What Mumia’s Case Said About Us

It divided many within black media circles and focused attention on capital punishment. Now what?

Mumia Abu-Jamal
Mumia Abu-Jamal

To many inmates at a prison in western Pennsylvania, Mumia Abu-Jamal is “Pops” because he has been around for so long. To various human rights activists and celebrities — including the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, professor Cornel West, members of Amnesty International and the actress Susan Sarandon — he has been a cause and a symbol for decades: They view him as a political prisoner being punished solely for his association with the Black Panther Party, as well as for his anti-cop writings and radio commentaries going back to his teenage years.

To the police and prosecutors in Philadelphia — and, of course, to the family of the 25-year-old police officer he was convicted of shooting to death 30 years ago — he is an unrepentant murderer who will be released from death row.

I am against the death penalty, which, beyond the biblical rule against killing, is disproportionately meted out to black men, especially when the victims are white. That position is different from demanding freedom for every convicted person who is fortunate enough to have a following.

I’ve weighed in on this case since at least 1995, when Abu-Jamal’s case became a seminal “Which side are you on?” moment for a number of public figures and prominent organizations, including the National Association of Black Journalists. That was just before he was slated to be executed for the murder of officer Daniel Faulkner. The clock was ticking. The protests were mounting.

Emotions were so high, for example, that what was supposed to be a rather humdrum 90-minute business meeting at the NABJ convention in Philadelphia turned into a chaotic Abu-Jamal forum that lasted nearly five hours, complete with picketers outside the convention center and some who invaded the meeting to yell their piece. A gathering of communicators could not decide what to say about one who was undeniably a good communicator — and a former leader of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. “More than that,” Wayne Dawkins wrote in Rugged Waters: Black Journalists Swim the Mainstream, “the messy but democratic debate was a struggle for the soul of NABJ, a struggle between the nationalistic-activists and professional-establishment wings of the association.”

The facts were too murky for me to jump onto the “Free Mumia!” bandwagon, but I did urge in a syndicated column I wrote that he be granted a new trial: