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?


Bob Fuller

Marc Cooper is a “good leftist” who believes the Warren Commission and its “magic bullet” theory, has sided with management in the current Pacifica Radio crises, and now questions the reasoning of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s supporters. Cooper points out that there are over 3,000 other souls awaiting execution in America, who are mostly unknown and unchampioned. True enough, but does Marc expect to see protests against the death penalty which mention all 3,500 of the condemned by name? Mumia is a symbol, and by protesting his flawed trial and impending execution, his supporters draw attention to the whole death penalty issue and the plight of the condemed.

I doubt that many people are making support for Mumia a “litmus test” for joining the anti-death penalty movement. I certainly don’t, and I know that I’m not “submitting to the will of C. Clark Kissinger,” because I’d never even heard of Kissinger before reading this article. My interest in Mumia’s case stems from hearing his talks, and discussions of the case, on Pacifica’s Democracy Now!, and from reading Mumia’s book, “Live from Death Row.” Perhaps Marc Cooper feels that Pacifica should follow the lead of other radio outlets and stop Mumia’s voice from being heard? That might fit in with the censorship movement by Pacifica management, but it certainly will do nothing to promote awareness of the death penalty issue in the US.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

Mr. Fuller, you address none of the substantive points of my argument, so I can only respond to your personal attacks and innuendo. I do not subscribe or unsubscribe to the Warren Commission theory. But if I did? Is that a litmus test for membership in the progressive community? Would it disqualify me from skepticism about Mumia’s case?

As to the suggestion that Mumia is going to be “censored” from Pacifica: This is a strange notion coming from you, who say yourself that you learned of Mumia’s case from the ample — and one-sided — pro-Mumia programs that flood Pacifica airwaves. In the end, you are upset because I have taken positions on Pacifica and the JFK assassination that depart from your views. Alas, Mr. Fuller, that is what democracy looks like.

 

Feb. 11, 2000

Catherine Lareau

How easily [Mumia activists] forget about the less photogenic human beings on death row that are hoping against hope for their lives back. When, by popular demonstration, we choose one self-selected “hero” over another man with ugly tatoos, we are helping to perpetuate an anti-human rights morality which parallels our judicial system that also, through its own “sacred” process, chooses who should live and who should die. This mentality is wrong, whether it’s advocated by state-sponsored political rightists or so-called “lefties” desperate to create a modern hero they can worship. Whatever happened to a truly leftist community based on values instead of personality cults? The “Hollywoodization” of politics has begun to reach the political periphery.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

Well said, Catherine. I also believe in a radical politics based on principle. It’s those principles I consult in making my choices. I find it absolutely unnerving that that are so many self-proclaimed lefties around who now view politics as some sort team-driven spectator sport. Oh gosh, how can I take “X” position when Noam Chomsky, or Howard Zinn, has argued for a different position? I don’t get it. I love and admire my colleague Christopher Hitchens even though I think he is wrong in his pro-war position on Kosovo (and right on the money about Clinton). So what am I to do? Denounce Christopher because we differ on the Balkans? I prefer to listen to his arguments and keep my mind open.

 

Feb. 11, 2000

Michelle F. Gross
Twin Cities Coalition to Defend Mumia Abu-Jamal

Clearly, Mr. Cooper’s position is borne of ignorance and/or jealousy. Not only is he unprincipled but he isn’t even original. The “Mumia’s supporters are pin-heads” rap is years old by now, fashioned by Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police but now promoted by self-serving quasi-leftists in Salon.com and other publications. However, ad hominem attacks on Mumia’s supporters do not erase the facts of the case. Further, it would be a real stretch to characterize people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Cornel West, Arthur Kinoy, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Japanese Diet, the Black Police Association, Martin Luther King, III, Rubin Hurricane Carter, Julia Wright, etc. as dupes for Mumia.

By now, it is well known by anyone who has working synapses that Mumia never received any semblance of a fair trial. That alone should be reason enough to champion his demand for justice. Cooper, however, seems to think that we should not work for justice for Mumia because he is too unconventional for his tastes. Yet taking up a case such as this is in the best tradition of the left — breaking through the “conventional wisdom” put out by the ruling elite that run this country, standing with those under attack, and struggling for justice.

Mumia’s case represents all that is wrong with the “justice” system in this country, a system which the powers-that-be are deeply vested in maintaining. For them, it is about social control and repression.

Those of us on the left have to understand what this is really about. Yes, it’s about justice for Mumia. But that’s not all. It is about going up against a system that turns one-third of black men (and, generally, poor people of every ethnicity) into plantation slaves who work for pennies an hour in prison-based industries. It’s about going up against a system that is the major growth industry of this country. And it’s about recognizing that executing an articulate spokesperson against such injustices is the ultimate political weapon used by this system not only to silence Mumia but to intimidate the rest of us into acquiescence.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

I am sorry that you did not see the section in my article in which I agree that Mumia should be given a fair trial. The fact that milions of black Americans and poor Americans of all colors get a bum rap in the American economic and judicical system does not mean that Mumia is not guilty. Why is that so difficult to understand? I, also, am upset over “all that is wrong” with American justice. One of the most egregious wrongs are the 3500 people — innocent and guilty — rotting away on death row. Why does it so inflame you that I am suggesting those other 3,499 people be given some of the attention now being invested in the Mumia cult?

 

Feb. 11, 2000

Bruce Shapiro

Insisting that Mumia is factually blameless in Officer Faulkner’s death, in the face of deeply suggestive evidence to the contrary, and the American left sets itself up for a reincarnation of the Julius Rosenberg cult-of-innocence.

This is all the more important at a time when public support for the death penalty is falling, and in particular when unambiguous, blatant cases of false conviction have led to Illinois’ unprecedented death-penalty moratorium. It’s not doing such mortatorium efforts any favors to have the single most public death-row innocence campaign centered upon the murky facts of Mumia’s case.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

You said it better than I could imagine. Thanks, Bruce.

 

Feb. 11, 2000

Craig McLaughlin
Director of College Relations, The Evergreen State College

When I was a college radical, we had much better (in my opinion) heroes than Mumia Abu-Jamal. And I must admit as a longtime investigative journalist, I have generally admired Marc Cooper’s work. But Marc could have made his points without resorting to a cheap, purile shot — namely “grass-addled students at Washington state’s Evergreen College wildly applauding his tape-delivered commencement speech.”

Abu-Jamal’s speech was added to the student portion of The Evergreen State College commencement program that included several speeches (he was not the keynote). When students at applauded, I think they were applauding many things. Some of them were applauding the speaker and some of them were applauding his message. I believe that many of them were applauding their right to hear him. The were also applauding the successful completion of a part of the ceremony that almost didn’t happen because of a well-organized, vicious and overtly racist campaign against the college.

Marc Cooper clearly knows nothing about The Evergreen State College. He can’t get the name right and he has no data whatsoever about pot consumption patterns on campus.

He didn’t attend the ceremony and has no context for the speech except what he clearly got from the mainstream news sources that provide sound-bite journalism. I invite Marc to visit the campus and learn something about the institution before he resorts to anymore dismissive, demeaning, and false stereotyping of its students.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

Dear Craig: I suggest you look very hard and try to see if you can find your sense of humor. As a veteran drug abuser, my reference to “grass-addled students” was merely a term of endearment! You couldn’t possibly have taken that seriously … could you?

The fact that I did not properly reproduce the formal name of your fine school does not mean I have “no context” for the speech given by Mumia. I listened very carefully several times to Mumia’s speech and read the transcript at least twice … though by the second time I have to admit I was nodding off. I stand by what I said in my essay: Mumia’s speech was a mix of blowhard leftist cant and eerie exhortations of the MOVE cult of which he is a supporter. Indeed, I have too much respect for four-year grads of Evergreen to hear them urged by a commencement speaker to devote themselves to the study of the work of his departed guru, John Africa.

As to Mumia’s right to free speech: great, wonderful, I support it. That doesn’t mean I have to shut off my brain and shut down my critical faculties. The speech was hollow. Period. Sorry. I am sure a number of your students clapped out of politeness and respect. But next time, try to find a real hero. How about those great college kids and their prof in Illinois who continue to spring framed death-row inmates, and who just forced a death-penalty moratorium? They deserve a standing ovation.

 

Feb. 11, 2000

Chris Randolph
Philadelphia

I live in Philadelphia and am a native, and can tell you the overwhelming majority of the population here, where we know the details of the case best, are certain Abu-Jamal is guilty of murder. His vocal movement in the city attempting to secure his release is largely led by two groups: 1) MOVE, which is a mess, and not nearly progressive on a number of social issues, and 2) some self-described anarchists who are too young to have first-hand knowledge of the case, and who largely grew up far from here. Unfortunately, these groups have boonswangled the rest of the world into believing Abu-Jamal is a political prisoner.

There are two disturbing trends in the Abu-Jamal support locally, of which I don’t know the rest of the world is aware. One is the cult-like adoration of an idealized Abu-Jamal, the eternal blank-canvas black victim, possibly because the man is himself totally silent about the events of that night he put a bullet in a cop’s brain. You can project your own version of events onto him as he offers none of his own, so it seems many people choose a Hollywood version of a white cop stopping a black man in Mississippi in 1962 and this becomes reality for them. The other trend is that many of his supporters think he did (or should have) killed a white cop, and this is a good thing in general, so he should be set free. They won’t say this to the cameras, but you’ll pick it up from his supporters here if you spend enough time around them.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

Thanks for your words of support, Chris. I do want to amplify your point about much support from Mumia coming from young anarchists ill-informed about the case. Indeed, while I have nothing but bottomless contempt for some leaders of the Mumia movement, like C. Clark Kissinger (who recently argued in favor of public executions in China), who cynically exploit this issue for narrow ideological use, I am quite well aware that thousands of Mumia supporters are driven by the best of intentions. That is one reason that I chose to use such harsh language in my essay. I intended it as a slap in the face that would — no doubt — anger many people but that might serve to make a few others stop for a moment and think this whole thing out a bit better. My only hope is that some of the work that has been put into glorifying Mumia might now be re-directed to the broader fight of abolishing the death penalty — and that movement has no room for ideologues who cry for Mumia’s freedom in the US and then howl their approval of state executions held before sports stadium audiences in China.

 

Feb. 11, 2000

Cindy Larason

I’m not a taxi driver myself, but I think that it really stinks the way you said in your article:

“But Mumia’s own personal and psychological crisis before his arrest had reduced him to working as a taxi cab driver.”

I mean, take the last three words off and I would have expected to see something like, “drug runner” or “prostitute” or something illegal. But working a low paying job is not a bad thing. It takes fortitude to work a job like that. I don’t think anyone should be looked down on for working a job that other people would think they were too good to do (as you apparently think you are). When someone takes a job like that, to me it says, “this person is a survivor and a hard worker.”

 

Marc Cooper responds:

Cindy, my apologies for suggesting that American cab drivers are not indeed among the noblest of workers. In the context of my article, I was not attempting to disparage hard-working cabbies. I used the term “reduced” to suggest that cab drivers are generally lower down the list of government targets than are high-profile radical journalists. Again, my apologies for what was clearly a poor choice of words. That said, what is your response to my argument about Mumia?

 

Feb. 11, 2000

Bobbi Murray

As another leftist who abhors the death penalty for the innocent and the guilty, as Cooper puts it, I have always been puzzled and disquieted by the cult-like boosterism surrounding Mumia’s case and am pleased to see it examined critically in print. I’m writing from Los Angeles, where the headlines are about cops planting evidence and perjuring themselves to put people away; here in California the Democratic governor has made willingness to apply the death penalty a litmus test on his judicial appointments. In light of the genuine issues — while agreeing that Mumia deserves a new trial, as do many prisoners both on and off death row — the fixation on him has always struck me as another form of therapy-through-politics. And it’s pretty patronizing as well.

 

Marc Cooper responds:

Thanks, Mom. Just joking. I think the points here are very valuable. When we take on such unpopular issues as the death penalty and corrupt cops, we will all be better off if we arm ourselves with fact and argue facts — not pre-conceived ideology.

    Members like you

    Mother Jones is a nonprofit, and stories like this are made possible by readers like you. or to help fund independent journalism.