Black Like Who? - Why African Americans Arn't Supporting Mumia

Jamal Hannah jah at
Fri Dec 24 04:25:37 MST 1999

 > 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.

         - - - - - - - - - - - -
         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 cŽlbres 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
         mutual suspicion.

         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
         that question?

         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 (nŽ 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
         ago rejected.

         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
         three children.

         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
         one out.

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