Commute Abu-Jamal's Sentence, but Don't Make Him a Hero


The news that Mumia Abu-Jamal will soon make virtual appearances in Ohio ("Abu-Jamal to Speak Via Tape at Antioch, Kent State Events," CityBeat issue of April 13-19) leaves me saddened over a life discarded and disappointed that earnest people have been drawn to a cause founded on dubious revision and convenient omission of fact.

I, too, have been spellbound by Abu-Jamal's brilliant writing and sonorous delivery on topics of social, racial and criminal justice. But unlike those who've invited Mumia to speak in Yellow Springs and Kent, my experience came more than 20 years ago while a coworker at Philadelphia's WUHY-FM. My direct involvement with Mumia, beyond the usual workplace pleasantries, was to occasionally provide him with studio time and arrange to transmit some of his work to National Public Radio.

Mumia was a brilliant radio presence. Most importantly, he was perhaps the only journalist in the city to report sympathetically on MOVE, an organization routinely referred to as a "radical, back-to-nature group."

MOVE (not an acronym) emerged as a small, enigmatic group of African Americans in dreadlocks — a curiosity in the Afro'd 1970s — who adopted the surname "Africa" and eschewed most technology, notably indoor plumbing. One contemporary appliance they did use was the bullhorn. Neighbors' complaints led city officials to attempt a building inspection. Met by armed inhabitants, a police tactical unit was called in.

The subsequent standoff ended in gunfire, leaving one police officer dead. MOVE's Delbert Africa was videotaped surrendering, then being dragged by his hair and beaten by police. The house was razed the following day.

Mumia's reporting on MOVE led station management to believe his objectivity was compromised. Unable to agree on this point, Mumia was fired. He briefly reported for a commercial AM station, then supported himself by driving a taxicab.

The critical event of Mumia's life was the pre-dawn murder on Dec. 9, 1981, of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. It was reported that the shooting was precipitated when Faulker detained Mumia's brother, William Cook, for a traffic violation. Mumia was arrested several feet from Faulkner's body, his own spent handgun laying nearby, wounded by a bullet from Faulkner's weapon. Mumia was convicted of the crime in 1982 and sentenced to death. Today his supporters make various claims:

· He is innocent. Mumia was convicted in a jury trial with eyewitness testimony. He has never offered an alternate account of events.

· He was denied a fair trial. Mumia demanded to act as his own attorney, with MOVE leader John Africa as his co-counsel. The judge refused to appoint Mr. Africa, instead assigning a public defender. Mumia did not cooperate with the attorney and was removed from the courtroom on multiple occasions for disrupting the proceedings. Cook never testified and today cannot be found.

· His fame made him a police target. Mumia's radio work earned several awards, but WUHY in the late '70s was a little-known station that served a minuscule slice of the region's radio audience. Moreover, no radio reporter is likely to be recognized in public.

· He is a political prisoner. Mumia's political beliefs cost him his radio job and are at the heart of his failure to offer a legal defense that might at least have spared him the death sentence. But a jury convicted and sentenced him for murder.

MOVE regrouped in West Philadelphia where several, including John Africa, famously perished when a fire, ignited by police, consumed an entire city block. In the late 1980s, MOVE survivors ceaselessly protested Mumia's imprisonment, creating today's international cause. Mumia has written prolifically on his death row experience, and NPR's 1994 reversal, amid intense debate, of a decision to air taped commentaries increased claims of political repression.

As a product of Quaker schooling, my attitude toward the death penalty can be surmised. The city and courts deserve some of the beating they've taken in both this case and the MOVE confrontations; and I'm no fan of police who simply dismiss Mumia as a "cop-killer." There are enough unresolved issues to go around.

We've learned to treat complex issues simplistically and to accept character flaws in our heroes. But this tragedy is more convoluted, its hero more flawed, than most. What's worse? That we're so quick to embrace an attractive, articulate symbol, details be damned? Or Mumia's silence in the matter of Faulkner's death? Doesn't Mumia's persistent failure to fully address his own guilt or innocence undermine his credibility?

Here's a compromise: Work to commute Mumia Abu-Jamal's sentence and stop lionizing him.

DAVE ARNOLD is general manager of WNKU-FM.

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