The 24th of April, 2004, was a perfect day in Philadelphia for a protest march or a family reunion. As it turned out, the day’s events were a little of both.
The tribe assembled at Malcolm X Park, a neat, green oasis in the middle of the West Philadelphia ‘hood. There were veterans of the struggle with gray streaks in their beards and dreadlocks. There were younger, college-age folks, radicalized as much by politically-charged rap music as by actual movement experience, if not more so. A charter bus discharged a procession of colorful flags from the Latin America diaspora.
In due course, the vendors set up shop. They sold buttons, offered left-of-center literature (left-of-center, that is, except for the supporter of perennial presidential gadfly/paranoid oddball Lyndon LaRouche), passed out flyers and radical newspapers. A long quilt was unfurled along the park’s fence, with patches from Mexico and Bolivia sporting messages like “God will rise and so will you” and “Thank God for MOVE”. Across the street, a gaggle of men in suits looked every bit the part of plainclothes police officers, conferring among themselves and their walkie-talkies.
When the truck with the sound system arrived and got set up, the rally began in earnest. Hand-scrawled placards came out, encouraging motorists passing by to honk in support. A series of speakers lacerated the American political and judicial systems. Signs were passed out for marchers to carry, balloons were blown up for drivers to tie to their cars. All of their actions were unified by a simple chant: “Brick by brick, wall by wall, we’re gonna free Mumia Abu-Jamal!” p>April 24 was Mumia Abu-Jamal’s 50th birthday. He spent it just as he’s spent the last 20-odd birthdays: on death row at a correctional facility in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther Party minister of information, was sentenced there in a highly controversial 1982 trial for murdering Daniel Faulkner, a white Philadelphia police officer. Abu-Jamal has maintained he did not commit the crime. Over the years, a body of evidence and a series of witnesses have emerged to support that claim, but the prosecution has fought to keep the information from getting a hearing in court. A procession of lawyers for Abu-Jamal has argued that the verdict should be abandoned because of, among other things, racist actions and statements during the original investigation and trial. Death warrants have been signed twice, but were overturned.
In the interim, Abu-Jamal has become America’s most famous political prisoner. A journalist by trade, Abu-Jamal has somehow managed to produce a staggering body of commentaries and critiques of American and global politics, from conditions inside American prisons to the war in Iraq (one recent commentary noted, with no small amount of irony, that one of the soldiers photographed as part of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal was a prison guard at the facility where Abu-Jamal is held). Those commentaries held so much weight that National Public Radio signed on to air a series of them in the mid-‘90s. But his case generates so much political heat that the resulting controversy drove NPR to back away from the plan. Undeterred, Abu-Jamal managed to get the work out in a book-compact disc package (All Things Censored, Seven Stories Press, 2001).
At the height of the Abu-Jamal controversy, luminaries from actor Ed Asner to Nelson Mandela called for a new trial that would establish Abu-Jamal’s innocence once and for all. On the other side is Faulkner’s family, still grieving their loss and firm in their belief that justice was done the first time around. They’re joined in their contempt for Abu-Jamal by the law enforcement community, which has never had mercy for those branded as “cop killers”, regardless of any case’s particulars. Yet the allegations of judicial misconduct are numerous enough to fill several books, not to mention a 2000 Amnesty International report.
The April rally was called by his supporters as the kickoff to a yearlong battle for their ultimate goal: to bring Abu-Jamal home and reunite him with his family. But it was also their way of letting Abu-Jamal know that he hadn’t been forgotten, and of telling Philadelphia and the world that he wouldn’t be forgotten. Good thing too, because I needed a reminder myself.
I don’t remember how I first heard about him, but I do remember covering his story for the Cleveland Free Times, an alternative weekly newspaper, at the height of attention to the case. I wrote the introduction to the paper’s excerpt from his book Live from Death Row (Addison Wesley, 1995), and I wrote a couple of articles about local reaction to developments in his case.
I also remember going to Yellow Springs, Ohio to hear him address the 2000 commencement at Antioch College, my alma mater. Abu-Jamal has made numerous commencement speeches, via recordings played over loudspeaker, and I’d bet that every one of them was a local lightning rod. The very thought of a man on death row sending the best and brightest off into the world, and that a college would allow such a notion to happen, seems too much for many to bear. News of Abu-Jamal’s Antioch speech drove just about every major newspaper in Ohio to editorialize against it. But Antioch and the Yellow Springs community are far more progressive and tolerant than mainstream America, and have been since the school’s birth in the mid-1800s.
The college made a point of its open-mindedness and fairness during the run-up to commencement. All of the letters of support and outrage were displayed in albums in the administrative building’s reception area. Antioch saw an opportunity to use the case as a chance to explore the unfairness of the death penalty, and held a seminar on the morning of the commencement. It invited Abu-Jamal opponents to participate, but they declined.
I went there expecting to see something of a political media circus. Indeed, Faulkner’s widow and fellow officers made the journey to protest Abu-Jamal’s speech. They were heckled by some radical rabble-rousers from outside the Antioch community, but a team of college security personnel and local residents ensured that no such hi-jinks would interfere with the morning’s main event. Faulkner’s advocates were kept far away from the commencement address; their silent protest was all but ignored by the graduates.
And what exactly did Abu-Jamal tell the Class of 2000? Nothing particularly radical, really. There were no exhortations to off the pigs, kill Whitey, or overthrow the capitalist oppressor. As best as I can remember, he pretty much advised the graduates to live their lives with conviction, and to follow through on the beliefs and ideas they’d cultivated in school. The only thing that distinguished his speech from your standard commencement address was its brevity.
After the speech, I caught up with my ride back to Cleveland, and went on with life. As a writer and reporter, I moved on to other issues and beats. As a person, I got back to the business of holding down a job, raising a daughter, and falling asleep in front of the TV. My hunch is that the vast majority of those graduates can chart a similar progression: intense interest in all things Mumia while he was Public Enemy #1, then on to the next alleged bogeyman/scourge to society. Only the truest of the true believers, I would imagine, continue to follow his case.
At the Philadelphia rally it was clear that, for those truest believers (even those who weren’t alive at the time of the shooting), Abu-Jamal is more than just a political prisoner. If anything, he borders on iconic status. There were signs heralding, “Mumia says, Get Out of Iraq!” There was a flyer announcing his support of the Global Women’s Strike. One could argue that, until the current Bush administration and the Iraq war, Abu-Jamal was the only thing that came remotely close to galvanizing the far left and its myriad individual causes, from Puerto Rican independence to anti-imperialism. Such is the state of the left in America that for years, Abu-Jamal’s case was the only thing that aroused unanimous passion. At least no one at the rally sported a “What Would Mumia Do?” bracelet.
An irony of the case is that it’s given Abu-Jamal a broader platform on death row than he ever had, or might have ever enjoyed, as a free man. He had been an award-winning local journalist before 1982, and was well known for his outrage over Philadelphia’s brutality against the radical activists of Project MOVE (Philadelphia police waged a years-long battle with them, culminating in the infamous1985 bombing of a street of houses where MOVE members lived). But he had no name recognition beyond the City of Brotherly Love. For that, you can thank a racially slanted trial and the vehemence of both his supporters and his opponents. Neither side is prepared to give an inch, and as long as the fight continues, as long as both sides maintain their emotional investment in the outcome, Abu-Jamal will be their touchstone for issues far greater than his individual circumstance. Their vehemence long ago elevated him from person to symbol, of either the lawlessness of American society or the corruption of American justice.
But the greater irony is that, even in the city where he lived, worked, and was sentenced to death, Mumia Abu-Jamal is far from the radar of the everyday person. As the rally began to fall into line for the march (that gaggle of plainclothes officers ended up directing traffic so that the marchers could proceed), a local candidate for state representative was setting up elsewhere in the park for a campaign rally. He knew the case well from the time of Faulkner’s death, but had no idea that a rally for Abu-Jamal was happening that day. He’d been busy campaigning, what with the primary election three days away and all that.
And while hundreds gathered in support of Abu-Jamal that day, thousands had marched just three weeks earlier, in grief and outrage over the murders of more than two dozen Philadelphia children this school year. Granted, those murders received far more local media attention than Abu-Jamal does these days (which is to say, almost none). But while people can relate to Abu-Jamal’s situation on an intellectual level, it doesn’t hit them in the gut the way the deaths of innocent kids does. Political prisoners in legal limbo are tough sells, especially 20-odd years after the fact and with no imminent deadline for action.
That point was clear by the time the march had wound its way to a community center not far from where Abu-Jamal’s family lives. The site had all the trappings of a community festival. There were food vendors, cultural performances, and sales of Abu-Jamal’s new memoir of his Black Panther days, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party (Consortium Book Sales, May 2004), and other left-leaning books, CDs and T-shirts. Robert Bryan, his current attorney, gave an update on the motions before the US Supreme Court concerning prejudicial statements made by the judge during Abu-Jamal’s trial. There was a brief appearance by Abu-Jamal’s wife, and the reading of a letter from his son (who is also incarcerated, in New York). There was also a lot of solidarity bonding, faith uplifting, and rededication to the struggle.
But a few blocks from the gathering, a group of folks watched the day pass at the corner store. Further down, some men were cleaning out a house for renovation. A few doors down from that, someone was doing some sewer work. Traffic had returned to normal, as if the march had never happened. April 24 was a momentous day for the core of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s faithful, but for everyone else, it was just Saturday.