Youth of Color: Watched and Shot

Trayvon Martin and Mumia Abu-Jamal. One is dead. One languished on death row for thirty years. They are separated in age by a generation, separated by different locations and different life-histories, but their stories of being under surveillance, watched and shot, intersect strikingly with each other, and with many other people.

Both Trayvon and Mumia will be represented by scores of activists converging on Washington, D.C., on April 24, in an “Occupy the Justice Department” event, which joins the “Occupy” movement to the resistance movement against the criminalization of youth of color.

Trayvon and Mumia have been respective catalysts for national consciousness about police violence, prosecutorial misconduct, and also the dramatic seven-fold increase, since the 1970s, of the U.S. prison population to over 2.4 million people, more than than sixty percent of whom are people of color.

The accelerated criminalization of people of color and the poor not only feeds the prisons, it fattens a government and corporate apparatus that grows top-heavy with the wealth concentrated in the economic portfolios of the top “one percent.” As University of California sociologist, Loïc Wacquant, observes in his book, Punishing the Poor, the rise of the prisons marks a new penal state, where an ethos of surveillance and practices by police and courts “replaces the social state; . . . undermining its educational and assistance missions by devouring their budgets and stealing their staff.”

Trayvon and Mumia are just two Americans among many others, particularly youth of color, and many dissenters, who have been under surveillance and face its deadly effects. We Are All Suspects Now is the title of a book by ColorLines executive editor, Tram Nguyen, writing of immigrant communities after 9/11 and the problems faced by ever larger numbers of us in today’s surveillance state. Just in the last two months, a litany of names of dead youth now haunt us, all slain in conflict with police: Ramarley Graham, Justin Sipp, Kendrec McDade, Dante Price, Rekia Boyd, Kenneth Smith, Shaima Alawadi, Ervin Jefferson. Still fresh are the memories of other people of color similarly lost: Amadou Diallo, Vincent Chin, Michael Cho, Sean Bell, Anthony Biaz, Oscar Grant, Fong Lee, Tyisha Miller, Matthew Shepard, James Byrd, Mark Duggan, Eleanor Bumpurs, and more.

An unsettling sadness accompanies my use of Trayvon Martin’s death for public remembrance of so many others slain; sadness because our remembrance has to engage the circus coverage of the same media that often demonizes people of color, or renders them invisible, and also condones today’s penal state; sadness, too, because we risk engaging a media frenzy that often reinforces misconceptions that Trayvon’s case is an exceptional one.

Trayvon Martin, slain at age 17, was stalked by a “community watch coordinator,” George Zimmerman, who told police over his cell phone that Trayvon “looks up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something.” Zimmerman was initially taken in by police after the shooting, but then released because police officials and top prosecutors believed his story of “self-defense,” a generosity rarely extended, if ever, to youth of color accused of shooting white victims in similar scenarios.

Prosecutors did nothing for weeks. But national protests kept Trayvon Martin’s cause alive, and Zimmerman was finally taken into custody. He is now out on bail. It remains uncertain how judges and courts will treat his self-defense claim. If history is any guide, odds weigh heavily against the claims of Trayvon and his family.

Consider the other young man, Mumia Abu-Jamal. He was 28 years-old, with no criminal record, when he found himself sentenced to death row in 1982, after being under surveillance by federal and local authorities since age 15. He had survived the Philadelphia projects to become a young activist, joining the Black Panther Party (BPP) for 16 months while in high school. Afterward he became student body president, but could not finish when officials’ balked at his campaign to change the school’s name from Benjamin Franklin to Malcolm X High School.

Still, Mumia secured his GED, so that at age 17 he began studies at Vermont’s Goddard College. He then took time out to support his family back in Philly, started up a radio journalism career that brought him awards for excellence and the presidency of the Association of Black Journalists in Philadelphia.

All this by age 27. Then, in one fateful pre-dawn morning, December 9, 1981, while working as a cab driver to help meet family finances, he came upon a white police officer, Daniel Faulkner, beating his brother. Both the officer and Mumia were shot and collapsed at the scene. Another man fled, eyewitnesses said. The officer died.

Mumia was sent to death row in 1982 for that shooting, having survived Officer Faulkner’s gun, the vicious beating by arresting police at the crime scene, and the travesty of a trial that followed months later. Amnesty International in 2000 declared both the 1982 trial and the appeals process so flawed that a new trial was necessary.

In 2011 federal courts finally declared Mumia’s death sentence unconstitutional, after 30 years of cruel and unusual punishment in a small death row cell. Mumia still serves a life-without-parole sentence in Pennsylvania’s general prison population. The struggle for Mumia presses on, with many, including Nobel Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, now calling for his “immediate release.”

Mumia also continues his radio and print journalism from general population, remaining the most well-known among U.S. political prisoners, a special “voice of the voiceless” with trenchant critique of U.S. political and economic systems. From prison he recently described Trayvon Martin as “Everybody’s Child,” because there are “so many nameless, faceless Trayvons,” killed under objectionable circumstances across America.

Mumia, too, was a watched teen, by Philadelphia police and the FBI.

In the North Philly housing projects, Mumia had been a precocious, story-telling teen, asking big questions about life, even religion. He also was a voracious reader of Spiderman comics, says Terry Bisson in his biography based on independent research and interviews with Mumia and his family.

Mumia lived his teen years under the reign of Philly’s notorious police chief and Mayor, Frank Rizzo, well-funded by the federal government’s new “law and order” crackdown in cities of the 1960s. Rizzo in November 1967 was a ready accomplice, gleefully cracking heads of black high schoolers, leaving scores of them bloodied (“Get their black asses,” Rizzo had personally ordered).

These high schoolers had walked out of classes to march peacefully down Philadelphia streets, calling for “black studies,” and improvements in their dilapidated school buildings and communities. Thirteen year old Mumia had joined the marchers from his junior high school that day, but then turned off home for more reading. He missed the violence from Rizzo’s police that day, but other beatings would soon come his way.

In 1968, at age 14, Mumia and three other teens went to a Philadelphia arena to protest the presidential candidacy of arch-segregationist Alabama Governor, George Wallace. As the teens began their protests, a team of thugs set upon them, beating them so badly Mumia was unrecognizable to his own mother in the hospital. During the beating, he called out for the police, but then from the ground, as he tells the story, he could see the police pant cuffs under civilian dress. “They kicked me right into the Black Panthers,” Mumia later wrote.

As information officer for the BPP, Mumia worked not only in Philadelphia, but also did stints in New York, Chicago and Oakland offices. At age 15 he toured the assassination site where Chicago cops gunned down, in his bed, the charismatic community organizer-turned Panther activist and gang arbitrator, Fred Hampton. Fifteen year old Mumia wrote after visiting the grisly murder site, that Mao seemed right: all too often, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” – referencing a series of killings by police at that time,  in what evidence later proved to be an FBI- backed illegal campaign to eliminate the BPP.

The FBI file on Mumia placed him on the Security Index, reported him also to the Naval Intelligence Service, the Office of Special investigations, Secret Service and Military Intelligence. In the end, although Mumia had never been convicted of a crime, the FBI compiled a file of over 700 pages on this teenage activist.

Years later, the Department of Justice couldn’t help but acknowledge the special brutality at work in Philadelphia. A 1979 lawsuit was prepared against the entire police department, the first such suit in U.S. history.

By bizarre coincidence to Trayvon’s case, another “George” also figures in the watching of teen-age Mumia. This was George Fencl, police lieutenant and head of Rizzo’s “Civil Defense,” counter-insurgency squad. From the time Mumia was 16, Fencl “would aim a finger and cock a thumb,” years later repeating these gestures whenever, as an older journalist, Mumia reported on police brutality. Fencl also led his squad in ransacking the Philly Panther office where Mumia worked. “We have more firepower,” said Fencl as his men spirited away Mumia’s mimeograph machine. His team held Mumia and three others – Mumia just overnite – on bogus charges. Another time, records Bisson, Fencl slowed to pass Mumia and his girlfriend, who was then pregnant with his first child, at the corner of Market and 7th, smiling and saying, “I should get out of this car and kick that baby out of her stomach.” Mumia and she did not lash out, they walked away.

Police would get their chance to shoot, wound and beat Mumia in the extreme, at the crime scene on December 9th. Alfonzo Giordano, the chief inspector in charge of the investigation and setting up witnesses at the scene, took no steps to prevent police beatings, and may himself have administered blows, according to researcher, J. Partick O’Connor, in his book, The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Months before the trial, Giordano would be relieved of his inspector duties, and then just days after trial be removed from the police department, later becoming one among the full half of 35 police officers handling Mumia’s case, who would be convicted and jailed on charges of graft, corruption and tampering with evidence to obtain convictions. The likelihood of their corruption extending to Mumia’s case is further grounds for a DOJ investigation.

Prosecutors rallied the jury to impose the death sentence by quoting 15-year old Mumia’s quote from Mao, that “political power grows out of a barrel of a gun,” as if Mumia was an advocate of gun violence, and not speaking against the gun violence the police used against the BPP, as they also had wielded it against the American Indian Movement – also against Asian-Americans and Latinos/as who had made common cause with the BPP or who waged their own distinctive struggles for justice. Not just the vicious twist given the quoting of Mao by prosecutors, but even the mere use of such a political belief against a defendant has been found to be a constitutional violation in other cases.

Police corruption and tampering require urgent investigation. There cases other than Mumia’s that stand out: Neil Ferber was arrested in 1981, convicted in 1982, and later exonerated as well as released from death row. In spite of his and other exonerations, Mumia’s case remains uninvestigated, and Pennsylvania generally has failed to review and correct its record of corruption in death penalty convictions. All this, too, is the burden of protests at the DOJ on April 24.

PEN/Faulkner award-winning novelist, John Edgar Wideman, once asked, “Who of us is not on death row?” Trayvon’s street in Sanford, Florida, where he “walked while black” became a death row for him. Many youth of color walk or inhabit similar death rows, in many different ways. Mumia resided on Pennsylvania’s death row for 30 years; as a “Lifer” he’s still on a form of death row. It’s time to win release, for him and the many more like him in today’s penal state  – even a freedom for those among “the young watched and shot” of all communities of color – lost to violence but not forgotten. They still live in the memories of activists and in our work to forge another possible world.

Mark Lewis Taylor is Maxwell Upson Professor of Theology and Culture, Princeton Theological Seminary and a core member of the Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal team. He will be in DC for the Occupy the Justice Department Day on April 24. 

Mark Lewis Taylor is Maxwell Upson Professor of Theology and Culture, Princeton Theological Seminary.