Activists Galvanized by Death Row Inmate’s Case : Justice: Mumia Abu-Jamal is a convicted cop-killer. The Philadelphia man has attracted worldwide support.


On Dec. 9, 1981, during the chilled pre-dawn hours when only prostitutes, cabdrivers and cops are hard at work, Officer Daniel Faulkner stopped a green Volkswagen near the intersection of 13th and Locust streets.

Faulkner and the motorist, William Cook, got into a fistfight just as Cook’s brother, Mumia Abu-Jamal, a onetime radio reporter turned cabbie, cruised by. As Faulkner was handcuffing Cook, gunshots spoke into the night.

By the time more police arrived, Faulkner lay mortally wounded with a bullet in his back and another between his eyes. Abu-Jamal sat on the curb, his dreadlocked head slumped and a bullet wound in his chest. Cook stood unharmed against a brick wall.


A jury deliberated only four hours before convicting Abu-Jamal of first-degree murder. It needed less time than that to decide he should die for the crime.

Now, 14 years later, with Abu-Jamal’s execution scheduled for Aug. 17, what once seemed an open-and-shut case of cop-killing has erupted into a bitter controversy that is serving as a template for grass-roots community activists in Philadelphia. Like moths to a flame, movie stars, writers, college professors, religious leaders and international human rights advocates are drawn to Abu-Jamal’s case.


The answer, say social observers and political analysts, is the emergence of Abu-Jamal as a mediagenic personality who appeals to activists with extremist political views, coupled with a readily identifiable villain.

Abu-Jamal, who once served a term as president of the Philadelphia Assn. of Black Journalists, was a charismatic and outspoken advocate for the city’s black communities long before the Faulkner shooting. As a youth, he was a student leader who belonged to the Black Panther Party. Later he gained citywide notice for radio commentaries that supported MOVE, a black separatist group in Philadelphia, in its confrontations with police and city leaders.

Black separatist groups in Philadelphia have insisted from the beginning that Abu-Jamal was framed because of his support of nonconformist black organizations. Their campaign turned Abu-Jamal into regular front-page news and talk-radio fodder; that in turn attracted serious examination of Abu-Jamal’s case by liberal-leaning Establishment groups.

The villain’s role has fallen to Judge Albert Sabo, a former law enforcement official with a reputation for handing down death sentences. Seated high above a second-floor courtroom in City Hall, the judge is overseeing hearings to determine whether Abu-Jamal should get a new trial.


Sabo, the same judge who presided over Abu-Jamal’s original trial, has become a protest target because of his open contempt for Abu-Jamal and his supporters. He has rebuffed efforts by Leonard Weinglass, the noted civil rights attorney representing Abu-Jamal, to persuade him to recuse himself from the hearing for a new trial.

“For the 10th time, the 20th time, the 30th time, your recusal request is denied,” Sabo said when a retrial hearing convened here last week.

Jailed ‘Metaphor’

Randall Miller, a professor of history and urban studies at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, said: “Abu-Jamal is a metaphor for so many things that are wrong. That is why his case attracts so much attention.”

As Abu-Jamal’s hearing continued last week, dozens of his supporters jammed the steamy corridor outside the courtroom, with television crews and an international contingent of reporters recording every move. Faxes, letters and proclamations from politicians streamed by the hundreds into the judge’s chambers, pleading on behalf of Abu-Jamal.

Outside City Hall more than 100 other protesters, representing a broad array of labor unions, community groups, religious organizations, college instructors and assorted other professionals, chanted and paraded through a courtyard.

Such demonstrations have drawn others to the cause. Celebrities, from Hollywood’s Ed Asner and Whoopi Goldberg to New York’s E.L. Doctorow and William Styron, have joined with Amnesty International and the National Assn. of Black Journalists to express support for Abu-Jamal. An ad hoc group of college professors, Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal, organized itself and persuaded Cornel West, a Harvard philosophy and religion scholar, to attend a recent hearing on Abu-Jamal’s case.


In blue jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts, political activists all across the nation have joined arms with kinte-wearing African Americans to drum up grass-roots demonstrations reminiscent of 1960s anti-war protests. Their common shouted demand: “Free Mumia, Now!”

Even social reformers from abroad have joined forces. In a twist of international political protesting, the Azanian Students Convention, a radical South African youth organization, recently picketed the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria. Other protests have taken place in Japan and Western Europe.

William H. Brown, chairman of a citizens panel that examined the Philadelphia Police Department’s performance during its 1985 attack on the MOVE group, said even that episode did not focus so much international attention on Philadelphia’s justice system.

The MOVE incident, in which 11 people were killed and 60 homes destroyed when police dropped a bomb on the group’s home and allowed it to burn, infuriated black activists nationwide and drew criticism from abroad, Brown said. “But even after the deaths occurred, you didn’t have a great outpouring of sympathy for the MOVE people.

“The Abu-Jamal case doesn’t begin to come close to the severity of the MOVE situation, but people are much more up in arms over this case.”

Only a small core of protesters argues that Abu-Jamal is innocent. A far greater number say they are protesting because they regard his treatment in the courts as unfair.


But amid the fervent support in Philadelphia for Abu-Jamal is an undercurrent of resentment among police officers over the attention he has garnered at the expense, they contend, of the memory of their slain colleague, Daniel Faulkner.

Three hundred police officers held a rally three weeks ago at the corner where Faulkner was killed, a “silent vigil of outrage,” said Richard Costello, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police. “It’s important to keep his spirit alive,” said Officer Gary Bell of Faulkner, his partner and best friend.

Critics of the Philadelphia police say the Abu-Jamal case, like the MOVE episode, grew from a history of police brutality and corruption in relations with black residents.

More specifically, Abu-Jamal supporters say police withheld evidence and intimidated witnesses into testifying against him. Police counter that Abu-Jamal’s gun was the murder weapon. Two witnesses identified him as the killer, while two other witnesses said they heard Abu-Jamal boast of the shooting at the hospital.

Disruptive Defendant

Abu-Jamal’s 1992 trial has proved as controversial as his arrest, particularly to opponents of capital punishment, who say he may be executed without having had a fair trial. Abu-Jamal disrupted the proceedings sufficiently that Judge Sabo twice ordered him removed from the courtroom.

Prosecutors argue that Abu-Jamal’s conduct was part of a deliberate strategy to enable him to appeal his conviction on grounds that his trial was unfair. In any case, that is exactly what he has done.


“He has a strong position to demand a new trial,” said Weinglass. “A fair review of the evidence will convince an impartial jury there isn’t guilt beyond reasonable doubt.”

Leaders of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a community activist group organized to draw attention to the issue, accuse the 74-year-old Sabo of bias in his courtroom expressions of disgust with Abu-Jamal’s supporters. They say he should have recused himself from hearings to determine whether Abu-Jamal may receive a new trial.

Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal, including Columbia law professor Patricia J. Williams, criticize prosecutors for limiting the number of blacks on the jury to two and then playing on whites’ fears by drawing attention to Abu-Jamal’s former Black Panther membership.

“It is impossible to sort out the ‘truth’ of this case at the distance from which I write,” Williams said in The Nation magazine. “Nevertheless, weighing the improprieties of Abu-Jamal’s trial [including the possible suppression of evidence] against the life-or-death stakes for him, I am convinced that Abu-Jamal deserves another trial.”

Death Row Reporter

Even the terms of Abu-Jamal’s incarceration have been controversial. First Amendment advocates, such as the black journalists’ group, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Reporters’ Committee, joined in a brief to express outrage that prison authorities and National Public Radio executives curtailed Abu-Jamal’s opportunity to voice critical commentaries on prison life from his Death Row cell. They say his access to family and reporters has been limited since the May publication of “Live From Death Row,” a collection of Abu-Jamal’s essays.

The essays were originally written for broadcast on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” After NPR, which is partly supported by federal money, decided not to air Abu-Jamal’s commentaries, his supporters angrily charged NPR with caving in to government intimidation and interfering with the imprisoned journalist’s ability to speak.


“We are not political advocates for him, and we’re not trying to determine his guilt or innocence,” said Allison Pratt, who is promoting Abu-Jamal’s book for Addison-Wesley publishers. “We believe he has a right to be heard because he is an articulate correspondent from a silent hot zone.”