Black Like Who? - Why African Americans Arn't Supporting Mumia
jah at SPAMiww.org
Fri Dec 24 04:25:37 MST 1999
salon.com > News Dec. 21, 1999
Black like who?
Mumia Abu-Jamal may be a symbol of racism to the celebrity
set, but to most black people, he's just a scary character
who probably got what he deserved.
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By Debra Dickerson
Depending on who's doing the talking, convicted cop-killer
Mumia Abu-Jamal is either a race-maddened psychopath
cynically manipulating the gullible into helping him get
away with murder, or an innocent artist and revolutionary
railroaded onto death row by the racist forces of
Whatever the truth of the matter, the dreadlocked Mumia
(so famous that he's now down to just one name) is a
potent reminder that we're far from through with the past
when it comes to racial politics in America.
Centuries of racism, and the corrupt government structures
that enforced it, are still a radioactive part of our
living memory and will remain so for at least another
generation. That means there will almost certainly be more
of these racial cause clbres in our future. After all,
we've only had one generation since the triumphs of the
civil rights movement to unlearn 350 years of hate and
Maybe it's because we're still wearing our egalitarian
training wheels that the overarching issue of the role
that race plays in the Mumia case has eclipsed other
critical questions that bear analysis in their own right.
One of those is Mumia's fitness to be held up as a racial
hero and martyr in the first place. Who gets to decide
The basic facts of the criminal case against Mumia are
simple. Around 4 a.m. one December night in 1981 in a
seedy area in Philadelphia, a 26-year-old police officer
named Daniel Faulkner stopped a car going the wrong way
down a one-way street. A 27-year-old cabdriver (and
radical journalist) named Mumia Abu-Jamal (n Wesley Cook)
was parked nearby and saw the officer bludgeoning a man
who had gotten out of the stopped car -- a man who just
happened to be Mumia's brother, 25-year-old William Cook.
What happened next is in dispute. But soon after, Faulkner
lay dead on the street, having taken one bullet in the
back and one between the eyes. Mumia slumped nearby, shot
in the chest. Responding police found Faulkner with most
of his head blown away and Mumia fallen to the curb with
both his holster and his gun empty.
Seventeen years, two appeals and two execution warrants
ago, a jury found Mumia -- who has never told his side of
the story -- guilty of first-degree murder. His most
recent date for execution -- Dec. 2 -- was stayed pending
further legal appeals of his conviction.
Mumia's supporters claim that the police rushed to
judgment in their haste to nail someone for Faulkner's
death and didn't pursue exculpatory leads. (Some witnesses
claimed they saw a third man flee, for example, and
Mumia's empty gun might have been a different caliber than
at least one of the bullets found in Faulkner's body.) But
Mumia hardly cut a sympathetic figure; his radical
politics (he'd founded the Philadelphia chapter of the
Black Panthers at age 15) did not endear him to the police
or prosecutors. His supporters believe that his trial was
essentially a sham.
Over the years, as news of Mumia's fate has spread,
demonstrations have been held on his behalf all over the
world. Celebrity backers have championed his cause,
documentaries have been made about him and Mumia himself
has reactivated his moribund journalism career from death
Police organizations have been equally energized by his
case -- from the opposite perspective. On a number of
occasions, they've had to be coerced into providing
security for Mumia benefit concerts and for his celebrity
supporters; meanwhile, they've funded appearances by
Faulkner's widow to counter what they see as the
glorification of a cop-killer.
Right-wing commentators and conservative groups have
joined the fray, so much so that smearing Mumia and his
supporters has become a staple of the shock-show set.
So much for the left and the right. But what about
Contrary to stereotype, blacks as a group tend to be
social conservatives, very tough on crime and not at all
sympathetic to radical chic trends. Furthermore, they are
unlikely to know, or care, about characters like Mumia.
David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint
Center for Political and Economic Studies who has analyzed
political trends in the black community for years, says he
wouldn't squander a survey question on Mumia.
"I suspect that, on a national survey, probably 10 percent
or fewer would be aware of him," Bositis says. "I tend to
doubt that there'd be a groundswell of support for him.
Why him? There are many better examples -- [Abner] Louima,
[Amadou] Diallo, Rodney King even."
Those blacks who are aware of Mumia have long exhibited
ambivalence toward his cause. Mumia is a working (if
unconventional) journalist and a past president of the
National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) chapter
in Philadelphia, yet the NABJ "takes no position" on his
case. (Individual black publications have published
Mumia's work, however, and some have called for his
release or retrial.)
Those black leftists and nationalists who support Mumia
know that they need to win the hearts and minds of average
black people over to his cause. Angela Davis, for example,
bemoans the lack of involvement of black ministers in the
battle. "I am going to challenge the clergy in
Philadelphia to join the push to stop the execution of
Mumia," Davis told the Village Voice recently.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, interviewed in the same article,
agreed, "These ministers have the political clout to let
[Pennsylvania] governor Ridge and others know that they
would not allow them to do this. This cannot be seen just
as 'a left-wing movement' -- there must be
across-the-board resistance. I am going to tell them that
if they do not stand with me to stop the execution, the
blood of Mumia Abu-Jamal will be on their hands."
Most black folk might just disagree with that conclusion.
Instead, they may believe Mumia has only himself to blame
for his predicament and that the campaign to save him
really is just a left-wing movement of the type they long
Besides his involvement with the Panthers, Mumia was such
an ardent supporter of MOVE -- the radical black
nationalist movement that was eventually firebombed by the
city -- that it cost him his perch in journalism and sent
him instead into the driver's seat of a cab to support his
In truth, Mumia is the kind of angry black man that many
blacks instinctively reject. He scares most black people,
just as he scares most whites.
This makes sense: Blacks have for so long been on the
receiving end of black violence and crime that they are
sick of it, and are deeply skeptical of any calls for
racial solidarity on behalf of convicted murderers like
Mumia. According to Bositis, when black respondents are
asked about drug penalties, they overwhelmingly favor
harsh penalties. Furthermore, a huge majority -- 75
percent -- support mandatory "three strikes" laws that put
repeat offenders in prison for life.
But blacks' reality is a complicated one, because they
live in a world bounded by residual racism on the one hand
and black-on-black crime on the other.
Sixty-nine percent believe that racial profiling "usually"
happens, for example, and 44 percent say they have been
stopped "for no apparent reason" while driving. (Many
refer to it as a case of "DWB" -- driving while black.)
Fifty-six percent say police brutality and harassment are
still serious problems where they live.
Yet New York City blacks widely supported a white man,
Bernard Goetz, when he shot fleeing black thugs in the
back. In the crack- and gun-ridden 1980s, no one suffered
more than black people; one result of this is that they
have no trouble sending violent blacks to their just
In the Mumia case, his supporters understand that black
community involvement is the missing link in their
argument that he was targeted because of his race and his
politics; they are working strenuously to galvanize blacks
in the battle to save Mumia's life. His lawyers speak at
black churches; Rev. Sharpton harangues his fellow
ministers; grass-roots activists try to activate the grass
But if Mumia himself really wants to gain the sympathy and
support of regular blacks, he might want to cut his hair,
change his name back to Wesley and join the prison gospel
choir. Blacks know racism, and they know it's become ever
more subtle, and therefore ever more difficult to prove.
But they also know they can't let racism drive them around
the bend and deprive them of their ability to think
clearly. They are instinctively suspicious of a man who's
found wounded and woozy with an empty gun and the body of
another human being nearby in a seedy part of town at 4
a.m. Especially when that man is a "wild-eyed radical"
with whom they have nothing, except race, in common.
That's why, even though the usual suspects are making the
usual claims on behalf of "black Americans" in the Mumia
case, actual black Americans are by and large sitting this
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