I’ve never been emotionally invested in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the radio journalist convicted for the murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1982.
When he was jailed, I was a middle-school student, more concerned with the awkwardness of adolescence than issues of race and criminal justice.
Yet, his case continues to rile a passionate group of people, creating strange bedfellows.
From Hollywood mainstays like Ed Asner to black nationalists like Pam Africa, from liberal academics in New England to expatriates in Paris, Abu-Jamal’s supporters are strident, unyielding and persistent.
Their view of the facts varies, but their conclusion is always the same: Abu-Jamal, in their collective opinion, was railroaded by a racist criminal-justice system, and nothing short of his freedom can right that wrong.
Through a Philly lens
Having grown up in Philadelphia, under the reign of Frank Rizzo, I can understand that view, even if I don’t completely agree.
The Philadelphia Police Department was like an occupying army in the black community.
They beat and harassed African Americans with impunity, earning the reputation as one of the country’s most corrupt and brutal police departments. They were probed by the FBI and castigated by black leaders like Cecil B. Moore.
But when I watched police beat a black man at 25th and Oxford sts. in the ’80s, I didn’t know the enmity between the community and police stretched back for decades.
I know now, and with that knowledge as a backdrop, I understand those who view Abu-Jamal’s murder conviction as a pseudo-lynching.
I also understand the grief of Maureen Faulkner, the widow who continues to fight for her husband’s memory.
What I don’t understand is what happened after Abu-Jamal delivered a recorded graduation speech earlier this month.
The speech, which was delivered to about 20 students at Goddard College in Vermont, seemed innocuous enough. It included encouragement about transforming the world and following one’s passion.
But the speech — just one of thousands of essays Abu-Jamal has written since his imprisonment — rankled those who believe him to be guilty of Faulkner’s murder. That started a political rush to silence him.
Senate Bill 508, which allows crime victims to seek civil action against “conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim,” gives families the right to sue an offender. It is designed to muzzle prisoners.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill, which passed 11 days after Abu-Jamal gave his recorded commencement speech at Goddard College, and less than a month before the gubernatorial election.
The bill, which opponents say specifically targets Abu-Jamal, is troubling on its face.
Not only because it represents a blatant attack on First Amendment rights.
Not only because Corbett, lined up with largely white supporters at the sight of Faulkner’s death is an ugly racial image.
Muzzled behind bars
The bill is troubling because it represents an effort to cordon off the place from which men and women have written some of the greatest literature ever produced.
If Corbett had his way, Chester Himes would never have written the spectacular stories he published while imprisoned for robbery from 1928 to 1936.
Had Corbett been in charge, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been unable to write his Letter from Birmingham City Jail.
If Corbett were an ancient ruler, the Apostle Paul would never have had the chance to write the letters that form much of the Bible’s New Testament.
If Abu-Jamal killed Daniel Faulkner all those years ago, then he has been punished for that crime.
‘Flagrant’ constitutional violation
But, who will punish Corbett and the others who would push through such a flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution? Who will stand up for what is right?
I would hope Pennsylvanians of all stripes would do so.
As much as Gov. Corbett paints this as a victims’ rights issue, the bill has the look of a political ploy in an election he’s poised to lose.
Beyond the politics, however, it’s an issue of human rights.
It’s an issue of free speech.
It’s an issue that concerns all of us.
Because if we stand by and allow the governor to unconstitutionally silence one man today, what’s to stop him from doing the same to us tomorrow?