Mumia at Graduation
No, Mumia Abu-Jamal is not being released to speak at the Evergreen State College graduation. However, on Friday June 11th, the 1999 graduation at this college will include a unique commencement address - a 13-minute audio-recorded speech taped on death row by Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Mumia speaking at graduation has created a huge debate on the campus and beyond. Many students and some staff and faculty at this state college in Olympia, WA have worked for almost two years to make Mumia the graduation speaker. There has also been a concerted campaign by the Philadelphia police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, and police officers and associations in Washington State and in other parts of the country to get the college to withdraw their invitation to Mumia. The administration of this college, which has a progressive reputation, has taken a wishy-washy liberal and somewhat unprincipled position. They have made it clear to the media that they are not honoring Mumia, and they are giving the honorarium to an another commencement speaker added at the last minute. This violated the process that had been set up, which had selected Mumia Abu-Jamal as the graduation speaker.
The history is as follows. Seniors and students receiving their master's degree select the commencement speaker. In the last few years, speakers have included Leonard Peltier in 1992, and subsequently Sherman Alexie, Linda Barry, Winona La Duke and bell hooks.
Organizing for Mumia Abu-Jamal
Among the more activist oriented students on campus there has been a growing interest and commitment to challenge the growing prison-industrial complex and the incarceration of 2 million people, almost ½ of them black and the majority people of color. Students, primarily women, formed a prison action committee that has brought many speakers to campus as well as organizing seminars within Washington State prisons. They have raised awareness about prison conditions, the racism of the criminal justice system, and supported political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier and a Washington State political prisoner, Mark Cook. Mumia Abu-Jamal was proposed as the graduation speaker in 1998 and although he had a fair amount of support was not chosen as speaker.
The idea behind the campaign for Mumia as graduation speaker was that his selection would raise national publicity about the miscarriage of justice that led to his conviction and increase the public pressure for a new trial and make it more difficult for the state of Pennsylvania to execute him. It was seen as a way for the Evergreen State College community to join the growing worldwide movement that recognizes renowned journalist and author Mumia Abu-Jamal as a political prisoner who should be freed or at least get a new trial. To support Mumia as commencement speaker was also seen as a way to stand up for justice and against the death penalty. Moreover, by succeeding we would give those at graduation the opportunity to hear a powerful speaker address some of the key issues of the day such as institutionalized racism in the criminal injustice system and beyond; and the inequality of income and wealth in this society.
The campaign to have Mumia Abu-Jamal as commencement speaker continued this school year. In a very poorly publicized and attended meeting in fall, 1998 to discuss who would be commencement speaker in 1999, Governor Gary Locke, the moderate and pro death penalty Democratic Party Governor of Washington had four votes and Mumia Abu-Jamal had three votes, everybody else had less. Governor Locke in January 1999 turned down the offer to speak, which led to the situation where students, faculty and staff believed Mumia Abu-Jamal would be the commencement speaker. The local newspaper the Gannett owned, The Olympian, then ran stories that a convicted cop killer would be graduation speaker. This is the way Mumia is constantly referred to in the local media.
The Evergreen State College administration talked to Governor Locke again and in March 1999 he agreed to be the graduation speaker. Because of the organizing by students, the school agreed to have Mumia as a second speaker. Locke was then pressured by the State Police union to not appear at a graduation where a tape by Mumia Abu-Jamal would be played and Locke withdrew. By all logic, Mumia should have now been the commencement speaker at the upcoming June 11th graduation. However, violating all democratic procedures that had been set up, the President of the college, Jane Jervis; and the Vice-President for Student Affairs, Art Costatino, selected faculty member Stephanie Coontz as the commencement speaker, and announced that Mumia's speech would be heard at graduation but that he is not the official graduation speaker.
The Debate on Campus and in Olympia
Many community members, on and off campus, continue to see Abu-Jamal as he is portrayed in the local media as a "cop killer," and feel angered that he will be speaking at a state college graduation ceremony. Despite educational outreach on campus to build awareness of the case, such as the showing many times of the informative film, "Mumia: A Case for Reasonable Doubt", misinformation abounds. There is a lot more education to be done on his case in Olympia and throughout the country. Some students, faculty, staff and administrators have also made the argument that the majority of students do not favor Mumia Abu-Jamal as graduation speaker, and that graduation should be a time where the speaker should not divide the community and should talk in generalities that makes students and their families feel good. My guess is that a lot of students do support Mumia speaking, but not a majority. There is no way of knowing.
The college administration has tried to minimize Mumia's role at graduation, for example by not offering him any honorarium and saying his tape is only 10 minutes, because they do not want to challenge the anti-Mumia sentiment of the powerful--the local mass media, legislators, and the nationally organized lynch mob led by the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police who have many allies. These groups have pressured National Public Radio (NPR) not to carry Mumia's recordings. At Temple University, the president forced their radio station to cancel the Pacifica show, "Democracy Now", which carried interviews with Mumia. The administration at Evergreen has caved in part of this way to this blatant attempt at political censorship. My guess is only their fear of protest by supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal has prevented a total erasure of his powerful message.
What I also find interesting is that the same arguments used against Mumia speaking today would have been used in the mid 1960's against Malcolm X being the commencement speaker at any college in the U.S.--that the majority doesn't support him, that the college will alienate the outside community (by which they mean those with power and influence), that Malcolm will deal with political and controversial issues that are not appropriate at graduation, that he is violent, etc. It is easier to see the absurdity of this argument in the past than in the present.
In response to the idea that the speaker should please almost everyone, I counter that this means a speech full of platitudes signifying nothing that nobody will remember one year later. Mumia Abu-Jamal gives people attending graduation the opportunity to hear a brave and courageous person speak on issues of substance when we are living in a time when the U.S. is fighting a major war against Yugoslavia, 3000 people are on death row, the prisons in the United States are overflowing and police brutality is a daily occurrence.
For reasons that are not altogether clear, there has been far more protest against Mumia Abu-Jamal as speaker at graduation than there was to having a speech written by political prisoner, Leonard Peltier, read at the 1992 graduation at Evergreen, the year of the Columbus Quincentennial. With regards to Leonard Peltier, who was unjustly convicted for killing two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge reservation, the FBI has no doubt worked hard to prevent clemency for Leonard and against a new trial although there is a world wide movement demanding justice for Leonard Peltier. They did not put however put pressure on the Evergreen State College to cancel the invitation and neither did the right wing on and off campus.
What You Can Do
According to the local newspaper, "The Olympian" , the president of the college has been getting from a daily minimum of two dozen letters protesting Mumia's verbal presence to as many as 90 form letters on May 24th. I suggest that if you support Mumia's right to be heard and for a new trial, write a letter supporting him as the commencement speaker at the Evergreen graduation in a letter to President Jane Jervis, the Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA 98505 or by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even more important, if you see his case as a key part of the struggle to further social justice and human rights, and as part of the necessary support for political prisoners, publicize Mumia Abu-Jamal speaking at Evergreen's graduation. A press release from concerned students, faculty and staff should be on the ZNET web site, or if you can't find it, email me at email@example.com and I will send it to you. Maybe, Mumia Abu-Jamal can be awarded an honorary degree at your college next year, and/or you can get your church, union, or some other group you are connected to, to take a stand against his legal lynching.