A gag rule aimed at Mumia
reports on the latest chapter in the decades-long campaign by Pennsylvania officials to muzzle the the most famous political prisoner in the U.S.
JOURNALIST AND political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal is once again in the crosshairs of Pennsylvania authorities intent on silencing him. In response to a college commencement speech by Mumia, state officials are moving to fast-track a bill through the legislature that is nothing more than an attack on prisoners' free speech.
The "Revictimization Relief Act" would curtail speech by prisoners by allowing crime victims and district attorneys to sue people who have been convicted of "personal injury" crimes for speaking out publicly. Prisoners' supporters could also be held liable. First introduced into committee on October 7, the bill has sped through both houses of the legislature. Gov. Tom Corbett championed the bill and has promised to sign it as quickly as possible--outrageously, at the spot where the Philadelphia officer Mumia is falsely accused of shooting was killed.
Right-wing elected officials and members of the Fraternal Order of Police have long singled out Abu-Jamal for a host of vindictive campaigns.
Mumia was arrested in December 1981 for the shooting death of officer Daniel Faulker. In a trial riddled with racist jury selection practices, coerced eyewitness testimony, and blatant prosecutorial and judicial misconduct, he was wrongfully convicted and sent to death row in 1982. Huge inconsistencies in both ballistics and eyewitness evidence were covered up or ignored, with the police and courts opting to pursue a conviction against Mumia at all costs.
Gaping holes in the case prompted Amnesty International to conclude in a 2,000-page report "that the proceedings used to convict and sentence Mumia Abu-Jamal to death were in violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures and the use of the death penalty...[T]he interests of justice would best be served by the granting of a new trial."
After almost three decades of appeals and a tireless campaign by supporters, Mumia's death sentence was finally overturned for good in the fall of 2011. He was moved to Pennsylvania's general prison population, but remains locked up with a life without parole sentence.
Every step of the way, the campaign for Abu-Jamal has been countered by police organizations and the victim's widow Maureen Faulkner--they have pursued Mumia and his supporters with an almost fanatical determination.
The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has expended countless hours undermining Mumia's access to news outlets and pushing to keep him on death row even after his death sentence was ruled unconstitutional. When Mumia was made an honorary citizen of Paris and the French city of Saint-Denis named a street after him, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a 2006 resolution condemning both Mumia and Saint-Denis.
The following year, when Faulkner toured the country with her newly published Murdered By Mumia, she displayed such a single-minded insistence that Abu-Jamal was a "cold-blooded killer" that even mainstream TV host Matt Lauer was compelled to ask her whether she ever stopped to consider whether Mumia might in fact be innocent.
Earlier this year, FOP President Chuck Canterbury joined forces with other opponents of President Barack Obama's nominee for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division director, former NAACP Legal Defense Fund head Debo Adegbile. Their efforts were ultimately successful in blocking his appointment because of his supposed ties to Mumia, despite Adegbile having no role in appeals filed by the organization.
THE LATEST chapter in this decades-long police vendetta began on October 5 when Mumia delivered a pre-recorded commencement address to Vermont's Goddard College, where Abu-Jamal earned a BA, awarded in 1996 while he was on death row. The next day, Republican legislator Mike Vereb denounced the speech as a "taxpayer funded rant" and pushed the state house to quickly pass the "Revictimization Relief Act."
The bill is the latest attempt to not only undermine the ongoing struggle to win Mumia's freedom, but also muzzle Mumia himself. A former Black Panther and author of six books and hundreds of columns and articles, Abu-Jamal has gained global recognition for his wide-ranging writings on mass incarceration, police brutality, class inequality and U.S. imperialism.
As a Goddard College official commented in response to the outcry, "What students are attracted to in Mumia is his journalism, his ability to continue to speak for a very underrepresented population, the prison population, and his ability to do so in a way that's powerful to people of this generation."
A Call to Action issued by groups that support Mumia, including International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal (ICFFMAJ), the National Lawyers Guild, the Center for Constitutional Rights and others, lays out the stakes of the bill, stating that it:
affords virtually unlimited discretion to District Attorneys and the Attorney General to silence prisoner speech, by claiming that such speech causes victims' families "mental anguish." This law targets both prisoners' speech and supporters who sponsor that speech. Thus, under the guise of victim relief, politicians are claiming a power that if granted to them will be difficult if not impossible for citizens to check.
Activists are continuing to mobilize opposition to the bill, and it could also likely face a court challenge. The ACLU of Pennsylvania denounced the bill in no uncertain terms, saying:
The language of these bills is overbroad and vague, and completely undermines the fundamental value of free speech found in the First Amendment of the federal constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania opposes both HB 2533 and SB 508. If enacted, this legislation will have a chilling effect on the advocacy efforts on issues of public interest by inmates and former offenders.
IMPORTANTLY, MUMIA is only one--albeit perhaps the best known--of a number of political prisoners behind bars in Pennsylvania. Others include Russell "Maroon" Shoats, Imam Jamil Al-Amin and the MOVE 9
. With a massive system of correctional control and the fourth largest death row in the country, Pennsylvania hopes to use the Revictimization Act to derail struggles for prisoner justice and silence those like Mumia who stand in the radical and revolutionary traditions of opposition to U.S. government policy, at home and abroad.
Mumia has always played an active role in social movements, both from behind bars and on the outside--from his earliest years in the Black revolutionary movement, to the antiwar struggle against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to the Occupy Wall Street movement, and now the emerging movement against police violence. Earlier this month, he opened the Hip Hop and Resistance concert headlined by Talib Kweli during Ferguson October, speaking to a venue filled to capacity at 500 with mostly young people from the St. Louis area.
At a time of growing resistance to police brutality and the incarceration boom, shutting down the words of Mumia Abu-Jamal and others prisoners poses additional urgency to those seeking to keep those voices hidden. As Johanna Fernandez of Educators for Mumia said:
The bill is a gag rule that attempts to silence some of the most powerful voices in the emerging movement against mass incarceration: the victims of the system itself. But in making liable to suits those who in any way help amplify prisoners' voices in public, this bill is a naked attack on the growing movement against mass incarceration and the movement to bring political prisoners home.
Mumia's case has always had far-reaching implications because when you boil it down, the case is about the naked silencing of dissent by the state...In this context, the last thing the state wants is for connections to be fostered between the struggle against police violence in the streets of Ferguson and the fight against the warehousing of the poor and the disproportionately Black people who are languishing in U.S. prisons. Mumia's case and his life's work embody and explain that these two issues are about one fight.