Month: September 2010

Hanging in Mumiaville

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.

JUSTICE ON TRIAL – The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal from bignoisetactical on Vimeo.

Keepin’ it real…real dumb

While it won a lot of Oscars and got a lot of notice, I was never a really big fan of the movie “Forrest Gump.”

Sure, Tom Hanks did a good job in portraying Gump, a character who managed to do a whole lot with his life despite being more than a little slow on the draw. But sappy movies tend to wreck my nerves and let’s be honest; “Forrest Gump” was as sappy as they come. I sat through it at the movies because I went to see it with friends, but the rest of the times I’ve ever seen it, i’ve seen it for free and because nothing else was available to watch.

But while watching “Forrest Gump” sends me into insulin shock every time I do it, it did provide me with a line that I’ve found very useful. That line: Stupid is as stupid does.

That’s exactly what Forrest would have said had he been at Saturday’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial. The rally, one of two dueling gatherings held on Saturday to coincide with the 47th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was designed to, and I’m not kidding, “take back the Civil Rights Movement”.

What made the premise of “Restoring Honor” so side-splittingly hilarious was that it was put on by a combination of Tea Party Folks, flat earthers, and these two dumb asses:

Glenn Beck
Sarah Palin

In terms of a justification for having “Fool-A-Palooza” on the same Lincoln Memorial steps where King gave his ground-breaking speech, Beck said, and again I’m quoting here so you don’t think I’m making this shit up, that “Black People don’t own Martin Luther King.” The cherry and whipped cream of that argument being the appearance of King’s niece, Alveda, as part of his program. To see a really good take on her, I invite you to visit The Domino Theory, my friend Jeff Winbush’s blog, which you can access by clicking on to my blog roll on the right.

Now combining Beck, who got stuck in the character of Howard Beale from “Network” without having any of the late Peter Finch’s talent Ms. King, who my friend Jeff describes as that crazy cousin that you can’t get away from at the family reunion, and Palin, whose most recent claim to dumb assery was saying that Dr. Laura Schlessinger should “Reload” and fire off all of the “niggers” she didn’t say in the advice call that made her sponsors decide that they no longer wanted to pay for her fruit stand in the Marketplace of Ideas gets you an event complete with some Class A stupid, complete with folks who wear T-shirts like this in public.

Now I admit that I’m more than a little annoyed that Beck held Fool-A-Palooza on ground that is sacred to me as an African American because of what happened there, especially in light of the fact that a group of Muslims are being told that they shouldn’t be allowed to put a community center two blocks away from Ground Zero because of what happened there.

But what annoys me even more about this particular hoedown is that it’s yet another example of the fact that America has chosen to follow its fools, not marginalize them.

I was reading the August 25 entry in the New York Times’ “Opinionator” blog from contributor Timothy Egan entitled “Building a Nation of Know-Nothings”. In his post, Egan talks about how folks are believing some pretty stupid hype in the form of “Obama’s not an American Citizen; he was born in Kenya”, “Obama’s a secret Muslim” “Michelle Obama took her kids and her friends to Spain on the people’s dime” and my personal favorite, “Obama bailed out the banks.”

As Egan points out, all of the above can be very easily proven as false. President Barack Obama’s birth certificate from Hawaii, which is still a state unless something’s changed in the last hour, has been requested so much that the Hawaiian government now refuses to show it to people. But if you really want to see it, it’s on the Internet. The Prez has proclaimed his Christianity on anything that is not a neon sign. Before she became First Lady, Michelle Obama was a vice president for the University of Chicago Hospital system. She’s got more than enough money to take folks to Spain.

As for the bank bailouts, that happened a full year before Sen. Obama became President Obama, so nice try there.

According to a study done by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, the fact that these falsehoods continue to be the coin of the realm stems from a willingness on the part of 46 percent of all Republicans (those who believe the “Obama is a Secret Muslim” lie) and 27 percent of all Republicans (those who believe the “Obama was born in Kenya” lie) to believe what they hear in the right-wing press.

Actually, I can’t blame the entire right-wing press. While news organizations like the Washington Times annoy me, they by and large report the facts.

I can, however, blame what I call the Asshat Media. That’s the Rush Limbaughs, Glenn Becks, and others of that ilk who know that there are folks out there who want to believe the worst about this President so that they can justify wanting to harm him, harm his family, or otherwise do something so stupid that it’ll cause a riot that will make South Central LA look like a clambake. These clowns give their followers just enough misinformation to make them dangerous, then they turn them loose.

But while the anti-Obama insanity is one branch of stupid, there are others. The folks who don’t believe that climate change is real despite the fact that Philadelphia has temperatures in the high 90s this week while Los Angeles is in the 70s. The poor and middle class people who think that it should be okay to continue tax cuts for the top 2 percent of incomes despite all of the evidence that “Trickle Down Economics” has never worked because the wealth, despite the tax cuts, never trickles down in any way that helps them.

And don’t get me started on the folks who made such folks as Kim Kardashian, Jon and Kate (and their brood of eight), and the entire cast of “Dancing With the Stars” household names. Actually that’s not stupid. That’s a willingness to view a train wreck trackside instead of at a safe distance, which I guess is its own brand of insane.

The truth is, we’ve been on an anti-intellectual downslide for a long time now. During the Bush Administration, the smart were dismissed in favor of the ideologically pure. No Child Left Behind is a law that encourages stupid because it locks teachers into a test instead of letting them teach. Look at how smart folks are portrayed on television. When’s the last time that you saw someone on a TV show that was not only smart, but also good looking?

(And no, Blair Underwood doesn’t count. His new show doesn’t start until later this month.)

What kills me is that the same people who want to cut teacher salaries, cut school budgets, and decrease the number of college openings to save money are also the same people who piss and moan about our inability to compete with the rest of the world when it comes to academics.

Wanna know the difference between us and them folks? They spend money on education. Lots and lots of money. We’d rather pay a guy $30 million to miss free throws than pay a teacher a living wage.

But don’t blame us. We’re just keepin’ it real….real dumb.

Doing one of the many routines that Dr. Laura used as justification for her recent “Nigga-fest”, here’s Chris Rock.