Abu-Jamal, Mumia 1954–
Mumia Abu-Jamal 1954–
Journalist, activist, death row inmate
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It is very difficult to find anybody familiar with the story of Mumia Abu-Jamal who does not have a strong opinion one way or the other about the case. Some view the former Black Panther as a vicious criminal, who killed a police officer and is now justly sitting on death row awaiting execution. Others see the former award-winning journalist as a political prisoner being punished for his radical views and harsh criticism of the powers that be. The battle between Abu-Jamal’s supporters—a diverse group that includes a number of celebrities—and those who want to see his death sentence finally carried out—an equally diverse group led by the widow of the officer he allegedly murdered—speaks volumes both about the state of race relations in the United States today and about the efficiency and fairness of our legal and penal systems.
Since his incarceration, Abu-Jamal has come to represent a side of the United States that is ugly at best. According to Emerge, “He has become a symbol of a U.S. criminal justice system that moves steadily toward greater use of the death penalty as other industrialized nations continue to condemn it. He has become a symbol of a criminal justice system that responds well to those with money but reacts with callousness to those with little. And ironically ... his symbol status illustrates how much attention can be given to an individual while other go unnoticed.”
The man at the center of the controversy, Mumia Abu-Jamal, was born Wesley Cook on April 24, 1954, in Philadelphia. One of six children, Abu-Jamal became involved in political activism at a very early age. The first of his many brushes with the Philadelphia police department came when he was 14 years old. Abu-Jamal and three friends, all African Americans from the city’s North Side, protested a South Side rally for segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace, then governor of Alabama. When a group of white racists began beating him and his friends, Abu-Jamal called a nearby police officer for help. Instead of rescuing them, the officer joined in the beating and then arrested them. In his 1995 book Live From Death Row, Abu-Jamal expresses thanks to the unknown officer who “kicked me straight into the Black Panther Party.”
In 1969, at the age of 15, Abu-Jamal helped found the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party and was
Born Wesley Cook, on April 24, 1954, in Philadelphia, PA; married Mydiya Wadiya Jamal. Politics: Radical; former member of Black Panther Party. Religion: Follower of the teachings of John Africa.
Cofounder and Minister of Information, Philadelphia chapter of Black Panther Party, 1968-c 1973; radio journalist, 1970-81, continued when possible while in prison, 1982–; author, Live From Death Row, 1995, Death Blossoms, 1997.
Addresses: Prison— AM 8335, SCI Greene, 1040 E. Roy Furman Highway, Waynesburg, PA 15370-8090; Organizations — International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal, PO Box 19709, Philadelphia, PA 19143; Committee to Save Mumia Abu-Jamal, 163 Amsterdam Ave., No. 115, New York, NY 10023-5001.
named the chapter’s Minister of Information. Expelled from school for circulating black militant revolutionary pamphlets, he spent the summer of 1970 in Oakland, California, working on the Black Panther newspaper. His work on the Black Panther served as his introduction to journalism and helped to shape the provocative, politically charged writing style that has remained with him throughout his career. When his apprenticeship in Oakland ended, Abu-Jamal returned to Philadelphia, where his inflammatory leaflets captured the attention of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which ran a front-page article about him. They also caught the eyes of the Philadelphia police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which put him under constant surveillance. Not yet old enough to vote, Abu-Jamal was already deemed an unofficial U.S. government enemy.
As the Black Panther Party fell into disarray in the 1970s, Abu-Jamal concentrated most of his energies on radio journalism, earning a reputation as “the voice of the voiceless.” He spent time as a talk show host on Philadelphia’s WWDB-FM, then later moved on to a position as news director at WHAT-AM. Over the next several years, his broadcasts were heard on National Public Radio (NPR), the Mutual Black Network, the National Black Network, and the Associated Press. His reporting work brought him into contact with another radical African American political organization, the Philadelphia-based MOVE.
During the first half of the 1970s, Abu-Jamal was one of the few journalists willing to cover MOVE, since many others, both black and white, were put off by the aggressive demeanor and nontraditional, dread-locked appearance of the group’s members. Abu-Jamal’s coverage of MOVE became increasingly sympathetic after the 1975 death of a young child during a police raid of MOVE headquarters. By 1977, MOVE had become extremely militant. When police used brute force to end a year-long standoff with the heavily-armed MOVE in August of 1978, Abu-Jamal’s account of the event came down firmly on the side of MOVE. For some time after the attack, he conducted interviews with imprisoned MOVE members and was virtually the only member of the media to openly challenge Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo’s version of what happened. Rizzo was less than pleased with the way Abu-Jamal reported the episode.
In the early 1980s, Abu-Jamal served as president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. As a radio talk show host, he continued to provide an outlet for points of view, generally radical ones, not ordinarily heard on commercial radio. Because his political beliefs were so far beyond the mainstream, however, the career advances a radio journalist might aspire to were not available to him. To supplement his income, Abu-Jamal had to drive a cab. He was driving his cab early in the morning on December 9, 1981, when the chain of events that would change—and perhaps end—his life was set in motion.
At about 4:00 A.M., police officer Daniel Faulkner pulled over a Volkswagen driven by William Cook, Abu-Jamal’s brother. Officer Faulkner called for backup, but when it arrived he was already dead from gunshot wounds to the back and face. Nearby, they also found Abu-Jamal lying in a pool of his own blood from a gunshot wound to the chest. Precisely what happened between the time Faulkner stopped William Cook and the arrival of the other officers on the scene remains murky. Abu-Jamal claims that he saw Faulkner beating his brother, and when he came to William’s aid the officer shot Mumia. An unknown person then arrived, killed Faulkner, and fled the scene. In the prosecution’s version of events, Abu-Jamal shot Faulkner, who was able to return fire and hit Abu-Jamal before he died.
Unable to afford a lawyer and prevented by Judge Albert Sabo from representing himself, Abu-Jamal was given a court-appointed lawyer, who presented a feeble defense. In July of 1982, Abu-Jamal was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Waiting on death row as his succession of appeals was rejected—by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1989, and by the U.S. Supreme Court the following year—Abu-Jamal continued to write, and his work appeared in such places as The Nation and the Yale Law Journal. His commentaries have also been printed in dozens of newspapers across the United States and Europe.
Abu-Jamal’s case attracted worldwide attention, and his cause was taken up by many, from left-wing political groups to fund-raising efforts led by movie stars. The list of Abu-Jamal’s celebrity supporters has included entertainment notables such as Ed Asner, Naomi Campbell, Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Norman Lear, Spike Lee, Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, and Oliver Stone; writers Maya Angelou, E. L. Doctorow, Norman Mailer, Salmun Rushdie, and William Styron; activists and social critics Ossie Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, and Cornel West; attorney Johnnie Cochran; religious politico Jesse Jackson; and foreign dignitaries Nelson Mandela (president of South Africa) and Jacques Chirac (president of France).
An array of groups from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) have pushed for Abu-Jamal to be given a new, fair trial. The National Black Police Association has also been a fervent supporter of Abu-Jamal. On the other side of the fence sit Officer Faulkner’s widow; Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police; and the Pennsylvania state government.
As Abu-Jamal’s defenders fought for a new trial, his opponents were engaged in attempts to silence him. Home Box Office (HBO) aired a television special about the case, as did the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in England. Articles about Abu-Jamal began appearing in newspapers and magazines all over the world. At the same time, those wanting to silence Abu-Jamal have had their share of victories: NPR, under pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police, canceled interviews with Abu-Jamal dealing with his best-selling book Live From Death Row, and, in 1997, the Temple University radio station in Philadelphia gave in to demands that it stop broadcasting Abu-Jamal’s pre-recorded radio program about prison life.
With Abu-Jamal’s execution set for August 17, 1995, his new legal team, led by well-known defense attorney Leonard Weinglass, was able to successful fight for a stay of execution. Jamal’s supporters point to a number of flaws in the prosecution’s case that were not addressed at the trial, including inconsistencies in police accounts, the absence of useful ballistics reports, and a questionable jury selection process
Pressure mounted on both sides of the Mumia Abu-Jamal case in the late 1990s. It will probably always remain a matter of perspective as to whether the battle is, as the title of lawyer Weinglass’s book suggests, a Race for Justice, or merely the dying gasps of a condemned felon. Meanwhile, in a portion of an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer that was reprinted in Emerge, Abu-Jamal reminded the public “I am a man. To call me a symbol is to dehumanize me.”
Death Blossoms, Plough, 1997.
Live From Death Row, Addison-Wesley, 1995.
Abu-Jamal has also written articles for numerous newspapers and magazines.
Abu-Jamal, Mumia, Live From Death Row, Addison-Wesley, 1995.
Weinglass, Leonard, Race for Justice, Common Courage, 1995.
Emerge, November 1995, pp. 36-41.
Nation, July 10, 1995, pp. 59-64; June 26, 1995, pp. 911-912; March 31, 1997, p. 8.
New York Times, July 14, 1995, p. A25; March 3, 1997, p. A14.
People, August 14, 1995, pp. 49-50.
The Progressive, May 1996, pp. 34-36.
Time, August 7, 1995, p. 33.
Wall Street Journal, August 23, 1995, p. A13.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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