedom. The flier itself had a whole militant vibe to it. It gave me the feeling that I should be yelling at the "Man" because my forefathers had endured years of slavery at the hands of the "white devil." I hated reading comments like those but instead of getting pissed off, I saw it as perfect material for a joke.
The flier was in my hands the next day at school. "Do you know about Mumia Abu-Jamal?" I asked the kids at school in my best Malcolm X voice. "No? Well then you need to be educated. You see, Mumia he be this dude up in Philadelphia who they say done shot some cop. That be some f***** up s***. We got to pull together as a people and free our brothers. FREE MUMIA!" I even started going up to random people, mostly girls, and talking to them about Mumia. At first they looked at me as if I were insane, but quickly caught on and went along with the joke. My friends got into it too. Pretty soon copies of the Mumia flier were floating here and there around school. The irony was that I was asking people to get educated about Mumia when I wasn’t even educated myself. My knowledge went as far as the flier, which was really only an array of protest dates.After a week or so, I forgot my flier at home, though my friends still decorated their folders with the few copies I had made. "Where is your Mumia flier?" "Is he dead yet?" "He is supposed to be executed, right?" My friends’ questions kept the joke alive. I rushed home and probed the Internet for more pictures of Mumia to make a new, funnier flier. There were pictures of him writing, reading, grinning, getting arrested, speaking out, a younger Mumia, Mumia in chains. They were all great material for my act.
While I printed them, I happened to glance over the text surrounding the many pictures. I clicked on link after link, reading article after article. It was soon two hours later and my eyes could not take the glow of the screen any longer. At first, I thought all the "conspiracy theory" hype was exactly that: hype. I found out that there was more to this case than I originally believed. Evidence and witnesses were allegedly tampered with. Mumia had been a prominent radio journalist in Philadelphia just months before the murder. His case was getting enormous support from some famous, respectable and important people like Ed Asner, Whoopie Goldberg, Maya Angelou, Saul Williams and others. One of my favorite bands, Rage Against the Machine, performed a benefit concert on his behalf. Was this another case of a black man getting away with a crime because he yelled inequality or had Mumia been set up?
I started taking Mumia’s case more seriously
The next day I came to school flierless. My friends joked about Mumia as we always had but I wasn’t laughing anymore. I realized that this case actually had some importance. I began telling everyone what I had read. They heard me, but they were not really listening. It is a lot easier to laugh at a joke than it is to have an opinion. Still I shared with everyone what I had learned.
I read various pro-Mumia articles on the Internet, and now and then an article on the matter would be printed in Vanity Fair or Time magazine. From what I have read, this is the general story:
It was just before 4 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1981. A white Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner, lay dead on the sidewalk, shot in the chest and the head. Not too far away a black cab driver, Mumia Abu-Jamal, sat on the curb. He was crossing his arm in agony over his chest, where he had been shot. A .33 Charter Arms gun lay less than 10 inches away from Mumia.
Mumia’s defense team says that he was driving a cab when he saw Faulkner harassing Mumia’s younger brother, William Cook. Mumia stepped out of the cab to make sure everything was all right when an unidentified suspect ran towards the trio, shot Mumia and Faulkner and then ran off.
The prosecution, however, said that it was Mumia, disgruntled and enraged, who shot Faulkner. Faulkner shot back, and Mumia then stood over the dying officer and shot him point-blank, execution-style, in the head. Seven months later, after a two-week trial, the jury found Mumia guilty of first-degree murder and the next day, gave him the death penalty.
I didn’t think Mumia had done it at this point. There were so many problematic factors in the case:
1. There was new evidence that witnesses had allegedly changed their stories because of threats from the police.
2. The prosecution allegedly suppressed evidence and called for the death penalty based on the fact that Mumia had ties to the Black Panther Party.
3. Mumia was appointed a court attorney even though he demanded to defend himself.
4. The defense attorney did not interview a single witness.
5. Eleven blacks were removed from the jury before the selection of the final jury, which consisted of ten whites and two blacks.
6. Mumia had a registered .33-caliber gun which was confiscated at the scene while the gun used to kill Faulkner was a .44-caliber.
Was Mumia innocent?
I told my dad that I thought Mumia was railroaded and deserved a new trial. He looked at me as if I were crazy and told me that Mumia was going to die and then laughed jokingly at me while choking himself with an invisible noose. This began my dad’s countdown to the execution date. Almost every day after school he’d ask me teasingly how many days were left until the killer got what was coming to him. I could tell he was playing around just to annoy me.
After reading some more information on the case, I found out that Mumia was unruly in court and at one point even had to be banned from the courtroom. But then elsewhere I read that Mumia only became unruly after being denied his right to defend himself. Another question pounded in the back of my brain. Whatever happened to William Cook, Mumia’s brother? His only words about the events were spoken as soon as cops arrived on the crime scene: "I ain’t got nothing to do with it." Now if your brother was supposedly framed for killing a cop, wouldn’t you have a little bit more to say?
I also read more about Mumia’s life. He was born and raised in the Philadelphia projects in the 60s, a time when civil rights were being demanded by minorities and black power organizations were growing in power and influence. At 15, he co-founded a local chapter of the Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers were a group of militant African-Americans that supported black self-defense and wanted to restructure American society to make it more politically, economically, and socially equal. He soon became his chapter’s "minister of information." At this time, he was expelled from high school for his extremism. Mumia went on to pursue a career in newspaper and radio journalism and was noted for his talent of sending a clear message to the people over the airwaves. He was known as the "Voice of the Voiceless" because he spoke against police brutality against minorities. In 1979, Mumia became a reporter for WHYY, a local public radio station in Philadelphia. According to the August 1999 issue of Vanity Fair, it was at this time that his life began to take a nose dive. Personal and financial problems led to frequent unexplained absences from work. His colleagues said that Mumia had become "out of control" at the station until he was finally asked to resign, according to Vanity Fair.
Maybe he did it after all
I came across more information that led me to believe that Mumia might have committed the crime:
1. Five different eyewitnesses gave testimony incriminating Mumia.
2. Mumia’s wounds were consistent with the prosecution’s story that Mumia was shot by Faulkner as Faulker was falling to the ground.
3. Mumia allegedly confessed after being taken from the crime scene to the emergency room to have his bullet wound treated.
4. William Cook, Mumia’s brother would not testify on Mumia’s behalf.
5. No description of the "true killer" has been produced by Mumia or Cook.
6. Ballistics experts allegedly testified that they guessed that the bullet was a .44-caliber and later found out that the bullet was consistent with Mumia’s gun.Even if Mumia did it, I believed that he was not given a fair trial and that there were major problems with Mumia’s case. Why weren’t Mumia’s hands checked at the scene to see if he had fired a gun? Why had there been an FBI file on Mumia Abu-Jamal since the age of 15 when he joined the Black Panther party even though he had never committed a crime? Was Mumia being served justice or being silenced?
The fight for Mumia’s freedom is no longer a matter of his guilt or innocence. I believe that Mumia was improperly represented in court and was not given a fair trial. Witnesses and evidence were tampered with. Because of these mistakes, Mumia should be allowed his freedom. As much as it was his mistake to fire a weapon that December night, it was a mistake to allegedly tamper with evidence. The fact is that our courts and police departments often do screw up. How can you take away someone’s life when these systems are so flawed?
Mumia’s case has showed me that there is still racism in our society. Even I, now looking back on my actions, was a little racist. I made fun of those militant blacks who I can see now had pretty legitimate causes.
The other thing I learned is that lots of people are working to make our society less racist. This summer outside the Democratic National Convention I joined thousands of other protesters to support Mumia. These radicals came in all different shapes, sizes, ages and colors. That was really exciting to me because I realized that it’s not a matter of blacks looking out for their own, but rather all of us as a society are trying to make sure that justice is served for everyone.
When I went to the Rage Against the Machine concert outside the Staples Center, I felt like I was part of an uprising. It felt like we had as much power as all the delegates and candidates inside at the convention. We didn’t make any tangible changes, but our voices were heard. As we left, some fans got shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with pepper as police tried to disperse the crowd, but this did not stop the protesters from chanting and waving banners against police brutality.
At a demonstration against police brutality, Saul Williams, a black spoken-word poet, rhymed in front of the crowd of demonstrators. I was excited to see him because I really admire his work. "I am not the son of Sha Klack Klack," Saul rapped, "I am before that. I am before before." He told me afterwards that "Sha Klack Klack" represented the sound of a slave master’s whip. I felt he was saying that his history—our history—was not defined by slavery or even by African history. His essence is eternal and can’t die. These are not at all the words of an angry, uneducated black radical. These are the militant radicals I had once made fun of and stereotyped. These people now have my deepest respect.
People of color get a raw deal
I believe that Mumia’s case is part of a nationwide pattern of police misconduct and court system failures toward people of color. Some recent examples:
• Authorities have found over 40 cases of wrongful conviction and are reviewing over 4,000 more cases thanks to Rafael Perez, the man at the center of the Rampart division police scandal. The Los Angeles Times reported that Perez accused several police officers of shooting a suspect and then waiting to call an ambulance to make the firing appear "necessary."
• In December 1998 a young African-American woman, Tyesha Miller was shot to death in Riverside by police, allegedly while strung out, sitting in a car with a gun on her lap. Police claimed self-defense and were found not guilty.
• In New York in February, four white police officers were all acquitted of killing Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant. The cops claimed the shooting was self-defense, when in fact; the only weapon Diallo brandished was his wallet. The officers fired 41 shots and Diallo was hit 19 times, leaving his body a bloody pulp. Bullets continued to spray as he slumped to his death on his doormat.
• Ruben Carter, the subject of "The Hurricane," the 1999 movie staring Denzel Washington, was in prison for 19 years before evidence of police corruption was uncovered. His case was thrown out and he was released by new evidence found in his case.
In an interview with Penthouse Magazine in 1975, Carter stated, "I’m not in jail for committing murder. I’m in jail partly because I’m a black man in America, where the powers that be will only allow a black man to be an entertainer or a criminal." Last year I would have turned his statement into another racist joke. Now I read it and I get angry because I realize it is not far from the truth.
For further info on Mumia Abu-Jamal:
Anti-Mumia Web site: