By Linn Washington Jr.
When the Paris suburb city of Bobigny named a street honoring Mumia Abu-Jamal a couple weeks ago, the imprisoned activist/journalist delivered a pre-recorded message of support—in fluent French. He learned the language during his two decades-plus of being on death row, where he wrote a number of critically acclaimed books. Abu-Jamal, now serving a life sentence since his removal from death row last December, has name recognition rivaling top-tier athletes and entertainers.
The subject of many works—some insightful, some inflammatory—Abu-Jamal has gained levels of international acclaim that is rarely, if ever, seen for a prisoner. And more than 30 years after his arrest on Dec. 9, 1981, that support is as strong as it has ever been. Abu-Jamal, convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, has inspired millions around the world, from Berlin to Brazil, Georgia to Ghana, who rally regularly on his behalf demanding he receive release or a new trial.
Lanquiray Painemal, of Chile, was among the 100-plus who attended the Bobigny ceremony, where a banner demanding Abu-Jamal’s release hung. She said many in her country consider Abu-Jamal a freedom fighter because of his advocacy for the oppressed everywhere.
“He’s an example to all of us because he remains an activist even after spending 30-plus years in hell,” said Dr. Claude Gillaumaud, a professor in France who served as a translator during the Bobigny ceremony. She wrote the 2007 Abu-Jamal biography, A Free Man on Death Row, which was published in France.
For me, it’s been as amazing to watch the worldwide growth of the ‘Mumia Movement’ as it’s been agonizing to witness the solidified politicizing of the ‘Mumia Matter’ in Philadelphia. I worked as a reporter with Abu-Jamal before his 1981 arrest. I’ve followed his case closely since then, including traveling abroad to research and report on the Mumia Movement.
The fact that our courts have rejected all challenges to evidence of his guilt has fueled questions by millions worldwide about the fundamental fairness in this controversial case.
Abu-Jamal “rang a chord with many critical-minded Germans,” activist Annette Schiffmann told me in 2009 as she wrote an article examining why Germans support Abu-Jamal and imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier. “Judging from our past,” Schiffmann wrote, “we could imagine quite well how political repression and racism in courts had worked” against Abu-Jamal.
And Schiffmann’s brother, Dr. Michael Schiffmann, uncovered photographs a few years ago taken by a Philadelphia photojournalist at the 1981 crime scene where Faulkner was murdered. Those photos contradict core elements of the prosecution’s case against Abu-Jamal. Police and prosecutors, for example, contend a cab driver observed Abu-Jamal murder Faulkner while parked feet from the shooting—presenting that driver as a prosecution eyewitness at trial. But that Philadelphia photojournalist’s photos taken minutes after Faulkner’s murder show no cab behind Faulkner’s patrol car. (Official police crime-scene photos shown in Philadelphia filmmaker Tigre Hill’s 2010 documentary on this case also show no cab.)
Given the cold-shouldered reception American courts have given Abu-Jamal’s appeals, it’s ironic that the street bearing his name in Bobigny runs alongside a court building.
Still, many in Philadelphia dismiss Abu-Jamal’s far-flung supporters as dupes who let fiction of his asserted persecution trump the fact that he’s a murderer properly convicted and sentenced to prison. Many of these same people are also are convinced that he had minimal stature as a news reporter before his 1981 arrest.
The first award Abu-Jamal received for his journalism work came in July 1977, when he was one of seven reporters recognized for providing “information needed in these critical times” by a coalition of community groups. I know Abu-Jamal won that award because I was one of those eight award recipients.
It’s an article of faith among Abu-Jamal detractors that this inmate receives little support in his hometown. This ‘faith’ dismisses the existence of the Philadelphia founded/headquartered organization at the center of Abu-Jamal’s worldwide movement: the International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Interestingly, some of Abu-Jamal’s harshest critics have been passionate in exposing injustices endured by other inmates even going as far as taking principled positions of fighting for persons who don’t deny their guilt but who are legally entitled to relief due to procedural errors in their convictions.
While Abu-Jamal has won battles winning hearts, so far he’s lost the war for the minds of judges. One thing certain about the case is that the controversy will no doubt rage on for years.
Demitry Lapidus, a student at the prestigious London School of Economics, called the debacles surrounding Abu-Jamal’s conviction “disgraceful” during a London interview last November. “I am from Russia, and it makes me sad to see political prisoners in the U.S. the same as in Russia.”
Linn Washington Jr. is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune and a journalism professor at Temple University.