Reflections: Mumia Abu Jamal

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[National: Commentary]

This week marks the anniversary of the incarceration of Mumia Abu Jamal. My interaction with him a few years ago was during an event organized for Angela Y. Davis.
Davis is a living witness and participant in the historical struggles of a contemporary era. Professor Davis is known internationally for her ongoing work to combat all forms of oppression.

All of her life, as a student, professor, writer, scholar, activist and organizer, she has been actively engaged in the struggle for human rights. It was not until 1969 that Professor Davis came to national attention: at the time, her flight from authorities while on the FBI's Most Wanted List, infamous 1972 trial and subsequent acquittal by an all-white jury, became international news. Since her acquittal, Professor Davis has made the abolition of the death penalty, the release of political prisoners and the elimination of the Prison Industrial Complex the primary focus of her campaign against injustice.

Ten years after Angela Davis' acquittal, noted Philadelphia journalist, Mumia Abu Jamal's political activities, along with his personal and collective stance against institutionalized racism and police brutality placed him, like Angela Davis, in the line of fire. Mumia Abu Jamal was sentenced to Pennsylvania's death row after he was convicted of the murder of a member of Philadelphia Law Enforcement. In light of clear violations of his Constitutional Rights, in a highly political and publicized case, Mumia Abu Jamal's battle to obtain a new trial has become a unifying theme for individuals and social justice organizations in the United States and abroad.

I met both Angela Davis and Mumia Abu Jamal in the summer of 2006. Professor Davis was the recipient of the Merton Award. As the newly hired Development Director of the Thomas Merton Center for Peace & Justice, it was my job to oversee and coordinate the annual award ceremony. The planning for the awards dinner usually began six months in advance. I was fortunate to have an experienced dinner committee and several dedicated college interns to assist me. However, I knew as a director, whatever went wrong would be my responsibility. Although, I spent most of my day working against systemic injustice, I often attended university-sponsored social justice events in the evening. One university event I attended would increase my knowledge of Mumia Abu Jamal and challenge my commitment to raising awareness about the disparities in the American criminal justice system.

Staughton Lynd, noted civil rights attorney, was in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to lecture on the state of race relations in the United States. Before Staunton entered the lecture hall, the facilitator informed attendees that there would be a special introduction from Pennsylvania’s death row. The lights were lowered and an image of Mumia Abu Jamal appeared on the screen. I was familiar with his ongoing fight for a new trial, and aware that he recorded for Prison Radio, yet I'd never actually heard his voice. I listened to Abu Jamal's articulate and insightful introduction of Staunton Lynd from Pennsylvania death row and concluded that he was eloquent, knowledgeable and a teacher. As I sat in the darkened lecture hall at CMU, I couldn't help but wonder what might have been. What if Mumia Abu Jamal had been able to teach college courses like former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers and Professor Angela Davis?

The lecture was well-attended by local activists, students and the curious. Staunton Lynd spoke about his efforts in the civil rights movement and how, at one time, he experienced a level of "reciprocal interaction" among persons of color and whites which, asserted Lynd, was no longer evident in current social movements in the United States.

Lynd called on the audience to work to "re-establish the solidarity" that existed for a period of time in American history. In the twilight years of his life, and with a wealth of knowledge and experience behind him, Staunton Lynd challenged a new generation to carry on the legacy of political protest and cultural interaction that must exist to bring about social change.

I left the lecture hall that night in deep thought.

I was moved by both Mumia Abu Jamal's plight and Staunton Lynd's lecture on cultural interaction and solidarity. I wondered how I could help raise awareness about Mumia Abu Jamal's fight for a new trial. The next day at work, I was scheduled to attend a political event for former Steelers wide receiver and Republican candidate for Pennsylvania Governor, Lynn Swann. With his entourage running behind schedule, I arrived at the event and found Swann and his wife in the parking lot, alone except for the driver.

I stopped the candidate, and after getting a few photographs, asked him if he was familiar with the Mumia Abu Jamal case in Philadelphia. Swann said he was unfamiliar with the case, but that he was aware of disparities in the criminal system. I was never quite sure if Swann really knew about the case or not. He appeared genuine when he said he hadn't heard of the case. Nevertheless, I found Swann's assertion troubling, especially since Governor Rendell has been quite vocal about his belief in Mumia's guilt and his desire to see him executed. Before the Swann's said their goodbyes, the attractive and polished Mrs. Swann made sure to inform me that her mother had been on welfare, perhaps hoping that urban voters would relate to a tale of poverty, one generation removed.

When I returned to work, I informed the in-house development team that I wanted Mumia Abu Jamal to introduce Angela Davis in the same manner that I saw him introduce Staunton Lynd at Carnegie Mellon University. My idea did not take hold immediately. Many thought it would call for additional work when we already had so much to do. Others thought the time-frame, four weeks, was not conducive to a successful outcome. Still others felt the technological aspects could be problematic. No one volunteered to assume responsibility for coordinating the introduction. With very real memories of how meaningful it had been for me to hear Mumia's voice for the first time, I agreed to take on full responsibility for coordinating the last-minute assignment.

The first thing I did was contact Angela Davis' assistant on the West Coast to make sure that the civil rights icon wouldn't mind an introduction from Mumia. I was quickly assured by the assistant that Professor Davis would be thrilled to have Mumia introduce her at the award ceremony. I then contacted Carnegie Mellon University and spoke to the coordinators of the Staunton Lynd lecture. I learned there was a Free Mumia group on CMU campus.

I was provided contact information for Mumia and the next thing I did was write Mumia a letter introducing myself, the Merton Center and requesting an introduction for Professor Davis. Within a week, I received a neatly handwritten letter from Mumia stating that he would be honored to introduce Angela Davis. Mumia provided everything I needed to facilitate the recorded introduction. He included information on Prison Radio and requested that I send him specific material about Professor Davis and the Merton Center. He also asked for a deadline. I contacted Pittsburgh Independent Media and Prison Radio to assist in recording an introduction from Mumia, both organizations were more than cooperative. Everything was handled in a very professional manner.

Despite having to pull everything together at the last moment, the highly anticipated CD arrived in the mail a week before the awards dinner. We all listened to it several times in the office and everyone at the center was impressed. The day of the awards dinner, I was a little nervous. We held the event at the Sheraton Hotel and were expecting close to 700 guests. Angela Davis was the featured speaker and recipient of the 2006 Merton Award. I watched as members of Pittsburgh Independent Media ran through the intro a couple of times to make sure it was ready. Everything looked good and appeared to be on schedule. The event had been highly publicized, but only a handful of guests knew about the special introduction by Mumia Abu Jamal.

After a dinner of creamed pasta, steamed vegetables and crusty bread, the lights were lowered and a large screen came up. There before the audience was the handsome face of Mumia Abu Jamal. The audience was caught off guard and when he began his introduction there was total silence in the room. Mumia only spoke for a few moments, but his insightful words resonated with the audience. He made a few pointed, but humorous references to the 43rd president of the United States that generated chuckles from the audience. After completing his introduction to thunderous applause and a standing ovation, which he was unable to hear or see, Angela Davis stepped up to the podium and expressed genuine gratitude for Mumia's eloquent introduction and the enthusiastic response from the Pittsburgh audience.

I will always view the 2006 Merton Award Dinner as one of my most rewarding and successful events. Not only did I meet civil rights icon, Angela Davis, I also introduced the talented Mumia Abu Jamal to those who was unfamiliar with his case.

I know my efforts do not match or compare to the efforts of someone like civil liberties attorney Staunton Lynd or civil rights icon Angela Davis, but I believe that perhaps, in a small way, I'd done something to raise awareness about Mumia Abu Jamal's fight for justice.

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