Silencing the Record: Misrepresentation, Gender Politics, and Truth in the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal – The Feminist Wire

Silencing the Record: Misrepresentation, Gender Politics, and Truth in the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal

By Johanna Fernandez

Fernandez-Silences in the RecordIn the last week, conservative media outlets zealously revisited the case of celebrated political prisoner and radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. This time he was attacked in connection with President Barack Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. That Adegbile is also a trustee of Connecticut College–one of the sponsors of The Feminist Wire–may also be a point of interest to the readers of this forum. The right has stirred up controversy over Adegbile because his name appears in the legal briefs that challenged Mumia’s death sentence. Those briefs led the U.S. Supreme Court to pass a motion that confirmed Mumia’s death sentence unconstitutional in 2011. After spending more than 28 years on death row and having survived two execution dates, Abu-Jamal is now serving a life sentence.

He was wrongfully convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.

On Wednesday, January 8, 2014, I was invited to speak on FOX NEWS’ the Sean Hannity Show to discuss the sudden Adegbile controversy. I agreed, and within an hour I was en route to FOX headquarters in New York.  I knew appearing on FOX wouldn’t be easy. My hope was to take the hit in order to increase public discussions about Mumia among a larger swath of the U.S. Within a day, the response I wrote in the Huffington Post (“What Fox News and Hannity Blocked Me From Saying: Mumia as Fuel for Right-Wing Agenda“) about my interview on FOX had been forwarded and tweeted by hundreds and liked by 1.5K people on Facebook.

In the end, the point of the interview was for FOX to call Mumia “a thrice-convicted cop killer” as many times as possible, and to link this murderer with Debo Adegbile. That dual demonization was part of a larger effort to strategically energize their right-wing audience to turn back the clock on the gains of the civil rights movement – following the same pattern as in their successful campaign to decommission Van Jones.

Mumia’s case – and more importantly, the way that his case has been persistently misrepresented – tells us much about politics today.

The state, and the media that echoes its interests, has historically tried to criminalize and intimidate dissidents and simultaneously instill fear in the population about its vulnerability amidst the specter of black and brown violence. In the case of Mumia, we see how the right projects onto dissidents and the oppressed, vile and violent actions that a disturbing number of policemen are guilty of committing – not us. While the right repeatedly calls Mumia a “cop killer,” the reality looks much different. In urban communities of color, the people known for shooting and terrorizing people in the streets in a cold-blooded manner are killer cops, not the Mumia’s of the world.

In fact, that was the conclusion of a 1979 investigation of the Philadelphia Police Department by the U.S. Department of Justice (see: US Rights Suit article) – the largest ever investigation conducted on a police department in the United States.

According to its report, the level of corruption and tampering with evidence on the part of the Philadelphia police and its homicidal behavior against black and brown detainees “shocks the conscience.”  That history continues to this day. The relentless demonizing of Mumia, as well as those associated with him, like Adegbile, is an example of how the right inverts reality craftily. The problem for us is that without a broad and vocal opposition to their dangerous ideology, their oft-repeated, false message, begins to craftily, disfigure reality –and these distortions become accepted truth.

Mumia is an innocent man who has now been wrongfully incarcerated for 32 years.

The most important and least known fact in Mumia’s case is that a fourth person was present at the crime scene, was seen fleeing by four witnesses, and was identified as the shooter in a line up. His presence was concealed at trial by the prosecutor Joe McGill, and the presiding judge, Albert Sabo. Crimes-investigation journalist, Patrick O’Connor argues convincingly in his riveting book about the case, that that fourth person, Kenneth Freeman, was the person who actually killed Officer Faulkner. Also alarming is that 15 of the 35 officers involved in collecting evidence in the case went to jail for corruption and evidence tampering within weeks of Mumia’s trial.  In fact, the photos taken by Pedro Polakoff, an independent photojournalist who took the first photographs of the crime scene, which show the police tampering with evidence, point to a fourth person at the crime scene, and disprove the prosecution’s entire theory of the case.

Although the case for Mumia’s innocence is persuasive, it has been silenced in the public record.

The day after my interview with FOX, The Kelley Files, also on FOX, interviewed Officer Daniel Faulkner’s widow, Maureen Faulkner. Daniel Faulkner is the police officer who Mumia is wrongly accused of killing. Mrs. Faulkner said on air that Obama’s nomination is tantamount to “spitting on all of our officers.” Like the repressive segment of American society with which she stands, Mrs. Faulkner’s views border on the politically dangerous; she – like the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) –wants Mumia executed and she stands against the right of an attorney to represent a client whose rights were denied in the process of being sent to his death. She articulated a variant on this idea in 2011 to the New York Times, following Mumia’s transfer from death row. Although she didn’t say it straightforwardly, she seemed to be praying for a lynch mob to handle what the state was prevented from doing in this case. She explained:

“I am heartened by the thought that he will finally be taken from the protected cloister he has been living in all these years and begin living among his own kind — the thugs and common criminals that infest our prisons.”

Although Officer Faulkner was killed 32 years ago. Mrs. Faulkner has been carefully and consistently depicted in the media as a young, vulnerable and distressed, white widow who fell prey to the menacing violence of a black man and is in need of protection. Absent from public discourse on this case, however, is the anguish suffered by Mumia’s wife, Wadiya Jamal. Absent from the record is the story of that wife’s crucible in explaining to her children how and why it was that their daddy had been taken away from them by the state. From the moment of Mumia’s arrest, Mrs. Jamal began to release press statements challenging the pre-trial demonization of her husband by the media. But, because of Mumia’s affiliations with the Black Panther Party and because the crime for which he was charged involved the killing of a white police officer by a black man, from the moment of his arrest, Mumia was convicted.

He would always-already be a “cop killer.”

It mattered little that at the time of his arrest in 1981, he was a rising journalist and that in 1980, he won Columbia University’s coveted Edward Howard Armstrong Prize in broadcasting for his report on Pope John’s visit to Philadelphia.  Nor was it notable that he was a dedicated father and recognized leader in Philadelphia and his community. As I continued to watch Mrs. Faulkner on FOX that night, I was also reminded of a heart-wrenching interview I conducted a few years ago with Mumia’s sister, Lydia Barashango, who was dying of cancer. She told the film crew of Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal that having her beloved brother ripped from her had affected her at the cellular level. She told us, also, that the Fraternal Order of Police needed Maureen Faulkner to play the “grieving white widow piece” because otherwise “they wouldn’t have a stone to stand on.” When we asked her what would she tell the widow, she responded,

“Justice for Maureen Faulkner is tied to finding out who killed Officer Daniel Faulkner. Mumia is not that person.”

Justice for Daniel Faulkner and justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal alike is possible through an uncompromising commitment to facts, due process, and truth. To date, that commitment has not been realized. As with so many other defendants, the courts failed Mumia. He was not tried by a jury of his peers; police officers tampered with evidence; and the prosecution suppressed exculpatory evidence.

Although Mumia is depicted as a hardened killer, the women in Mumia’s life, from whom the world has heard little, tell us a different story. Lydia described the rich and beautiful family history and life from which Mumia was torn at the time of his incarceration. Mumia had a doting father who from an early age worked to nurture in him the importance of the pursuit of knowledge. Mumia also had a beautiful relationship with his mother who, orphaned at an early age, did not always feel comfortable demonstrating affection. One of Mumia’s many gifts was his ability to deliver affection to their mother. Lydia also told of Mumia’s many children, his own and adopted, with whom he played and whom he nurtured before he was incarcerated.

Behind Mumia are 2.2 million imprisoned people of color who share a similar humanity.Fernandez-Silences in the Record 3

Over the course of the interview with Mumia’s sister, it occurred to me that the reason why our government has been able to get away with incarceration on a mass scale is because of its dehumanization and depiction of people of color, and men of color in particular, as dangerous free agents in society. This is an image of men disconnected from the nuclear family – the unit that has for over a half century defined American identity and American freedom. Hearing the story from the perspective of Mumia’s sister added a new power and dimension to Mumia’s humanity. And since that conversation, I have become increasingly aware of how Mumia has, over the last 32 years, either been demonized as “cop-killer” or glorified as a revolutionary icon, both of which eclipse the person that he is.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of innocence in this case, during the FOX interview Mrs. Faulkner re-tried Mumia before the court of public opinion on the basis of his political affiliation with the Black Panther Party, which he joined when he was 14 years old. Mrs. Faulkner denounced Mumia as “a radical and a Black Panther” – here deploying the language that has historically been used to silence those who fight against injustice by criminalizing them – the language of McCarthyism. But the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States protects freedom of speech and association and also protects against the use of political affiliation as proof of a defendant’s guilt.  Incidentally, this was the same illegal strategy used at trial by prosecutor Joe McGill to secure a death sentence. In order to persuade the jury that Mumia’s intentions were premeditated, McGill read, an article Mumia wrote for the Black Panther Party’s newspaper denouncing the COINTELPRO-orchestrated murder of his colleague Fred Hampton. And so it was that the imprisoned, radical radio journalist, who many around the world compare to Nelson Mandela, was sentenced to death.

Mrs. Faulkner’s life-long campaign against Mumia Abu-Jamal is fueled, yes, by pain, understandably.  But it is also fueled by a blind anger that has been nurtured, misdirected, and manipulated by the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). Her statements are, in part, a response to the new petition, launched by the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, which calls on the Department of Justice to support the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Our aim is to get a million signatures. (Please help us reach that goal by forwarding this link to your networks. Our campaign is determined to take advantage of the brief political window before the end of the Obama’s administration to win Mumia’s freedom. We are bringing together a new generation of young activists alongside the various currents within the 32-year-old movement to free Mumia, and linking the struggle to free Mumia with the movement against mass, politically motivated incarceration in the U.S.  We have also launched a crowd-funded Indiegogo campaign called 60 for Mumia’s 60th Birthday, to fund a series of ads in Philadelphia highlighting our petition, Mumia’s innocence, and the police corruption and prosecutorial misconduct in the case, and to fund our larger media strategy and a “boots-on-the-ground” grassroots campaign.)

The focus of this forum here at The Feminist Wire over the last week, the growing criminalization of women and the LBGT community, and mass incarceration, is important because the police and the prisons, as government institutions, are the institutions that provide the scaffolding – through scapegoating and repression – for the persistence of economic, social and political injustice. Without the scapegoating of the other and the silencing of dissent that these institutions facilitate, the 1% would face more fundamental and effective challenges to its power.

The statistics on contemporary U.S. incarceration are startling. No other western democratic society has imprisoned this proportion of its population: the U.S. represents 4% of the world’s population, yet we house 25% of the world’s prisoners. In addition, no other nation has so disproportionately imprisoned its minority population. And perhaps the most startling statistic is that 1 out of every 10 of the world’s prisoners is an African American male.

The violent and repressive character of incarceration normalizes social control, erodes the fabric of freedom and liberty in society and debases our standards of humanity. It is not surprising that over its startling expansion in the last 40 years, the project and logic of incarceration also began to ensnare new segments of the population in greater numbers. Black women and immigrants, for example, are the fastest growing segment of the prison population today.

As the “Voice of the Voiceless,” Mumia has for the last 32 years offered a vivid first person account of prison life that has illuminated our society’s understanding of incarceration. From the darkness of his prison cell, he has also offered a radical critique of mass and political imprisonment in the U.S. alongside recommendations for solutions through social struggle. In the 1990s, Mumia’s eloquent stance against the repression of the state, while he was facing execution, transformed him into an iconic figure and symbol of defiance, similar to Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela. An international movement stopped his execution twice. His image soon came to be associated with the growing movement against racism, police brutality, and the death penalty in the U.S.; and he became linked with anti-globalization movement of the 1990s against the environmental and human costs of business-centered globalization policies like NAFTA.

Like the early, revolutionary Mandela, Mumia’s voice resounded then and resounds today with clarity, humanism and an unflinching commitment to the struggle for freedom, the world over. And like the struggle to free Mandela, the fight to free Mumia is bound up in the struggle to build a better world and to free all political prisoners in the United States.

In 2011 the movement to free Mumia scored a powerful victory with Mumia’s release from death row. That victory coincided with a shift in consciousness in the US occasioned by the economic crisis that began in 2008, the execution of Troy Davis, the emergence of the Occupy Movement, the murder of Trayvon Martin, the struggle against Stop and Frisk, and the emergence of a new, embryonic but growing movement against mass incarceration. Given this shift, The Campaign to Bring Mumia Home believes that we must imagine a world in which Mumia Abu-Jamal walks amongst us.

Last year, the state of Alabama finally acknowledged the innocence of the nine young men known as the Scottsboro Boys, nearly 80 years after they were incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit. Justice should not have to wait for the wisdom of future generations. We must create justice now. We ask you to join us in our struggle to demand that the Department of Justice and Pennsylvania acknowledge Mumia’s innocence and set him free, now.

The struggle to free Mumia is about all of us.


To help FREE MUMIA please show your support at the links below:

Connect with the Bring Mumia Home campaign on twitter.

Contribute to the “60 for Mumia’s 60th Birthday” Indiegogo campaign.

Sign the petition to Free Mumia on


Mumia Abu-JamalJohanna Fernandez is professor of history at Baruch College of the City University of New York, a former Fulbright Scholar, and one of the coordinators of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home. She is also author of the forthcoming When the World Was Their Stage: A History of the Young Lords Party, 1968-1974.