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.
The MOVE Organization went from being a fringe group to a major part of black radical protests in the 1990s and beyond, largely thanks to its work fighting for its imprisoned friend. Activist groups such as Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, which asked supporters to sign a petition against the passage of the new law, are active online.
But what of the man himself? Well, the incarcerated mouthpiece of America’s political-prisoner movement, now with the relative “freedom” of serving a life sentence in general population instead of death row’s isolation, continues to write and can set up a schedule to be a phone “guest” on political panels.
Whether or not each side likes it, most of the arguments about Abu-Jamal that actually matter have been settled. He is no longer in danger of being executed, so the worldwide anti-death-penalty movement, understandably, moved on to fight unsuccessfully for Troy Davis and others. Unless Abu-Jamal finds an extremely brave judge who doesn’t mind sitting next to Lance Ito in white-written American-history books, it’s not heresy to say that Abu-Jamal will be leaving prison only in a casket. Most of the intelligent books and commentaries about him state that, guilty or innocent, he should have gotten a manslaughter conviction for Faulkner’s murder, which makes his 1982 trial and controversial sentencing hearing just as nakedly political—and evil—as this current, ridiculous move.
So, other than politics, what this 21st-century skirmish is really about is as simple as what got Ida B. Wells banished from Memphis, Tenn., in the late 19th century. In this case, the black journalist is a convicted murderer. But he is also a black journalist unfettered by white supremacy and capitalism, one continuing to speak radical truths that whites don’t want to hear—and definitely not from him—truths that are archived online and still spoken publicly to college audiences.
Abu-Jamal’s opponents can’t cancel his MSNBC or CNN contracts, because he has none. They can’t downsize him from his newspaper or magazine, because he doesn’t work for one. They can’t burn his seven books, now available online and in university libraries. Abu-Jamal is as permanent as the World Wide Web that sprouted up during his prison publishing tenure. So his distractors are trying to take away his access to the incredible distribution network that keeps him on air, in print and—metaphorically, at least—on the speaker’s platform. Shut it down, shut him up.
In their racist-fueled hatred, the symbolic press smashers in Pennsylvania are forgetting, or perhaps not caring, really, that Wells just got more powerful, and international—the same way Abu-Jamal will continue to do from prison for years, and maybe even decades, to come. But first he has to win what surely must be a coming legislative battle over his rights to be a published journalist and scholar as well as a public speaker.
The Abu-Jamal haters are stuck with him; that’s their life sentence, too. In decades to come, they will be deservedly forgotten by those on the left as more graduate papers on Abu-Jamal’s imprisoned black journalistic resistance to the state’s attempt to silence prisoner dissent continue to be written.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.