In politics, there are subjects that are recognized as “third rails”, meaning that if you touch them you usually wind up electrocuted, which is what happens when you touch the third rail on a subway line.
In most of the country, those “third rails” are limited to things like religion, racism or any other social issue that occasionally leads to lots and lots of loud arguments and in extreme circumstances, punches thrown.
But in Philadelphia, because we’re special that way, there is one more subject that qualifies as a “third rail”. I’ve seen loud arguments over it, all kinds of hyperbole thrown around, and because of the parties involved, punches thrown, people arrested, and charges of such things as intimidation.
Here is Philadelphia’s own special “Third Rail”:
The gentleman pictured above is Mumia Abu Jamal. When I was growing up here in the Delaware Valley, I knew him as a radio reporter on WDAS-FM. He had a distinctive voice that I really admired and that always made me pay attention to what he had to say. He was also, at one time, president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, just like me.
But his journalistic bonafides aren’t what he’s known for anymore. Right now, Mumia Abu Jamal is best known as probably the world’s most famous Death Row inmate.
That’s because in December 1981 while I was trying to figure out Algebra II and looking forward to graduating from high school, Mumia Abu Jamal was shooting a Philadelphia Police Officer named Daniel Faulkner because Faulkner represented a corrupt, unjust society that could only be brought down through violent revolution. Because the evidence against him was so overwhelming, and there was a group of eyewitnesses that saw him do it, the jury that convicted him did the right thing and instead of continuing to try and get a new trial, he should be nearing his final days.
Mumia Abu Jamal was being framed for murder by a corrupt police department who had decided that because he was a Black Panther in his youth and was championing the cause of a back-to-nature group called MOVE that he was a violent revolutionary and deserved to be put to death for his beliefs. He was convicted in a trial for which the word “sham” would be a kind description because of the rampant and blatant racism of the judge that presided over it, the witness coercion by the police (and then Police Chief Frank Rizzo) that was a hallmark of it, and the fact that Mumia’s brother William was either prevented from testifying by his lawyer, or coerced into not testifying by the police. In any case, there are too many unanswered questions in the air to put him to death.
It is these two extremes that are the basis of two movies that were shown here in Philly this week. On one side is “Justice on Trial-The Case of Mumia Abu Jamal”, which promises to provide new evidence that Mumia was framed, evidence that includes the author of a book entitled “The Framing of Mumia Abu Jamal.” On the other side, “The Barrel of a Gun”, a film which makes the argument that Abu Jamal should have been put to death years ago and here’s the reasons why.
I spent a day seeing both films. What I also ended up seeing was how far the Constitution can stretch….and how that elasticity can be seen as onerous to some.
I started out the day by seeing “Justice on Trial” at the National Constitution Center. In addition to the film, there was a panel discussion that included Temple University journalism professor Linn Washington, attorney Michael Coard, and, believe it or not, Mumia Abu Jamal himself. (via phone) An audience of Mumia’s supporters, academics, journalists (it was a press screening) and students from the Boys Latin Charter School viewed the film.
When “Justice” director Kouross Esmaeli was finishing his documentary on the Jena 6 trial a few years ago, he was looking for someone to narrate the project. He considered a lot of voices for the project, but decided that the best person to help him tell the story of a fight that showcased the racial pitfalls for Blacks in the Louisiana legal system and the young men who found this out the hard way was…..Mumia Abu Jamal.
After the project ended, Esmaeli decided to look at his narrator’s situation and with the help of his producer Johanna Fernandez the larger criminal justice system.
“We didn’t take a position in terms of guilt or innocence,” Fernandez said. “We just poked holes in the accepted narrative and laid out the inconsistencies, and the instances of tampering with evidence and the coercion of testimony and bribery of witnesses.”
The heroes in this piece included those attorneys who continue to try and find a way for Mumia to get a new trial, the people who make up International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu Jamal, MOVE, a back-to-nature group that had its own violent confrontation with police in 1978, and the Black Panthers, a revolutionary group that Mumia belonged to as a teen.
We even met his kids in this film, kids who have since had kids of their own who only know their grandfather as a man behind bars. All of the above were portrayed with dignity despite being in a situation that is rough at best.
Because what happened with Mumia happened here. Esmaeli and Fernandez were especially interested in bringing the movie to Philadelphia, bringing everyone on both sides into the discussion, and trying to come to a meeting of the minds. But it proved to be a whole lot harder than they thought, Fernandez said.
“We had a hard time finding a [public relations] person here to even help us get the word out,” she said. “There were so many folks here that had relationships with the government and the police department that no one would touch the movie. We were motivated by a desire to have an open, honest dialogue in Philadelphia. But there was so much police intimidation.”
The phrase “police intimidation” seems to be the best lead in to the second half of my journey, my trip to see “The Barrel of a Gun”, the latest film from local director Tigre Hill.
When I walked into the Merriam Theater to see “Barrel”, I was met by, and I’m not kidding, folks in leather biker gear. As it turned out, most of them were either off-duty police officers or their supporters. In addition to an audience that consisted of them, lots of local officials were in the audience. Among them current District Attorney Seth Williams, former district attorney Lynne Abraham, Joseph McGill, the prosecutor who presided over Mumia’s conviction officials from the Fraternal Order of Police, local radio talk show host and MSNBC contributor Michael Smerconish and Maureen Faulkner, Daniel Faulkner’s widow.
The heroes in this film were much different than the ones in “Justice”. For example, the loudest cheers came for former Mayor Frank Rizzo, who was known for being tough on crime, and in the minds of many even tougher on African Americans.
Many of the same people who were mentioned in “Justice” played roles in “Barrel”.
But in this film, they looked a whole lot different.
In “Barrel”, the Black Panthers were violent revolutionaries looking for police officers to kill, MOVE was a back-to-nature cult with a definite trend toward profanity, as were the International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu Jamal, and Abu Jamal himself was portrayed as a cold-blooded killer that was looking for a cop with whom he could play judge, jury and executioner.
And if you didn’t know where this movie’s heart laid, the riotous cheers from the audience when it was announced that Mumia Abu Jamal would probably never get a new trial would have told you.
The film itself was shot well. Hill did a great job. I remember talking to him when he started this project and his enthusiasm for it was clear.
But this was the first film screening that I’ve ever been to where I’ve felt uncomfortable.
I guess that some might call me hypersensitive about this, but when you hear folks yelling “fry him” about a Black man in a movie theater, especially when those folks are police officers in a city whose police department has been on Department of Justice oversight because of its treatment of people of color in the past, it may make your Spidey Sense tingle a bit.
This is not the first time that I’ve taken on the Third Rail that is Mumia Abu Jamal. I’ve written about him before in my Public Record column. And I’ll say now what I’ve said then, I don’t have an opinion about his guilt or innocence. As I said earlier, I was too busy struggling through Algebra II and otherwise trying to get through high school to really take a position here. Besides, I’m a reporter not a lawyer. It’s not my job.
But I would like to address some of the Constitutional issues that I saw.
First of all, I’m going to come right out and say that I’m not in favor of the Death Penalty period. I say this because once you kill someone, they’re gone. If it turns out that the person that you put to death was indeed innocent, you don’t get a do-over. What you do get is the knowledge that you killed an innocent man.
It is because of this that we have the appeals process that we do when someone is sentenced to death. Before we give you the hottest of hot shots, we want to make sure that you’re guilty of what you’re accused of. If there’s new evidence that might exonerate you, we want to see it. If there’s a reason you did what you did that we didn’t know we want to know it.
Now I understand that for those families who are waiting for the executions of those who convicted of murdering their loved ones this process might be perceived as onerous. Maureen Faulkner said as much in “Barrel” when she called for the executions process to be “streamlined”.
But streamlining the process would be wrong. There are too many instances of mistakes being made in the Criminal Justice system for that to be anything but wrong. I know that it hurts. I know that you might see it as justice denied. But the Death Penalty appeals process is what it is for a reason. Murdering someone for a murder they didn’t commit doesn’t bring justice. It only brings another type of guilt.
Now folks have already asked me when these films will be available in wide release. I don’t know that yet, but when I get that information, i’ll put it here on the M (p) S.
But I’m kind of glad that I’m leaving Mumiaville. It’s an interesting place to visit, but for me to stay here requires me to spend more time that I’m comfortable with in 1981. It wasn’t a bad year, but it’ll probably include Algebra II, so I think I’ll pass.
I’ll leave you with clips from both films.