CKL's HotSheet
What Non-Aardvarks are Pondering

By Curtis C. Chen

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October 25, 1999

Who is this guy?

"There aren't good guys and evil guys! It's just... a bunch of guys!"

That's Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller) from Zero Effect. I'll explain why it's relevant a little later. Or you'll figure it out on your own.

"You've probably heard about the current darling of the radical-chic crowd and the America-bashing European intellectual set: Mumia Abu-Jamal, a convicted cop killer seeking to parlay his literary and black militant credentials into a ticket off death row."

That's the first sentence of a 1995 article written by Stuart Taylor, Jr., and published in American Lawyer magazine. And that's someone who thinks Jamal "deserves a new trial, and he should get one." Not exactly a sympathetic introduction, is it?

Here are the facts, as I understand them:

Around 4:00 AM on December 9, 1981, Philadelphia Police Officer Faulkner pulled over a vehicle being driven by William Cook, the younger brother of Wesley Cook, also known as Mumia Abu-Jamal. At the time, Jamal was sitting in his taxicab across the street. When the encounter between William Cook and Officer Faulkner became violent, Jamal came out of his car, moved toward the other side of the street, and fired his weapon at Faulkner.

That first shot hit Faulkner in the back. He turned, drew his own weapon, and fired at Jamal. This second shot hit Jamal in the upper abdomen. Faulkner then fell to the ground, facing up. Jamal stood over Faulkner and fired several more times. One of those shots struck Faulkner's forehead, lodged in his brain, and killed him.

When more police arrived, both Jamal and William Cook were still on the scene. William Cook was treated at the scene for minor injuries. Jamal was taken to a hospital. Both men were placed under arrest.

In October, 1982, Mumia Abu-Jamal, also known as Wesley Cook, was convicted of the murder of Daniel Faulkner. As of this writing, he is to be executed on December 2, 1999.

I'm not playing lawyer here. I don't have full knowledge of the case. I don't know if Mumia Abu-Jamal is, in fact, guilty. I don't want to talk about that. I want to talk about how he's been portrayed and used by each of the two sides in a propaganda war that has gotten bloated, ugly, and out of control.

The pro-Jamal movement touts him as a rising star in journalism before his imprisonment. They claim that he is a political prisoner, whose conviction was only possible because of an implicit conspiracy between the police and judicial system designed to, shall we say, "keep the black man down." They find something wrong with every aspect of the case, from jury selection to sentencing to Philadelphia governor Tom Ridge's current habit of signing death warrants for Jamal.

The con-Jamal movement attempts to debunk these claims. They point to excerpts from the court records of his 1982 trial. They point to their three witnesses, who were at the scene during the shooting, and trumpet reports of a "confession" which Jamal shouted in the hospital after the shooting-- "excited utterance", natch. They point out that Jamal's and his brother's profound silence about the incident appears suspicious.

For the record, I respect the latter position more than the former. Don't ask me which I one I find more credible; we're not talking about that. I respect the con-Jamal position because, at its heart, this-- pay attention, kids-- is what it's saying: Mumia Abu-Jamal is just a guy.

And now I'll repeat my opening quotation for effect:

"There aren't good guys and evil guys! It's just... a bunch of guys!"

The pro-Jamal movement wants you to believe that he's some kind of great martyr-- that we should look up to him, buy his books, hang on his every word because he has been victimized by the stacked deck of the American justice system. One supporter even goes so far as to say:

"People are not just going to sit back and let another Malcolm X be murdered, you know, another Martin Luther King. Just like Jesus Christ, they were all freedom fighters, and they were all killed by this government."

I'll let that one speak for itself.

My point is, Jamal is just a guy. He has no more inherent importance or credibility than you or I. Being the poster boy for someone's liberal agenda doesn't turn a budding journalist and part-time cab driver into the messiah. Persecution does not automatically bestow any great wisdom or understanding upon the persecuted. But he is still human. I'm sure Mumia Abu-Jamal has many stories to tell. But there's only one story that anybody seems to want to tell.

Everybody tells me what he is.

Nobody tells me who he is.

And that's the real tragedy.


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