Mumia's Last Stand

A Celebrated Death-Row Inmate Implores Angela Davis to Organize the People on His Behalf

The news was stunning: The bespectacled natty dread, whom the world has come to know as convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, would die by injection in Pennsylvania on December 2, barring further legal appeals. In a single moment, the faith that had encouraged Abu-Jamal to hold out hope for a new trial in the 1981 murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner was shattered. America's most prominent death-row squatter was brutally reminded that his life ultimately will depend on the precarious vagary of white man's justice.

"Rage!" says the 45-year-old Abu-Jamal, solemnly recalling in a Voice interview his reaction to learning, on the afternoon of October 13, that Governor Tom Ridge had signed a new warrant ordering his execution. "Rage!" emphasized the former Black Panther and New Jack author. "Because the state knew that my attorneys were planning to go into court within a matter of days. They had to know!" His political foes, having gotten wind that his lawyers were set to appeal the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of his bid for a new trial, whipped up a "thirst to execute," Abu-Jamal insists. Jailors moved him to Phase II, one step closer to the death chamber.

"The weirdest thing was that at least eight guards and a white shirt [a corrections captain] accompanied me from my regular cell to the Phase II cell with a video camera trained on me the whole time," Abu-Jamal remembers. "I was on Phase II for about 10 days, and under a camera 23 hours a day. Everything you do, you do for the camera, from waking to sleeping. The light is kept on 24 hours a day. It's dim, sure, but what is dim at noon is like sun at midnight. It's annoyingly bright."

Maybe the bone collectors are trying to make him see death, make him yearn for the darkness. But Abu-Jamal refuses to cower, or even imagine dying. Still, his sleep must be haunted by dreams of himself helpless, strapped down on a gurney, a needle piercing his vein, expiring like a junkie forced to OD. Despite this nightmare, all too real, he won't surrender his life. Abu-Jamal has urged his team of lawyers, led by Leonard Weinglass, to fight on.

On October 26, U.S. District Court Judge William H. Yohn Jr. granted a stay of execution, basing his ruling on the defense's federal habeas corpus petition, under which inmates can seek release from prison on grounds that their constitutional rights were violated. It was a victory for death-penalty opponents who have organized protests worldwide, challenging the fairness of Abu-Jamal's trial. Angela Davis, the celebrated '60s radical, has taken a special interest in the case, joining scores of celebrity activists—including Whoopi Goldberg, Gloria Steinem, Woody Harrelson, and Ed Asner—along with South Africa's Nelson Mandela, and France's Jacques Chirac and Madame Danielle Mitterrand in demanding that Abu-Jamal's conviction be overturned.

But Abu-Jamal's case also has attracted the attention of Accuracy in Academia (AIA), a Beltway lynch mob that has joined the death-knell chorus. The conservative Washington-based group has a mission: to rid the nation's universities of the biases of left-wing professors. AIA decries the throng of "world leaders, rock stars, academics, famous actors, and scores of crackpot activists working on his behalf." AIA has been circulating a pamphlet entitled Cop Killer: How Mumia Abu-Jamal Conned Millions Into Believing He Was Framed. Tens of thousands of copies have been distributed on campuses and among the media, according to AIA executive director Dan Flynn.

"I'm travelling to the most left-wing campuses to deliver lectures and appearing on some of the largest talk radio programs in the country," Flynn declares in a plaintive, four-page letter that accompanies the polemic. "And we're taking out full-page ads in dozens of campus newspapers."

In 1987, AIA settled a libel suit by admitting it falsely claimed in a pamphlet (similar to the one about Abu-Jamal) that the Marxist Spartacist Youth League advocates the killing of police officers. As part of a settlement in Manhattan federal court, the organization agreed to pull the offending document out of circulation and print a retraction. With its latest missive, the AIA seeks to tighten the noose around Abu-Jamal's neck.

"I want to introduce you to Mumia Abu-Jamal," Flynn says in his letter to potential supporters. "Eighteen years ago he murdered Philadelphia Policeman Daniel Faulkner. Now some very powerful people say he's innocent and want him set free, despite a massive amount of evidence pointing to his guilt."

On campus, Flynn scoffs, "Abu-Jamal is viewed as a role model. He delivered a commencement address at Evergreen College in the state of Washington via videotape last June. His book, Live from Death Row, is required reading in scores of college courses. A group called Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal boasts more than 600 members, including Harvard's Cornel West and French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. The Yale Law Journal has even published an article authored by him."

In order to fund the anti–Abu-Jamal publication, Flynn has included a plea for money. Contributors check a box near the statement that reads, "Dan, I agree. It is shameful that so many campuses and celebrities denigrate a policeman's memory by honoring his killer." Act now, Flynn urges. "Countless misled young people will believe America puts people in jail for their political beliefs. The political pressure is so great that Abu-Jamal might just be set free—just like the Puerto Rican terrorists that President Clinton recently pardoned."

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