A Graduation Day to Remember
Mumia Abu-Jamal gave a memorable speech, recorded from Pennsylvania death row, to 8000 attendees, including more than 1200 graduating students, at the Evergreen State College graduation on June 11, 1999. During his 13 minute talk drawing on the history of U.S. racist oppression and resistance, Mumia Abu-Jamal urged graduating students to live their lives deliberately and join the revolutionary struggle. He pointed out that "race" is a social construct but also a social reality, and that whites had made and could and should make the choice to fight against white supremacy and the evils of capitalism. A large majority of the audience gave him a loud standing ovation that could be heard all the way to his death row cell and hopefully to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Friday, June 11th , 1999 was therefore a great day, especially for those who had worked so hard to have Mumia Abu-Jamal's voice be heard. One result of the organizing and outreach to gain support for Mumia speaking, is an increased awareness at Evergreen about the unjust nature of his conviction. By hearing him speak at graduation, there is also a more personal connection to Mumia that will lead to increased efforts to gain a new trial and prevent his execution. The national publicity will also help. At the college and in Olympia, it has led to real discussion about the racism and injustice in all aspects of the criminal justice system: police brutality; inadequate legal representation for most defendants; unjust arrests and imprisonment of political activists (especially people of color); juries that are often not of one's peers; the imprisonment with longer sentences of almost two million people, disproportionately Black, Native American and Latino; and the death penalty. The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, many other police associations and the "law and order" crowd not only want to execute Mumia, they also are committed to silencing him. On June 11th, they failed. (See my ZNET commentary of May 30, 1999 for background.) Their campaign escalated in early June of this year.
GRADUATION DAY APPROACHES
Less than a week before the scheduled graduation, on June 5th and June 6th, Maureen Faulkner, the widow of Daniel Faulkner, the cop whom Mumia was convicted of murdering in the deeply flawed 1982 trial, took out big ads in the the Gannett owned "The Olympian" with the headline, "A Convicted Cop Killer, Speaker at Evergreen State College Commencement?" In the ad, she announced she would be attending the commencement with a picture of her dead husband and asked people to walk out when Mumia's speech began. The pressure to prevent Abu-Jamal from speaking was intense. Editorials in "The Olympian" and other newspapers, repeatedly called him a cop killer; hundreds of letters and emails to the campus demanded he not be allowed to speak; a Washington State legislator demanded the same; and U.S. Congressman Tom DeLay, the Republican House whip from Texas, called for a moment of silence in the U.S. Congress on June 11th at 1 P.M. to protest Mumia's participation in the graduation. DeLay called the college socially irresponsible. Socially irresponsible is something DeLay truly is an expert in. As June 11th approached, anxiety continued to rise. There were rumors that 300 armed cops were coming to support Maureen Faulkner and protest the graduation, that Mumia's speech would be drowned out by bullhorns, and that hundreds would walk out.
The day before the graduation, the college president, Jane Jervis, in a New York Times interview said Abu-Jamal deserved inclusion because he used his free-speech "to galvanize an international conversation about the death penalty, and the relationship between poverty and the criminal justice system." This was a step forward from earlier attempts to apologize for and minimize Mumia's verbal presence. Partly because of student organizing, the college did not cave in to the concerted attempt to remove him from the graduation. Students in support of Mumia became increasingly organized, strategic, and effective in increasing the number of people involved. There was systematic outreach to the mass media, the alternate media, and the Internet. They sent out a message far and wide that Evergreen graduates were being honored by having Abu-Jamal speak; that he deserved a new trial, and that he was raising issues of fundamental importance for the future of this country.
For the graduation itself, the symbolism put forward was that Mumia was the canary sent into coal mine shafts to test for lethal gas. If the canary died, the miners knew not to descend into the mine, because it was poisonous. The pamphlet, which was handed out to 6000 people during graduation stated, "Mumia is the canary in our coal mine. If he dies without a fair trial, we will know that we live in a society that is unsafe for all of us." This well-received pamphlet concluded, "If we don't defend justice for others, who will defend justice for us." Yellow armbands and/or flags with a picture of a canary in a cage were worn by hundreds of graduating seniors and many supporters. It was decided to set a nonconfrontational tone at graduation and not respond to provocation by police or the right wing who were sure to be there.
The local newspaper, "The Olympian" on the morning of the graduation headlined, "Eyes of the nation are on Evergreen for Abu-Jamal speech." At 1:00 P.M., the graduating students marched to the main square on campus and took their seats. After welcoming comments and a speech by Evergreen faculty member Stephanie Coontz, President Jane Jervis introduced Mumia Abu-Jamal. She asked people to listen respectively and gave them the option to leave the square for the duration of his speech. Although some faculty and students had predicted mass walkouts, only about 20 graduating students walked out and another 20 to 25 remained but turned their backs in protest. Perhaps another 25 stayed away from the entire graduation to object. These three forms of protest together adds up to about 5-6% of the students receiving their bachelor's or masters degree, a small percentage of those graduating. Given the pressure exerted on students to protest Mumia by the mass media, by police, and by Maureen Faulkner who walked out with her supporters, that the overwhelming majority listened respectfully and attentively speaks well for the Evergreen community A significant number of those who walked out or turned their backs worked in law enforcement or had close relatives working as cops or a similar job.
During this day, the media swarmed around Maureen Faulkner but most students ignored her. There were no disruptions or confrontations at the graduation. Mumia's speech was the center piece of a meaningful day. By 4:30 P.M., each student who was graduating had their name called, received their diploma and left with friends and family.
Not surprising but still somewhat disappointing was the TV and newspaper coverage of the graduation. All of the stories began with the protest against Mumia. Maureen Faulkner and the few students and non-students who protested Mumia's speech were the center of almost all of the accounts. For example, the Associated Press (AP) story was titled "Abu-Jamal Protested at Commencement," and the first half of the story only mentioned those who walked out in protest with all the quotes from this group. There was not one word about support for Mumia. The second half of the AP story included one short quote from a graduating senior who supported Mumia speaking at the graduation, a little bit about his case and two sentences from Abu-Jamal's speech. The protest against him speaking became the main story, and the remarkable story that Mumia Abu-Jamal spoke from death row at a college graduation with overwhelming support from thousands was not reported.
There was a Mumia benefit, Friday night, June 11th, after the graduation. In spite of reports of the media spin, there was a solid feeling of positive accomplishment by those attending the show as people recounted the many discussions they had heard or participated in during the day about the criminal injustice system and the death penalty. Many parents said they would look into Mumia's case more carefully in the future as well as oppose the locking up of more and more of our population.
The silence about Mumia Abu-Jamal was pierced in Olympia on June 11th, 1999 and the ripples reached much farther. It was a day that those in attendance will always remember and for most, the memories will be about the social significance of what occurred. The struggle continues!