Revolutionary Worker #1011, June 20, 1999
The voice of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal flew across the continent "live from death row" this week as a storm of controversy erupted at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, over a taped speech by Mumia at graduation ceremonies. Students, faculty and college administrators stood firm in the face of pressure to cancel the speech from the Governor's office, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, Republican congressional leader Tom DeLay of Texas, Maureen Faulkner and the Fraternal Order of Police. And, as 800 Evergreen seniors got their diplomas, they had a chance to hear a message of resistance from Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Speaking to the chosen graduation theme of "a life lived deliberately," Mumia talked about the lives of revolutionary people like Malcolm X, John Brown, Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton and Ramona Africa, and told the students: "These people dared to dissent, dared to speak out, dared to reject the status quo by becoming rebels against it. They lived--and some of them continue to live--lives of deliberate will, of willed resistance to a system that is killing us. Remember them. Honor their highest moments. Learn from them. Are these not lives lived deliberately? This system's greatest fear has been that folks like you, young people, people who have begun to critically examine the world around them, some perhaps for the first time, people who have yet to have a spark of life snuffed out, will do just that: learn from those lives, be inspired, and then live lives of opposition to the deadening status quo."
According to a student press release, Mumia was chosen to speak at Evergreen's graduation ceremony in January, after the school administration mistakenly announced that the first choice for commencement speaker, Washington governor Gary Locke --a pro-death-penalty Democrat--would be unable to attend. When the mistake was discovered, the school found itself with two commencement speakers--a pro-death-penalty politician and Mumia Abu-Jamal who has spent 17 years unjustly incarcerated on death row.
When Governor Locke said that he would not speak on the same platform with Mumia, the faculty and students refused to back down and the governor cancelled his appearance.
Students and faculty saw Mumia's speech as a chance to set a positive precedent among colleges. Evergreen professor Peter Bohmer said, "It is easier to see injustice in the past than in the present. This is a chance for Evergreen to stand up for justice." They also saw Mumia's graduation address as a important statement to "combat the silence imposed on the escalating prison population in this country." Graduating senior Stephanie Guilloud said, "Selecting Mumia Abu-Jamal as the graduation speaker is an historic opportunity that will reverberate beyond the walls of this particular institution."
In a letter to the press, college president Jane Jervis stated that Mumia was a deserving choice as commencement speaker since he had used his voice "to galvanize an international conversation about the death penalty, the disproportionate number of Blacks on death row, the relationship between poverty and the criminal justice system."
Maureen Faulkner, the wife of the Philadelphia cop whom Mumia was unjustly convicted of murdering in 1982, placed an ad in the local Olympia newspaper--similar to the ad placed by police in the New York Times last year, full of lies and distortions about Mumia's trial. Sounding a now familiar theme--that any public hearing of Mumia's voice was victimizing her--Faulkner demanded that the college cancel Mumia's address. Then, on June 10, two days before graduation, Pennsylvania Attorney General Fisher wrote a letter to the president of the college also demanding the speech be cancelled. And, on Friday, June 11, Congressman Tom DeLay, a top-ranking Republican reactionary, attacked the college and insulted a generation of students, stating that "the twisted radicals in many of our universities...take empty minds and work methodically to replace them with demented ones."
On June 12, confronted with state police guards and a hostile entourage of Maureen Faulkner, members of the FOP, and several dozen pro-police students--many students welcomed the opportunity to hear Mumia's voice. "What does it mean, when he can sit there on death row for 17 years, while more and more evidence of corruption keeps coming up?" asked one graduating senior, "If this is what our justice system has come to, then something has got to change."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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