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Attica, Hurricane, and Mumia


had their throats cut. We all reported it with a sense of disgust and shame.

What was responsible, we wondered, for the rage that would provoke prisoners to

perpetrate such an atrocity?

But

then, thanks to an independent autopsy and the persistence of some

investigators, that story was unmasked as a total lie. The truth was that the

guards were killed, not by the maliciousness of murderous inmates, but by out of

control police fire, gunned down by their own comrades, a blatant case of

unfriendly fire. The public and the media had been taken, but many journalists

were quite prepared at the time to believe the worst about ‘hardened’ convicts

that newspaper accounts had demonized as brutal killers.

Now,

say thanks to retired New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, for reminding

us on Saturday, January 7th about what really happened in Attica in a thoroughly

documented opinion piece in his old roost, the Times op-ed page. (Sadly,

Saturday is the paper’s least read day.) Wicker had, at the time of the Attica

rebellion, been invited inside the prison by the prisoners as an observer and

later wrote a best selling book about his experiences.

Wicker

was commenting on a recent judges order, nearly 30 years after the incident,

awarding the surviving prisoners $8 million dollars, and their lawyers $4

million, for the crimes committed by the state during an uprising that claimed

43 lives and 60 injured. The massacre occurred after then ‘liberal’ governor

Nelson Rockefeller ordered a police assault to retake the correctional facility

leading to the slaughter of unarmed men. Wicker notes that because of the

niceties of the law, the State of New York is under no obligation to apologize

for its criminal conduct. Attica may be settled, he concludes, but there has

been no healing. Even the Afrikaners of South Africa apologized for apartheid.

Not

noted in Wicker’s column was the willingness of the American media to allow the

memory of this tragedy and the prisoners legal claims to go largely reported for

decades. The amnesia over events like these is partly a function of the failure

of the media to keep the light of public scrutiny shining on news that falls out

of the news.

Anyway,

just as Attica was back for a brief second, the new Hollywood movie, Hurricane,

with Denzel Washington playing long time incarcerated former middleweight boxing

champion Reuben "Hurricane" Carter came out in some theaters. Carter

was finally released after serving twenty years in a New Jersey prison for a

crime he didn’t commit. That case also was only kept alive by the diligence of

citizen investigators and politically committed lawyers, not a zealous press.

The judge that freed him indicted pervasive institutionalized racism in the

state prison system.

The

Hollywoodization of the case will bring it to the attention of a global audience

in a way that news programs rarely do–just this week two screenings of the film

were scheduled at the United Nations. But that case, too, had disappeared from

public view because the painful realities of life in America’s gulags, which now

house more prisoners than any country, excerpt perhaps for Russia, is rarely a

subject for media attention.

Getting

programs on American TV about cases like Carter’s or incidents like Attica is

not so simple. Two years ago, our company Globalvision, fresh from four years of

producing the human rights series "Rights & Wrongs" for public

television stations created a program to do just that with Defense attorney

Barry Scheck, the lawyer known for winning acquittals in such high profile

trials as the O.J. Simpson and Louise Woodward cases. Called "Falsely

Accused/Wrongly Convicted,’ it set out to tell the stories of innocent people

behind bars in America. As the Director of the "Innocence Project" at

the Benjamin Cardoso Law school in New York, Scheck and his team had compiled

extensive files on cases that the program hoped to present.

At

the end of the day, as they say, two networks expressed interest but the show

was never bought. Two news divisions were more interested in denying Scheck’s

services to each other than devoting resources to telling stories that would,

partially anyway, contradict a media fostered perception that everyone in prison

belongs there. One MSNBC talk show was all that came out of it. After our

depressing network experience, the show was offered to Court TV, which

specializes in criminal justice issues. They "passed," preferring

exploitative and entertaining documentaries on serial killers to a substantive

series on serial injustices.

It

was these experiences in trying to get attention to human rights abuses in our

country that makes me a bit skeptical about the latest media debate over the

case of a one time journalist, Mumia Abu Jamal, who faces execution in

Pennsylvania for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman. The Jamal case has

become a cause celeb among many activists, some of whom are demanding his

freedom, others a new trial. The case has been in the courts for years with

fierce disagreements between Jamal’s supporters and those who believe he did the

crime and deserves the sentence.

In

the last two years, major media outlets including ABC News 20/20 and Vanity Fair

have sought to debunk Mumia’s claims, without, incidentally ever speaking with

him on death row. Their own "investigations" seemed aimed more at

ridiculing Jamal’s "naïve" supporters than objectively investigating

what did happen. They had a clear agenda and are prime examples of that genre

which uses the appearance of investigative journalism to score political points.

Later those stories themselves were debunked thoroughly on many details by media

analysts and Mumia’s attorneys. Now, a prominent left journalist, Marc Cooper of

the Nation Magazine and KPFK radio in Los Angeles, has joined this temple of the

self-righteous, with a flip column for New York’s neo-conservative weekly, New

York Press, asking to be "free of 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," he writes sarcastically.

"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?"

Cooper

is now being hailed by some for his "bravery" in denouncing Mumia and

his supporters. Cooper took a similar contrarian view on the radio strike last

summer at Pacifica Radio’s KPFA in Berkeley where he ‘bravely’ grand standed

against the strikers. Cooper’s measured, oozing and "anguished" slide

from left to right aside, I would caution those who are so ready to make

pronouncements of guilt on this case to carefully example the highly flawed

court record and disputed evidence.

The

Mumia side of this argument is barely heard in the mainstream media which is

busy being brave by echoing the claims of Philadelphia’s prosecutors, police,

and a trial judge who proudly holds the state record for handing out the most

death sentences. 20/20 pats itself on the back for its bravery on this case, but

years ago, when I was a producer there, I was turned down in a bid to tell the

story of one of ‘Attica brothers,’ the jailhouse lawyer "Jerry "the

Jew" Rosenberg, who survived the massacre in the prison yard, but continued

to serve a life sentence for the murder of a New York City policeman, a crime

for which he insisted he was unfairly convicted.

Mumia’s

own voice has been censored and suppressed, even by National Public Radio which

contracted for some of his commentaries years ago, and then refused to air them

after police in the city of brotherly love threatened a boycott.

Let’s

hope that we will not have to wait for some Attica-like judicial order in thirty

years, or a new movie with Denzell playing the late Mumia, to discover all the

sleazy details about this highly politicized case.

Danny

Schechter, author of the More You Watch, The Less You Know (Seven Stories

Press) is the executive editor of the new internet supersite, The Media

Channel (http://www.mediachannel.org)

 

 

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