- 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
The man currently known as Mumia Abu-Jamal was born as Wesley Cook in Philadelphia in 1954. He joined the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party (BPP) at age 14, and he became that chapter's Lieutenant of Information at 15.
Cook was given the name Mumia in 1968 by one of his high-school instructors, a man of Kenyan descent who was teaching a Swahili class in which he assigned African names to his students. “Mumia” means “Prince” in Swahili. Cook adopted the surname Abu-Jamal (“Father of Jamal” in Arabic) after the birth of his son Jamal on July 18, 1971. Abu-Jamal's first marriage at age 19, to Jamal's mother, Biba, did not last long, as his young wife soon realized that her husband had no intention of being monogamous. Abu-Jamal would subsequently marry two more times.
Abu-Jamal spent late 1969 in New York City and early 1970 in Oakland, living and working with BPP comrades in those cities. He was a party member from May 1969 until October 1970 and was subject to surveillance under the FBI's COINTELPRO program from 1969-74.
In a 1970 interview, Abu-Jamal, alluding to a famous quote by Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, said: “Black people are facing the reality that the Black Panther Party has been facing: Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Following his stint with the Panthers, Abu-Jamal returned to his old high school and led unsuccessful protests to change the school's name to Malcolm X High. He was eventually suspended for distributing literature that advocated “black revolutionary student power.” And after earning a GED, he studied briefly at Goddard College in Vermont.
By 1975 Abu-Jamal was working as a radio newscaster at Temple University's WRTI. Over the ensuing three years, he found work with Philadelphia-based stations like WHAT, WCAU, and WPEN. From 1979-81, Abu-Jamal worked at National Public Radio affiliate WUH, which eventually fired him because of his radicalism. Also during the mid- to late '70s, he became active in the local chapter of the Marijuana Users Association of America.
Abu-Jamal in his radio journalism earned the nickname “the voice of the voiceless,” and he gave much positive coverage to the activities of MOVE, a Philadelphia-based Black Power cult that was formed in 1972 by Vincent Leaphart, a.k.a. John Africa. The group was known for its demonstrations against police officers and the city government, and the official “MOVE Statement” conveyed a highly militant agenda:
“MOVE’s work is to stop industry from poisoning the air, the water, the soil, and to put an end to the enslavement of life—people, animals, any form of life. The purpose of John Africa’s revolution is to show people through John Africa’s teaching, the truth, that this [Western capitalist] system is the cause of all their problems (alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment, wife abuse, child pornography, every problem in the world), and [to] set the example of revolution for people to follow when they realize how they’ve been oppressed, repressed, duped, tricked by this system, this government, and [to] see the need to rid themselves of this cancerous system as MOVE does.”
In this anti-capitalist organization, Abu-Jamal found a new home for his radical convictions. His first contact with MOVE came in 1975 when he happened upon some members who were protesting a Jesse Jackson rally for allegedly being too moderate. Throughout the late Seventies, Mumia’s radicalism intensified under the influence of this militant group, which he enthusiastically endorsed as “Niggas with guns!” MOVE gained a great deal of public attention during the late 1970s when some of its disciples embarked on an armed standoff with the Philadelphia police. The confrontation lasted from May 1977 to August 1978, ending in an eruption of gunfire that left one policeman dead. As noted above, Abu-Jamal was outspoken in his support for MOVE.
But the event that decisively catapulted Abu-Jamal into the public limelight occurred shortly after 3:55 a.m. on December 9, 1981, when a white Philadelphia police officer named Daniel Faulkner made a traffic stop of William Cook, Mumia’s brother, who was driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Faulkner 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 the driver, Abu-Jamal, who was employed at that time as a cab driver, was parked across the street in his taxi. He 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 Abu-Jamal at the scene of Faulkner’s killing was overwhelming. When the arresting officers arrived at the scene, Mumia was sitting on a curb near Faulkner’s corpse, with a fresh gunshot wound incurred from the young officer’s weapon. Not only did five witnesses see Abu-Jamal shoot Faulkner, but the bullets that were later pulled from Faulkner’s chest and brain were matched to the .38 caliber handgun that was registered to Abu-Jamal and which was sitting at his feet when the police arrived at the murder scene. Moreover, the gun had five empty cartridges when investigators found it.
In his 1982 trial, Abu-Jamal initially acted as own lawyer. He refused to enter a plea, refused to rise at the outset of courtroom proceedings, and demanded, more than one-hundred times, the presence of incarcerated Philadelphia cult leader John Africa, whom the defendant described as the best lawyer in the world. He called one judge a “bastard” and another a “black-robed conspirator.” He was kicked out of courtrooms at least a half-dozen times during the duration of his trial. Meanwhile, Mumia attracted a passionate “cult” following of supporters and apologists who protested outside the courthouse and partook in a fracas within it.
Inside the courtroom, a police officer and a hospital security guard testified that while Abu-Jamal was being brought into the hospital following the altercation with Faulkner, they had heard him say, “I shot the mother fu**er, and I hope the mother fu**er dies.” Yet another witness at the hospital heard Abu-Jamal declare, “I’m glad. If you let me go, I will kill all you cops.” Also during the trial, Abu-Jamal himself never once claimed his own innocence. Nor did his brother, William Cook, ever testify that Abu-Jamal was innocent. All the relevant facts of the case are detailed on the website DanielFaulkner.com.
The racially mixed jury, which Abu-Jamal himself helped select, convicted him and later sentenced him to death. Following the determination of his guilt, Abu-Jamal melodramatically proclaimed: “This decision today proves neither my guilt nor my innocence. It proves merely that the system is finished. Babylon is falling! Long live MOVE! Long live John Africa!”
In 1989 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed Abu-Jamal's conviction and sentence.
Then, in the mid-1990s, 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 lead 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. Accoding to Abu-Jamal's new counsel, the police had faked the death of one witness to prevent her from recanting and that a .44 caliber round, inconsistent with Abu-Jamal’s .38 caliber revolver, had really caused Faulkner’s death—despite the appellant’s own ballistics expert rebutting this conspiracy theory on the witness stand.
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.
Folowing is a timeline of the major events related to Abu-Jamal's case after the 1982 trial:
June 1, 1995: Abu-Jamal's death warrant is signed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, but is suspended pending post-conviction review.
1995–96: Several post-conviction review hearings are held.
1998: The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania rules unanimously that all post-conviction issues raised by Abu-Jamal, including the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, are without merit.
1999: Prison outreach activist Phillip Bloch recounts a 1991 conversation in which Abu-Jamal acknowledged having killed Faulkner.
October 4, 1999: The U.S. Supreme Court denies a petition for certiorari against the 1998 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision.
October 13, 1999: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge signs a second death warrant for Abu-Jamal, but it is stayed while the defendant seeks a habeas corpus review.
2000: Amnesty International calls for a new trial for Abu-Jamal.
December 18, 2001: Judge William Yohn Jr. of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania upholds Abu-Jamal's conviction but voids the death sentence. Yohn awards a new sentencing hearing, on grounds that the jury instructions in Mumia's trial were flawed. Both parties subsequently appeal.
December 6, 2005: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit admits four issues for appeal of the ruling of the District Court:
- in relation to sentencing, whether the jury verdict form had been flawed and the judge's instructions to the jury had been confusing;
- in relation to conviction and sentencing, whether racial bias in jury selection existed to an extent tending to produce an inherently biased jury and therefore an unfair trial;
- in relation to conviction, whether the prosecutor improperly attempted to reduce jurors' sense of responsibility by telling them that a guilty verdict would be subsequently vetted and subject to appeal; and
- in relation to post-conviction review hearings in 1995–6, whether the presiding judge, who had also presided at the trial, demonstrated unacceptable bias in his conduct.
March 27, 2008: The Third Circuit Court's three-judge panel upholds the decision of the District Court by a 2–1 majority.
July 22, 2008: The Third Circuit Court denies a petition to rehear Abu-Jamal's case before the full Third Circuit panel of 12 judges.
April 6, 2009: The U.S. Supreme Court denies a petition to rehear Abu-Jamal's case.
January 19, 2010: The U.S. Supreme Court orders the Third Circuit Court to reconsider its decision to rescind the death penalty.
November 9, 2010: The same three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court convenes in Philadelphia to hear oral arguments.
April 26, 2011: The Third Circuit Court again grants a new death-sentence hearing for Abu-Jamal, on the premise that jurors may have received potentially misleading instructions during his 1982 trial. Finding that the jury instructions and verdict form were indeed ambiguous and confusing, the Court reaffirms its prior decision to vacate the death sentence.
October 2011: The U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear the case.
December 7, 2011: Prosecutors in Philadelphia announce that they have halted the state’s effort to execute Abu-Jamal, meaning that he will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
At the end of January 2012, Abu-Jamal was moved, for the first time since going on Death Row, into the general prison population of the Mahanoy State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania.
Abu-Jamal remains an icon of the radical Left. Besides Philadelphia, the principal nodes of support for him are located in leftist enclaves of Paris, Hollywood, and San Francisco. Believers have included such luminaries as Maya Angelou, Ed Asner, Alec Baldwin, Richard Barnet, Harry Belafonte, Derrick Bell, Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan, Calvin Butts, Naomi Campbell, Fidel Castro, Noam Chomsky, Ramsey Clark, Ben Cohen, James Cone, John Conyers, Angela Davis, Ossie Davis, Ron Dellums, David Dinkins, Carl Dix, Snoop Dogg, Roger Ebert, Eve Ensler, Mike Farrell, Chaka Fattah, Henry Louis Gates, Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Dee Dee Halleck, Woody Harrelson, Marc Lamont Hill, Molly Ivins, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Van Jones, Casey Kasem, Barbara Kingsolver, Arthur Kinoy, C. Clark Kissinger, Ron Kuby, Tony Kushner, John Landis, Norman Lear, Spike Lee, Norman Mailer, Robert Meerepol, Michael Moore, Paul Newman, Frances Fox Piven, Charles Rangel, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Tim Robbins, Salman Rushdie, Susan Sarandon, Pete Seeger, Gloria Steinem, Oliver Stone, Edith Tiger, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Cornel West, Peter Yarrow, and Howard Zinn.
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 a leading member of Socialist Action USA.
Among the organizations to publicly declare their solidarity with Abu-Jamal are Amnesty International, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Products, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Committees of Correspondence, Deep Dish TV, Human Rights Watch, the International Action Center, International ANSWER, the NAACP, the National Lawyers Guild, and Refuse and Resist.
Revered by the academic Left, Abu-Jamal has been a guest speaker at a number of college commencement ceremonies—in each instance delivering his addresses via video transmission 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, Kent State University, Occidental College, and Merrill College at UC Santa Cruz.
The Left's devotion to Abu-Jamal is a phenomenon that extends far beyond the borders of the United States. Indeed he has been made an honorary citizen of approximately 25 cities around the world, including Copenhagen, Montreal, Palermo, and Paris. And in 2001, he received the sixth biennial Erich Mühsam Prize, an award that recognizes activism in line with that of its namesake, the late anarcho-communist essayist.
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.” “Huey [Newton] was … intensely curious, acutely brilliant, a lover of all the world’s children, an implacable foe of all the world’s oppressors.”
In May 1994, National Public Radio's All Things Considered program arranged to have Abu-Jamal deliver a series of monthly three-minute commentaries on crime and punishment. The broadcast plans (and the accompanying payment arrangement) were canceled following public condemnations by such notables as U.S. Senator Bob Dole and the Fraternal Order of Police.
While serving his prison sentence, Abu-Jamal has earned a BA degree from Goddard College and an MA from California State University at Dominguez Hill. He also published a 1995 book titled Live from Death Row, wherein he discusses the prison experience from an inmate's perspective. In an essay in which Mumia addresses the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s, for example, his left-wing views crystallize in these lines:
“The system used the main nonviolent themes of Martin Luther King’s life to present a strategy designed to protect its own interests—imagine the most violent nation on earth, the heir of Indian and African genocide, the only nation ever to drop an atomic bomb on a civilian population, the world’s biggest arms dealer, the country that napalmed over ten million people in Vietnam (to “save” it from Communism), the world’s biggest jailer, waving the corpse of King, calling for nonviolence!”
Abu-Jamal has also published All Things Censored (2000, with a foreword by Alice Walker); Death Blossoms: Reflections from a Prisoner of Conscience (2003, with a preface by Cornel West); We Want Freedom: A Life In The Black Panther Party (2004, with an introduction by Kathleen Cleaver); Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the USA (2009, with an introduction by Angela Davis); and The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America (2011, co-authored with Marc Lamont Hill).
For many years, Abu-Jamal has hosted his own radio program that airs regularly and can be heard online at Prison Radio. Hundreds of his broadcasts have also been aired on Pacifica Radio since 1989.
Abu-Jamal has been a regular columnist for Junge Welt, a Marxist newspaper in Germany. He has been a guest blogger at the website of Marc Lamont Hill.
Abu-Jamal is a national officer with the National Lawyers Guild, where his official title is Jailhouse Lawyer Vice President.