He was convicted of terrorism and treason. According to the trial judge, the death sentence was an option, but in what some probably regarded as the greatest error of judgement in modern legal and political history, he passed a life sentence instead, probably calculating that the accused would be forgotten in time as he languished in jail for the remainder of his days. Nelson Mandela eventually became the most famous political prisoner in the world., and the South African government came to realise the extent of his appeal when a 70th birthday tribute to him at Wembley Stadium in June 1988 reached a global audience of hundreds of millions, and hastened his release.
Now that Madiba has joined the ancestors, it is interesting to consider who has inherited that dubious title of the world’s most famous political prisoner. A number of people come readily to mind: Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning, who is currently serving a 37-year sentence in a US military jail for leaking thousands of highly embarrassing US documents, for one. Many believe he too was lucky to escape the death sentence. The same sentence has also been demanded by many American patriots for Julian Assange, head of WilkiLeaks, now sheltering under the protection of the Ecaudorian Embassy in London, for publishing those documents. These two individuals are, as many have secretly hoped, only rarely in the news these days. Not quite so with Edward Snowden, who would also face the death sentence were he to return to the US, as many pundits have also declared him guilty of high treason for leaking information on US mass surveillance on its own citizens and on millions of people around the world. He isn’t in jail either, but continues to cause damaging embarrassment to his country from his exile in that enemy state, Russia.
For me, there is no question that the most famous of all contemporary political prisoners is a man who is entering his sixty-first year in the State Correctional Institution in Mahanoy, Pennsylvania. It would be a pleasant surprise if the forthcoming sixtieth birthday of Mumia Abu Jamal makes it onto mainstream media the way Mandela’s did, for Abu Jamal’s supporters are convinced that the media are complicit in consigning this remarkable activist to the dark, shadowy margins of world consciousness.
Who is Mumia? Instead of the “terrorist” label that was placed on Mandela’s head, Mumia is known as a “cop killer”, period. According to his supporters, he was framed for the murder of a policeman and sentenced to death, way back in 1982. His real crime? Speaking truth to power, first as a member of the Black Panther Party and later as a radio journalist who bravely used his popular broadcasts to highlight police brutality against Blacks in Philadelphia and around the USA. It is not at all surprising that 32 whole years after his imprisonment, the Fraternal Order of Police are at the forefront of moves to keep him demonised in the American psyche. When in 2012 the NAACP Legal Defence Fund finally won a decades-long battle to have Mumia taken off death row (where he had spent thirty years) and his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, the FOP must have been very displeased. It seems they got their revenge when a few months ago, they led a successful campaign for the Senate to reject President Obama’s nomination for Chief of the US Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, as Debo Adegbile had for a time been acting head of the LDF as Mumia’s appeal was being prepared. Some would say that Adegbile’s nomination was a presidential error of judgement too. The coverage of this episode in Democracy Now! is quite instructive, as that show’s guests touch on the history of Mumia’s case as well as the implications of the nominee’s rejection on the practice of civil rights law in the USA.
A cursory listen to any of Mumia’s broadcasts from prison will reveal why he is so reviled by many influential entities in the United States. In his quest to speak truth to power, few of the world’s most powerful individuals and interest groups have escaped his incredibly wise and incisive analysis and criticism. Few would have heard his radio commentary last December, tilled “Mandela Sanitised”, where he paid his own tribute to the great man, but reminded the world that “South African independence ... opened the door to elective office but closed the door to South Africa’s vast wealth by putting it in private hands. Dr. Nelson Mandela was hired to consolidate this state of affairs”. If Mandela’s worshipers couldn’t be spared this “inconvenient truth” about their hero, and if Abu Jamal is brave enough to buck the lionising trend in such a public way (as with for example his recent commentary on the current crisis in Ukraine), it is little wonder that the powers-that-be in the US want him confined to the obscurity of prison for the remainder of his days.
There will be no Wembley-style celebration of Mumia’s birthday in the UK. There will be some celebrations in the US. Certainly, Mr. Obama is unlikely to even mention Mumia’s name – that would be an error of judgement too far. However, as Obama so happily accepted his role as star turn at the global media circus that was Mr. Mandela’s memorial service, one cannot help but be struck by the appropriateness of the words that he so eloquently used at Madiba’s send-off if they were to be applied to a Mumia tribute on his birthday:
“... He accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price.”
“He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper's bullet.”
“Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love. That is happening today.”
“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with [his] struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
The last person to speak at Mandela’s funeral ceremony (Obama and thousands had left the stadium by then) was the venerable Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His contribution to the event is nowhere near as memorable as Mr. Obama’s but what does exist elsewhere (on the freemumia.com website in fact) is a video which some might consider to be a most venerable, most reverend error of judgement: a demand for the release of Mumia Abu Jamal.
If it's good enough for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it's good enough for me.