Death row inmate

Jeffrey Hujet

The Fireplace Lounge became a stage for political activism on Thursday afternoon, as Coffman Union hosted a forum to educate the campus about journalist, outspoken political activist and death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Sponsored by the Progressive Student Organization and the Africana Student Cultural Center, the forum offered expert speakers and spoken-word poetry to the crowd of about 100.
Abu-Jamal became wrapped in Philadelphia’s political scene as a founding member of the city’s Black Panther party and as an internationally renowned journalist. An outspoken critic of the Philadelphia Police Department, Abu-Jamal was convicted for the Dec. 9, 1981, shooting death of a white Philadelphia police officer.
He is currently awaiting execution on death row in Pennsylvania. The facts surrounding the case are highly contentious. Abu-Jamal’s supporters claim he has been sentenced to death for his political views, while others look at him simply as a convicted cop-killer with a persuasive personality and an ability to gain media attention.
The Philadelphia Police Department and justice system have been widely criticized by Abu-Jamal and his supporters for a number of illegal and unconstitutional actions.
Peter Erlader, a professor at William and Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, also spoke at the forum. Erlader, who is involved in Abu-Jamal’s defense initiative, argued against the death penalty and urged those attending the forum to take action.
“The political movement, support and pressure in the hundreds, thousands and millions is a far more important force than I as a lawyer can put on a piece of paper,” he said.
Supporters also claim the trial was presided over by a judge with a questionable ethical standard.
Judge Albert Sabo, who convicted and sentenced Abu-Jamal, has sentenced more people to death than any other judge in the United States. Only two of the 32 convicted and sentenced to death by the Philadelphia judge were white.
Abu-Jamal’s case has garnered both national and international attention from politicians, anti-death penalty activists and entertainers.
Hollywood director Oliver Stone and actor Paul Newman signed a full-page ad in the New York Times declaring: “There is strong reason to believe that as an outspoken critic of the Philadelphia police and judicial and prison systems, Mumia Abu-Jamal has been sentenced to death because of his political beliefs.”
The point of the forum, according to Eric Bernal of the PSO, was to facilitate an objective understanding and allow people to make their own judgements regarding the case against Abu-Jamal.
“All we’re asking for is a new trial — a fair trial,” he said. Abu-Jamal’s case could reach an appeals court as soon as May.
Don Kingsby of the PSO and the Anti-Racist Action group reiterated the point.
“Mumia has become such a cultural symbol, you hear people yelling, ‘Free Mumia, free Mumia.’ It’s scrawled on walls — he’s become a symbol, but symbols are ineffective unless you know what they mean,” he said.