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Think Twice Before You Wear Your “Free Mumia” T-shirt

I was sitting in the student union at the University of Chicago last week when a student came by putting “Free Mumia” leaflets on the tables.

I have never paid much attention to the Mumia Abu-Jamal case. On the one hand, I know enough about police, the criminal justice system, and racism to believe that an innocent black man could be framed. On the other hand, it makes me nervous when people like Mike Farrell, Oliver Stone, Sting, and Jacques Derrida suddenly become legal experts and publicly proclaim the innocence of someone on death row.

Whatever else you might think of Abu-Jamal, one has to congratulate him on an incredibly effective media campaign over the last 15 years.

It started in 1991 when Yale Law Journal published an article by Abu-Jamal entitled “Teetering on the Brink Between Life and Death” and was fueled by his book Live From Death Row. (I’m pretty sure I own that book; I’m more sure that I never read very far into it.) Somehow, Abu-Jamal and his supporters have managed to keep Hollywood celebrities and cohort after cohort of college students convinced of his innocence and willing to work on his behalf.

He has been somewhat less successful in the court room.

His death sentence has been turned over on a technicality, but I believe he still faces life in prison without parole. Even while on death row he was pretty safe: there are more than 200 people currently sentenced to death in Pennsylvania, and there have been three executions in that state in the last forty years. As in most states, death row in Pennsylvania is a lot safer than the streets if you are a criminal.

To anyone interested in the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, I highly recommend a book entitled, Murdered by Mumia written by Maureen Faulkner and Michael Smerconish. Maureen Faulkner is the widow of Danny Faulkner, the police officer who Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing. Michael Smerconish is an outspoken (but extremely intelligent) writer and radio host in Philadelphia.

Having just finished the book in a single sitting, I can’t say I feel too sympathetic to Abu-Jamal. It’s easy to be swayed when you only hear one side of the story, but I have to say that the facts (at least as presented here) don’t look so good for him.

If you are a college student, or a Hollywood celebrity, thinking about publicly proclaiming Abu-Jamal’s innocence, I strongly recommend that you read this book first. One of my favorite passages from the book will give you a little extra incentive. In this (slightly condensed) excerpt, Maureen Faulkner describes a chance encounter with a college student 15 years and 3,000 miles away from where her husband died:

As I pumped gas, a young man, a white kid who looked college age, pulled up behind me. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal,” and it immediately caught my eye.

I walked up and asked him where he got the T-shirt. He said he was a student at U.C.L.A. and they had recently held a rally for Abu-Jamal. I asked him if he knew anything about the case in which Abu-Jamal was involved.

He said, “Well, I know that this guy was a Black Panther who was railroaded. Someone else shot a police officer and he was framed for it.” I cringed when he went on with the usual recitation of misinformation being spun by the Abu-Jamal defenders: a peaceful black activist, a social dissident, hostile white police force, F.B.I. surveillance, conned eyewitness accounts, phony ballistics, etc.

I heard him out and offered to provide him with the actual facts of the case. He politely declined my offer. Before I left, I suggested that when he wore a political statement on his chest he would be well served if he knew his facts, because you never know when you might run into the widow of the officer. I left him in stunned silence.