Two new films fuel debate on Mumia Abu-Jamal

by Michael Schreiber

PHILADELPHIA–Two films with radically opposed viewpoints about the case of death-row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal had their premiers here on Sept 21.

Tigre Hill’s “The Barrel of a Gun” created a huge splash in the media, warranting the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Celebrities, city and state officials, and off-duty cops joined the enthusiastic and highly partisan audience in the downtown theater in which the film was exhibited.

What were they cheering about? Hill’s film centers on the preposterous notion that Mumia and his brother, Billy Cook, because of their alleged fanatical hatred of the police, were hunting for a police officer to kill on Dec. 9, 1981. As a result, that night, they ambushed Philadelphia Officer Daniel Faulkner–and Mumia is guilty of killing him.

This argument first came to light in the 2007 book, “Murdered by Mumia” by Maureen Faulkner and far-right Philadelphia talk-show host Michael Smerconish. The chief prosecutor in Mumia’s case, Joseph McGill, has put forward the same sinister story, declaring on Smerconish’s radio show that “it’s awfully coincidental” that Cook was driving his Volkswagen the wrong way on 13th St. a moment before the shooting. However, no evidence has ever been presented that Cook was driving the wrong way on a one-way street before Faulkner pulled him over, and McGill said nothing about this in Mumia’s trial.

It’s no surprise that the Fraternal Order of Police, a range of public officials, and radio jocks like Smerconish worked to make “The Barrel of a Gun” a major media event. Nevertheless, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall called Tigre Hill’s effort “a film that fails to connect dots.” She wrote (Sept. 24) that although she “admires” Hill for being provocative, “I’ve got to admit, I left the screening of his movie shaking my head in disbelief.”

Annette John-Hall points out that the core of Hill’s argument is that Mumia was indoctrinated with a cop-hating philosophy over a decade earlier, as a 15-year-old member of the Black Panther Party. But the timeworn “angry Black man” syndrome, she says, is not much to hang a murder charge on.

Unfortunately, the Philadelphia prosecutor used the same “Black Panther” ploy during Mumia’s sentencing hearing in 1982. At that time, McGill cited for the jury a remark that Mumia had made while he was a Panther member: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” an adage attributed to Mao Zedong. McGill chose to ignore the fact that, following the 1969 murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by Chicago cops, Mumia had made the statement in order to characterize the bloodthirsty tactics of police agencies in the United States.

But Tigre Hill blindly follows McGill’s distortion and makes it the centerpiece of his film, “The Barrel of a Gun.”

The other film that was unveiled in Philadelphia, “Justice for Mumia: The Case for Mumia Abu-Jamal,” lays out some of the evidence that was ignored by the prosecutors–and by Hill. The film’s producer, Baruch College/CUNY professor Johanna Fernandez, said at the press screening at the National Constitution Center that “this film is about due process. It’s about not convicting someone in the streets.” If you do that without seeking the facts, she said, “you are proceeding on prejudice.”

Fernandez said that the filmmakers have been working on the film for four years. They undertook the project largely because of their concern about the endemic horrors of U.S. prisons and “justice” system.

But according to the film’s website, the filmmakers “decided to confront Tigre’s film with a more thoughtful exploration of the [Abu-Jamal] case” after they “saw the series of initial trailers that he released six months ago. Contrary to his claim of having found ‘rare new insight’ into the case, the trailers pointed to a rehashing of the basic arguments put forth by ADA Joe McGill, who wanted to win a death sentence by any means necessary. We want to elevate the dialogue at a time when reasoned voices are needed.”

The filmmakers interviewed Pedro Polakoff, who had photographed the crime scene soon after Faulkner was killed and Abu-Jamal was wounded, though his photos were ignored by police investigators. They also interviewed J. Patrick O’Connor, the author of “The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal,” who argues that Billy Cook’s business partner, Kenneth Freeman, was present in Cook’s Volkswagen that night and was the actual shooter of Officer Faulkner. Some of Mumia’s family members speak out in the film, and touchingly convey how many lives have been disrupted by Mumia’s unjust and brutal incarceration.

Mumia himself phoned in to the panel discussion that followed the press screening. When one of the panelists asked him how he has kept his sanity after being locked into his death-row cell for almost 30 years, Mumia responded simply: “I feel surrounded by love. That might sound a little corny, but guess what–it’s the truth.”

Linn Washington, a Temple University professor and writer for the Philadelphia Tribune, mentioned in the panel discussion an item that might help to demolish the spurious “ambush” scenario put forward by Joseph McGill, Maureen Faulkner–and now Tigre Hill.

Washington pointed out that the Philadelphia Bulletin, in an article written the day after the Faulkner killing, stated that the taxi cab that Mumia had been driving the night of the shootings had been found with a flat tire. It seems that Mumia had radioed his dispatcher to have a mechanic go to the intersection of 13th and Locust (where the shootings took place) to fix the flat, and he also had telephoned his brother Billy to give him a ride home. After arriving, Billy parked his car on Locust St., and Officer Faulkner then pulled his police car right behind him.

It is very difficult to imagine a planned hit on a police officer, in which the shooter is sitting in a cab that is registered to him and disabled with a flat tire, radios his dispatcher of his whereabouts, and then expects to depart in a “getaway car” sandwiched between a parked car and a police cruiser.

Prof. Washington and Dave Lindorff (author of the book, “Killing Time: An Investigation into the Death Penalty Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal”) described at the panel discussion a ballistics test they had recently conducted. The test was meant to mimic the conditions stated in Mumia’s trial, in which prosecutors said that Mumia fired three times at Faulkner from a distance of three feet while the police officer was lying face-up on the sidewalk. Accordingly, the two journalists fired a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber pistol (like the one entered into evidence as the murder weapon) into a slab of concrete similar to that of the sidewalk at 13th and Locust St.

The experiment demonstrated that under those conditions, a bullet would have left prominent dents in the sidewalk. However, the photographs of Pedro Polakoff as well as police photos from the scene do not show any bullet marks.

This raises a question over the testimony of the prosecution’s two “witnesses”–prostitute Cynthia White and cab driver and convicted arsonist Robert Chobert–who testified they saw Mumia shoot Faulkner while the officer was on the ground.

No other witnesses can remember White even being at the scene. Moreover, Chobert’s taxi, according to photos taken at the scene, was not in the position he said it was–behind Faulkner’s police car. And if it were there, Chobert’s view of the shooting, as he described it, would have been blocked by the police vehicle. Washington’s and Lindoff’s article describing their ballistics test can be found at http://www.counterpunch.org/lindorff09202010.html.