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.”
In the wake of AIA’s Cop Killer pamphlet, supporters of Abu-Jamal have embarked on their own campaign to free him. It began with an October 13 pilgrimage to death row by Angela Davis. Now a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Davis had been trying for months to arrange a meeting with Abu-Jamal.
Much to the dismay of Accuracy in Academia, Davis has been touring college campuses touting her crusade to organize a new civil rights movement to overhaul a prison system that she says locks up a disproportionate number of blacks, Latinos, and other minorities. But on the eve of the signing of Abu-Jamal’s death warrant, Davis and Pam Africa, the prisoner’s longtime confidant, were wading through the rigid protocol for visitors at the State Correctional Institution in Greene County, Pennsylvania.
“I walked in with Pam Africa and a number of other people into the main waiting room,” Davis told the Voice. “The fact that we were about to visit a prisoner on death row was quite evident. I had trouble making it through the metal detector because I wore a top that had a zipper. And after we were finally ushered into the second waiting room, we entered a little door when Jamal’s name was called. Simply an announcement, ‘Jamal!’ And of course, for those who weren’t familiar with the ritual, one wouldn’t know what to do. At that point we walked down a long corridor and could glimpse the windows of some of the death- row cells that were basically narrowed slits of Plexiglas with mostly metal. Finally, we went into the third waiting room and waited once again for the announcement, ‘Jamal!’ at which point he was brought into one of the tiny cubicles separated by a Plexiglas window.”
The ritual conjured up memories of Davis’s own harrowing experience in a California prison. “It is, on the one hand, very familiar, but at the same time distressing,” she says. In the late ’60s and ’70s, Davis dominated the national spotlight as one of the most formidable members of the Black Panthers. In 1972, she served 18 months in jail awaiting trial on charges of aiding in the kidnapping of three San Quentin prisoners and supplying the gun used to kill four people during the incident. She was acquitted.
Davis and Africa strode over to cubicle 14, taking their place next to a representative of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, who was visiting a Haitian American death-row inmate. “I walked into the cubicle and immediately saw this man with this wonderful smile,” Davis recalls. “It was the first time I’ve ever seen him. The first impression I got of Mumia was that he is an extremely warm human being and very easy to converse with. There were no formalities. We didn’t have to go through a protocol of meeting each other. We immediately began to talk as if we’d known each other for a long time.”
Davis spent almost two hours chatting with the renowned prisoner. Abu-Jamal had done some catching up on the activist, having read Joy James’s The Angela Y. Davis Reader in preparation for the visit. After discussing history, philosophy, and Abu-Jamal’s unfinished master’s thesis, “A Life in the Party,” Davis asked him what he felt she could do to energize the campaign for his freedom. Abu-Jamal suggested that she dredge up the story about her politically charged trial.
“Well, I asked him why. I was just a bit shocked,” says Davis, adding that more than 30 years had gone by and she did not intend to talk publicly about her case anymore. But Abu-Jamal argued that such a strategy would force people to think about the parallels in their predicaments. He persuaded her to reminisce.
“During the time my trial took place, there was an enormous movement that was organized all over the country and the world,” Davis remembers. “We had resources that came directly from the work that the movement had done. So that, had I found myself in the predicament in which he found himself in 1981, the outcome of my trial more than likely would have been the same. I would not have been able to count on excellent attorneys. One of the points he asked me to talk about is that there were 400 prosecution witnesses listed when we received the discovery material in my case. Had we not had the resources, it would have been impossible to even discover what it was they were going to testify about.”
That made a lot of sense. Then Davis tried to get Abu-Jamal to talk about the troubles he’s seen; she had spent only 18 months in prison while he was marking his 18th year behind bars. How is he able to survive the torment of such a long confinement?
“What I found most impressive about Mumia was that he was very reluctant to talk about his case,” Davis points out. “He always conceptualized it, just as his writing focuses on other prisoners on death row, on the sort of immensity of the problems that we’re confronting. He thinks collectively. He said that he always thinks about himself in relation to others, never about himself. Even if he is able to win his case it would not be a personal victory.”
After the visit, Davis told reporters, “I found myself becoming more hopeful” that Abu-Jamal eventually will be exonerated. In the ensuing days, Davis networked with black churches that were supportive of her struggle. But a lot has changed in 30 years. Some were receptive, while others shunned Abu-Jamal in his moment of crisis.
It is an issue that the Reverend Al Sharpton plans to raise with black ministers and politicians when he visits Philadelphia to preach this week. “I am going to challenge the clergy in Philadelphia to join the push to stop the execution of Mumia,” says the activist, who has been asked by Abu-Jamal’s spiritual adviser, Reverend Steve Wiser, a political ally of Davis, to visit the condemned man. “These ministers have the political clout to let Governor Ridge and others know that they would not allow them to do this,” Sharpton says. “This cannot be seen just as ‘a left-wing movement’—there must be across-the-board resistance. I am going to tell them that if they do not stand with me to stop the execution, the blood of Mumia Abu-Jamal will be on their hands.”
Davis endorses Sharpton’s move, but she is concerned that convincing black leaders would require a considerable amount of arm-twisting, wasting valuable time. “I fear that we won’t fully understand what it requires to build the kind of movement that can be successful,” she says. “There have been demonstrations, wonderful demonstrations, but we have to do more than that. I certainly hope that we would have the patience and the skills to build the kind of campaign that would make it impossible for Mumia to be sent to the death chamber. If he is executed, it would be the most unimaginable setback, not only in movements against the death penalty and the prison industrial complex but for progressive political movements in general.”
On October 28, two days after Abu-Jamal won a stay of execution, five members of the multiracial Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty met with Republican state senator Joseph Loeper at his office in a Philadelphia suburb. Ten days earlier, the state senate had rejected a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania and refused even to order a study of whether the death penalty is administered fairly. The temporary ban was turned down 41-8. The five abolitionists, some of whom live in the 26th Senatorial District represented by Loeper, wanted to discuss their opposition to the death penalty with Loeper, the senate’s Republican Majority Leader, and to gather more information about the Republican-led defeat of the amendment.
Asked to explain his vote, Loeper, according to the Reverend Jeffrey Garis, a minister in the Brethren in Christ Church and executive director of PAUADP, argued that the death penalty deters violent crime and that the courts might view a study as being a moratorium. Loeper, he says, told the abolitionists the senate was concerned that the courts would block executions, believing that none should be carried out while a study was being conducted.
Loeper then brought up the subject that, the abolitionists contend, influenced the senators’ vote against commissioning a study. “The second factor was Mumia,” Garis quoted Loeper as saying. “Governor Ridge had just signed a warrant for him, and his case is a significant issue for many of us in the suburbs of Philadelphia.”
Loeper’s remarks unnerved Garis, who had observed a large plaque festooning a wall in the senator’s office. It was a commendation from the Fraternal Order of Police. “I found the implications to be extremely disturbing,” Garis told the Voice. “If Pennsylvania’s death penalty is truly just, wouldn’t a study indicate this? Wouldn’t a study potentially clear up many doubts about the death penalty and reveal the facts? Of course it would. And that is precisely why these senators don’t want a study. Even the most oversimplified and biased study of death sentencing could not dispel the clear truth about Pennsylvania’s death penalty: that it is applied in a highly racist manner; that defense of the indigent is atrocious, in large measure because Pennsylvania is one of the only states that provides zero funding for defense from the state level; and that the death penalty is sought and applied in a widely divergent manner from county to county.”
Garis interpreted the senate vote against the measure as a chilling admission that “they are willing to kill people who may be innocent, people who may be sentenced to death because of the color of their skin, people who may have been inadequately represented,” as is the allegation in Mumia’s case. Some of the senators, Garis asserts, actually believe that advocating the execution of Mumia would advance their own careers.
“The political payoff is so great that Pennsylvania’s politicians are willing to silence fundamental questions about the entire institution of capital punishment in order to see him die,” the minister says. “It is, indeed, so highly politicized that it underscores the truth about the death penalty, not just in Pennsylvania, but across the country: that in the one place where politics supposedly has no place—in the application of justice and the ultimate punishment—it has now become the ultimate weapon. The fundamental democratic principle of due process has been replaced by a lynch-mob mentality. If a large enough segment of the population wants injustice badly enough, then anything goes.”
Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 9, 1999