I make no New Year's resolution. Instead, I have a simple plea: Oh Lord, please make 2000 a year free of Mumia.
That's right. That's no typo. I said free of Mumia. Not Free Mumia.
I've had it. If I go to one more lefty event and see one more Free Mumia poster, I might just have to switch sides on this one. What collective affliction has overcome my fellow pinkos? You haven't had enough defeats and embarrassments these past two decades? Now you want to take the deathly serious issue of capital punishment and tie it to some flaky cult-member like Mumia Abu-Jamal?
Full-page ads in major metro dailies, international petition campaigns, protest caravans and nationwide days of protest to set Mumia free. Grass-addled students at Washington state's Evergreen College wildly applauding his tape-delivered commencement speech. Activists buying up his two books from death row and huddling to pore over His Words. Regular lionizations of Mumia on Pacifica Radio (for whose L.A. affiliate I do a daily talk show).
I haven't seen such madness since December 1969, when the SDS' Weatherman faction staged a "National War Council" in Flint, MI, and toasted Charlie Manson by repeatedly stabbing three fingers into the air?symbolizing the forks that Comrade Manson and his girlfriends plunged into their victims' entrails.
It's madness because the death penalty and its copious application in modern America is a barbaric outrage. It's also one of the toughest political nuts to crack, given its approval by about 80 percent of the population.
Let's be clear. When it comes to Mumia there are three separate issues at play. Is he innocent? Did he get a fair trial? Is the death penalty ever appropriate? If you answer the third question in the negative?as I do?the first two questions become irrelevant. We oppose the death penalty. Even for the guilty. Period.
As to the second question?did Mumia get a fair trial??the answer seems to be probably no. Mumia should get another trial. As Debra Dickerson?no admirer of Mumia?recently pointed out in Salon, Mumia's supporters have a good case to make when they argue that his trial was tainted by concocted confessions, unreliable eyewitnesses and a biased judge.
It's also true that, during his trial, Mumia contributed to a carnival atmosphere with disruptive behavior described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as "as bizarre as it was suicidal."
So to those who are beating the drum for Mumia's innocence, those who are elevating this guy to the status of a political prisoner, those who are demanding that he be freed?well, those of us who wish to abolish the death penalty say to you (to paraphrase the late, great Phil Ochs): Please find another movement to be a part of. Until you do, you are confusing the issue of the death penalty itself with the rather flimsy case of a pretty wigged-out hero.
Only a few courageous left-of-center journalists have dared to publicly break with the pro-Mumia orthodoxy. Joan Walsh fired the opening shot last summer in Salon when she wrote that the "Mumia cult sickens" her. More recently Enzo Di Matteo wrote in the Toronto-based alternative weekly NOW of "The Holes in Mumia's Story."
Indeed, Di Matteo's account of the incident that landed Mumia on death row is among the best on record.
"It was in the early morning hours of December 9, 1981 that Mumia Abu-Jamal came upon his brother, William Cook, being hit with a flashlight by police officer Daniel Faulkner. Faulkner had pulled over the Volkswagen Cook was driving. What happened next depends on who you listen to. The version put forward at trial by the prosecution is that Abu-Jamal shot Faulkner in the back, and a wounded Faulkner turned as he was falling and got off a shot of his own that hit Abu-Jamal in the chest. The prosecution says Abu-Jamal gathered himself, stood over Faulkner and pumped more bullets, one practically between the eyes, into him as he lay on the sidewalk. The police arrived on the scene to find Abu-Jamal slouched on the curb with a .38-caliber revolver registered to him on the ground beside him, an empty holster slung under his arms."
The police bungled the ballistics, and in so doing gave Mumia's advocates a thin reed to which to cling. On the other hand, there is nothing in the ballistics evidence that definitively exonerates Mumia. Worse, as Di Matteo writes: "Five spent bullet casings were found in Abu-Jamal's revolver, the same hollow type removed from Faulkner's forehead." Mumia, meanwhile, has never offered an explanation for that evening's events. Perhaps a wise legal strategy?but politically it leaves much to be desired.
As do Mumia's politics in general. Though he briefly passed through the Black Panthers as a young man, Mumia's latest political incarnation is as a follower of the Philadelphia-based group known as MOVE. No serious political analyst can conclude that MOVE is anything more than an off-keel personality cult built around its politically grotesque leader, the deceased John Africa.
To suggest that Mumia is some sort of black liberation hero is to sully and dishonor the memory and sacrifice of the entire pantheon of authentic civil rights leaders. Listening to Mumia's wacky commencement speech given last year to Evergreen makes Minister Farrakhan's Million Man March discourse on numerology sound as stirring, by comparison, as the Emancipation Proclamation.
The tragic element in the Mumia craze is that while his supporters swoon over his dredlocks and his empty political posturing, some 3500 other nameless souls are wasting away on America's death rows?forgotten and abandoned. And while Mumia is being ably represented by the admirable legal talents of Leonard Weinglass, a staggering number of these other condemned men and women have no legal counsel whatsoever. Here in California, almost a full third of the 556 death row inmates are lawyer-less.
Most death row prisoners aren't so cuddly, so politically correct, as Mumia. I wonder how many of their names are even known by those still marching in circles with their Free Mumia signs. It's about time they learned.
Marc Cooper is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor to The Nation.
Only Connect by Dan Rodricks
The manager of a municipal ice rink told me that admissions and skate rentals were down during the holidays this year, and each of the last three years?a trend that had him and his East Coast ice-rink management colleagues worried. Where are the kids who usually jam rinks during the holiday break? "Home, with their heads stuck in computers, that's where," he answered his own question. As a woman grappled with the laces of her nine-year-old son's barely used CCMs, she groused that video games were sucking kids out of the mainstream of life, adding something about how her son might have an "addictive personality." What the lad needed was a good day of exercise and the kind of human contact one can experience at an ice rink mobbed with Tara Lipinski wannabes gliding along to the hits of the 1970s.
Recently another parent complained to me that her son, a teenage boy with a buzzcut and low self-esteem, had been spending too much time online, chatting with friends he had seen only hours earlier at school. His grades were lousy; he had quit the varsity football team. The boy had become increasingly withdrawn. What to do?
Unplugging didn't seem an option to this woman. It doesn't to most people who have tuned into the Internet. Once you're there, it's hard to get out. And how can parents who themselves log countless hours on the PC tell their kids they'll have to do their homework with pen and pencil and amuse themselves with conventional diversions?including a couple of hours skating to "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" at the ice rink?
It's not going to happen. But I keep hearing the complaints, a kind of simmering grumble just behind the drapes of the Information Age.
Baby boomers with kids are still struggling with it all?they see the benefits in their personal and professional lives, but fret about a downside illustrated by the examples I've just cited. They want to exercise caution as parents, but don't want to sound like old farts fighting a troglodyte war against the Web. They need to chill on this a little and see the larger picture.
In terms of its effects on the social lives of children, the wiring of the world is no different from any other relatively recent technological advance (the transistor radio, the extension telephone, households with three tv sets and three cars, the VCR). What boomer parents are sweating is something that's been brewing for years?a seismic change in the way we live.
In the middle of the 20th century, they built these highways, see. And the highways led to the suburbs, and people (mostly white and middle class) moved to the suburbs. They moved into houses with driveways, and some with garages as the dominant architectural feature. Men and women drove to and from work, to and from shopping centers and shopping malls, and they went home and turned on the tv until it was time to go to bed. All of this driving and tv-watching took up so much time there was none left for the kind of simple, ordinary interpersonal communicating your grandmother did.
People didn't sit around and talk so much anymore. The small town gave way to suburban sprawl. The number of poker games dwindled, along with the number of bowling leagues. People no longer took leisurely strolls in the partial hope of meeting their neighbors along the way; they took power walks in spandex. Fraternal organizations and social clubs started dying a long, slow death.
In the old days, if you had a small business, the Rotary was how you networked. Not anymore. You can use the Internet to network. You can make new contacts, develop clients without ever seeing someone's face, without ever sharing a chicken-and-rice supper and singing corny Rotarian songs. And the new client might live in Suriname. Human contact has been dwindling for years.
Ray Oldenburg, a sociologist in Florida, wrote of the loss of human contact in American culture 10 years ago in The Great Good Place. He wasn't being nostalgic when he wrote of the glories of urban cafes, coffee shops, bars, diners and other hangouts that brought people together, away from home and away from work. Oldenburg believed these places served a vital social purpose, as community information centers?places where people could catch up with their friends and neighbors?the grassroot gardens of democracy. Now, Oldenburg noted, people make trips to such places as outings that need to be organized and contrived. It was better, he believes, when people could naturally gravitate to them, stop by for a comforting dose of friendship and conversation. I recall that Oldenburg made particular note of the isolation of suburban teenagers?reliant on parents with cars to transport them everywhere for "socialization experiences." The suburban experience is bipolar?work and home (school and home, in the case of kids), with no informal "third place" in between.
Aside from the modern coffee shop (Starbucks, et al.), there's been no revival of the good "third place" Oldenburg described. The "third place" might be a chat room in cyberspace. Baby boomers concerned about their kids becoming socially isolated and addicted to video games and the Internet ought to take a little look back. Our generation was marked by the same trend. The appliances were different, that's all.
Being a human being, a real person out in the real world, making a real difference, having real friends?that always took some effort. It probably takes more effort these days. I'm not big on New Year's resolutions, but I'll make an exception since we've entered a new century, a new millennium. I suggest we all make an effort to shut down the PC and get off our asses for a while. And not for self-indulgent exercise. Bake a lasagna for a neighbor. Make conversation about Bill Bradley and John McCain with strangers in a coffee shop. Write a letter by hand to an old friend and walk it to the mail box. Go ice skating with some kids.
Dan Rodricks is a columnist for the Baltimore Sun.