By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
Since Mumia Abu-Jamal was railroaded to death row on false charges of killing a Philadelphia police officer 33 years ago, he has won acclaim for his eight books and thousands of articles and radio commentaries. Known as the “voice of the voiceless,” Mumia has become one of the foremost progressive political essayists in the United States.
Mumia’s death sentence was vacated in 2011; now he writes from a cell at SCI Mahanoy prison, where he is serving a life sentence without parole.
Pennsylvania state authorities and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) have tried numerous times to cut off Mumia’s rights to speak out to the public. To cite just a few examples: In 1994, Mumia was commissioned by National Public Radio to deliver a series of commentaries, but the plans were canceled after protests by the FOP and others. After the airing of the HBO documentary “Mumia: The Case for Reasonable Doubt” in 1996, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections banned the use of recording equipment by outsiders in state prisons. And in 1999, soon after Mumia’s first book, “Live from Death Row,” had been printed, the Department of Corrections attempted to prohibit him from publishing again.
Last month saw the latest maneuver by Pennsylvania officials to clamp down on Mumia’s rights to write, speak, and publish. Against the background of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and with outrage mounting throughout the country against police violence, the purveyors of “law and order” obviously sense that now is the time to take decisive action against the man who is himself a symbol of the struggle for human rights and against transgressions by the police and prison system.
On Oct. 21, Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law the so-called Revictimization Relief Act, which curtails the First Amendment rights of prisoners to freely communicate with people outside the prison walls through publishing or the media. The signing took place symbolically at the corner of 13th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia, where the shooting that Mumia was charged with occurred in 1981, and where Mumia himself was shot and beaten by police to within an inch of his life.
The bill was introduced into the Pennsylvania legislature as retribution against Mumia Abu-Jamal after he had successfully delivered a pre-recorded commencement address to the graduating class at Goddard College in Vermont on Oct. 5. Mumia was a student at Goddard in the 1970s; while he was in prison, in 1996, he completed his BA degree through a correspondence program with Goddard. Mumia spoke to graduating students at Goddard once before, in 2008, despite opposition by the FOP and others.
This time, the Philadelphia chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police and its allies went all out to intimidate the Goddard students and administration into revoking their invitation to Mumia. The controversy that the FOP created over Mumia’s speech was further amplified in the media. As a direct consequence of the hysteria that the police had stirred up, a number of threats of violence and sexual assault were sent to Godard members. At the last minute, Pennsylvania’s right-wing U.S. Senator, Pat Toome, was enlisted to write a letter to Goddard that included many of the FOP’s fabrications against Mumia—but he too failed to convince the college administration and students to back down.
Bob Kenny, Goddard’s interim president, explained to the media that the students’ choice of Abu-Jamal “shows how this newest group of Goddard graduates expresses their freedom to engage and think radically and critically in a world that often sets up barriers to do just that.” Dylan Byerly, Goddard’s associate director of advancement and alumni affairs, added that “[Abu-Jamal] brings up in racism, imprisonment, the prison industrial complex. I think these conversations are important to have. We encourage our students to have complicated dialogue, and they don’t run from them.”
On the day after Mumia’s speech was broadcast at Goddard, the Revictimization Relief Act was introduced into Pennsylvania’s legislative assembly. The bill was presented as amendments to Pennsylvania’s current Crime Victims Act, and rushed to a vote merely 10 days later. Although a number of Black members of the House had indicated that they would oppose the bill, they proved unable to withstand FOP pressure. Not one member of the House voted against the bill in the end, although 11 Senators opposed it.
The law allows law-enforcement officials or “victims” of a personal injury crime to bring a civil action against an “offender” for conduct that they claim “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim,” including inducing a state of “mental anguish.”
The definition of “victim” is left murky; in the case of a homicide, for example, it could conceivably include a family member or friend of the deceased—or anyone else who claims to have been affected. Moreover, the law contains no statute of limitations. It is quite possible that ex-felons would be subject to prosecution under this law even after having served their sentences.
Mumia Abu-Jamal and at least three other prisoners, in conjunction with the Prison Radio Project, have stated that they intend to file suit against the gag law. [The suit was filed on Nov. 10. — Editors] Mumia stated on Prison Radio in regard to Pennsylvania authorities: “By signing a law they knew to be unconstitutional, they departed from the realm of lawmakers—and became constitutional outlaws.” In addition, Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, has announced that the ACLU will file suit to overturn the law on constitutional grounds. “The bill is over-broad, vague, and really undermines the fundamental free speech rights in the First Amendment,” Hoover said. “It’s asking judges to preemptively stop speech before it happens.”
Advocates for prisoners’ rights have already made their voices heard against the new law. At least 40 protesters, many of them wearing orange jump suits, greeted Gov. Corbett when he signed the bill in Philadelphia on Oct. 21, and their chanting effectively drowned out the governor’s words. The protest received extensive media coverage, as did a later news conference. The following day, a Temple University meeting of close to 100 people took steps to build a reinvigorated movement for Mumia Abu-Jamal and against the new law.
Plans are in the works for a major event in Philadelphia on Saturday, Dec. 6, to protest this attack on Mumia and the First Amendment by Pennsylvania authorities, and to uphold the rights of all people to speak and resist.
Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action