Nowadays, whenever I see a Free Mumia banner or leaflet, I start thinking how much more I’d just rather just be Free of Mumia.
What collective affliction has overcome my fellow leftists? We haven’t had enough defeats and embarrassments these past two decades? Now, you want to take the deathly serious issue of capital punishment and tie it to some politically dubious cult-groupie like Mumia Abu-Jamal?
Full-page ads in major metro dailies, international petition campaigns, protest caravans and nationwide days of protest to set Mumia free. Grass-addled students at Washington state’s Evergreen College wildly applauding his tape-delivered commencement speech. Activists buying up his two books from death row and huddling to pore over His Words. Regular lionizations of Mumia on Pacifica Radio (for whose LA affiliate I do a daily talk show).
I haven’t seen such madness since December 1969 when the SDS Weatherman faction staged a “National War Council” in Flint, Mich. and toasted Charlie Manson by repeatedly stabbing three fingers in the air, symbolizing the forks that Comrade Manson and his girlfriends plunged into his victims’ entrails.
It’s madness because the death penalty and its copious application in modern America is a barbaric outrage. It’s also one of the toughest political fights we can imagine, given its approval by about 80 percent of the population. Its abolition requires a protracted, tenacious organizing and moral offensive. And, unfortunately, by turning Abu-Jamal into the icon of the movement, the professional Mumiacs are, frankly, muddying the waters.
They are tying together four separate questions. Let’s look at them one by one:
- The political lionization of Mumia as a “political prisoner.” This is both absurd and insulting. Though he briefly passed through the Black Panthers as a young man, Mumia’s latest political incarnation is as supporter of the Philadelphia-based group known as MOVE. No serious political analyst can conclude that MOVE is anything more than an off-keel personality cult built around its now deceased guru John Africa. Yes, MOVE gives lip service to the rhetoric of social justice. But that’s when it’s not arguing that human and insects exist at the same spiritual level and when it’s not demanding that all group leaders change their last name to “Africa” and devote their lives to the study of the eternal words of John.
To suggest that Mumia is some sort of black-liberation hero is to sully and dishonor the memory and sacrifice of the entire pantheon of authentic civil-rights leaders. Listening to Mumia’s bizarre commencement speech given last year to Evergreen makes Minister Farrakhan’s Million Man discourse on numerology sound as stirring, by comparison, as the Emancipation Proclamation.
Neither is Mumia in jail as a political prisoner. There is no question that the Philadelphia police may have very well manipulated and even fabricated some of the evidence against Mumia. And it’s true that Mumia had a checkered career in both mainstream and alternative journalism. But Mumia’s own personal and psychological crisis before his arrest had reduced him to working as a taxi cab driver. That is what he was doing the night of his arrest. Mumia was NOT busted and framed because he was a political threat to the establishment. He was arrested because he was found, wounded, with his gun drawn and resting near his hand, a few feet from a murdered cop.
But little wonder Mumia has been lionized. The most prominent leader of the Free Mumia movement, C. Clark Kissinger, is a longtime worshipper of politically suspect heroes. As one of the top Maoist dogmatists in America, Kissinger has veteran experience in apologizing for the various atrocities carried out by the Great Helmsman and his acolytes (Gosh, I can’t ever remember Comrade Kissinger protesting the generous application of the death penalty in China).
- Did Mumia get a fair trial? That answer seems to be probably not. I agree that he should be given another trial. As Debra Dickerson — no admirer of Mumia’s — recently pointed out in Salon.com, Mumia’s supporters have a good case to make when they argue his trial was tainted by concocted confessions, unreliable eyewitnesses and a biased judge. But it’s also true that during his trial, Mumia contributed to a carnival atmosphere with disruptive antics described by the Philadelphia Inquirer “as bizarre as it was suicidal.”
- Is Mumia innocent? I don’t know. I doubt it, though. I am certainly not prepared to simply conclude: Free Mumia. Recently, left-of-center journalist Enzo Di Mateo wrote in the Toronto-based alternative weekly NOW of “The Holes in Mumia’s Story.”
Indeed, Di Mateo’s account of the incident that landed Mumia on death row is among the best on record:
"It was in the early morning hours of Dec. 9, 1981 that Mumia Abu-Jamal came upon his brother, William Cook, being hit with a flashlight by police officer Daniel Faulkner had pulled over the Volkswagen Cook was driving. What happened next depends on who you listen to. The version put forward at trial by the prosecution is that Abu-Jamal shot Faulkner in the back, and a wounded Faulkner turned as he was falling and got off a shot of his own that hit Abu-Jamal in the chest. The prosecution says Abu-Jamal gathered himself, stood over Faulkner and pumped more bullets, one practically between the eyes, into him as he lay on the sidewalk. The police arrived on the scene to find Abu-Jamal slouched on the curb with a .38 caliber revolver registered to him on the ground beside him, and empty holster slung under his arms."
The police bungled and perhaps tampered with the ballistics and in so doing gave Mumia’s advocates a thin reed to which to cling. Conversely, there is nothing in the ballistics evidence that definitively exonerates Mumia. Worse, as Di Matteo writes: “Five spent bullet casings were found in Abu-Jamal’s revolver, the same hollow type removed from Faulkner’s forehead.” Mumia, meanwhile, has never offered an explanation for that evening’s events. Perhaps a wise legal strategy, but politically it leaves much to be desired.
- What has Mumia’s possible innocence or guilt got to do with ending capital punishment? Nothing, per se. I write this column because I am a staunch, unmovable death penalty abolitionist. I believe we should all oppose capital punishment — for the innocent, obviously, and also for the guilty. And that’s the central point. Whether Mumia is innocent or not is as irrelevant to the future of the death penalty as is the case of any one of the other millions of Americans currently ensnared by the behemoth criminal justice system.
I have no problem with people who wish to spend their time submitting to the political leadership of C. Clark Kissinger and arguing for Mumia’s innocence. But I deeply resent and regret that they are trying to make political support for Mumia’s dubious case into a pre-requisite litmus test for joining the death penalty movement.
Just in case there is something in the above that is not clear, let me re-state it in simple terms: A principled person can both reject the call of Free Mumia and still be a committed opponent of the death penalty. In the same sense, it’s quite possible that Mumia can be both guilty and framed by the police. Such outrages happen every day in America.
So to those of you who are beating the drum for Mumia’s innocence, those of you who are elevating this guy to the status of political prisoner, those who are demanding Free Mumia, well, those of us who would rather fight to abolish the death penalty for all say to you: (to paraphrase the late, great Phil Ochs) please find another movement to be a part of! Until you do, you are confusing the issue of the death penalty itself with the rather flimsy case of a pretty wigged-out hero.
The truly tragic element in the Mumiamania is that while his supporters swoon over his dreadlocks and his empty political posturing some 3,500 other nameless souls are wasting away on America’s death rows — forgotten and abandoned. And while Mumia is being ably represented by the admirable legal talents of Leonard Weinglass, a staggering number of these other condemned men and women have no legal counsel whatsoever. Here in California, as the heroic group Death Penalty Focus reports, almost a full-third of the 556 death row inmates are lawyerless.
Most death row prisoners aren’t so cuddly, so politically correct, as Mumia. Many are illiterate, brutal and repeat killers. Some are members of racist gangs. They make no claim to either political leadership or political persecution. But I have to wonder how many of their names are even known by those still marching in circles with their Free Mumia signs. It’s about time they learned.
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Marc Cooper is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor to The Nation magazine.