- Convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner
- Former member of the Black Panthers
- Leftist icon and frequent guest speaker at college commencement ceremonies
Born Wesley Cook in 1954, the man currently known as Mumia Abu Jamal was a member of the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panthers; he served as that group’s Information Minister when he was just 15 years old. Well known for referring to police officers as “pigs,” a young Abu Jamal was a supporter of MOVE, a Philadelphia-based Black Power cult known for its demonstrations against local residents and its incitements against police officers and the city government. An outspoken, controversial figure, he was a frequent guest on television and radio programs. For awhile, he even hosted his own show on Philadelphia’s National Public Radio affiliate WUHY-FM -- though he was eventually fired from that job because of his radicalism.
Mumia Abu Jamal was catapulted into the public limelight by an event that occurred shortly after 3:55 a.m. on December 9, 1981, when white police officer Daniel Faulkner made a traffic stop of William Cook, Mumia’s brother, on a Philadelphia street. Falkner pulled behind Cook's car, radioed for police backup, approached Cook’s vehicle, and ordered the driver to get out of his car. While Faulkner handcuffed Cook, Mumia Abu Jamal, who was behind the wheel of a taxi parked across the street, suddenly got out of his vehicle, ran toward Faulkner and shot him in the back. As the policeman fell, he drew his own gun and managed to shoot Abu Jamal in the chest, wounding but not killing him. The gun-wielding cabdriver then fired repeatedly at Faulkner, finally dispatching him from close range with a bullet in the brain. Abu Jamal's presence near the scene of the roadside stop at that particular moment has led to serious speculation that William Cook intentionally led Faulkner into an ambush -- one that had all the earmarks of other Black Panther provocations in places like Newark and Oakland.
The body of evidence placing Mumia Abu Jamal at the scene of Faulkner’s killing was overwhelming. There were three eyewitnesses who testified that Abu Jamal was the killer. His brother William Cook has never testified that Abu Jamal was innocent. Abu Jamal himself never once claimed his innocence at his own trial. Two policemen and one hospital security guard testified to the court that while Abu Jamal was being brought into the hospital following the altercation with Faulkner, he shouted repeatedly, “I shot the mother f---er, and I hope the mother f---er dies.” The bullet that the doctors removed from Abu Jamal chest came from Officer Faulkner’s gun. The bullet in Faulkner’s brain came from Abu Jamal's gun, which had five empty cartridges when investigators found it. All the relevant facts of the case are detailed on the website danielfaulkner.com.
In June and July of 1982 a racially mixed jury, which Abu Jamal himself helped select, heard testimony during court proceedings that were frequently disrupted by outbursts from Abu Jamal and his MOVE supporters. After three hours of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict and later ordered the death penalty. After court reviews, the verdict was affirmed in 1998 by Pennsylvania's Supreme Court.
Then a new legal team acting on Abu Jamal's behalf challenged most of the facts in the case and waged an international propaganda campaign to rehabilitate their client's image. The leading attorney on the team was Leonard Weinglass, a Fidel Castro supporter who once served as Co-Chairman of the International Committee of the National Lawyers Guild. Following Weinglass’s lead, a bevy of prominent leftists rallied to Abu Jamal's defense, claiming that his first trial had been an exercise in injustice and that the actual gunman was an unnamed passenger in William Cook’s car who fled from the scene after murdering Officer Faulkner and was never subsequently found.
Besides Philadelphia, the principal nodes of support for Abu Jamal are located in leftist enclaves of Paris, Hollywood, and San Francisco. Believers include such luminaries as Maya Angelou, Ed Asner, Alec Baldwin, Noam Chomsky, Ramsey Clark, Ben Cohen, Susan Sarandon, Snoop Dogg, Roger Ebert, Mike Farrell, Howard Zinn, Molly Ivins, Norman Mailer, Robert Meerepol, Michael Moore, Paul Newman, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, John Landis, Joyce Carol Oates, Naomi Campbell, Salman Rushdie, and Angela Davis. When the city of Paris made Abu Jamal an honorary citizen, Ms. Davis picked up the parchment for him. Another supporter was the late actor Ossie Davis.
A number of Abu Jamal advocates have started their own websites; one of them, freemumia.org, is run by longtime Trotskyite communist Jeff Mackler of the California Federation of Teachers; Mackler is also the National Secretary of Socialist Action.
Among the organizations to publicly declare their solidarity with Abu Jamal are the Committees of Correspondence, Refuse and Resist, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Products, the International Action Center, and the NAACP. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, whose officials frequently speak at “Free Mumia” rallies, has filed an amicus curiae brief on Abu Jamal's behalf. Another notable backer is International ANSWER, which, at its massive March 14, 2004 anti-war rally, played a videotaped message from Abu Jamal, recorded in his prison cell, to the cheering throngs in attendance.
In December 2001, Abu Jamal's death sentence -- but not his conviction -- was overturned by Federal District Court judge William Yohn. Both the prosecution and the defense appealed Yohn’s ruling. Abu Jamal is presently incarcerated in the maximum-security State Correctional Institution Greene, near Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.
An icon of the academic left, Abu Jamal has been a guest speaker at several college commencement ceremonies -- in each instance delivering his addresses from the confines of his prison cell. In 1999, for instance, Abu Jamal spoke to the graduating class of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Likening himself to persecuted social-justice leaders of the past, he explained that he was a revolutionary seeking to raise public consciousness about America’s alleged repression of blacks and other minorities. “Revolution,” he said, “according to the Declaration of Independence, is a right” of all oppressed people. Among the other schools whose graduates Abu Jamal has addressed are Antioch College, UC Santa Cruz, Occidental College, and Kent State University.
Abu Jamal is a great admirer of the late Black Panther founder, Huey Newton. In October 2007 he wrote: "It is easy to write with admiration of the life and contributions of the late Dr. Huey P. Newton. ... He was, and remains, a brilliant revolutionary, who learned how to pierce the rock-hard psyches of our people -- especially our young brothers and sisters."
While serving his prison sentence, Abu Jamal has earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Goddard College and a Master of Arts from California State University, Dominguez Hill. He also published a 1996 book titled Live from Death Row, wherein he discusses the prison experience from an inmate's perspective. He also hosts his own radio program that airs regularly and can be heard online at Prison Radio.