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Free Speech Arrested

Police carp about college students’ selection of a prison inmate for their commencement speaker. It must have something to do with Mumia Abu-Jamal…the man that cops across America love to hate.

Chuck Canterbury, National President of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), issued a statement on October 1 that blasted Goddard College for its failure to block the commencement speech scheduled for Sunday (10/5) by Abu-Jamal, an alum of the small liberal arts institution in Vermont.

Canterbury castigated the fact that the group of 23 Goddard students who chose Abu-Jamal to address their boutique commencement ceremony “will be addressed by a remorseless killer who murdered Philadelphia Police Officer Danny Faulkner.”

Abu-Jamal’s controversial 1982 conviction for killing Officer Faulkner has been upheld by state and federal courts. However, that conviction is widely condemned by entities as diverse as Amnesty International, the European Parliament and the NAACP as fraught with misconduct by Philadelphia police and prosecutors that crippled Abu-Jamal’s fair trial rights.

Abu-Jamal briefly attended Goddard in the early 1970s. He obtained a B.A. degree from that institution 1996 through correspondence courses taken while on death row awaiting execution for Faulkner’s murder.

Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was eliminated by a federal appeals court ruling that faulted the judge at Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial for giving the jury improper instructions during their death penalty deliberations.

Earlier this year Canterbury helped derail President Obama’s nominee to head the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division with a false charge that Debo Adegbile was responsible for the undoing of Abu-Jamal’s “just sentence” of death. However, Adegbile had no legal or advisory role in that appellate court argument regarding improper jury instructions. Canterbury had blasted Goddard for allowing a commencement speaker who did not “exemplify…integrity and ethics.”

While the FOP’s Canterbury decried Goddard for providing a platform for Abu-Jamal “preaching his self-deluded revolutionary ideals” a college spokesman said it is Abu-Jamal’s internationally recognized status as a perceptive critic of inequities in American society that interested those students in him as their commencement speaker.

“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,” Goddard’s Associate Director of Advancement and Alumni Affairs said.

Abu-Jamal, an award-winning journalist at the time of his December 1981 arrest for the Faulkner’s death, has continued to practice journalism during his decades of incarceration producing thousands of commentaries and over a half-dozen books that included a few best sellers.

The FOP in the mid-1990s pressured Pennsylvania prison officials to bar Abu-Jamal from writing, a censorship effort blocked by a federal appeals court ruling in 1998. The FOP protested Abu-Jamal’s 1999 recorded commencement speech at Evergreen State College in Washington State and his recorded commencement address the following year at Antioch College in Ohio.

Goddard’s interim president Bob Kenny said the student selection of Abu-Jamal “shows how this newest group of Goddard graduates expresses their freedom to engage and think radically and critically in a world that often sets up barriers to do just that.”

The FOP and other Abu-Jamal opponents cite his alleged failure to deny his role in the killing of Faulkner as proof of his remorselessness. Yet, Abu-Jamal has consistently proclaimed his innocence including in a statement released weeks after his arrest, twice during his trial and in a post-trial affidavit.

That pre-trial statement Abu-Jamal issued in early January 1982 included a claim by him that Philadelphia police savagely beat him during his arrest. An investigation by Philadelphia authorities into that 1982 brutality compliant produced a suspicious belated claim from two Philadelphia policemen that Abu-Jamal confessed to the murder of Faulkner.

Prosecutors used that suspect confession to help convict Abu-Jamal.

Curiously, over a dozen policeman were in the hospital emergency when Abu-Jamal allegedly confessed on December 9,1981, according to police reports. But only two officers have ever come forward to formally declare they heard Abu-Jamal confess. That pair included one officer who had filed an official report stating Abu-Jamal made “no comments.” That officer later told investigators that he initially disregarded the confession because he didn’t realize it had “any importance.”

The FOP’s Canterbury, consistent with persistent FOP condemnations of Abu-Jamal, condemns the murder of Officer Faulkner but never makes mention of the two other Philadelphia policemen murdered in 1981. One officer was slain by a sniper in a still unsolved attack. The other officer was off-duty when killed during a planned robbery-murder where that killer received a life-sentence – the same sentence now served by Abu-Jamal. Those two policemen where black while Faulkner was white.

Canterbury when he blasted Goddard in his Oct. 1 press release, said Abu-Jamal still holds “racist and violent ideals that motivated him to kill Danny Faulkner just because he was a cop.”

That Canterbury statement echoes prosecution assertions at Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial that Abu-Jamal’s year-plus stint as a Black Panther Party – that ended over a dozen years before his trial – drove him to kill a cop. Rampant police brutality triggered the 1966 formation of BPP, initially known as The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

In April 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a report condemning failures by the United States to comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that cited abusive practices by police across America.

One element cited by the UN Committee was “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials” – that included fatal shootings and other instances of brutality that have a “disparate impact on African Americans.” That UN report also condemned racial profiling by police.

Police unions in the U.S., and notably the FOP, have a track record of reflexively defending officers involved in brutality and other abuses, including the all-too-common killing of unarmed citizens.

Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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