Mumia Abu-Jamal, journalist, revolutionary, and US political prisoner, remains undefeated after decades of incarceration and an entire lifetime of persecution.
Mumia has been in prison since he was convicted of murdering police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981, at the age of 27. But Mumia has been monitored and directly repressed by the US policing system since the age of 14. The actions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Philadelphia police department, and the Philadelphia courts against Mumia indicate that for the state, Mumia’s journalism and political consciousness represents an acute threat.
In this he is not alone. Peoples Dispatch has previously explored the case of Ruchell Magee, currently the longest-held US political prisoner. Ruchell is a threat to the state because of what he represents as a modern-day slave who rose up in rebellion against the incarceration system.
What threat does Mumia Abu-Jamal represent to the system of mass policing and incarceration? Peoples Dispatch spoke to Noelle Hanrahan, founder of an independent media project that promotes the voices of political prisoners, Prison Radio, for answers.
A young panther
“His very first gig as a journalist was with the Black Panther Party paper in Philadelphia and then later in Oakland.” Hanrahan said of Mumia’s early life. “He was questioning. He was open. He was creative, and he was bringing it all in, putting it all together, and unrelenting. Uncompromising.”
Mumia, born Wesley Cook, grew up poor in Philadelphia public housing. From an early age, he became politicized. In high school, after beginning a Swahili class, he followed in the tradition of Muhammad Ali and dropped his “slave name”, or the name he inherited from enslaved ancestors. He took the name Mumia, meaning “Prince”, and which was also the name of an anti-colonial freedom fighter from Kenya.
In 1968, in one of Mumia’s first forays into politics, he and his friends decided to attend a George Wallace campaign rally in Philadelphia. Wallace, who had previously served as governor of Alabama, was one of the most unabashedly anti-Civil Rights politicians and was running for president. Mumia and his friends, outraged that such a notorious racist was coming to their city, disrupted the rally with shouts of “Black Power!” Mumia and his group were soon attacked and beaten by the white attendees of the rally. Mumia described his experience in an interview in the documentary Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary:
“The police surrounded us, you know, in a matter of moments, and escorted us, rather roughly I should say, out of the [venue of the rally]. There were people spitting on us, n***er this, n***er that. I remember being pummeled and being beaten to the ground. I remember looking around and I saw a pant leg. It was blue and had a stripe on it, so it told me this was a cop. So doing what I was taught to do all my life I said, ‘Yo, help, police,’ you know? And I remember the guy walking over very briskly, and his foot going back and kicking me in the face. I’ve always said thank you to that cop because he kicked me straight into the Black Panther Party.”
Mumia, as a 14-year-old enraged at the systematic mistreatment and oppression of Black people by police, became a young Black Panther. Mumia quickly rose to the Minister of Information in the fledgling Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party, gaining revolutionary journalistic experience. His articles, serving a catalyzing purpose beyond the distribution of information, often ended with a call to action: “Do Something, N***er, [Even] If You Only Spit!”
It was also around this time that the FBI, as part of its illegal counterinsurgency operation against the Panthers (COINTELPRO), began to keep tabs on Mumia. The police were part of this operation, and the Philadelphia Panthers became the victims of several raids of their Party office by the police. Police commissioner Frank Rizzo emerged as a key enemy of the Panthers. After a particularly harsh and illegal raid, in which police forced the Panthers to strip in the streets, Rizzo remarked, “They were humiliated. We took their pants off them to search them…only brave when they outnumber people…if they break our law, we’ll be there. The police, we’ll be there, and we’ll see who wins.”
As described by researcher, author and journalist Todd Steven Borroughs, “More than 600 sheets of paper would be compiled on Cook [by the Federal Bureau of Investigation] from 1969, when he had turned 15, until about 1974, the year of his 20th birthday.” Much later, when COINTELPRO documents began to be released to the public, supporters discovered a photograph of Mumia, obtained from the FBI, which had the word “Dead” scrawled across the back.
A “voice for the voiceless”
Mumia left the Black Panther Party in 1970 at the age of 16 and he continued his studies, which he had put on pause to be a full-time Panther. He went on to use his experience as Minister of Information to become a radio journalist.
Yet he never abandoned his revolutionary politics. In his career, he relentlessly pursued the truth, no matter how that pursuit challenged those in power. Mumia also became a “voice for the voiceless”, amplifying the perspectives of those the mainstream media often ignored. After the Black revolutionary MOVE organization was systematically persecuted and framed by the Philadelphia police for the alleged murder of an officer, Mumia became one of the only journalists in the city to cover MOVE sympathetically.
In his book All Things Censored, Mumia described how he made sure to differentiate his radical style of journalism from the mainstream:
“While working a full shift on Saturday, I took my lunch break to jump on my ten-speed, pedaled up to the site of the continuing police-MOVE confrontation, and obtained some audio from MOVE member Chuckie Africa, raging at the armed presence of hundreds of cops, arrayed for imminent attack on his home and family….listeners to the station would hear not only the voices of then-mayor Frank Rizzo and ex-police commissioner James O’Neill, but also the angry voice of Chuck Africa, railing at the de facto occupation of his neighborhood by the armed forces of the state. Management was not pleased.”
Mumia’s militant journalism and fearlessness in challenging power would once again put him on the radar of the powerful of law enforcement. On August 8, 1978, Frank Rizzo, then the mayor of Philadelphia, was at a press conference following a violent raid on the home of MOVE members. Police had raided the house, fired tear gas, water and bullets, and viciously beat MOVE member Delbert Africa. Young Black journalist Mumia spoke up from the crowd, publicly questioning the version of events that Rizzo and the City were laying out. Rizzo responded with an overt threat against all journalists present,
“People who unfortunately have confidence in the media…They believe what you write, and what you say, and it’s got to stop. And one day, and I hope it’s in my career, that you’re going to have to be held responsible and accountable for what you do.”
“They’re trying to kill me”
On December 9, 1981, Mumia was arrested. At the time, Mumia had trouble with his editors and management at his news outlets due to his bold challenges of established power. In order to feed his growing family, he began to drive a cab to his work. While driving into the late hours of the night, Mumia stumbled upon an extraordinary scene: police beating his brother Billy Cook with a flashlight. Mumia pulled over, and the altercation that followed would leave Mumia shot and police officer Daniel Faulkner dead. When his sister visited him in the hospital, she remembers Mumia telling her, “They’re trying to kill me.” Mumia was now implicated in the death of a police officer. Six months later, he would be convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Based on the extensive FBI filings on Mumia, and his public challenges of those in power as a journalist, many of his supporters believe that Philadelphia police used this incident as a way to silence a powerful voice. Hanrahan articulates, “[The police] were certainly going to target him, maybe not prior to his being involved in the incident, but certainly when they knew who they had, they targeted him.” Mumia’s trial, rife with corruption and mismanagement on the part of the state, took a political character when the police realized who exactly they had caught. A key piece of the prosecution’s strategy to impose a death sentence against him was a Mao Zedong quote that he had had used in the Black Panther Party paper, that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. The prosecution used this quote, used by Panthers as a way to describe the violent history of the United States, to turn the jury against him.
According to Amnesty International, Mumia’s trial was “unfair”. When one learns only a few of the facts of the case, this seems like an understatement. Eventually, nearly a third of the police officers on the scene the night of the incident were tried and eventually convicted for corruption and evidence tampering. This came as a result of a Department of Justice investigation on the Philadelphia Police Department, in which the DOJ declared it had revealed a level of corruption that “shocks the conscience”. Specifically in Mumia’s case, the crime scene photos directly contradict the prosecution’s claims, and show police actively tampering with evidence. The judge in the trial, Albert Sabo, was a notorious racist who was overheard telling another judge, “I’m going to help them fry the n***er” in relation to Mumia.
A “convicted cop-killer” or a manifestation of resistance?
Mumia was eventually convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer. This particular charge is significant. Many US political prisoners have been framed for the same crime, notably Assata Shakur, who was convicted of murdering a New Jersey State Trooper. According to Professor Johanna Fernandez, who has struggled in the movement for Mumia’s release, “In the post sixties period, the alleged murder of a police officer replaces the mythological rape of a white woman as the basis for the legal lynching of black men.”
This charge set the stage for the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the largest police organization in the US, to make Mumia one of their most significant enemies—consistently labeling him as a “convicted cop-killer”. The FOP has gone as far as to demand an economic boycott of businesses and individuals who support Mumia. Hanrahan articulated why the FOP is so threatened by Mumia:
“I would say that the Fraternal Order of Police and police in general throughout the United States serve a function…They are used in order to police the black community and communities of color, in order to preserve capitalism or to preserve how the order is…
So how does Mumia relate to that? That is the context. And the resistance to that police occupation is seen by the police and the Fraternal Order of Police as the ultimate in exposing what they’re doing…So when you have Mumia or you have Assata or you have the Black Panther Party, you have manifestations of resistance.”
Since Mumia’s conviction, the movement to free him has won significant victories. In 2001, Mumia and his supporters succeeded in vacating his death sentence. Mumia has suffered various health struggles while in prison, but his successful struggle for Hepatitis-C treatment set a precedent in improving treatment for the disease for other prisoners. Media projects such as Prison Radio successfully promote Mumia’s political commentary and written works, ensuring that the state never succeeds in silencing his powerful voice. Both Mumia and his supporters continue to protest in the streets and fight for appeals to win his release.
Hanrahan described how after decades, the movement to free Mumia has remained as steadfast as ever. “We’ve continued to fight and win lawsuits in order to continue broadcasting Mumia and getting his audio out every week. And we are now at a moment where we are building for his release. We believe that Mumia Abu-Jamal will be released and he will come home and that feeling that eventuality is tangible…We’ve won a lot and we’re going to win more.”