Students at Goddard College in Vermont will hear Pennsylvania imprisoned journalist, Mumia Abu-Jamal, give their commencement address this Sunday, October 5, 2014.
Police and supporting conservative politicians are up in arms, denouncing Goddard College, even pressing for cancellation of Abu-Jamal’s address.
Abu-Jamal’s speech will have to be a pre-recorded speech, a genre the veteran journalist has honed to award-winning form, in local Philadelphia radio and for National Public Radio. His skills and awards came prior to being convicted in 1982 for the killing of Officer Daniel Faulkner, and before he served over 29 years on death row. His death sentence was ruled unconstitutional in 2001, and finally vacated in 2011. He now serves a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison.
From death row and prison, Abu-Jamal’s renown only grew. He has authored thousands of audio and print essays, and eight books. He also earned a Bachelors degree (Goddard College) and a Masters degree (California State University / Dominguez Hills) while in prison. He has become “the voice of the voiceless” for many repressed voices in the nation and world. While he is, himself, a life-long critic of racist brutal cops, he wrote in defense of LA police whose federal retrial for the 1992 Rodney King beating he saw as “clear violation” of their freedom from “double-jeopardy.”
His humanity, courage, power of pen and mind, as well as the flagrant injustice of his own treatment during trial and appeals, have drawn human rights activists’ attention. Amnesty International declared his 1982 trial “in violation of minimum international standards that govern fair trial procedures.” South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu demands he “be released immediately.”
The conservative media, the Fraternal Order of Police, their political cronies like Pennsylvania’s Senator Pat Toomey and its Governor Thomas Corbett, along with the state’s head of the Department of Corrections – all find Goddard’s invitation an outrage, an affront to law enforcement, to all society.
We beg to differ. In many ways, Abu-Jamal, imprisoned for decades, is this nation’s Nelson Mandela. He’s a life-long fighter against entrenched white racism. He is part of a generation of political activists, who during the 1960s and 1970s felt the full force of state repression. Armed state agents murdered Black radicals, unleashed illegal operations like COINTELPRO against them, attacked activists and their families, and destroyed programs led by organizers from Black, Latino, and Indian communities. Having committed no crime, the FBI still compiled a 600-page file on Abu-Jamal, beginning when he was a 15-year old writer for the Black Panther Party, which continued even after he left the Party after two years. Abu-Jamal received death threats from police on the streets. He was nearly beaten to death by the police who wrongfully apprehended him for Officer Faulkner’s shooting death. Abu-Jamal and many other US political prisoners should be honored, and Abu-Jamal especially for his fortitude, and for his role in galvanizing movements of conscience the world over. We need his voice more than ever, as we face today’s violence of brutal policing and entrenched mass incarceration.
We can admit rights to free speech for police and conservative politicians, but Mumia has that right, too. His freedom to address Goddard College students is further reinforced by the Pennsylvania Corrections Department’s own policies. The head of Corrections himself has said he cannot – in spite of his desire to do so – “pull the plug” on Abu-Jamal’s address.
But Mumia’s free speech right is even more important for an additional reason: his voice as a US political prisoner is often marginalized, demonized, repressed and silenced. Hearing from that kind of voice is not just a matter of fairness, it is also an act of justice necessary to the hearing of truth. It is a way to rectify the flagrant injustice of the state against the leaders of poor and racially targeted communities of the 1960s and 1970s.
As educators we know that truth demands hearing voices beyond those that are typically respected and securely lodged at the centers and upper echelons of power. No, as many scholars emphasize, the crucial role in society is played by the unexpected voices, indeed often by the disrespected voices among the marginalized, excluded and repressed. As a political prisoner, who was framed in the courts for his political beliefs and affiliations, Abu-Jamal brings these voices, and in ways unrivaled speaks and writes eloquently with fairness, humanity, humor, inspiration, and intellectual cogency. He is a seasoned public intellectual, and students know this.
Mumia’s voice is unwanted and feared by intimidating police and politicians, and their conservative media consorts. They are guardians of the center. In spite of their own rights to free speech, when they become a center that quashes the right to speak of needed voices from among the marginalized and politically repressed, they cease being a center worthy of public respect.
And so we say to those who would silence political prisoner Abu-Jamal again: “Hands off Goddard College students! Cease and desist from disparaging their choice to hear Abu-Jamal’s voice from prison on their graduation day.” The students occupy the moral and intellectual high ground. Let them proceed without intimidation by officials who command guns and prisons. The youth of today, those who must forge tomorrow’s freedom and real democracy, should be neither chained nor intimidated by guardians of the old center.
So, to Mumia Abu-Jamal and Goddard College – we say, “let the address begin!”
Johanna Fernandez, Ph.D. is Coordinator of Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Department of History & Department of Black and Latino Studies Baruch College, CUNY.
Mark Lewis Taylor, Ph.D., Coordinator of Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, at the Princeton Theological Seminary.