Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett just signed a new law that allows convicted prisoners to be sued by their victims for “seeking publicity or money.” Corbett made a point of signing it at an infamous Philadelphia street corner: 13th and Locust.
It’s where Mumia Abu-Jamal, a part-time radio journalist driving a cab on Dec. 9, 1981, saw his brother in a physical conflict with a young, white police officer, Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal ran toward the duo. A scuffle ensued. Shots were fired, and both Abu-Jamal and Faulkner were hit. Faulkner died at the scene, leaving behind a young, blond widow and some very angry Philadelphia police officers.
The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who spent almost 30 of his imprisoned 33 years on death row for Faulkner’s murder before having his sentence switched to life without parole in 2011, has dragged into its fourth decade. The reams of court transcripts and the articles written about the case and its subject could fill a small room.
But what one needs to know about the case today is simple: Abu-Jamal’s supporters think him innocent and framed (in one way or another) and want him free, and his opponents want him dead. This is a struggle for life, all puns intended. No compromise is possible.
What is even clearer is that the state of Pennsylvania—which passed the new law a few weeks after Abu-Jamal appeared in a prerecorded message as commencement speaker at his alma mater, Goddard College—has a long history of making up special rules for the prisoner, who has been an internationally successful writer, broadcaster and public speaker for 20 years.
A member of the Black Panther Party, Abu-Jamal had become a well-known and respected local radio newscaster in the late 1970s through 1981, producing award-winning work for local and national black radio and the city’s NPR affiliate. It’s in prison, though, where he has fought his toughest battles over the First Amendment.
“Following Abu-Jamal’s imprisonment, during the mid-1980s, prison authorities violated his rights by denying him access to a socialist newspaper, claiming him getting it on death row isolation would create security problems in the entire prison,” Linn Washington Jr., a longtime friend and journalistic colleague of Abu-Jamal’s and now an associate journalism professor at Temple University, explained in an email interview. So while Abu-Jamal was denied his preferred reading material, Washington said, “prisoners in general population at that time could freely get white racist hate literature and pornography through the mail.”
While on death row with a date to die in 1995, Abu-Jamal was put in solitary confinement for conducting a business, a violation of prison rules. That business was writing and publishing his first book, Live From Death Row, a collection of op-eds and some extended essays, one of which, “Teetering on the Brink: Between Death and Life,” was published in the Yale Law Journal in 1991.
Abu-Jamal had his 1995 execution stayed, and the writing-as-fighting skirmishes began again. He wrote the sidebar for his own cover story in the November 1995 issue of the still-missed-today Emerge (pdf) magazine. In 1997 HBO broadcast an independently made (and sympathetic) documentary called Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt? Abu-Jamal was interviewed on camera for it. State prison officials responded by banning journalists from bringing recording equipment into their prisons. Two years later, in 1999, prison authorities ripped a phone out of a wall because Abu-Jamal was on it, talking live to the leftist broadcast newsmagazine Democracy Now!—which, by the way, lost many affiliates when it aired Abu-Jamal’s late-1990s commentaries.
And not only is Abu-Jamal persecuted, but so are people who are only tangentially connected with him. A poet’s All Things Considered contract was canceled by NPR in 1997 when he submitted a poem about Abu-Jamal. And many remember this past spring, when an Obama nominee to the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was instantly disqualified just for being part of a team that attempted to appeal Abu-Jamal’s case.
As long as he remains alive, Mumia Inc. exists permanently, pro and con. In the 21st century, you can find dueling books and documentary films aggressively proclaiming Abu-Jamal’s innocence or guilt. (Disclaimer: This writer is proudly in one that takes a clear pro-Abu-Jamal stance.) Meanwhile, life has moved on, with the players established.