The Battle Over Mumia

Marc Cooper thinks Mumia Abu-Jamal makes a poor poster boy for the anti-death-penalty movement. That opinion has earned him the ire of zealous Mumia supporters -- as well as a surprising number of accolades from other progressives. The MoJo Wire invites you to get in on the conversation.

Read the article that sparked the debate: "What's Mumia Got to Do With It?" Read last week's responses here.

Tue Feb. 22, 2000 4:00 AM EST

Michele Landis
Doctoral Fellow, American Bar Association, Chicago

Marc Cooper's insightful critique of the so-called Mumia Movement is commendable in that it squarely attacks the plausibility of the claims for Mumia's innocence while maintaining the principled position that even if he is guilty, Abu-Jamal should not be executed. But by focusing on the irritating personalities and ridiculous politics of those in the vanguard of the "Free Mumia" movement, Cooper misses the real cause of their misplaced focus on Abu Jamal's purported innocence. For that, we need to look not at the legal and political strategies of fringe Maoists, but at those of the most respected and effective death penalty lawyers and activists.

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In fact, the need to describe Mumia Abu-Jamal as somehow innocent or the victim of a police conspiracy is an artifact of strategic decisions made by leading death penalty lawyers and their political supporters to focus on representing and publicizing those who were "wrongfully convicted." These lawyers, often law school professors, hand-pick the cases of inmates who have credible claims of actual innocence and then work tirelessly to save their lives. These cases have then been relentlessly publicized as dramatic last-minute reprieves for death row inmates who were proved to be actually innocent of the crimes for which they were sentenced to die. The thinking goes that public sentiment will turn against the death penalty itself when the polity becomes attuned to the possibility that even one innocent man might be killed.

The thinking is wrong. In fact, what this strategy has done is to highlight the importance of sifting the innocent from the guilty, the better to kill the guilty with no lingering doubt, guilt, or shame. Instead of arguing, with Cooper, that the death penalty is in all cases a barbaric atrocity, these activists have staked their clients' lives, and not coincidentally, their careers, on the notion that somehow the innocence of a few will rub off on the indisputably guilty many.

The fallacy of this misguided belief is established by their most important victory. Illinois' Republican governor George Ryan recently declared that he would sign no more death warrants until he could be sure that everyone he killed was guilty. Victory is ours, crowed the wrongful- conviction activists! Unheralded was the not-very-hidden subtext of Governor Ryan's message: Once he can fine-tune the machinery of death, perhaps by providing extra DNA testing or procedural protection, the killing will resume, and this time with a gusto previously unknown. Once the innocent are sifted from the ranks of the guilty, those remaining behind on death row will be more damned than ever, with even less hope of reprieve.

If Mumia was understood to be guilty, as he probably is, would there be legions of vapid college students drinking lattes out of mugs bearing his deadlocked likeness? Not fucking likely. For one thing, instead of the large-type "Free Mumia," the mug would have to say, in tiny little type, something like this: "Mumia is a man with a troubled psychological history who snapped under intense job and family stress. After witnessing the police brutalize his brother, he made a terrible mistake that he deeply regrets, but he is capable of redemption and should not be killed by the state because state-sponsored killing is inherently immoral."

There won't be any T-shirts bearing the likeness of actually guilty triple murderers, emblazoned on the back with "John Doe is poor Black paranoid schizophrenic with a mental age of seven who was sexually tortured by every member of his family from the age of three, handed off to fourteen different foster homes where he was repeatedly raped, who cannot read nor write and does not understand what he did or why he is in jail. He thinks that angels will save him and believes in fairies. He likes to color Winnie-the-Pooh coloring books on death row and misses his mother, whom he hacked to death with an axe. If he gets out, he might do it again. What he really needs is a kind of mental health system that does not exist in this country. Free him!"

The misguided decision to focus public attention on physical innocence, rather than other sorts of conditions -- such as mental defects -- that limit the legal and moral culpability of an accused for a crime, will have devastating consequences for most of the people on death row. It has seized the moral high ground and fenced it in, admitting only those who can prove that they did not, in fact, "do it," and condemning everyone else to an unspeakably barbaric end. In this moral and political economy, no movement, no publicity, and no money could possibly coalesce around a guilty man. Viewed from this perspective, the contorted claims of Mumia's innocence that so trouble Cooper make perfect sense.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

I love this response, Michele. Especially your biting and provocative last paragraph. But I am in essential agreement with your argument. To the degree that anyone argues that X or Y should be freed from the death penalty because of his or her innocence, explicit justification is being given (in the Illinois case) to execute the guilty.

Alex Greene

My suggestion is that we support the movement that has sprung up around Mumia because it's better than nothing. Yes, it is a rather propagandistic front, centered on a questionable hero, but the history of Mumia's case does potentially expose the machinations of our so-called justice system.

Cooper's skepticism regarding Mumia's innocence is well-considered. On the other hand, posters and chants of "Re-try Mumia despite our misgivings!" are not too compelling. It may be inevitable that street rallies reduce their messages to sound bites, making for rather simplistic politics. But we do need street rallies -- more of them. So how's a skeptic to act?

 

Marc Cooper responds:

A skeptic, or anyone else for that matter, is expected to always act one way: on principles. Your argument, like many others, boils down to the notion that by galvanizing people around a flawed hero, some of those people will have their consciousness raised about the death penalty. Certainly true. But how many of these people will, on the other hand, be contaminated? How many will be brought into radical politics around a (probably) bogus claim of innocence, around Mumia's tissue-thin politics, and around the paranoid conspiracy theories of his ardent defenders?

I have a simpler proposition: organize around the truth and you will never go wrong. The posters and the slogans should not say "Re-try Mumia." That is an argument to be made in the courts. The posters in the streets should say "No to capital punishment." Period.

Rev. Jeff Garis
Executive director, Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty

I believe that some people will come to support Mumia as a result of their understanding of the death penalty; I believe that others will come to oppose the death penalty because of their awareness of the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

I, for one, am not prepared to shut the door in either direction because some smug, self-avowed "good leftist" minister of information (who hasn't done SHIT to help my efforts and the efforts of the 4,000 people in my organization who work hard every day to end the death penalty in Pennsylvania) has an ideological (or is it egotistical?) bone to pick with the people who are willing to take their lumps with us. Or some played-out magazine that used to have so much to offer. This will be my one and only visit to this Web site.

I've got plenty of work to do trying to end the death penalty. And I pray that there will be some people of conviction and integrity around to run me out of this movement before I ever get to the point where I resort to name-calling and sniping at other people like you did in this shoddy excuse for provocative, "leftist" anti-death penalty journalism.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

Wow, that's one tough-talking reverend. But one I fear has added little to this debate except ad hominem attacks.

Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty

There is already more than enough distrust and suspicion between the close supporters of Mumia and various sympathetic but unsure progressive constituencies. We do not understand why any well-meaning person, let alone a leftist, would want to add to that with a tirade of unsubstantiated character assassinations and misguided labels. Cooper does us all a disservice with his divisiveness.

We respect his abolitionist stance, but can't help asking whether he is out there at the grassroots, trying to build political alliances between the various anti-death penalty constituencies in this society which are normally separated by gulfs of race and class perspectives.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

What I cannot understand is why the truth should ever be looked upon as "divisive."

Arguing single-mindedly the innocence of Mumia is not intrinsically progressive. Attacking the death penalty by arguing the innocence of Mumia is not necessarily progressive or effective.

Dan Denvir
17, Washington DC

I just wanted to congratulate you on shooting a wound into the movement, the size of which is matched only by previous Fraternal Order of Police and corporate media lies. I'm not a member of MOVE, nor do I agree with all of its tenets. But your view that the MOVE belief that "all animals have an equal soul to that of humans" is wacko is offensive to a few "established" world religions as well, namely Sikhism. Some of MOVE's other "cultist" ideologies include vegetarianism, animal rights, and environmental protection.

In responding to another reader, you say that "cab drivers are generally lower down the list of government targets than are high-profile radical journalists." But who pays a late 70s/early 80s "high-profile radical journalist's" salary?

An insufficient salary as an independent freelance journalist caused Mumia to seek a second, supplemental job as a cab driver. The regressive media culture of this modern world's successful efforts to discredit and marginalize Mumia to the point of financial difficulty are good enough reason to look down on his work as nothing more than the ineffective and low-profile mutterings of a working-class stiff, according to you.

I also find it curious that you discredit Mumia as a political prisoner. The fact that the prosecution used the ideologies he espoused while in the Black Panthers, namely a quote from Mao Tse-tung, to prove Mumia had "aggravating circumstances," is in itself inherently political. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concurred affirming that Mumia's "disdain for the system" qualified as "aggravating circumstances." In layman's terms, political statements made by Mumia at the age of 15 were the mitigating factors that sentenced him to death.

His trial also uncovered a 500-page FBI file (I'm guessing more paper than is customarily collected on an average Blood or Crip) compiled on Mumia beginning at age 14, ending around the date of the murder. His associations with the MOVE organization should not be used to belittle Mumia, but instead should serve as proof to the political motivations of the police in his case. MOVE was a highlighted target of the Philadelphia police. Mumia was an outspoken critic of the Philadelphia police, as well as a member of MOVE.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

I have a question: What part of my argument that Mumia should get a new trial did you not understand? I also find it nauseating and rather too typical of the Mumia movement that you should respond to my intellectual challenge to your argument by smearing it as an adjunct to a conspiracy of the Philadelphia Police Department.

Mumia got screwed at his trial. Mumia was indeed a sometime target of state surveillance. Philadelphia cops, and for that matter, just about every other police department in America has a record of racism and discrimination. But none of that is incompatible with Mumia's probable guilt.

At the risk of sounding like Lloyd Bentsen, I can tell you that I have had the misfortune of knowing many authentic political prisoners (some of them through my work and some of them through political association in Latin America) and sir, Mumia is not a political prisoner. He is perhaps innocent and got a very bad and unfairly politicized trial. He is more likely morally guilty but legally innocent precisely because of the unfair trial he was given.

But do us all a favor: Don't turn Mumia into the O.J. Simpson of the left.

 

Read last week's discussion with Marc Cooper.

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