More often than not college commencement speakers are corporate CEOs, bankers or politicians — the people who will exercise control over students’ futures by exploiting their labor, piling mountains of student loan debt on them or starting endless wars that threaten the very futures of them and their families.
On Oct. 5, graduates of Goddard College Undergraduate Programs in Plainfield, Vt., had the rare opportunity to be addressed by a speaker of their choosing whose message was incredibly important and meaningful and with whom they could identify: Mumia Abu-Jamal, a student at the college in the late 1970s and an alumnus (Bachelor of Arts, 1996).
That Abu-Jamal is currently incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s SCI Mahanoy prison, having been unjustly convicted and serving a life sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman was not a problem for the Goddard graduates. Faculty member Dr. Herukhuti [H. Sharif Williams], co-chair of the Undergraduate Programs Institutional Review Board, explained that the majority of Goddard students are middle-aged, working adults who persevered to overcome significant obstacles to their lifelong learning and returned to college. He noted that Abu-Jamal, “a member of the millions of people incarcerated in the U.S.,” completed his degree while sitting on death row and “represents something incredibly important in the context of our commencement ceremony.”
Mumia ‘raises provocative questions’ for students
“He knows what it means to obtain a degree in the face of overwhelmingly challenging circumstances. He knows what it means to raise troubling and provocative questions that lead one to compelling answers.”
Herukhuti went on to say, “The fact that Mumia is a polarizing figure does not make our choice of him as a commencement speaker problematic. The fact that we still live in a society in which we cannot engage in thoughtful discussion about what makes him polarizing without people resorting to death threats, hyperbole, smear campaigns and naked opportunism is what is problematic.”
This was not Abu-Jamal’s first college commencement speech. In 1999, he addressed graduates of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and served as commencement speaker at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 2000 despite being held in solitary confinement on death row at the time. Abu-Jamal was also made an honorary citizen of Paris and Saint-Denis, France, named a street after him.
However, Goddard’s decision to hear Abu-Jamal was quickly denounced by politicians and members of the Fraternal Order of Police, who condemned the students’ choice and held a protest in Philadelphia while the graduation was in process. Nevertheless, the 20 Goddard graduates and their families and faculty stood their ground and were able to hear Abu-Jamal’s prerecorded video address, the full text of which is available on prisonradio.org.
Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel acknowledged that prisoners have a constitutional right to phone access and admitted that the state could not prohibit it from happening. However, on Oct. 6, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, along with other right-wing politicians, district attorneys and members of the FOP gathered in Harrisburg, the state capital, to introduce legislation designed to silence Abu-Jamal and other prisoners.
Their “victims’ rights bill” would give judges the power to grant “injunctive relief” to “prevent those convicted of violent crimes from causing their victims ‘mental anguish.’” Simply put, the proposed legislation would allow individuals who object to what is being said to initiate a gag order against individual prisoners.
Bill would restrict free speech
Andrew Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, responded that the bill could restrict free speech rights of all felons, even after release. Hoover noted, “The legislature doesn’t have the power to punish speech it doesn’t like.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 7)
Abu-Jamal is an internationally celebrated, award-winning Black writer and radio journalist who has written eight books and hundreds of columns and articles while imprisoned. He is a former member of the Black Panther Party and one-time president of the Black Journalists’ Association.
Prior to his incarceration, Abu-Jamal’s writings and commentaries challenged Philadelphia’s attacks on the MOVE organization and exposed the racism, brutality and corruption of the Philadelphia Police Department. He is credited with helping to lay the foundation for Philadelphia being one of the two cities whose police departments were indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice for brutality and corruption.
That Abu-Jamal was a thorn in the side of the administration of then Mayor Frank Rizzo, previously head of the Philadelphia Police Department, is seen by many as the basis for his 1981 frame-up and conviction for the murder of a white police officer, Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal maintains his innocence and millions around the world helped launch a campaign that resulted in his death sentence being overturned in 2011, after nearly 30 years on death row.
This is by no means the first attempt of the state to silence Abu-Jamal. In 1996, after the Peoples Video Network aired “The Prison Industrial Complex,” an interview with Abu-Jamal, the Pennsylvania State Prison Authority ruled that no prisoner in the state could be taped for television or radio. In 1997, Temple University, threatened with funding cuts by then Gov. Tom Ridge, canceled all Pacifica Radio programming on its radio station, WRTI, because Pacifica’s Democracy Now program planned to air commentaries by Abu-Jamal. In 1999, Abu-Jamal successfully challenged an attempt by the state to prohibit him from writing after he published his first book, “Live from Death Row.”
In his message to Goddard graduates, Abu-Jamal never mentioned his own case. Instead, he challenged students to question the world of the 21st century and to seek answers to a world where “massive wars can be launched by rumors and innuendo; where the material interests of corporations are superior to the interests of working people, and remember — corporations are people — so sayeth the Supreme Court; and where the ecological threats to fresh-water supplies, clean air and the environment in American cities, pulls challenges that seem beyond arcane.” His message linked Gaza, Ferguson and Iraq (again) as the issues that face students and must be addressed.
Abu-Jamal has come to be known as “the voice of the voiceless.” His case illustrates why prisons exist and who profits from them. Any attack on Mumia Abu-Jamal is an attack on all prisoners of this rotten system, whether confined behind prison walls or living in “general population” outside.