Attica, Hurricane, and Mumia
But then, thanks to an independent autopsy and the persistence of some investigators, that story was unmasked as a total lie. The truth was that the guards were killed, not by the maliciousness of murderous inmates, but by out of control police fire, gunned down by their own comrades, a blatant case of unfriendly fire. The public and the media had been taken, but many journalists were quite prepared at the time to believe the worst about 'hardened' convicts that newspaper accounts had demonized as brutal killers.
Now, say thanks to retired New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, for reminding us on Saturday, January 7th about what really happened in Attica in a thoroughly documented opinion piece in his old roost, the Times op-ed page. (Sadly, Saturday is the paper's least read day.) Wicker had, at the time of the Attica rebellion, been invited inside the prison by the prisoners as an observer and later wrote a best selling book about his experiences.
Wicker was commenting on a recent judges order, nearly 30 years after the incident, awarding the surviving prisoners $8 million dollars, and their lawyers $4 million, for the crimes committed by the state during an uprising that claimed 43 lives and 60 injured. The massacre occurred after then 'liberal' governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered a police assault to retake the correctional facility leading to the slaughter of unarmed men. Wicker notes that because of the niceties of the law, the State of New York is under no obligation to apologize for its criminal conduct. Attica may be settled, he concludes, but there has been no healing. Even the Afrikaners of South Africa apologized for apartheid.
Not noted in Wicker's column was the willingness of the American media to allow the memory of this tragedy and the prisoners legal claims to go largely reported for decades. The amnesia over events like these is partly a function of the failure of the media to keep the light of public scrutiny shining on news that falls out of the news.
Anyway, just as Attica was back for a brief second, the new Hollywood movie, Hurricane, with Denzel Washington playing long time incarcerated former middleweight boxing champion Reuben "Hurricane" Carter came out in some theaters. Carter was finally released after serving twenty years in a New Jersey prison for a crime he didn't commit. That case also was only kept alive by the diligence of citizen investigators and politically committed lawyers, not a zealous press. The judge that freed him indicted pervasive institutionalized racism in the state prison system.
The Hollywoodization of the case will bring it to the attention of a global audience in a way that news programs rarely do--just this week two screenings of the film were scheduled at the United Nations. But that case, too, had disappeared from public view because the painful realities of life in America's gulags, which now house more prisoners than any country, excerpt perhaps for Russia, is rarely a subject for media attention.
Getting programs on American TV about cases like Carter's or incidents like Attica is not so simple. Two years ago, our company Globalvision, fresh from four years of producing the human rights series "Rights & Wrongs" for public television stations created a program to do just that with Defense attorney Barry Scheck, the lawyer known for winning acquittals in such high profile trials as the O.J. Simpson and Louise Woodward cases. Called "Falsely Accused/Wrongly Convicted,' it set out to tell the stories of innocent people behind bars in America. As the Director of the "Innocence Project" at the Benjamin Cardoso Law school in New York, Scheck and his team had compiled extensive files on cases that the program hoped to present.
At the end of the day, as they say, two networks expressed interest but the show was never bought. Two news divisions were more interested in denying Scheck's services to each other than devoting resources to telling stories that would, partially anyway, contradict a media fostered perception that everyone in prison belongs there. One MSNBC talk show was all that came out of it. After our depressing network experience, the show was offered to Court TV, which specializes in criminal justice issues. They "passed," preferring exploitative and entertaining documentaries on serial killers to a substantive series on serial injustices.
It was these experiences in trying to get attention to human rights abuses in our country that makes me a bit skeptical about the latest media debate over the case of a one time journalist, Mumia Abu Jamal, who faces execution in Pennsylvania for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman. The Jamal case has become a cause celeb among many activists, some of whom are demanding his freedom, others a new trial. The case has been in the courts for years with fierce disagreements between Jamal's supporters and those who believe he did the crime and deserves the sentence.
In the last two years, major media outlets including ABC News 20/20 and Vanity Fair have sought to debunk Mumia's claims, without, incidentally ever speaking with him on death row. Their own "investigations" seemed aimed more at ridiculing Jamal's "naïve" supporters than objectively investigating what did happen. They had a clear agenda and are prime examples of that genre which uses the appearance of investigative journalism to score political points. Later those stories themselves were debunked thoroughly on many details by media analysts and Mumia's attorneys. Now, a prominent left journalist, Marc Cooper of the Nation Magazine and KPFK radio in Los Angeles, has joined this temple of the self-righteous, with a flip column for New York's neo-conservative weekly, New York Press, asking to be "free of Mumia."
"I've had it. If I go to one more lefty event and see one more Free Mumia poster, I might just have to switch sides on this one," he writes sarcastically. "What collective affliction has overcome my fellow pinkos? You haven't had enough defeats and embarrassments these past two decades? Now you want to take the deathly serious issue of capital punishment and tie it to some flaky cult-member like Mumia Abu-Jamal?"
Cooper is now being hailed by some for his "bravery" in denouncing Mumia and his supporters. Cooper took a similar contrarian view on the radio strike last summer at Pacifica Radio's KPFA in Berkeley where he 'bravely' grand standed against the strikers. Cooper's measured, oozing and "anguished" slide from left to right aside, I would caution those who are so ready to make pronouncements of guilt on this case to carefully example the highly flawed court record and disputed evidence.
The Mumia side of this argument is barely heard in the mainstream media which is busy being brave by echoing the claims of Philadelphia's prosecutors, police, and a trial judge who proudly holds the state record for handing out the most death sentences. 20/20 pats itself on the back for its bravery on this case, but years ago, when I was a producer there, I was turned down in a bid to tell the story of one of 'Attica brothers,' the jailhouse lawyer "Jerry "the Jew" Rosenberg, who survived the massacre in the prison yard, but continued to serve a life sentence for the murder of a New York City policeman, a crime for which he insisted he was unfairly convicted.
Mumia's own voice has been censored and suppressed, even by National Public Radio which contracted for some of his commentaries years ago, and then refused to air them after police in the city of brotherly love threatened a boycott.
Let's hope that we will not have to wait for some Attica-like judicial order in thirty years, or a new movie with Denzell playing the late Mumia, to discover all the sleazy details about this highly politicized case.
Danny Schechter, author of the More You Watch, The Less You Know (Seven Stories Press) is the executive editor of the new internet supersite, The Media Channel (http://www.mediachannel.org)