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Students, faculty fight and win

Mumia speaks at college graduation

By Greg Butterfield

Mumia Abu-Jamal made history June 11 as the first death-row prisoner to address a college graduation ceremony.

Before they could hear his voice, students, faculty members and workers at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., had to put up a determined fight against an intense campaign by the government, police and corporate media to repeal their choice.

Like the Jan. 28 Rage Against the Machine benefit concert in New Jersey, the controversy that raged around the speech spilled into the national media--creating another breakthrough in public awareness of Abu-Jamal's fight for a new trial.

His 13-minute speech, entitled "A life lived, deliberately," was recorded on death row and played at the ceremony. Abu-Jamal didn't talk about his own case. Instead, his speech was a dramatic defense of revolution and a call to action for young people.

"Why was it right for people to revolt against the British because of taxation without representation and somehow wrong for truly unrepresented Africans in America to revolt against America?" Abu-Jamal asked. "For any repressed people, revolution, according to the Declaration of Independence, is a right.

"A life lived deliberately has been the example of people I admire and respect," Abu-Jamal explained, "such as Malcolm X; Dr. Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party; like Ramona Africa, who survived the hellish bombing by police on May 13, 1985; or the MOVE 9, committed rebels now encaged for up to 100 years in Pennsylvania hellholes despite their innocence. ...

"These people, although of quite diverse beliefs, ideologies and lifestyles, shared something in common: a commitment to revolution and a determination to live that commitment deliberately in the face of staggering state repression."

He said: "These people dared to dissent, dared to speak out, dared to reject the status quo by becoming rebels against it. They lived--and some of them continue to live--lives of deliberate will, of willed resistance to a system that is killing us.

"Remember them," Abu-Jamal urged. "Honor their highest moments. Learn from them.

"This system's greatest fear has been that folks like you, young people, people who have begun to critically examine the world around them, some perhaps for the first time, people who have yet to have the spark of life snuffed out, will do just that: learn from those lives, be inspired, and then live lives of opposition to the deadening status quo."

He received a standing ovation from the students and faculty.

Abu-Jamal joined the Black Panthers at age 15. An award-winning journalist, he was convicted of the 1981 killing of a white Philadelphia cop, Daniel Faulkner. Supporters call Abu-Jamal a political prisoner who was framed for his opposition to racism and police brutality.

"He's a renowned journalist and an amazing author," said Evergreen student Kassey Baker, a member of the campus's Prison Action Committee. "[Abu-Jamal gave] a different voice, something other than the generic graduation speech."

Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the state police, Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher and Ronald Reagan Jr. had all denounced the students' invitation to Abu-Jamal.

In Washington Rep. Tom DeLay--a high-ranking Republican--denounced Abu-Jamal from the floor of the House of Representatives.

The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police--through its front group "Justice for Daniel Faulkner Inc." and the cop's widow, Maureen Faulkner--took out full-page ads in Olympia newspapers. The cops held a small protest at the ceremony, which was countered by a protest on Abu-Jamal's behalf led by undergraduate students.

Evergreen President Jane L. Jervis defended the students' choice. She said Abu-Jamal has used his journalistic talents "to galvanize an international conversation about the death penalty, the disproportionate number of Blacks on death row, the relationship between poverty and the criminal justice system."

And a letter signed by Evergreen faculty and alumni challenged the cops' charges: "Abu-Jamal is a `convicted cop killer' only in the same sense that Nelson Mandela was a `convicted terrorist.' Abu-Jamal was fraudulently convicted and framed and has never been convicted on evidence beyond a `reasonable doubt.'

"We are very proud of the class of 1999, as it prepares to enter the `real world,' and in fact is already part of that world."

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