A Graduation Day to Remember

by Peter Bohmer
June 20, 1999



"Out of the many here assembled, it is the heart of he or she that I seek who looks at a life of vapid materialism, of capitalist excess, and finds it simply intolerable. It may be 100 of you, or 50, or even ten, or even one of you who makes that choice. I am here to honor and applaud that choice and to warn you that, though the suffering may indeed be great, it is nothing to the joy of doing the right thing."
Mumia Abu-Jamal, at the Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington, June 11, 1999
 

Mumia Abu-Jamal gave a memorable speech, recorded from Pennsylvania death row, to 8000 attendees, including  more than 1200 graduating students, at the Evergreen State College graduation on June 11, 1999. During his 13 minute talk, you could have heard a pin drop, as almost everyone listened intently to Mumia's articulate voice. Drawing on the history of racist oppression in this country and the resistance to it,  Mumia Abu-Jamal, in his taped address prepared for the graduating students,  urged them to live their lives deliberately and join the revolutionary struggle. He pointed out that "race" is a social construct but also a social reality, and that whites had made and could and should make the choice to fight against white supremacy and the evils of capitalism, and for the liberation of all people. At the conclusion of his talk, a large majority of the audience gave him a loud standing ovation that could be heard all the way to his death row  cell and hopefully to the U.S. Supreme Court, who will soon decide whether to consider the case. The attention paid by the graduating Evergreen students, their friends and relatives to Mumia's words, the interest in Mumia and the issues he raised, and the solidarity expressed by the applause, was very moving.

The idea of Mumia being the graduation speaker had been put forward in the fall of 1997. Although not initially successful, the idea did not die. In the last year, a group of students, primarily seniors, with support from a small group of faculty, staff and alumni organized  to promote Mumia Abu-Jamal as the speaker for the 1999 graduation at the Evergreen State College, a 4000 student state college in Olympia, Washington. Graduating students have usually had the primary say in selecting the speaker. Since it was announced in March, 1999 that Mumia was going to be a graduation speaker a furious, although ultimately unsuccessful campaign was launched to prevent this from happening.

Friday, June 11th , 1999 was a great day, especially for those who had worked so hard to have Mumia Abu-Jamal's voice be heard. One result of the organizing and outreach to gain support for Mumia speaking, is an increased awareness at Evergreen about the unjust nature of his conviction. By hearing him speak at graduation, there is also a more personal connection to Mumia which will lead to increased efforts to gain a new trial and prevent his execution. The national publicity will also help.  At the college and in Olympia, it has led to real discussion about  the racism and injustice in all aspects of the criminal justice system:  police brutality; inadequate legal representation for most defendants; unjust arrests and imprisonment of  political activists (especially people of color); juries that are often not of ones peers; the imprisonment with  longer sentences of almost two million people, disproportionately Black, Native American and Latino; and the death penalty. The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, many other police associations and the "law and order" crowd do not only want to execute Mumia, they also are committed to silencing him. On June 11th, they failed. (See my ZNET commentary of May 30, 1999 for background.) Their campaign escalated in early June of this year.

                                                    GRADUATION DAY APPROACHES
Less than a week before the scheduled graduation, on June 5th  and June 6th, Maureen Faulkner, the widow of Daniel Faulkner, the cop whom Mumia was convicted of murdering in the deeply flawed 1982 trial, took out big ads in the local newspaper, the Gannett owned "The Olympian" with  the headline, "A Convicted Cop Killer,  Speaker at Evergreen State College Commencement?" In the ad, she announced she would be attending the commencement with a picture of her dead husband and asked people to walk out when Mumia's speech began. The pressure to prevent Abu-Jamal from speaking was intense. Editorials in "The Olympian" and other newspapers, repeatedly called him a cop killer;  hundreds of letters and emails to the campus demanded he not be allowed to speak; a Washington State legislator demanded the same; and  U.S. Congressman Tom DeLay, the Republican House whip from Texas, called for a moment of silence in the U.S. Congress on June 11th at 1 P.M. to protest Mumia's participation in the graduation. DeLay called the college socially irresponsible. Socially irresponsible is something DeLay truly is an expert in. As June 11th  approached, anxiety continued to rise. There were rumors that 300 armed cops were coming to support Maureen Faulkner and protest the graduation, that Mumia's speech  would be drowned out by bullhorns, and that hundreds would walk out. In response to her ad, an open and respectful letter to her, signed by 20 faculty and staff and distributed two days before graduation, contested Ms. Faulkner's claims of Mumia's guilt, and summarized some of the worldwide support for a new trial.

Maureen Faulkner demanded to address the graduation.  The Evergreen college administration, to its credit, did not give her time to speak from the podium. The day before the graduation, the college president, Jane Jervis, in an interview with the New York Times said that Abu-Jamal deserved inclusion because he used his free-speech "to galvanize an international conversation about the death penalty, and the relationship between poverty and the criminal justice system." This was a step forward from earlier attempts to apologize for and minimize Mumia's verbal presence. Partly because of student organizing, the college did not cave in to the concerted and organized attempt to remove him from the college graduation. Students in support of Mumia  became increasingly organized, strategic and effective in increasing the number of  people involved in the campaign. There was systematic outreach to the mass media, the alternate media and the Internet.  They sent out a message far and wide that Evergreen graduates were being honored by having Abu-Jamal speak; that he deserved a new trial, and that he was raising issues of fundamental importance for the future of this country.

For the graduation itself,  the symbolism  put forward was that Mumia was the canary sent into coal mine shafts to test for lethal gas. If the canary died, the miners knew not to descend into the mine, because it was poisonous. The pamphlet, which was handed out to 6000 people during the graduation stated, "Mumia is the canary in our coal mine. If he dies without a fair trial, we will know that we live in a society that is unsafe for all of us." This well-received pamphlet concluded, "If we don't defend justice for others, who will defend justice for us." Yellow armbands and/or flags with a picture of a canary in a cage were worn by hundreds of graduating seniors and many supporters. It was decided  to set a nonconfrontational tone at graduation and not respond to provocation by the police or the right wing who were sure to be there.

                                                                GRADUATION DAY
The local newspaper, "The Olympian" on the morning of the graduation headlined, "Eyes of the nation are on Evergreen for Abu-Jamal speech."  At 1:00 P.M., the graduating students marched to the main square on the campus and took their seats. It was a warm and sunny day, a good omen. After welcoming comments and a speech, by Evergreen faculty member Stephanie Coontz, that strongly encouraged people to listen to each other and bridge differences, President Jane Jervis introduced Mumia Abu-Jamal. She asked people to listen respectively and gave them the option to leave the square for the duration of his speech. Although some faculty and students had predicted mass walkouts, only about 15 graduating students walked out and another 20 to 25 remained but turned their backs in protest of Mumia's speech. Perhaps another 25 stayed away from the entire graduation to object. These three forms of protest together adds up to only 5% of the students receiving their bachelor's or masters degree, a very small percentage of those graduating. Given the pressure exerted on students to protest Mumia by the mass media, by police and by Maureen Faulkner who walked out with her supporters, that the overwhelming majority listened respectfully and attentively speaks well for the Evergreen community A significant number of those who walked out or turned their backs  worked in law enforcement or had close relatives working as cops or a similar job.

During this day, the media swarmed around Maureen Faulkner but most students ignored her.  There were no disruptions or confrontations at the graduation. Mumia's speech was the center piece of a meaningful day. By 4:30 P.M., each student who was graduating had their name called, received their diploma and left with friends and family.

                                                                       THE MEDIA SPIN
Not surprising but still somewhat disappointing was the TV and newspaper coverage of the graduation. All of the stories began with the protest against Mumia. Maureen Faulkner and the few students and non-students who protested Mumia' speech were the center of almost all of the accounts. For example, the Associated Press (AP)  story was titled "Abu-Jamal Protested at Commencement", and the first half of the story only mentioned those who walked out in protest  with all the quotes from this group. There was not one word about support for Mumia. The second half of the AP story included one short quote from a graduating senior who supported Mumia speaking at the graduation, a little bit about his case and two sentences from Abu-Jamal's speech. The protest against him speaking became the main story, and the  remarkable story that Mumia Abu-Jamal spoke at a college graduation with overwhelming support from thousands was not reported.

The press in the U.S. proudly calls itself free, and reporters  no doubt believe they are objective. It was very revealing to see these reporters and the TV cameras continually seek out for interviews and comments from those who protested Mumia speaking, and  ignore or minimize the far larger numbers who supported  him. The supporters  were far more organized with press packets, and prepared statements from a diverse group of students, alumni and faculty, but this didn't matter. The media did not actually lie in the sense that they changed what Mumia said, or exaggerated the numbers who walked out. Rather the main story ended up being the protest against Mumia, which fit best with the status quo view that there are no political prisoners in this country, that we live in a country where for the most part, racism is a problem of the past, that people who are convicted of crimes or in prison must be guilty, that poor people are to blame for their poverty, and the wealthy and powerful are rewarded for their ability.

It is a viewpoint which is unconsciously accepted by reporters and their editors. They consider it perfectly normal and appropriate for people like Henry Kissinger and Robert Rubin, whose policies have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to be honored college graduation speakers, while they condemn Mumia Abu-Jamal as violent and inappropriate. It led these reporters to look for and focus on the protest against Mumia. This illustrates why media with a different framework is so important. "Democracy Now", hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales, played the entirety of Mumia Abu-Jamal's talk, in reporting on the Evergreen graduation on their June 14th  radio show.

                                                   A SUCCESSFUL DAY FOR THE LEFT
There was a Mumia benefit, Friday night, June 11th, after the graduation  that many local musicians played at.  In spite of reports of the media spin,  there was a solid feeling of positive accomplishment by those attending the show as people recounted the many discussions they had heard or participated in during the day of students with their parents and relatives about the criminal injustice system and the death penalty. Many  parents said they would  look into Mumia's case more carefully in the future as well as oppose the locking up of more and more of our population.

The silence about Mumia Abu-Jamal  was pierced  in Olympia on June 11th, 1999 and the ripples reached much farther. It was a day that those in attendance will always remember and for most, the memories will be about the social significance of what occurred. The struggle continues!