Mumia Abu-Jamal was born Wesley Cook on 24 April 1954 to Edith Cook, one of millions of blacks who left the South in the 1940s in search of work. Mumia and his four brothers and a sister grew up in the public housing projects of North Philadelphia.
When one of his high school teachers, a native of Kenya, assigned the boys Swahili names to use in class, Wesley Cook became Mumia. In an autobiographical essay, “Philly daze: an impressionistic memoir,” Mumia describes how, in 1968, as a 14-year-old, he and three friends went to a George Wallace rally during the arch-segregationist’s presidential campaign. When they began to protest they were ejected by uniformed police, and immediately set upon by a mob of racists:
“I was grabbed by two of them, one kicking my skull while the other kicked me in the balls. Then I looked up and saw the two-toned, gold-trimmed pant leg of a Philly cop. Without thinking, and reacting from years of brainwashing, I yelled, ‘Help, police!’ The cop saw me on the ground being beaten to a pulp, marched over briskly—and kicked me in the face. I have been thankful to that faceless cop ever since, for he kicked me straight into the Black Panther Party.” (1)
The next year Mumia was one of a dozen young black men who founded the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party (BPP). He was soon writing for The Black Panther. In September 1969, when Philly cops raided the local Panther office, Jamal was among those arrested.(2) When Fred Hampton, the leader of the Chicago Panthers, was assassinated by police in his bed on 4 December 1969, Mumia was among the local leaders flown in to tour the crime scene. He subsequently worked on the defense campaign of 21 New York City BPP members jailed on entirely bogus charges of plotting to blow up the Statue of Liberty, the New York Botanical Gardens and Bloomingdale’s department store. From New York, he went to Oakland to work full time on the Panther paper. His involvement in the national leadership of the Panthers ended abruptly when police picked him up for improper identification and crossing the street against a red light. He was initially locked up in a juvenile facility, but released when he agreed to return to Philadelphia.
The Panthers were destroyed by a combination of government repression and dead-end factionalism (fueled by disruptive government agents) which erupted into fratricidal warfare in 1970. The leadership of the Philadelphia branch, including Mumia, refused to become involved, and resigned rather than take sides in what they correctly saw as a pointless vendetta. Mumia later recalled his disenchantment:
In 1972, encouraged by an encounter with another ex-Panther, Mumia entered Goddard College in Vermont where he worked on the college radio station. His enthusiasm for the medium propelled him into a career as a radio journalist after he returned home to Philly. His work on several local radio stations exposing police violence and racism soon earned him recognition as the “Voice of the Voiceless.”
In 1980 Mumia was elected president of Philadelphia’s Association of Black Journalists, and in January 1981 was identified as someone to watch by Philadelphia Magazine.(4) His radical activities and increasingly sympathetic coverage of John Africa and his followers in MOVE, a predominately black, quasi-political, back-to-nature sect, created problems with his employers and ultimately cost him his job. To make ends meet, Mumia was forced to moonlight as a cab driver, which is how he came to be sitting in a taxi parked on 13th Street, north of Locust, on the bitter December night that changed his life.
Having just dropped off a fare in West Philly, Mumia was filling out his log while he waited for another customer. The area bustled with late night traffic from neighboring clubs which remained open (thanks to police pay-offs) long after the official closing time.(5) It was a popular spot for cab drivers like Mumia and prosecution witness Robert Chobert, a 22 year-old white man who claimed to have been discharging a passenger at the southeast corner of 13th and Locust. The neighborhood was also home to a number of black prostitutes, including trial witnesses Cynthia White and Veronica Jones, who looked for customers exiting the after-hours clubs.
Mumia’s youngest brother, Billy Cook, was visiting a few night spots in the neighborhood on 9 December after locking up his street vending stand. At 3:54 am, officer Daniel Faulkner, working without a partner and without the bulletproof vest he usually wore,(6) pulled over Billy Cook’s blue Volkswagen on Locust. At the trial, the prosecution would claim it was a routine traffic stop, and that Billy Cook believed he was being pulled over because his car had wooden bumpers instead of metal ones as required by law.(7) But the fact that Faulkner called for back-up and a paddy wagon before getting out of his car suggests he was expecting to make an arrest.(8) Most of the prosecution witnesses agreed that once Faulkner had Billy Cook pressed up against the car, he struck him with his heavy-duty patrol flashlight, which was found on the ground at the scene with a broken lens.(9) Accounts of what happened next vary considerably.
Mumia was initially charged with Faulkner’s killing simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. However once he was charged, the campaign against him took on a clearly political character. The prosecutor, Joseph McGill, posed the central issue as one of “law and order” and in his closing arguments suggested that there was a connection between Mumia’s participation in the Black Panthers a dozen years earlier and Faulkner’s killing.
To combat the Panthers and the New Left in the 1960s, the FBI launched a massive Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). The FBI was particularly concerned to prevent “the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.”(10) The Panther press, and those who produced it, were of particular interest to the FBI. A 1970 memo from FBI headquarters observed that:
It is hardly surprising that a talented teenager working as a full-time writer for The Black Panther would have attracted considerable attention. The 700 pages from Mumia’s FBI file that were finally released in 1991 reveal that at one point the FBI considered blaming Mumia for the 1973 murders of the governor of Bermuda, Richard Sharples and his aide. Mumia had never been anywhere near Bermuda where the killings took place, so the feds eventually had to drop it.(12)
In the 1970s, Mayor Frank Rizzo ran Philadelphia as his own private fiefdom. Rizzo, whose father had been a police sergeant, spent 40 years working his way up to be Philadelphia’s top cop. He had a reputation for brutality and in 1972 won election as mayor on a promise to “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.”(13) Rizzo was also an overt racist. On 21 September 1978, in the midst of a campaign to change the city charter to permit him to seek a third mayoral term, Rizzo appealed to his supporters to “Vote white.”(14) This crude racism backfired, and Rizzo was overwhelmingly defeated.
In its June 1998 report, “Shielded from Justice,” Human Rights Watch noted that Philadelphia’s police have earned “one of the worst reputations of big city police departments in the United States.” According to a February 2000 Amnesty International report on Mumia’s case:
The naked racism of Rizzo’s administration left little space for careerist black “community leaders” to maneuver. In this environment, MOVE, a group that might have been marginalized in a more complex political ecosystem, achieved a certain prominence as a consequence of its refusal to be intimidated by police repression.(16) Under Rizzo in the mid-1970s, MOVE members were arrested hundreds of times on a wide variety of charges.
On 8 August 1978 the ante was upped when, after laying siege to one of the MOVE houses in Powelton Village, police opened fire. One police officer, James Ramp, was killed, apparently by “friendly fire,” in the fusillade of bullets.
No one thought to hold the police accountable for their reckless gunplay and other violence that day:
In the Faulkner shooting in 1981 the crime scene was merely left unguarded, a slightly more subtle way of destroying it (see declaration of Linn Washington, Appendix No. 4).(19)
In the aftermath of the 1978 police assault, nine MOVE members were arrested, tried on charges of conspiracy, aggravated assault, attempted murder and third-degree murder, and given sentences ranging from 30 to 100 years in prison. A year and a half after the conviction of the MOVE 9, two cops who had been on the “Stake Out” unit that had pursued MOVE were among the first on the scene of Faulkner’s shooting. They were in a position to have identified Mumia as a MOVE supporter, even if he had not had his hair in dreadlocks which, in Philadelphia, was a MOVE trademark. The senior officer at the scene was Inspector Alfonzo Giordano, who would have known Mumia very well inasmuch as he:
(2) Paul Cooperstein, an attorney with the Partisan Defense Committee who reviewed over 700 pages of FBI COINTELPRO files on Mumia, stated this in his affidavit of June 1995, reprinted in Leonard Weinglass, Race for Justice: Mumia Abu-Jamal’s fight against the death penalty, (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995), p 209
(8) Trial transcript, 19 June 1982 (the third day of the trial), p 3.106. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) “Justice for Police Officer Daniel Faulkner” website (www.danielfaulkner.com), besides spurious “fact” sheets and crude attacks (see, for example, their reply to Amnesty International’s February 2000 report) includes a nearly complete set of transcripts of the 1982 trial and the 1995-97 Post-Conviction Relief (PCRA) hearings.
(11) Memorandum from FBI Headquarters to Chicago and seven other field offices, dated 15 May 1970, quoted in Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers (Boston: South End Press,1990), p 159
(15) Amnesty International, “A Life in the Balance—The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal,” February 2000, pp 3-4. This report did not take a position on whether Mumia was guilty or innocent, and advocated a retrial. However deficient its political conclusions, it is the product of a serious investigation and is, on the whole, factually accurate.
In 1977, after he was charged with filing false information in connection with a firearm purchase, Glassey agreed to become an informer for the Philadelphia police.
(19) The eminent California attorney Michael Yamamoto, who conducted his own independent review of Mumia’s case, and wrote a “friend of the court” brief to the federal appeals court in Philadelphia in March 2002, considered Washington’s deposition to be highly significant:
(20) Affidavit of Rachel Wolkenstein, see Appendix No. 9, point 26. Wolkenstein is a lawyer with the Partisan Defense Committee (PDC, an affiliate of the Spartacist League/U.S.). She worked on Mumia’s defense for over a decade.