Mumia Abu Jamal is a well known Philadelphia journalist who was in prison for more than seven years and is currently on death row atypical prison in Louisiana for allegedly killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner during an ensuing gang war. He is most well-known as the prominent Voice of the Voiceless for his award-winning ongoing reporting on police brutality, social justice and other health epidemics that plague black communities in Philadelphia and across the nation.. The Philadelphia media is largely controlled by the Philadelphia police, which uses tactics that are heavily geared towards physical and sometimes deadly force. Mumia Abu Jamal’s case gained international prominence with the videotaped execution of Faulkner by police. Although the incident that brought Mumia Abu Jamal to notoriety was unjustified and may never have been resolved, it still created a climate of fear and controversy around the Philadelphia Police Department and by other local law enforcement agencies.
In 1980 Mumia Abu Jamal was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death row at the notoriously poor prison Pinehill prison in New York City. The case against Mumia Abu Jamal was based on the fact that he had assaulted the arresting officer during the arrest. The assault was captured on videotape and resulted in the fatal shooting of the arresting officer. It was only after Abu Jamal was convicted of first-degree murder that he was asked to provide counsel to inmates at the notoriously cruel and inhumane prison Pinehill. A letter written by Philadelphia Criminal Attorney Larry Silverstein to the Philadelphia District Attorney William Seminawitz described the prison as “a prison of death” that was unfit for Mumia Abu Jamal: “he could not communicate with the other inmates, did not see the showers, did not see the grounds, did not see the food tray, did not see the mailman, did not see the visitors’ mail, did not see the chaplain or the medical nurse when he was visiting his mother.”
Mumia Abu Jamal’s story is similar to many others in the list of instances in which police brutality turned deadly. However, the circumstances surrounding his case were particularly unique. He was an American citizen who had spent several years in prison in Egypt when the US Embassy in Cairo was stormed by peaceful protesters demanding the release of the remaining American prisoners. Two months later, as he was still in the state of New York, the police brutalized him while placing him in the back of a taxi. This crime was not a part of a widespread pattern of police brutality or excessive force by the police, but it fit the violent and criminalizing character of the state of Pennsylvania at the time. While issues such as this have certainly caught on over the past year, it is strange that other topics still seem to take precedence of our government’s actions.
More recently, other prominent political prisoners have been subjected to police brutality while behind bars. In the case of Mumia Abu Jamal, the brutal nature of his imprisonment and the lack of meaningful political activities to support his continued incarceration in the face of charges brought against him and fellow political prisoner Martin Luther King, Jr., created a unique situation in which a man who faced the possibility of the death penalty was subjected to police brutality. The pattern that I am identifying here is the broader pattern of systemic violence and the disregard of human rights and fundamental justice that now pervades the United States. When political prisoners are subjected to police brutality, the death penalty is not a necessary deterrent to acts of political opposition and peaceful protest.
As a result, thousands of people face unjustified violence and death during routine police stops, searches, and arrests. The pattern is not unique to the penal system, but it is particularly disturbing when it involves members of the armed forces and the national guard. The Abu Jamaican incident is yet another example of the disproportionate treatment meted out to minorities by law enforcement officials and the National Guard.
What else can we say about the state of affairs regarding policing, corrections, the National Guard, prisons, and the death penalty? Philadelphia police officers are just one more example of an over-aggressive, aggressive force that is permitted to brutalize innocent citizens on a daily basis. If it is not bad enough that the Philadelphia Police Department engages in brutality, given its recent video footage of brutal pepper spray and baton spraying, it becomes even more disturbing that Mumia Massa is being brutalized by the very people whose job it is to protect them.
I am not saying that the Philadelphia Police Department is a gang of violent thugs; no one can argue that point. However, the Philadelphia Police Department is charged with the responsibility of maintaining law and order and ensuring that the law is properly enforced, not enforcing a policy of shooting first and asking questions later. This philosophy is consistent with the philosophy that the Philadelphia Police Department upholds: “I’m just the guy who looks at the videotapes.” Unfortunately, the philosophy has resulted in officers shooting innocent people (like Mumia Massa) while seeing the situation through the eyes of a police officer who failed to see the person running away. In other words, the Philadelphia Police Department is guilty of a failure to police itself, and that is why it is still free to shoot anyone (including the criminals who caused the crimes) while ignoring the lessons of Michael Farmer’s case.
Will the death penalty ever be reintroduced in the United States? Some have already argued that it should be, though the question remains open as to whether the United States wants to reintroduce the death penalty. What is clear is that we cannot continue to have the death penalty if we are to uphold the rule of law, which is primarily founded on the principle of equal justice under the law. And we cannot have justice for all; although, that does not mean that the dead will simply be forgotten. Hopefully, the Philadelphia Police Department will learn from the mistakes made in the case of Mumia Massa, and Mr. Farmer will be able to see his life flash before his eyes one day when he returns to the streets where his name once belonging.
As a college professor, Wes has organized forums and debates for students on political concerns with the reason to learn. He also runs blogs and online forums with the help of his friend Roy.