On December 9th, 1981, Mumia Abu-Jamal was arrested for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Faulkner had pulled over Abu-Jamal’s brother, William Cook, when witnesses say that Mr. Cook’s brother came out of the parking lot. A scuffle ensued, and the police officer was found dead – shot once in the back and in the head, while Abu-Jamal was shot in the stomach. Abu-Jamal was placed on death row for thirty years, during which time he was christened “the world’s best known death-row inmate” by the media and was resentenced to life in prison without parole in 2011. Through multiple appeals to state courts, the writer and radio commentator continued to maintain his innocence. Popular opinion of the man and his case is polarized; with some believing him to be an unrepentant murderer and others insisting that he is a victim of a biased, corrupt legislative system.
Born Wesley Cook on April 24th, 1954, Abu-Jamal joined the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party at the age of fourteen. Until 1974, he was subject to FBI COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) surveillance, a program designed to “neutralize” subversive domestic dissidents, i.e. national political organizations that served as the fountainhead for class, race and gender struggles. Following his brief tenure as a Black Panther, Abu-Jamal quickly made a name for himself as a principled, objective journalist, becoming the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. Preceding his arrest in 1981 for his alleged murder of Faulkner, his output was prolific. While in prison, Abu-Jamal established his ‘right to write’ for financial gain and publicly broadcasted his commentaries on the radio waves.
In defiance of his incarceration, Abu-Jamal has remained politically vocal, both on the air via radio and in remote appearances. In 1991, he addressed the students of Evergreen State College, and in 2000 he delivered the commencement address at Antioch College. His zeal for pressing social and political issues, both as a free man and an imprisoned one, has been channeled through his writings, and following his arrest, he fought for his ‘right to write’ in prison with the 1998 ruling on Abu-Jamal v Price. His right was secured and he fully assumed the mantle of jail journalist. In doing so, Abu-Jamal faced paradox; aren’t offenders stripped of their rights and freedoms when they commit a crime? How can they have a voice when there are bars that keep them silent? Even as a young black nationalist from Philadelphia, Abu-Jamal found ways to bend the rules and insist that his voice be heard. His first piece of ‘jail journalism’, published in the Yale Law Journal in 1991 during his incarceration, was titled ‘Teetering on the Brink: Between Life and Death’. When his execution was stayed in 1995, his attempts at reaching the outside world were thwarted time and again by prison authorities and state agents alike, but Abu-Jamal continued to speak, most notably through Prison Radio, on sociopolitical issues such as the death penalty (which he calls a ‘failed experiment’) and life in confinement.
The writer’s continued struggle against the political and legal establishment reached a head on October 5, 2014, when Abu-Jamal delivered a commencement address by way of video recording at Goddard College. The graduating class of this small Vermont school chose their famous alumnus to give them a headline-making send off, much to the chagrin Maureen Faulkner, police officer Daniel Faulkner’s widow. She has called the commencement address “despicable” and that Abu-Jamal’s freedom was “taken away when he murdered a police officer in the line of duty”. The widowed Faulkner has made obvious her disdain for a justice system that “allows murderers to continue to have a voice over the public airwaves and at college commencement”. In response to a choir of conservative outrage, of which Maureen Faulkner and the Fraternal Order of Police were a part, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed into law the ‘Revictimization Relief Act’, which permits the censorship of a prisoner’s public addresses if their words could cause “mental anguish” for a victim. The governor has also stated that “while law-abiding citizens are entitled to an array of rights… convicted felons in prison are in prison because they abused and surrendered their rights. And nobody has a right to continually taunt the victims of their violent crimes in the public square.”
Abu-Jamal, in several correspondences with news media, has stressed that he had not spoken a word about the events of December 9th, 1981 during his commencement addresses, and that the passage of this new law is openly and unabashedly unconstitutional in denying the free speech of prisoners. The latter sentiment has been widespread in its consensus, with Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Pennsylvania chapter stating, “Any action by an inmate or former offender that could cause ‘mental anguish’ could be banned by a judge,” and adding that the bill shouldn’t have passed under First Amendment rights.
Abu-Jamal, now sixty years old, continues to defend his right to free speech and representation in the media. His voice resonates across the news as a defiant, yet distinctly jilted voice, knowing that as loudly as he speaks to the world, he will not be heard willingly by many. The Revictimization Relief Act, designed specifically to dissolve one jailed voice of its social strength, has not deterred Abu-Jamal in decrying the legislation’s deliberate attack on his constitutional right to free speech. In an interview with Democracy Now, he discussed his commencement address at Goddard College: “I attended and graduated from that college. I was invited by the staff and the students and the administrators to talk to my college about what it meant to get an education from Goddard. I did that. And if the Constitution doesn’t protect that, then it protects nothing. If the Constitution can be used against one, it can be used against all.”