On the Move: Depolarizing Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Wrongful Imprisonment

For years, the Left alone has taken on the herculean task of freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal from prison. But maybe a wider audience is ready to speak out.

With the release of Judas and the Black Messiah, the American public has a renewed interest in the F.B.I.’s history of raging war against radical Black revolutionaries. As we continue to reckon with the long-term consequences of the state’s illegal efforts to murder, detain, and vilify the heroes who fought bravely for a more dignified life for Black Americans, it’s time we revisit the imprisonment of another American political casualty: Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The year 2021 marks 40 years since Officer Daniel Faulkner was murdered on the corner of 13th and Locust Streets in Center City, Philadelphia. According to the court, as Faulkner was approaching Abu-Jamal’s brother, William Cook, Abu-Jamal came out of his car and confronted them. Since Abu-Jamal was working late nights as a cab driver to supplement the income from his journalism career, he was armed with a .38 caliber revolver when police found him lying next to Faulkner. Faulkner died on the scene, due to a gunshot wound through his head, and Abu-Jamal survived, despite having been shot by Faulkner through the abdomen and receiving a brutal beating from police that arrived on the scene shortly after the incident.

To the police and to much of the media, Abu-Jamal was guilty as soon as they saw him lying next to Faulkner with a firearm in his hands. Abu-Jamal’s once successful career as an anti-capitalist journalist, documenting police brutality and frequently speaking out against Mayor Frank Rizzo, had made him the perfect candidate to frame for this murder.

A brief personal note: Growing up in Philadelphia, it was clear to me from a young age that Abu-Jamal’s case was highly polarizing. Support or condemnation for his case has always been starkly divided by racial and political lines, with those on the far left and/or members of the Black community supporting his path to freedom, and most moderate to conservative white Philadelphians referring to him as a “cop killer.” There is even a common perception from older white people that supporting Mumia is akin to supporting a conspiracy theory. As my politics became more radical with age, I became more familiar with Abu-Jamal’s case, and I came to understand that he never should have been convicted in the first place.

It should not have taken any radicalization to understand that Mumia Abu-Jamal’s conviction was an utter failure of our judicial system.

I am not going to restate each detail that is potentially grounds for a retrial or for his immediate release, but some of the legal misconduct* includes:

  • poor forensic work conducted by police that never concluded that Abu-Jamal’s firearm was fired the night of the incident;
  • multiple eyewitnesses who still maintain that they were coerced by the notably corrupt Philadelphia Police Department into not reporting additional suspects that were present at the scene of the crime;
  • a clearly fabricated confession from Abu-Jamal that was reported by police officers over two months after they claimed he confessed; and
  • a racist judge who was both a member of the Fraternal Order of Police and a friend of the prosecution, and who also called Abu-Jamal the n-word under his breath during trial proceedings.

*For those that have not seen it, the 2007 re-release of Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case For Reasonable Doubt? does an excellent job demonstrating the different layers of corruption that led to Abu-Jamal’s guilty verdict.

These are accounts of events that took place before and during the trial. They are a raw and incomplete set of reasons for why Mumia should not be in prison today. Even if the inconclusive evidence supporting his role in Faulkner’s murder is enough to convince you of Abu-Jamal’s guilt, the court system is not supposed to sentence someone to death based on trials with so much fraud. Trials with even one example of this level of tampering and bias deserve a retrial, and in many instances a case like that would be thrown out by the court.

Why, then, has it been so polarizing, if the trial was so obviously fraught with foul play?

The politicization of this case comes from Mumia Abu-Jamal’s bold career in journalism. Starting at the age of 14, he became a popular reporter with the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party, which proved to be foundational work for his career. His pre-prison career as an adult is closely associated with his reporting on the Black anarchist MOVE organization, and he gained fame and notoriety for documenting Frank Rizzo’s mandate of police brutality against MOVE. His work earned the respect of his Black colleagues, and he was eventually elected to serve as the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.

In the years since his original sentence, both the liberal and conservative mainstream media have rarely challenged the blatant injustices woven into Abu-Jamal’s case, choosing instead to wrap their arms around the Fraternal Order of Police and the system that produced the wrongful conviction.

Of course, this is nothing new. The corporate liberal and conservative media relishes any opportunity to support the system that constantly benefits their companies, and only cares about marginalized communities for their ratings. This has been the case throughout history, during the fight for labor protections in the early 20th-century, during the women’s suffrage movement, and certainly during the Civil Rights Movement.

In 2011, without a trial but with the consent from Faulkner’s widow, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was downgraded to life in prison. But that’s not how justice works. Just because someone agrees to a different sentence, it doesn’t mean that he deserves to die in prison. Given that the premise of his conviction is still illegal, it makes sense that the fight to #FreeMumia has carried on despite no longer receiving the death penalty.

Thankfully, it appears as though the white moderate may be ready to support the Left and the people of color who have been fighting for Abu-Jamal’s freedom since his conviction. This is evident from the recent nationwide rise in support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which has gained favorability despite frequent mischaracterization from the media.

Even white moderates in the mainstream media are praising Judas and the Black Messiah, which may not be the radical film that many on the Left would have liked, but it certainly depicts the once-controversial Black Panther ideology in a way that most popular films do not.

Moreover, because of persistent grassroots organizing, ideas once considered “too socialist” are on the rise across the United States. Recent polls suggest the majority of Americans now support single-payer public health insurance, free access to university, and the Green New Deal. Not to mention the fact that support for capital punishment has reached an all-time low, demonstrating decreasing public support for the unjust criminal justice system as a whole.

Just as the rest of the developed world has adopted these ideas to a greater extent than the United States, they have also repeatedly stood with Abu-Jamal. Way back in 2006, France renamed a street outside Paris “Rue Mumia Abu-Jamal” as a show of their support, and in 2010, 171 members of European Parliament formally stated their support for a new, fair trial for him.

Of course, members of both parties in Congress responded by sponsoring a resolution to condemn France for renaming the street, but what else is new? These are the same people that fight against giving their constituents health care and a decent education.

Perhaps as more and more common sense democratic ideals become normalized, even the ruling class will come to terms with the unjustifiable corruption that has kept Mumia Abu-Jamal in prison.

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