On Sunday convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal’srecorded speechwas played atGoddard College’s commencement ceremony,spurring police protestsand the proposal of a new victims rights bill in Pennsylvania.
Abu-Jamal is a prisoner, journalist, and former Black Panther originally sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. People have since rallied around his innocence and claimed the case had shaky evidence, and Abu-Jamal has become a hero in some circles. The Goddard graduating class reportedly chose Abu-Jamal as its speaker to “engage and think radically and critically.”
Many police officers in Vermont and Pennsylvania, however, are angry about the speech. Former and current law enforcement officials stood in protest outside of Goddard’s entrance on Sunday, holding a photo of the slain officer, Faulkner.
Speaking to the Burlington Free Press, Tony Lolli, a deputy with the Washington County Sheriff’s department, expressed his disappointment with Goddard’s decision.
“You have to wonder what the college is thinking,” Lolli said. “Colleges have a certain responsibility, in my opinion, for creating some moral guidance for their students, and I think they have failed in that.”
Meanwhile, Philadelphia police offers held a vigilat Faulkner’s memorial plaque at 13th and Locust Streets, where Faulkner died after he was shot. Over 400 police offers and members of the Fraternal Order of Police attended the vigil, standing at attention for 25 minutes.
Members of the public and the media were not allowed into the commencement ceremony, which was held three hours earlier than scheduled for safety reasons. While the college received no direct threats of violence, extra precautions were taken due to the Abu-Jamal’s controversial public image.
Abu-Jamal’s speech itself, however, was fairly uncontroversial. He made no mention of his case, except to say that when he returned to Goddard to complete his degree, he was “a man on death row, with a date to die.” Presumably, Abu-Jamal hoped to express to graduates that even an impending execution could not defeat his will to learn. (And presumably, he was able to complete his studies from behind bars.) He encouraged students to find what moves them and use their voice to transform society.
Abu-Jamal’s own voice may soon be silenced, however. His commencement speech, however innocuous, represented something much larger to families who had lost loved ones while on duty. The proposed victims’ rights bill would prevent prisoners from making contact with the public if families could prove that such contact would cause them “mental anguish.”
Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania, told CBS Philadelphia that if passed, the bill would likely be challenged on First Amendment grounds.
“The Legislature doesn’t have the power to punish speech it doesn’t like,” Hoover said.
On Dec. 9, 1981, Philadelphia police officer Faulkner was conducting a traffic stop on a vehicle belonging to Abu-Jamal’s younger brother. Parked in a taxi across the street, Abu-Jamal ran across the street to the traffic stop. Shots were fired, and both Faulkner and Abu-Jamal were wounded. Faulkner later died, and Abu-Jamal, whose revolver was found on the scene, was charged with first degree murder and sentenced to death.
After a series of appeals, Abu-Jamal’s death penalty sentence was commuted in 2011 to life in prison without parole. Abu-Jamal has claimed to be the victim of a racist justice system, and he continues to speak out about law, justice, and politics in his own Prison Radio show.
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