Unless you live in Philadelphia, you might not have known that America’s most famous death row inmate celebrated his birthday recently. That’s because the story, along with a flurry of local activism surrounding that date, was almost entirely ignored by the US media — and the blackout didn’t just extend to mainstream venues either.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, an award-winning journalist and convicted murderer, turned 56-years-old on April 24. The following Monday, activists in his hometown of Philadelphia joined with groups around the nation and even in Europe to mark the date and call for his freedom after nearly 28 years behind bars.
Reading the news, you’d never have known it.
Jamal’s birthday drew coverage from very little U.S. media, with notable exceptions being New York-based Black Star News, leftist publication Workers World, black newspaper San Francisco Bay View and Socialist Worker, all of which offer copious advocacy to his cause. The most significant coverage was given by Berkeley station KPFA 94.1 FM, which dedicated two hours to a “Happy Birthday Mumia” special that featured an interview with Jamal himself.
America’s newspapers and even the progressive blogosphere completely neglected coverage.
A protest outside the Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C. took place on April 26, but that got even less media than Jamal’s actual birthday. It would have gone completely ignored by the press were it not for Russia Today incorporating some of its raw footage into an interview with revolutionary hip-hop artist Immortal Technique, who called the case a “civil rights” issue.
He said the prosecution of Jamal was an effort to “criminalize” the movement he was apart of, “to destroy that devil voice.”
“Now the focus is on one man, freeing him, rather than what he was taking about and all of his work previous to his incarceration and even during his incarceration,” Technique explained. “If you listen to his recorded statements and the way that he reports on the world and their actions, […] I think that it shows you how powerful a voice like that can be.”
This video is from Russia Today, published to YouTube on April 27, 2010.
In a recorded interview broadcast by KPFA, before which the interviewer called Jamal a “warrior behind enemy lines,” Mumia called the law “the tool of those in power” and said his conditions on death row are “grim,” noting a “spate of suicides” in the prison.
“Some men go mad,” he said.
Jamal was convicted of shooting and killing police officer Daniel Faulkner after a traffic stop in 1981.
“Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant Mumia’s petition for an appeal on several grounds, including evidence of discrimination against Black jurors, considered one of Mumia’s most promising avenues for a new trial,” Socialist Worker noted.
In doing so, the justices set aside a 2008 ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that would have given Jamal a new sentencing hearing.
“Prosecutors believe the 25-year-old Faulkner managed to shoot Abu-Jamal during the confrontation,” the Associated Press reported in January. “A wounded Abu-Jamal, his own gun lying nearby, was still at the scene when police arrived, and authorities consider the evidence against him overwhelming.”
Jamal’s supporters often note he had no criminal record prior to his conviction and accuse the judge of having used racial slurs against the defendant.
“Already 40,000 petitions and postcards have been collected which demand this investigation,” San Francisco Bay View claimed. “Last June the Free Mumia Coalition and others lobbied the Congressional Black Caucus and appealed to the NAACP 100th anniversary convention to support this campaign, which this esteemed organization is doing.
“The first 20,000 petitions were delivered to the U.S. Department of Justice on Nov. 12, 2009, following a press conference with Amnesty International, the NAACP, representatives from Haiti and Germany, among others, with solidarity messages from hundreds of international labor activists and unions. Every Thursday, there is a weekly call-in campaign to the U.S. Department of Justice, calling for a federal civil rights investigation.”
Activists also penned an open letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, beseeching him for an audience to discuss Jamal’s case.
“We hope to hear from you in the very near future and very much look forward to sharing ideas about how a civil rights investigation might contribute to establishing fairness and justice in a case where an innocent man, a rather remarkable intellectual leader and visionary, is being railroaded to execution,” the wrote.
Signatories to the letter include former members of congress, professors, grassroots activist organizations, NAACP chapters, lawyers and even foreign officials.
Mumia’s case is the subject of the forthcoming film, “The Barrel of a Gun” by documentarian Tigre Hill, who hypothesizes that the murder was premeditated as a way for Jamal to implement his own revolutionary vision.
“The first part of the film is called ‘Revolution,'” Hill recently told Philadelphia Magazine. “It goes into MumiaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s background, all the people who influenced him Ã¢â‚¬â€ the Panthers, Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara Ã¢â‚¬â€ and what they believed. Basically, they wanted to start urban guerrilla warfare in the United States. There was a lot of cop-killing going on back then, targeted cop killings. When you put that in context all together, I think it gives you a new view of the whole incident.”
Immortal Technique, on the other hand, compared Jamal to activist Leonard Peltier, who spent years shining a light on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, only to be jailed in 1975 for allegedly murdering two FBI agents in a shootout.
“I think [they symbolize] the generational struggle that continues even now-a days, that which has been inherited by the children,” he told Russia Today. “To me that’s what Mumia symbolizes and I think that to a lot of young people that’s what Mumia symbolizes.”