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Activists Galvanized by Death Row Inmate's Case : Justice: Mumia Abu-Jamal is a convicted cop-killer. The Philadelphia man has attracted worldwide support.

August 07, 1995|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — On Dec. 9, 1981, during the chilled pre-dawn hours when only prostitutes, cabdrivers and cops are hard at work, Officer Daniel Faulkner stopped a green Volkswagen near the intersection of 13th and Locust streets.

Faulkner and the motorist, William Cook, got into a fistfight just as Cook's brother, Mumia Abu-Jamal, a onetime radio reporter turned cabbie, cruised by. As Faulkner was handcuffing Cook, gunshots spoke into the night.

By the time more police arrived, Faulkner lay mortally wounded with a bullet in his back and another between his eyes. Abu-Jamal sat on the curb, his dreadlocked head slumped and a bullet wound in his chest. Cook stood unharmed against a brick wall.

A jury deliberated only four hours before convicting Abu-Jamal of first-degree murder. It needed less time than that to decide he should die for the crime.

Now, 14 years later, with Abu-Jamal's execution scheduled for Aug. 17, what once seemed an open-and-shut case of cop-killing has erupted into a bitter controversy that is serving as a template for grass-roots community activists in Philadelphia. Like moths to a flame, movie stars, writers, college professors, religious leaders and international human rights advocates are drawn to Abu-Jamal's case.

Why?

The answer, say social observers and political analysts, is the emergence of Abu-Jamal as a mediagenic personality who appeals to activists with extremist political views, coupled with a readily identifiable villain.

Abu-Jamal, who once served a term as president of the Philadelphia Assn. of Black Journalists, was a charismatic and outspoken advocate for the city's black communities long before the Faulkner shooting. As a youth, he was a student leader who belonged to the Black Panther Party. Later he gained citywide notice for radio commentaries that supported MOVE, a black separatist group in Philadelphia, in its confrontations with police and city leaders.

Black separatist groups in Philadelphia have insisted from the beginning that Abu-Jamal was framed because of his support of nonconformist black organizations. Their campaign turned Abu-Jamal into regular front-page news and talk-radio fodder; that in turn attracted serious examination of Abu-Jamal's case by liberal-leaning Establishment groups.

The villain's role has fallen to Judge Albert Sabo, a former law enforcement official with a reputation for handing down death sentences. Seated high above a second-floor courtroom in City Hall, the judge is overseeing hearings to determine whether Abu-Jamal should get a new trial.

Sabo, the same judge who presided over Abu-Jamal's original trial, has become a protest target because of his open contempt for Abu-Jamal and his supporters. He has rebuffed efforts by Leonard Weinglass, the noted civil rights attorney representing Abu-Jamal, to persuade him to recuse himself from the hearing for a new trial.

"For the 10th time, the 20th time, the 30th time, your recusal request is denied," Sabo said when a retrial hearing convened here last week.

Jailed 'Metaphor'

Randall Miller, a professor of history and urban studies at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, said: "Abu-Jamal is a metaphor for so many things that are wrong. That is why his case attracts so much attention."

As Abu-Jamal's hearing continued last week, dozens of his supporters jammed the steamy corridor outside the courtroom, with television crews and an international contingent of reporters recording every move. Faxes, letters and proclamations from politicians streamed by the hundreds into the judge's chambers, pleading on behalf of Abu-Jamal.

Outside City Hall more than 100 other protesters, representing a broad array of labor unions, community groups, religious organizations, college instructors and assorted other professionals, chanted and paraded through a courtyard.

Such demonstrations have drawn others to the cause. Celebrities, from Hollywood's Ed Asner and Whoopi Goldberg to New York's E.L. Doctorow and William Styron, have joined with Amnesty International and the National Assn. of Black Journalists to express support for Abu-Jamal. An ad hoc group of college professors, Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal, organized itself and persuaded Cornel West, a Harvard philosophy and religion scholar, to attend a recent hearing on Abu-Jamal's case.

In blue jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts, political activists all across the nation have joined arms with kinte-wearing African Americans to drum up grass-roots demonstrations reminiscent of 1960s anti-war protests. Their common shouted demand: "Free Mumia, Now!"

Even social reformers from abroad have joined forces. In a twist of international political protesting, the Azanian Students Convention, a radical South African youth organization, recently picketed the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria. Other protests have taken place in Japan and Western Europe.

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