June Backtalk

Mumia Matters

Thanks for the most evenhanded report on the Mumia Abu-Jamal case in recent memory ("Innocence by Association," March/April). The hatchet jobs that were done by KGO-TV in San Francisco and by Sam Donaldson of ABC's "20/20" have so poisoned the atmosphere that it's hard to discuss the subject rationally.

Between the establishment media, which apparently desires to pronounce Abu-Jamal guilty, crediting only the prosecution's position, and those who compare him to Jesus Christ, insisting he is a political prisoner and demanding his immediate release, lies a middle ground apparently unloved by all: a belief that the man did not get a fair trial and deserves one.

Officer Daniel Faulkner died that night at the hands of another; this cannot be ignored. Abu-Jamal was on the scene, was wounded by Faulkner's weapon, and had a weapon of his own. That much is clear, and those facts alone suggest that the state's case, if circumstantial, is not illogical.

But a reasonable search of the record reveals a rat's nest of outrageous behavior, allegations of coerced testimony, confusing and contradictory statements by witnesses on all sides, suspicious failures of memory, and political pressure -- all brought to a boil in a city tainted by a history of racism and police corruption.

This cannot stand in America. Like him or not, agree with him or not, believe in him or not, a new trial for Abu-Jamal is a necessity in a society that claims to believe in justice.

Mike Farrell
Actor; Co-chairman
Committee to Save Mumia Abu-Jamal
Los Angeles, Calif.

The quotes attributed to me in "Innocence by Association" gave the impression that Amnesty International is somehow distancing itself from Abu-Jamal and his supporters. This is not true. In November 1997, Amnesty's secretary-general visited Abu-Jamal as an act of solidarity. The visit was followed by a press conference where our many concerns regarding the fairness of his trial were voiced.

Since the early 1990s, when Amnesty first voiced concern about Abu-Jamal's case, we have continually been in contact with his many supporters, both in the U.S. and internationally.

However, as an independent and impartial human rights organization, Amnesty does not align itself with any political groups. It was while explaining this policy to Mother Jones that I made the comment about not wanting to seem "too pally" with Abu-Jamal's supporters. Amnesty cannot be seen as too pally with any political group, on the left or right, for fear of jeopardizing our reputation of impartiality.

Amnesty is currently conducting a worldwide campaign to improve the human rights situation in the U.S. The resources dedicated to the campaign have prevented us from completing other tasks, such as an evaluation of Abu-Jamal's trial. It was while explaining this that I made the comment regarding Amnesty being criticized for being too slow to react. Many people frustrated by our inability to campaign on causes of concern to them are unaware of the work we are doing in other areas. When informed of such, they are more understanding of the organization's use of its limited resources.

Amnesty International remains committed to saving the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal and ensuring that he receives fair and impartial adjudication from the criminal justice system, and to ensuring the same for the 3,500 men and women currently awaiting the cruel and inhuman treatment of the death penalty.


Piers Bannister
Amnesty International
London, England

It would have been more informative if Mother Jones had selected a member of the Philadelphia Police Department to write about Mumia rather than Sara Kelly, who writes about the case as if she's standing across the street commenting on how things seem. If a police spokesperson had written the piece, readers would easily see the deceit, omissions, and slants. Some of the lingo would be the same, though, such as the dismissive terms "who's who of the left," "cause célèbre," and "poster boy." (A white liberal can't call a black person "boy" anymore, but "poster boy" does the trick.)

Kelly contends that some feel Mumia is an "imperfect poster boy" for the movement to end the death penalty, but this begs the question, Who would be better? Someone less well-spoken? Someone less effective in attracting global interest? If this "justice" system can kill Mumia, of all people, with the virtually unprecedented host of irregularities and abuses that constitute his case, then they can do what they want to anyone, anytime, for any reason. It's a "my police state, right or wrong" deal, especially if the wrong is done to a black person.

Mother Jones might ask E.L. Doctorow, Norman Mailer, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ramsey Clark, Noam Chomsky, or other "who's who" members for an explanation of their support for this remarkable cause. Letting Kelly be the one to explain a case of such importance is to trivialize it even beyond what she tries to do.


John Jonik
Philadelphia, Pa.

As a journalism student who feels it's a shame progressive media is so impossible to find, I had been quite encouraged to discover Mother Jones. That is, until the article on Abu-Jamal.

It says a lot when supposedly open-minded publications start to bad-mouth a movement that obviously is about more than one man. They begin to sound more like the unquestioning mass media. And when that one man is a true journalist who is an unwavering voice for those without voice, a true critic of a corrupt system, and an inspiration to a whole generation of youth, it makes bad journalism that much more unforgivable.


Donna McKenna
New York, N.Y.

The cult surrounding Abu-Jamal demonstrates that much opposition to the death penalty these days is not based on any fundamental principle about the sanctity of human life, or even on constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment. Rather, it is simply a partisan political struggle where all that matters is whose ox is being gored. If it's a white, born-again woman like Karla Faye Tucker, then Pat Robertson offers support. If it's an articulate, politically radical black journalist like Abu-Jamal, then Hollywood takes up the cause.

A principled opponent of the death penalty must be unconcerned with individuals. It is one thing to defend the life of a condemned person who is intelligent, respectable, and much like oneself in political or religious stance. It is another matter entirely to defend an inmate who is remorseless, inarticulate, and politically repulsive. If the bedrock principle involved is the sanctity of human life or constitutionally guaranteed liberties, such considerations must not matter.

I expect the forthcoming execution of Timothy McVeigh will do much to underscore the difference between opposition to the death penalty as partisan political activism and opposition to the death penalty from fundamental moral principles. A movement that can defend the life of such a seemingly irredeemable person will do much to demonstrate its moral backbone.


Duncan Vinson
Providence, R.I.

Biblical Spin

Editor's note: Following our profile of the anti-gay Rev. Fred Phelps ("The Man Who Loves to Hate," March/April), four of his adult children and one of his grandchildren, all of whom actively participate in his Westboro Baptist Church, wrote to us. They responded to allegations made by several of their siblings who are no longer affiliated with the family or the church that Phelps beat them as children. We've excerpted some of those letters below.

Your article about Phelps and his preaching against the homosexual sins of those you serve was good work -- even those things you write with the intention of making him loathsome. Consider this perspective, and I think you'll agree that he has hit another grand slam!

Mother Jones writes: "Once again, it's Phelps against the world." Yes, indeed, it is a wonderful thing to be reviled and persecuted and defamed (Matthew 5:11), and to be reproached for preaching Jesus, who was likewise hated by that same world (John 15:18). Phelps considers the opinions of evildoers supremely irrelevant. When he battled the evil of racism for 25 years, he knew the world was wrong (he was right) and didn't care about the violent and vile reaction he faced. Likewise, God condemns the homosexual, so Phelps preaches that condemnation without apology.

Mother Jones writes: "Phelps...beat his children." That's because he was not going to ignore the solemn proclamation, "For what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?" (Hebrews 12:7). Has this generation become wiser than God? Have my siblings reached such an understanding of human nature to now declare that foolishness is not bound up in a child, and therefore there is no need of a rod of correction? The wisdom of this generation would say so.

"Did I fear a great multitude, or did the contempt of families terrify me, that I kept silence, and went not out of the door?" This rhetorical question, asked by Job, captures the sentiment you see in the zeal of Phelps. Just as that great professor of this faith declared, so does Phelps: "Oh...that mine adversary had written a book. Surely I would take it upon my shoulder, and bind it as a crown to me" (Job 31:35-36).


Timothy B. Phelps
Topeka, Kan.

I am tickled pink with your article about my father and the ministry of the Westboro Baptist Church.

What struck me especially was the quote [by my sister Dortha]. It reads, "Growing up, it was chaos. It was intense and scary. There was a blowup at least once a week." I beg to differ! In a household with 13 children and only two parents to deal with all the bathing, feeding, clothing, monitoring, refereeing, tutoring, etc., that the job entails, I am certain that it was more like a blowup every hour, at least.

The issue of disciplining your children is not a religious issue. It is a worldwide parenting issue. As Bill Cosby says in his comedy routines: Anybody who says you should not beat your kids has never had kids. He recounts, uproariously, a beating he had to exact on his son with a stick.

My parents never failed to do their duty in regard to all of us kids. The proof is in the pudding: Not one of us is in prison, addicted to drugs or other substances, or is in any other way a burden to society.


Abigail R. Phelps
Topeka, Kan.

One little thing, which I'm sure was just an oversight on your part: Our message is about God's hate, not human hate. We hate no man. Indeed, we devote our considerable resources to this ministry because we have the only pure love that humans bear for one another: the love that tells the truth, not soul-damning lies, about eternity.


Margie J. Phelps
Topeka, Kan.

Little Drummer Boy

As the president of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, I must say that Fred Phelps actually serves our cause quite well. Every time he speaks and demonstrates, more of those in the "movable middle" of straight American society turn our way. Phelps heads an extremely tiny band -- no trumpets, only one very tiny drum. Fewer and fewer are dancing to his beat. Unfortunately, those few can be a genuine threat to our society. Phelps must be held accountable for fomenting violence. He must be taken seriously, although that's hard to do, as his extremism invites caricature.

I met with Phelps in March in his fenced-off compound in Topeka. I had no interest in debating him. What I did tell him is that we agree with his choice of vital topics, such as safe schools, welcoming worship, and family values. At the same time, I told him we disagree with his position on every issue.

I believe we can do the most to strengthen and integrate our entire society by lifting up the issues, not by attacking Phelps. We must be true to American ideals by treating all persons with respect, candor, and dignity -- Phelps included. Your article did exactly that.


Rev. Paul Beeman
President
PFLAG
Washington, D.C.

Phelps is obviously insane: He travels the country to harass people at funerals and weddings, disseminates confidential information to drive people out of their jobs, has a "church" consisting almost entirely of family members, and, from examples you gave, can rally anywhere from five to 12 family members to join him on his picket lines. He was not on "Jerry Springer" and got no press coverage from his Nashville, Tenn., protest. No press, that is, until Mother Jones gave him 5 1/2 pages of the coverage he craves.

You could have talked to gay people or people with HIV about what Phelps' ugliness means to them; investigated where the money comes from to support his actions; checked to see if he has ties to other religious-right groups; examined whether the church should qualify for tax-free status; asked Kansas politicians and religious leaders to take public positions on his activities; reported on the state of the gay rights movement in Kansas and what effect Phelps' actions may have on it; or talked to mental health professionals for insight into his behavior.

Instead, Mother Jones gives us this puff piece. What is your point?


Kevin M. Cathcart
Executive Director
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund
New York, N.Y.

Fruitless Pieing

In Ana Marie Cox's article on pie-throwing protesters,
"The Medium Is the Meringue" (March/April), she interviewed the Cherry Pie Three, members of the Biotic Baking Brigade who pied San Francisco mayor Willie Brown in November. Let's look at what I fear underlies this particular choice of tactics, because it speaks to a serious mistake that radicals have sometimes made about the power of the media.

Use of the media is a means to communicate with the unorganized and to enlarge our constituency. At ACORN, we have used the media from time to time for mass communication. But it's never the totality of our strategy.

What worries me about the pie throwers is this: The goal of getting into the media becomes a substitute for any effective organizing or campaigning. They miss the point that communication with a broader base is only one element of an issue campaign. They must also have objectives, a constituency, allies, and a strategy. But where are these elements in the pie throwers' efforts? In the case of homelessness, the goal of a media strategy must be to broaden the base and not, as they have done, to choose a tactic that will weaken support for what would otherwise be a very popular cause.

I fear that an irresponsible impatience, a kind of committed laziness, impels the pie throwers to hurl confections rather than to build an organization that can win on these important housing struggles. Let's put community residents in the face of politicians, instead of pies.


Madeline Talbott
Head Organizer
Illinois ACORN
Chicago, Ill.

Fire on the Mountain

I'd like to clarify a few issues raised in the article on the Vail fires ("Backfire," March/April). First, environmentalists and animal rights activists have in fact continued to work together to fight expansion in Vail, Colo. In the aftermath of the arson, a witch-hunt has been set in motion in the form of a federal grand jury. Ancient Forest Rescue and Rocky Mountain Animal Defense are fighting that grand jury together.

A second issue that must be made clear is that the destruction being done by Vail Associates is on public land. It therefore seems distorted to refer to the arsonists as "twisted souls" and to "the fire's violence" when those setting the fires were merely destroying structures erected by a corporation. The arsonists were not twisted souls -- they were the last hope in defense of the wild. And the fires were not violent -- they were an 11th-hour nonviolent effort to set things right.

Finally, the article seems to maintain that local resistance to Vail's expansion has crumbled. This is not the case. Some locals remain vocally opposed to the expansion. Other opponents in Vail may be remaining silent due to the arrival of government bullies (namely, the FBI) on the scene. These days, an important part of the FBI's mandate seems to be to destroy those movements that seek to protect our rapidly diminishing natural world. I'd suggest that the real policing should be of irresponsible corporations that are destroying our public lands and squandering irreplaceable species and ecosystems in the process.


Nicole J. Rosmarino
Rocky Mountain Animal Defense
Clear Creek County, Colo.

Is Rosmarino so blinded by her zeal that she misses the irony of the Vail arson? An expansive post-and-beam structure like that lodge can be built -- or rebuilt -- only at the expense of lots of very mature trees. And she jumps for joy under the premise that this is a good thing for wildlife habitat? The icing on the cake was hearing her call environmentalists who abhor the arsonists "hypocrites." Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees!


Roger Boutell
Monroe, Wash.

D'oh!

Matt Groening may be "one of the silent heroes of popular culture" (Mother Jones Interview, March/April), but he's definitely not a hero to the American labor movement. "The Simpsons" began at Klasky Csupo, an animation studio run by Hungarian immigrant Gabor Csupo, who told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm never going to sign with a union. If they vote for it, I'm just not going to hire them. I can lay them off and I'll take [the work] to Hungary. I'll take it to Japan."

Bart and Homer later moved to Film Roman, and "Futurama" is being done by Rough Draft Studios -- both of which send the bulk of their work to be drawn and painted by low-wage artists in Korea and the Philippines. These studios pay their working animators well below union minimums.

Hollywood has a proud 60-year history of union activism, and our animation union is reaching out to organize young animators at these studios. I'm amazed that Brian Doherty didn't do his research and bring up any of these issues. Artists who succeed at the expense of brother and sister artists should not be lauded in a magazine bearing the name of Mary Harris "Mother" Jones.


Tom Sito
President
Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Local 839
Hollywood, Calif.

Up in Arms

Mother Jones is to be commended for showing how the Clinton administration's arms-trade policy actually works against U.S. interests. But while your article
("Rocket Man," Outfront, March/April) covers the economic price U.S. citizens must pay for the arms trade, it does not sufficiently emphasize the security and human rights ramifications of U.S. arms exports.

A pending arms sale to Turkey provides a case in point. Two U.S. companies -- Bell Textron and Boeing -- are being considered for a Turkish bid to co-manufacture 145 attack helicopters. The U.S. often turns a blind eye to the security risks of exporting arms, especially if the recipient is an ally. Turkey has repeatedly used U.S.-supplied weapons to provoke fellow NATO member Greece, often requiring U.S. intervention to prevent open conflict. Turkey recently threatened Greece over its alleged harboring of Kurdistan Workers Party leader Abdullah Ocalan, who was recently arrested in Kenya by the Turks. Approving the sale of attack helicopters now would signal strong support for the Turkish government as it is once again brandishing its swords against its traditional foe.

The State Department and independent sources have documented Turkey's use of U.S. military equipment, in violation of international humanitarian and human rights laws, in its war against the Kurds. Turkey will most likely use the helicopters to continue its brutal war, risking further human rights violations. In December 1997, the Clinton administration explicitly required improvements in Turkey's human rights and democratic practices before it would allow the helicopter sale to go through. "Rocket Man" Bill Clinton could demonstrate his commitment to human rights by sticking to this promise, before he has any more blood on his hands.


Tamar Gabelnick
Acting Director, Arms Sales Monitoring Project
Federation of American Scientists
Washington, D.C.

Principled Precaution

Environmentalists are fond of the "precautionary principle," which means that action shouldn't wait until science conclusively proves all the risks ("Easy Being Green," Outfront, March/April). The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says that banning DDT is a wise precaution, because DDT may harm human health. But the precautionary principle and speculative risks were never meant to override prevention of known health risks. This is how it is with malaria and DDT. Indoor DDT-spraying saves hundreds of thousands of children from malaria each year.

It is enviro-imperialism, and lousy science, for groups such as the WWF and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) to advocate alternatives to DDT that leave more children at increased risk of death and disease. Data from this hemisphere's branch of the World Health Organization (WHO) proves that this is the tragic legacy where countries have been forced off DDT.

For this, I have a modest proposal. WWF's annual budget is $53 million, and UNEP's is at least $105 million. Between them, they have more than what is spent globally to research malaria. What share will each commit to help find cost-effective alternatives to DDT, and to subsidize these alternatives so that we can ban DDT without leaving the sick and poor holding the bag?


Donald R. Roberts, Ph.D.
Professor, Uniformed Services University
Silver Spring, Md.

Ken Silverstein paints the WWF's position on DDT as a competition between environmental health and human health. The relevant question is not whether the risks of DDT outweigh the public health benefits of malaria control. The question is whether the public health benefits sought from use of DDT can be achieved by other methods.

Research has found concentrations of DDE (a breakdown product of DDT) in human breast milk that exceed WHO guidelines, even though global use of DDT is a small fraction of what it once was. The Environmental Protection Agency has labeled DDT a probable human carcinogen.

Safer, effective alternatives are not as expensive as suggested in the article. Research compiled by the EPA indicates that, largely excluding operational expenses, the cost per house sprayed was $1.60 to $4.27 for DDT and $2.10 to $8.40 (not the $22 cited in the article) for various synthetic pyrethroids.

Global DDT use has dropped markedly in the decades since its impact on biodiversity was first recognized. By including both a DDT ban and solid financial and technical assistance in the global convention on persistent organic pollutants, we can both improve human welfare and further enhance the well-being of the natural world.


Richard A. Liroff
World Wildlife Fund
Washington, D.C.

Ken Silverstein responds: There is, despite Liroff's assertion to the contrary, a clear cost advantage to using DDT over pyrethroids. The $22 figure he disputes is the cost of using synthetic pyrethroids for one year, according to an on-the-ground study conducted in one Latin American nation. Liroff's own figures reflect the six-month cost. They show a cost disparity of up to 2-to-1, and he notes that these figures largely exclude "operational costs," which are usually far higher in the case of pyrethroids. Until a cost-effective substitute is found -- or until the WWF or someone else comes up with the money to cover the difference between the two alternatives -- a global ban on DDT poses a serious problem for poor countries where malaria is rampant.