Mumia, Pro and Con

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.

Mon Feb. 14, 2000 3:00 AM EST

Mike Farrell

(Mike Farrell, best known as B.J. Honeycutt from the TV show M*A*S*H, is board president of Death Penalty Focus of California and co-chair of the Committee to Save Mumia Abu-Jamal; the views expressed here are his own, not necessarily those of either group.)

I'm disturbed by the angry response Marc Cooper's essay has generated. The piece, clearly too pugnaciously worded for some, was a political column intending to provoke thought and reaction. Unfortunately, I see more reacting than thinking.

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What has the man done besides venture an opinion that runs counter to the ideology of many in what has come to be known as the Mumia Movement? As I see it, Cooper calls for a new trial for the man, clearly states his case against capital punishment (for Abu-Jamal and everyone else, guilty or innocent) and figuratively sticks his thumb in the eye of those who want to anoint Mumia Abu-Jamal as savior, hero, political prisoner and innocent victim of a police conspiracy. Impolite, maybe. But let's not overreact here.

I, for one, am not sure I understand what the claims of Abu-Jamal's innocence are based on. Yes, we know about the racism that permeates our society. Yes, we know about police corruption -- newly uncovered but long recognized -- in Los Angeles. Yes, we know about the Diallo shooting in New York and, sadly, about so many others around the country. Yes, we know about federal investigations of corruption and racism in the Philadelphia police department.

But the fact that those things exist and must be rooted out of our system doesn't mean that this man is innocent, just as the fact that some believe it's possible he may be responsible for Officer Faulkner's death doesn't mean they're disloyal, racists who deserve to be censored and shouted down.

Any honest assessment of what happened in Judge Sabo's court, I believe, argues that a new and fair trial is necessary. Justice was not served there. Cooper and other writers, including Stuart Taylor in "American Lawyer," who believe there is a genuine possibility that Abu-Jamal is guilty (though arguably not of first-degree murder), agree. So why does their having the temerity to openly disagree with some of the pronouncements and attitudes of the insistent drum-beaters for innocence and immediate freedom draw such heat?

The claim, made by many, that Abu-Jamal is a political prisoner is not supported by my understanding of the meaning of the term, and its use both demeans the situation of true political prisoners around the world and attempts to inflate the position of those who charge it. This and many other claims continue to be made by people who, one might begin to suspect, have a larger political agenda in mind. That, of course, is fine, but if it is so, their attachment to this case should perhaps be read as having more to do with the advancement of that agenda than it does with justice for Abu-Jamal.

As for Cooper, et al, all of the groundless, wrong-headed, lionizing, rage-inspired antiestablishmentarianism that is of a piece with solidarity in this case is apparently more than they can take. So what? That's true of a lot of people who haven't been willing to be quite so forthright about it. And, as appears to be the point of Cooper's article, it might be worth thinking about for anyone who truly wants to work toward an end to the obscenity that is the death penalty in our country.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

Mike Farrell's group, Death Penalty Focus, does yeoman's work in tenaciously fighting against the death penalty. Its work is relentless, focussed, uncompromising, sober and successful. The folks in the "Free Mumia" committees ought to take a look at how real political organizing is done. Thanks for your support, Mike.

P.S.: I hope that all Mumia supporters will find it in themselves to immediately make a financial donation to Death Penalty Focus to help it in its lonely work to save the other 3,500 death row inhabitants whose names remain unspoken at Mumia rallies.

Feb. 14, 2000

C. Clark Kissinger

Marc Cooper has gone way off track in his recent polemic against Mumia Abu-Jamal. But rather than reply in kind to what seemed to me an ad hominem attack on Jamal himself, let me address the kernel of Cooper's argument: that Jamal is not really a political prisoner, that he is in fact guilty, and that the struggle to stop his execution harms the overall movement to stop the death penalty.

Is Jamal a political prisoner? Well, at the time of his arrest Jamal had been under surveillance by the FBI and Philadelphia police for almost 15 years, though he had no criminal record. All the newspapers at the time of his arrest highlighted his political history in the Black Panther Party and his reporting on the police attack on the MOVE house in 1978. The prosecutor interrogated Jamal at length about a statement he made as a member of the Panther Party quoting Mao Tse-tung, and argued to the jury that this statement should be weighed as "an aggravating factor" in deciding whether to give him the death penalty (juries in Pennsylvania are supposed to weigh "aggravating" and "mitigating" factors in determining the death penalty). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concurred, saying that despite his lack of a criminal history Jamal's "disdain for the system" should rightly be counted as an aggravating factor. I don't know, but all that sounds kind of political to me.

Jamal's politics may not be Cooper's politics, but they are far from "flaky" as Cooper characterizes them. Those who haven't read it should at least glance at "Live From Death Row" to get a sense of what the man stands for. Most readers find him cogent and insightful. Moreover, I find it unconscionable that, for all his criticism of MOVE and John Africa, Cooper fails to mention the Philadelphia police department's war on that group and Jamal's journalistic exposure of it. This war climaxed in the May 1985 bombing that took the lives of eleven MOVE people, including five children as well as John Africa -- a bombing carried out by the same Philadelphia police force now campaigning for Jamal's death.

As for Cooper's opinions as to who does and does not belong to the "pantheon of authentic civil rights leaders," why don't we agree to let history decide the place of a man who has dedicated his life to fighting the oppression of black people and who from his cell on death row never gave in or lost heart. In the words of Evergreen State College president Jane L. Jervis, Jamal has used his writings "to galvanize an international conversation about the death penalty, the disproportionate number of blacks on death row, the relationship between poverty and the criminal justice system."

Is Jamal guilty? Cooper agrees that the confession stories were concocted; that the ballistics evidence was "bungled" (actually, there is evidence to suggest suppression); that the witnesses were "unreliable" (in fact, the key ones were either bribed, or coerced, or both); and that the judge was unfair. But for some reason he then runs down the prosecution scenario of events, as quoted by another journalist, as the "best account of the incident." We might reasonably ask why the prosecution felt the need to fabricate confessions, "bungle" the ballistics, corrupt witnesses, and suppress evidence if their case was so airtight.

I can't go through the entire defense case, which is readily available on the various pro-Jamal web sites. But let me pose two particularly egregious problems with the scenario Cooper found so credible: First, not one prosecution witness testified to seeing Officer Faulkner shoot Jamal, which is the only uncontested fact in the case. Second, the bullet that hit Jamal entered his right chest on a downward trajectory and exited his left lower back. This demonstrates the sheer impossibility of the prosecution scenario that Faulkner fired up at Jamal as he was falling, unless Faulkner was using one of those magic bullets than changes direction in mid-flight. Jamal's lawyers contend with some justification that Faulkner actually shot Jamal first, which at minimum turns "premeditated first degree murder" into a case of self-defense -- even if you choose to believe the prosecution story that Jamal shot Faulkner (which itself is by no means as cut-and-dried as Cooper presents it).

The burden of proof is not on Jamal, but on the prosecution -- and it is bad and very destructive when progressive people, and Cooper claims to be such, go along with and even promote the notion that the accused must prove their innocence, especially in a case that reeks of prosecutorial misconduct and judicial bias.

Does the international focus on Jamal hurt the movement against the death penalty? Cooper never quite says how it does. But he should come out to some of the activities for Jamal that he disparages, and talk to the people there, especially the many young people. For them, the movement to stop the execution of Jamal has been an eye-opening introduction to a host of larger issues bound up in his case, including what Cooper rightly terms the "barbaric" application of the death penalty in the U.S.

Or why not talk to some of the people in the anti-death penalty movement that he seems to think he speaks for? Cooper could start with Sam Jordan of Amnesty International, Pat Clark of the American Friends Service Committee, Steve Hawkins of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Jane Henderson of Equal Justice/USA, Joan Parkin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Rev. Jeff Garis of the Pennsylvania Abolitionists, or Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.

Finally, you single me out and accuse me of being a Maoist revolutionary. Absolutely true. If anything, the way this system has gone after Jamal has deepened my commitment to fundamental change. You also claim that I lead this movement. Well, I've certainly dedicated a good deal of time and effort to do what I can for justice for Jamal. At the same time, there are so many people with many different viewpoints who have done the same. Indeed, one of the strengths of this movement has been the rejection of petty sectarianism and the cooperation of people from a great range of outlooks, including of course Pam Africa, without whom the current movement for justice for Jamal would not exist.

One last question to ponder: How would the execution of Jamal -- and Jamal will be executed without a continuing and intensified movement -- help to end the death penalty and promote social justice? Wouldn't a victory in the case of Jamal save an advocate for those on death row and the oppressed more generally, wouldn't it energize the movement for social justice, wouldn't it provide hope for the hopeless, and wouldn't it be a big defeat for the entire agenda and machinery of punishment and death that sets the terms in this country? It's not the war, but it's a hell of an important battle and it's one we'd better go all out to win.

If the state of Pennsylvania should succeed in killing Jamal -- despite all the exposure and outcry and all the work of his legal defense team -- it will make it that much harder for the rest of those on death row to win anything like justice. Our opposition to the death penalty cannot remain in the abstract; it has to embrace the actual battles that are thrown up by history, as with Sacco and Vanzetti or the Scottsboro Boys. And at such moments, we all have to choose, to quote another old song, "Which side are you on?"

 

Marc Cooper responds:

I can answer that last question quite easily: When it comes to the death penalty, I am indeed on the other side from Comrade Kissinger. Writing in the August Journal of the Revolutionary Communist Party in an article entitled "How Maoist revolution wiped out drug addiction in China," Kissinger fully endorsed state killing. Let me quote directly from that screed:

"A different approach was taken toward the big-time drug traffickers who got rich off the suffering of the people. They were classified 'Enemies of the People.' These big-time criminals were put on trial in front of thousands of people. People whose lives were ruined by drugs testified against them. These big-time oppressors got COLD HARD JUSTICE:[Kissinger's emphasis] life in prison or public execution.

"There weren't many such executions -- only five or ten in the largest cities."

My, that is a relief to know there were only five or ten of these horrifying spectacles where Chinese prisoners -- bereft of the protection of habeus corpus, appeals, adequate defense or independent judiciaries -- were hauled before howling crowds in sports stadiums and murdered by the sort of firing squads that Kissinger approves of. You damn well bet I'm on the other side of that.

I am not going to debate the facts of Mumia's case with Kissinger because that is not the point. I have already clearly said Abu-Jamal should get a new trial. And unlike Kissinger, I don't believe anyone should be executed -- including Mumia.

Yes, the Philadelphia police spied on MOVE for years. The LAPD spies on the Crips and Bloods. Does that ipso facto make them revolutionaries and victims of political repression? Mumia's politics were indeed used against him during his trial, so let me repeat one more time: yes, he should get another one. But Kissinger can't really be suggesting that Mumia's arrest at the scene of the murder, a bullet wound in his chest, his revolver near his hand, was conjured up by the cops, can he? Oops.. my mistake. Of course Kissinger can claim that. Why not? This is the man who claims Maoist revolution ended all injustice in China -- and with only a couple of handsful of public state-sponsored murders.

Feb. 15, 2000

Bob Fuller
(In response to last week's exchange)

No, Marc, you certainly have the right to accept the magic bullet theory, or believe in the tooth fairy or even compassionate conservatism, without being "disqualified" from having an opinion on Mumia's case, or being denied "membership in the progressive community." I hope I'm not disqualified for being somewhat disappointed with your willingness to toe the "government line" in both instances. Mumia did not get a fair trial, and that in itself is enough to justify spotlighting his case, and protesting his impending execution. Abu Jamal's relationship to MOVE and John Africa are irrelevant.

As to what democracy looks like -- how does it look when you're living in a cage on death row? If Mumia's case draws attention to the death penalty issue, couldn't that serve to widen the debate beyond the media's usual silence or even pro-death penalty sentiments? I see no good in driving across town to the other side of the "progressive community," just to throw stink bombs in the front yards of other progressives. I see no more point in that than I do in Pacifica's censoring of "Counterspin," for example. We "lefties," remember, have a common enemy, and our numbers certainly aren't so great that we should do our enemies work by turning our swords against each other.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

I believe it is you that claims I am now a government mouthpiece and that Pacifica, America's only progressive radio network, is now an enemy. Trying placing your sword back in its scabbard. Mumia's case does not draw attention to the death penalty, Bob. That, sir, is my central point. It draws attention to his very dubious claim of innocence, to the exaggerated charge that he is merely a political prisoner, and to his rather vacuous politics. Start learning the names of the other 3,500 people on death row.

PS: Pacifica censors "Counterspin"? "Counterspin" is distributed every week for free on the KU sattelite system run by Pacifica. Get your facts right.

Read last week's discussion with Marc Cooper.