Graduates Fight to Hear Mumia at Santa Cruz Commencements

Revolutionary Worker #1060, June 25, 2000

SANTA CRUZ, CALIFORNIA – The University of California at Santa Cruz sits on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The architecture and location of the school seems designed to make students forget their connections to the world and its problems and to create an elitist attitude of "looking down" at the rest of society. But students at UCSC are struggling to break down the walls of the university’s "ivory towers" and link up with the struggle of the people. On June 10 and 11, through the struggle and perseverance of students, the voice of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, speaking from Pennsylvania’s death row, addressed the commencement ceremonies of two of Santa Cruz’s eight colleges. These were the fourth and fifth university commencements Mumia has addressed in the last year.

"An Ending — A Beginning"

At the Merrill College graduation on June 10, scores of people in the audience wore bright orange stickers — distributed by Refuse and Resist! — demanding a new trial for Mumia. At Merrill, Mumia’s speech was introduced by Provost John Schechter, who only two weeks before had opposed student efforts to include Mumia in the graduation. He said: "It is in this spirit, of attending to voices that struggle to be heard, that we spend the next few minutes of our program listening to an special message recently prepared specifically for our Merrill graduating seniors at their commencement ceremony by Mumia Abu-Jamal, an African-American writer and journalist who has spent the last 18 years on Pennsylvania’s death row."

Mumia’s seven-minute talk was titled, "An Ending, A Beginning." Student organizers told the RW that in order to record this talk Mumia had to use the one 15-minute phone call that he is allowed each week.

"Think of this as a kind of discussion, one-way to be sure, but a discussion still," Mumia said. "A discussion that emerges from another America, one that most of you have perhaps rarely acknowledged, much less interacted with. I speak to you from what is called ‘a nation in chains,’ a metaphor, to be sure, but I think quite apt in some ways. Why? Well, let’s consider this simple fact: There are two million men, women, and children (yes, children) in American prisons and jails today. Two million. Did you know this? Does it stun you? Does it surprise you?

"Think of it this way: that number of people are found in the combined populations of Dallas and Detroit; it’s the combined numbers of Houston and Denver, Colorado; it’s roughly the same population as can be found in both Philadelphia, and Long Beach. There are at least 30 countries in the world with smaller total populations than the U.S. prison population."

After quoting French philosopher Michel Foucault, who made a study of prisons in the U.S. and concluded that prisons are machines for the "social elimination" of a section of society, Mumia ended with a challenge to the students: "Will you become a part of this vile machine or will you work to abolish it?"

Mumia’s speech was greeted with prolonged applause. Many people gave Mumia a standing ovation. Several of the graduating seniors on the stage held up a banner reading "Free Mumia Abu-Jamal! Justice Now! Stop the Execution!"

A graduating senior told the RW after the commencement, "What Mumia said about the prison system was essential. People need to be made aware of that because the media is very effective in silencing and sedating the masses. We need to foster that kind of critical thinking in our schools and in society."

At Stevenson College the next day, Mumia’s speech was introduced by the two principal student speakers at the commencement, who made Mumia’s talk the centerpiece of their collective remarks. One of them told the crowd: "I feel honored to introduce Mumia’s speech because of the tremendous inspiration and strength that he provides to us."

After the tape of Mumia was played, the two speakers commented on his message: "As college students we may not feel that the prison system relates to us, but I remind you that the food in the UCSC dining halls is provided by a company that invests in private prisons, and that while UCSC bulges with overcrowded dorms and classrooms, there have been 20 prisons and only one university built in California in the last 20 years. But what does Mumia’s voice, Mumia’s life, show us of how we can each struggle with our situations? Mumia embodies the way that, even under the extreme restrictions of his immediate surroundings, a person can live beyond imposed limitations.

"If Mumia can defy the violent limitations put on him by imprisonment, we can surely defy the social norms and economic pressures that seem to hold us from sharing our dreams and manifesting our visions. What many of us fear, I think, is that social and economic pressures will force us to compromise our deepest wishes, our vision of what we believe the world can be. What we may find is that to make change we must act outside of the regular positions that have been set out for us."

Puny Opposition

The day before the Merrill commencement the local newspaper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, ran an article titled "Mumia Commencement Address Under Fire." The article quoted an anti-Mumia organizer as saying that "a barrage of calls had been received by the University Chancellor protesting the playing of Mumia’s tape. However the article admits that according to a university spokesperson only four calls had been received protesting the speech. The anti-Mumia organizers called for people to come out and protest Mumia’s speech but only five people showed up to hand out flyers against Mumia.

A freshman UCSC student told the RW how he had tried to debate the handful of anti-Mumia protesters. "In my opinion they were handing out racist propaganda calling Mumia a murderer. I tried to confront them and have an intellectual conversation about the case. They wouldn’t even engage in a very open exchange. It’s very typical of them to be afraid because everything that they have is a lie. I asked one of the people handing out the leaflets whether she believes in justice. She said yes. So I asked her how she feels about all the constitutional rights violations in Mumia’s case and that he was denied due process. She had no response. She just said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you.’"

The anti-Mumia protesters called on people to turn their backs as Mumia spoke. At the Merrill ceremony, only three graduating seniors out of several hundred and less than ten of the over 1,000 people in the audience turned their backs to Mumia. At Stevenson no graduates and only 10-20 of the audience turned their backs.

Winning the Battle

The RW spoke with Andrea, a graduating senior at Merrill who played a major role in bringing Mumia’s voice to the UCSC graduation. She told the RW why she felt that it was so important for Mumia’s voice to be heard: "I believe that Mumia deserves a new trial and deserves to be free. I work hard to raise awareness around his issue and around a lot of what he speaks about—the greater issues that exist in the world today—imperialism, capitalism, oppression, prisons. I think he has a lot to say about our time, right now. He says it clearly and concisely in a language that anybody can understand. At a college graduation a lot of people come together from a lot of different places and there is an opportunity there to speak to people about our reality, our society. What better place to have Mumia’s voice?"

Andrea recounted the struggle to get the college provost to agree to let Mumia’s voice be heard at the graduation. "After hearing that Mumia would be willing to give a commencement speech I went to talk to the provost. I presented my case with great intention and sincerity, explaining why I felt it was important. He said that he didn’t think that it was appropriate. He told me that Mumia would not contribute to the ambiance that they wanted to have at the graduation, which was celebratory. I told him that if he really got to know Mumia he would understand that the reason that Mumia is supported around the world and the reason why people in so many countries protest for him is not because he is a victim, and not because he’s morbid, and not because what he says makes us feel depressed but because he is uplifting and because for so many people he is a light, because he expresses the issues and the realities that we are all faced with and through it all has great hope for life and for the future and for how we can really change

"He still told me that he would have to say no. He said that students have no say in it at this point — that it was too late, the programs were going to press tomorrow, there was a whole array of reasons. I told him that I was thoroughly disappointed and that I wasn’t prepared to accept his answer. I told him that I had to pursue it. It was too much of an important situation, we needed to be a spearhead of consciousness in California, as the first university in California to allow Mumia’s voice to be heard at a graduation and that I was set on that."

The next day students were informed that the college would offer a "compromise": Mumia’s tape would not be played at the graduation but copies of Mumia’s speech would be printed and placed on a table at the graduation for people to pick up if they wanted. "I felt that he had totally missed the point," Andrea told the RW. "Mumia was preparing a tape from death row using the one 15-minute phone call that he gets each week to provide this for us and that it was important for this to be heard and that his voice was important. His voice touches people; it resonates with people. I knew just having Mumia’s speech on a table would be insignificant as all hell. I thanked him and told him that while I appreciated that he was moving in the right direction that I wasn’t satisfied yet."

In response UCSC students and activists with the Santa Cruz Mumia Coalition put together a petition and collected over 500 signatures of UCSC students in just a few days. The provost also got phone calls, e-mails and letters from around the country, including from professors at Temple University, from the University of Pittsburgh, and from the head of Princeton Theological Seminary. Professors at UCSC also called and encouraged him to let Mumia speak.

A key turning point was the practice graduation on Tuesday afternoon. Someone from the Mumia coalition got up in the middle of the practice and spoke to the students explaining that Mumia had prepared a speech for the graduation and that Merrill College was attempting to censor him. Andrea described what happened next: "At this point the provost grabbed the bullhorn and said that they were not censoring Mumia, that they would have the speech on a table and that this was the decision that they’ve come to.

"I jumped up and said that I wanted to respond. I explained who Mumia was and that his values are in the same light that we are taught in our Merrill core course, that we take in our freshman college class. In that class we read about capitalism and U.S. imperialism and how it has negatively affected the world. I said we should be honored to be the first college in California to allow his voice to be heard at a commencement. I told them that I wanted to know how they feel. I didn’t want to play it if I was the only one. I said that they had to be the ones to decide and I asked, ‘Do you want to hear Mumia’s voice?’ And a lot of people said, ‘Let his voice be heard! We want to hear him!’ It was really great because it showed that people were behind it and it was obviously the majority and a large amount of people.

"The next day I got a phone call early in the morning from the provost saying that he was excited to include Mumia’s voice in taped form in the graduation. I was in shock. He said that one of his biggest influences was when a professor in the music department told him that people are more important than institutions. After hearing this from a colleague he felt that he couldn’t be the one to silence this man’s voice who is on death row. When I talked with the provost later he had on his desk Mumia’s new book and a video on Mumia’s case.

"I think that a lot of time in struggle we get answers that we don’t like and we just stop fighting for things. We just say, ‘fuck you’ or we give up on people because they’re not automatically on our side. We need to understand that people are not automatically going to be on our side. People come from all different places and perspectives. We need to work with people. People can change. Of course we can’t back down."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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