Julia Wright, Mumia Abu-Jamal supporter based in Paris. Mumia's book on the Black Panther Party has been launched in Cuba.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
Open Letter to the US Federal Court of Appeals
We write in support of a new and fair trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal who, convicted in 1982 of killing a policeman, has spent 25 years in prison, most of that time on Pennsylvania’s death row. His trial was drenched with racism (see note 16 below), and people all over the world have campaigned for his conviction to be overturned. The case has now reached a critical point.
In December 2005, the US Court of Appeals granted a review on appeal of constitutionally important issues such as racism in jury selection: in a population which was 43% Black and 60% people of color, only two jurors were African-American. If the court rules that his claim of racism in jury selection is justified, it would be the first court ruling since his conviction that could lead to a new trial. And, remarkably, despite having declared his innocence clearly and unequivocally during his trial, this new trial would be the first time that Mr. Abu-Jamal–known to millions as Mumia– would have a chance to put his account of events before a jury of his peers.
This letter from journalists follows a letter written by anti-racist professionals in the UK. Distinguished lawyers wrote asking for redress for the gross racism of the legal process to which Mumia Abu-Jamal, a jailhouse lawyer, has been subjected.
Mumia is a former Black Panther – enough by itself for him to be targeted for conviction. But he was and is also a journalist. From very early his activism took the form of investigative journalism, confronting racism and corruption head-on.
At age 15, Mumia was writing for The Black Panther (distribution over 130,000). By age 25, with his distinctive voice, Mumia was a well-known name in Philadelphia radio. “His stories often reached out to cover people whom the media generally tended to ignore – poor tenants whose landlords were ignoring them, elderly project residents who couldn’t get the city to fix their elevators, students in under-funded city schools and homeless people. For this he became dubbed ‘The Voice of the Voiceless.’”
In addition to local FM stations, Mumia broadcast on the National Black Network, the Mutual Black Network, National Public Radio (NPR), and the Radio Information Center for the Blind. He interviewed many prominent figures including Bob Marley, Alex Haley, the Pointer Sisters, Jesse Jackson, and Julius Erving. He won a Major Armstrong Award for his coverage of Pope John Paul II visit. He was called “One to Watch” by Philadelphia magazine.
The claim, promoted by the prosecution, that Mumia was not a journalist but a taxi driver is countered by his lead attorney Robert R. Bryan: “Of course at the time of arrest he was working a second job driving a cab [like many other journalists and writers] to support his family, yet he continued to work daily as a stringer reporter for various radio outlets . . . He was president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Black Journalists. Eleven months before the homicide, Mr. Abu-Jamal was publicly recognized because his ‘eloquent, often passionate, and always insightful interviews bring a special dimension to radio reporting.’" The prison authorities are as convinced as his lawyer; they found him guilty in 1995 of “engaging in the profession of journalism”.
For many years before and after Mumia’s trial and conviction, a key figure in Philadelphia was Frank Rizzo, infamous police chief (1961-71), then mayor (1972-1980). He oversaw what has been described as an “uncontrolled epidemic of police brutality”. MOVE, a Philadelphia-based multiracial alternative community, was at the forefront of challenging Rizzo’s campaign against Black people.
“One of the few media people to accurately report on MOVE and make a serious effort to understand the organization was Mumia Abu-Jamal . . .”
Three examples bear witness to the quality of his work. They arise from the 1978 year-long campaign of intimidation by police of MOVE that culminated in a starvation blockade of the MOVE house by several hundred officers, which ended in the death of a policeman, Officer Ramp. Nine members of MOVE were put on trial and convicted for his murder despite evidence that showed that the officer had died from “friendly fire”.
On August 8, 1978, Mumia attended a police press conference in City Hall about this siege. Scenes of police beating MOVE members had been shown on TV but had been overshadowed by the death of the officer. In the highly charged atmosphere, few journalists were digging for the truth, but a challenging question came from Mumia. Mayor Rizzo responded to journalists present with a threat: “They believe what you write, 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.”
On May 4, 1980, Judge Malmed pronounced the MOVE 9 guilty and sentenced them to 30-100 years for the third degree murder of Officer Ramp. When a few days later Malmed was a guest on a radio talk show, Mumia called in and asked him who killed Ramp. The judge replied: “I haven't the faintest idea…They call themselves a family, I sentenced them as a family.”
Sue Africa, a (white) member of MOVE charged with riot, was prevented from representing herself in court on the grounds that she was mentally unstable. Sent to Byberry Mental Hospital, she began to document the abuse of patients she witnessed there, including overdosing, neglect, and theft by staff.
Trying to publicize these injustices, she found that “nobody but Mumia would come to interview me.” He gained entry to the hospital, and secretly recorded an interview about conditions in Byberry, which also showed that Ms Africa was not mentally unstable; and this was then broadcast. The authorities were forced to release her from hospital and she stood trial.
Evidence that Mumia was targeted by the authorities includes a 700-page file the FBI had compiled on him. Also, “. . . he was singled out by authorities because of his political journalism. His brother was not charged with the shooting and was released with a suspended sentence for a misdemeanor. It is unheard of for two Black men to be involved in an altercation that results in the death of a white police officer, and then one of them to just be released. But it was Jamal that the police wanted. . . .”
Since his imprisonment, despite severe restrictions on outside contact in person or by phone, with only a typewriter and faint ribbons (all they will sell to prisoners), and access to only seven books at any one time, Mumia continues his campaigning journalism. He has published five books and weekly records “Dispatches from Death Row,” radio commentaries that go out on 100 stations. “Those perceptive, well crafted and often searing essays quickly gained Abu-Jamal a dedicated national and international following. . . . As his fame – and notoriety – grew and spread, so did the government’s determination to silence, and ultimately to kill him.”
Like many others who challenge government policies and practices, Mumia has been subjected to a campaign of censorship. In 1994, NPR contracted for Mumia to do a series of commentaries on prison life. NPR was immediately warned by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), The New York Times, and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, against allowing "a convicted cop killer" on the air. NPR cancelled the series on the day it was to begin.
In 1995, when Mumia's book Live From Death Row was published, FOP attempted to have the book banned, and members of the state legislature called for seizure of any proceeds from the book. As punishment, Mumia was illegally denied visitors and phone. In 1997 Pacifica Radio's "Democracy Now" program broadcast a series of Mumia’s recordings to a number of cities. These were to include Philadelphia, but again the FOP protested and WRTI and 12 affiliated stations in the greater Philadelphia area canceled their highest rated show, Democracy Now, minutes before Mumia’s commentaries were to go on air.
With notable exceptions, reports from the time of his arrest through to trial and conviction parroted the police-prosecution slander of Mumia as a violent criminal. One journalist objected to characterizations that “sparkled with prejudicial passion, reducing in the public mind, any possibility of innocence on the part of the suspect.”
Some reports still ooze hatred and prejudice and are riddled with untruths. “A December 14, 2006 editorial in a Philadelphia neighborhood newspaper headlined ‘Kill him already!’ called Abu-Jamal a ‘despicable piece of garbage’. Some columnists at the Philadelphia Daily News routinely use the term ‘Mumidiots’ to denigrate anyone who questions the propriety of Abu-Jamal's controversy-filled conviction.”
Others peddle the myth that Mumia never declared his innocence, implying that he is an unrepentant cop killer. Such coverage violates the ethical foundations of journalism, which proclaim that “deliberate distortion is never permissible” and entreat us to “give voice to the voiceless.”
Of course Mumia is not the only journalist whose life is at risk. There is plenty of evidence, from Belarus and China to Iraq and Mexico, that journalists who insist on reporting what they see and know have lost their lives. Russian Anna Politkovskaya, murdered for reporting her government’s atrocities in Chechnya; the bombing of Al Jazeera´s headquarters in Baghdad which killed Tareq Ayyoub; the “unlawful killing” of UK journalist Terry Lloyd – two of 19 international journalists killed by US forces in Iraq; the shooting of Italian Giuliana Sgrena, also by US troops in Iraq, are recent examples.
Arrests of journalists within the US are also at an all-time high. Homeland Security even brought a criminal complaint against a reporter involved in filming victims of Hurricane Katrina, claiming this threatened "critical infrastructure".
The Federal Appeal Court, which will soon be ruling on the appeal of Mumia Abu-Jamal, can either: grant a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct; order the federal district court to conduct a full hearing into racial bias in jury selection; or order a new post-conviction hearing at which new evidence of innocence can be introduced. As journalists who value the truth, we urge the Court to grant Mr Abu-Jamal a new trial, enabling him finally to tell his truth to a jury of his peers.
Margaret Prescod, drive-time host/producer of "Sojourner Truth" on Pacifica Radio’s KPFK & member of Pacifica’s National Board*
Signers to date (October 2007)
*Media affiliations for ID purposes only
Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Ernesto Arce, Pacifica Radio KPFK 90.7FM Los Angeles; The Space KSPC 88.7FM Claremont
Hans Bennett, independent journalist and co-founder of Journalists for Mumia
Larry Bensky, National Affairs Correspondent (Retired), Pacifica Radio
Sherna Berger Gluck, SWANA Collective/Radio Intifada, KPFK
Evelyn Bethune, Pacifica National Board
Blase Bonpane, Ph.d, Director, Office of the Americas
Lydia Brazon, KPFK Local Station Board and Pacifica National Board
Don Bustany, Producer/host of “Middle East in Focus”, KPFK Radio
Acie Byrd, Pacifica National Board
Thandi Chimurenga, KPFK
Melissa Chiprin KPFK, Los Angeles, Feminist Magazine Radio Show
David Crouch, Assistant UK news editor, Financial Times
Amy Dalton, Philly IMC and indymedia.us
Lisa V. Davis, Pacifica National Board; WBAI Local Station Board
Glen Ford, Executive Director, Black Agenda Report
Noelle Hanrahan, Prison Radio & FSRN
Larry Herman, social documentary photographer
Esther Iverem, Author, Editor and Publisher, SeeingBlack.com
John Jonik, Political cartoonist... freelance writer
Minister of Information JR, Producer for POCC Block Report Radio Show, on KPFA and KPOO
Sonali Kolhatkar, host of Uprising, Pacifica Radio
Dave Lacey, Fairbanks Open Radio
Ambrose I. Lane, Sr., Pacifica National Board
Bob Lederer, producer, “Health Action”, WBAI/New York; member, Pacifica Radio's National Board of Directors
Dave Lindorff, author of “Killing Time: An Investigation into the Death Penalty Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal”
Rod Laughridge, Producer, Newsroom on Access SF
Jeff Mackler, Socialist Action newspaper
Francisco R. Martinez, Producer, Centroamerica Sin Censura; KPFK
Amy Pincus Merwin, InForm TV, Eugene/OR
Meshá Mongé-Irizarry, SF Village Voice Community Radio; Idriss Stelley Foundation
Nathan Moore, Program director for Pacifica national network
Explo Nani-Kofi, Editor, Kilombo Pan African Journal
Sally O’Brien, Where We Live Productions, WBAI
Sarv Randhawa, Pacifica National Board
Willie & Mary Ratcliff, publisher & editor, San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper
Sandra D. Rawline, Pacifica Foundation Director, KPFT – Houston
Berthold Reimers, Pacifica National Board
Rip Robbins, KSVR General Manager
Robert B. Robinson, Pacifica Foundation, Member of the Board of Directors
Sakura Saunders, (Prometheus Project) media activist; Corp Watch
Wendy Schroell, Pacifica Radio - Board of Directors
Don White, Pacifica National Board
Lamar Williams, Co-producer, Death Row Notebook
Lavarn Williams, Pacifica Foundation Director
Michael Woodson, Producer LivingArt, Pacifica Director
Erin Yanke, KBOO Community Radio Independent Producer, and KBOO Youth Advocate