Nestled in the bucolic setting of Plainfield, Vt., is Goddard College, which suddenly became the focus of a vicious campaign by right-wing forces. They wanted to stop world-renowned political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal from speaking at the school’s commencement ceremony on Oct. 5.
The forces of progress won this battle. Mumia addressed the event as planned, through a prerecording made by Prison Radio Director Nicole Hanrahan. His speech is accessible at prisonradio.org.
Mumia spoke of major world challenges, such as the wars in Gaza and Iraq, and the growing dangers to the planet. He discussed events in Ferguson, Mo., and told the students of the importance of fighting for working people’s interests. “The voice of the voiceless” called on those graduating to work for social change. “Your job is to make a difference,” he emphasized. “Apply your knowledge in the real world and help be the change you are seeking to make.”
Graduating students had invited the award-winning journalist, anti-racist fighter and social activist to address their commencement. Although Mumia attended Goddard decades ago, he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1996 from Pennsylvania’s death row.
When news of Mumia’s planned address became public, reactionary forces pressured the school administration to cancel the speech. The Fraternal Order of Police, the Vermont Police Chiefs Association and the Vermont Troopers Association all denounced the school’s administration and students. They were joined by Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, Gov. Thomas Corbett and the head of the state’s Department of Corrections. Conservative media chimed in, and so did much of the pro-corporate media, including the Washington Post, which jumped on the bandwagon, too.
However, no matter how venomous were the attacks, school officials stood strong and backed the students’ decision. Goddard Interim President Robert Kenny stressed in a Sept. 29 press statement that “choosing Mumia as their commencement speaker, to me, shows how this newest group of Goddard graduates expressed their freedom to engage and think radically and critically in a world that often sets up barriers to do just that.”
Actions in support of Mumia are not new to Vermont. Some 15 protesters were arrested for trespassing at the Sheraton Hotel in South Burlington during the July 1995 National Governors Association meeting. They were trying to speak to the then governor of Pennsylvania about the injustices committed in Mumia’s trials and the unfairness of his incarceration.
Mumia has been imprisoned for 33 years in Pennsylvania, 29 of those years on death row, for allegedly killing a police officer. His trials, conviction and incarceration have taken place within an unfair and racist criminal “justice” system. However, a strong and determined mass movement successfully pressured Pennsylvania officials to vacate the death penalty in 2011. Mumia is currently serving a life sentence at Mahanoy State Correctional Institute in Frackville, Pa.
Drs. Johanna Fernandez and Mark Lewis Taylor, co-coordinators of Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal, stressed the importance of Mumia’s speech at Goddard in an article entitled “To Police and Politicians: Hands off Goddard College!” published in Counterpunch on Oct. 3: “Abu-Jamal and many other U.S. political prisoners should be honored, and Abu-Jamal especially for his fortitude, and for his role in galvanizing movements of conscience the world over. We need his voice more than ever, as we face today’s violence of brutal policing and entrenched mass incarceration.”
Kathy Durkin attended Goddard College and transmitted a solidarity message to the school.