Mumia at Graduation

No, Mumia Abu-Jamal is not being released to speak at the Evergreen

State College graduation. However, on Friday June 11th, the 1999 graduation at this

college will include a unique commencement address – a 13-minute audio-recorded speech

taped on death row by Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Mumia speaking at graduation has created a huge debate on the campus

and beyond. Many students and some staff and faculty at this state college in Olympia, WA

have worked for almost two years to make Mumia the graduation speaker. There has also been

a concerted campaign by the Philadelphia police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, and

police officers and associations in Washington State and in other parts of the country to

get the college to withdraw their invitation to Mumia. The administration of this college,

which has a progressive reputation, has taken a wishy-washy liberal and somewhat

unprincipled position. They have made it clear to the media that they are not honoring

Mumia, and they are giving the honorarium to an another commencement speaker added at the

last minute. This violated the process that had been set up, which had selected Mumia

Abu-Jamal as the graduation speaker.

The history is as follows. Seniors and students receiving their

master’s degree select the commencement speaker. In the last few years, speakers have

included Leonard Peltier in 1992, and subsequently Sherman Alexie, Linda Barry, Winona La

Duke and bell hooks.


Organizing for Mumia Abu-Jamal

Among the more activist oriented students on campus there has been a

growing interest and commitment to challenge the growing prison-industrial complex and the

incarceration of 2 million people, almost ½ of them black and the majority people of

color. Students, primarily women, formed a prison action committee that has brought many

speakers to campus as well as organizing seminars within Washington State prisons. They

have raised awareness about prison conditions, the racism of the criminal justice system,

and supported political prisoners such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier and a

Washington State political prisoner, Mark Cook. Mumia Abu-Jamal was proposed as the

graduation speaker in 1998 and although he had a fair amount of support was not chosen as



The idea behind the campaign for Mumia as graduation speaker was

that his selection would raise national publicity about the miscarriage of justice that

led to his conviction and increase the public pressure for a new trial and make it more

difficult for the state of Pennsylvania to execute him. It was seen as a way for the

Evergreen State College community to join the growing worldwide movement that recognizes

renowned journalist and author Mumia Abu-Jamal as a political prisoner who should be freed

or at least get a new trial. To support Mumia as commencement speaker was also seen as a

way to stand up for justice and against the death penalty. Moreover, by succeeding we

would give those at graduation the opportunity to hear a powerful speaker address some of

the key issues of the day such as institutionalized racism in the criminal injustice

system and beyond; and the inequality of income and wealth in this society.

The campaign to have Mumia Abu-Jamal as commencement speaker

continued this school year. In a very poorly publicized and attended meeting in fall, 1998

to discuss who would be commencement speaker in 1999, Governor Gary Locke, the moderate

and pro death penalty Democratic Party Governor of Washington had four votes and Mumia

Abu-Jamal had three votes, everybody else had less. Governor Locke in January 1999 turned

down the offer to speak, which led to the situation where students, faculty and staff

believed Mumia Abu-Jamal would be the commencement speaker. The local newspaper the

Gannett owned, The Olympian, then ran stories that a convicted cop killer would be

graduation speaker. This is the way Mumia is constantly referred to in the local media.

The Evergreen State College administration talked to Governor Locke

again and in March 1999 he agreed to be the graduation speaker. Because of the organizing

by students, the school agreed to have Mumia as a second speaker. Locke was then pressured

by the State Police union to not appear at a graduation where a tape by Mumia Abu-Jamal

would be played and Locke withdrew. By all logic, Mumia should have now been the

commencement speaker at the upcoming June 11th graduation. However, violating all

democratic procedures that had been set up, the President of the college, Jane Jervis; and

the Vice-President for Student Affairs, Art Costatino, selected faculty member Stephanie

Coontz as the commencement speaker, and announced that Mumia’s speech would be heard at

graduation but that he is not the official graduation speaker.


The Debate on Campus and in Olympia

Many community members, on and off campus, continue to see Abu-Jamal

as he is portrayed in the local media as a "cop killer," and feel angered that

he will be speaking at a state college graduation ceremony. Despite educational outreach

on campus to build awareness of the case, such as the showing many times of the

informative film, "Mumia: A Case for Reasonable Doubt", misinformation abounds.

There is a lot more education to be done on his case in Olympia and throughout the

country. Some students, faculty, staff and administrators have also made the argument that

the majority of students do not favor Mumia Abu-Jamal as graduation speaker, and that

graduation should be a time where the speaker should not divide the community and should

talk in generalities that makes students and their families feel good. My guess is that a

lot of students do support Mumia speaking, but not a majority. There is no way of knowing.

The college administration has tried to minimize Mumia’s role at

graduation, for example by not offering him any honorarium and saying his tape is only 10

minutes, because they do not want to challenge the anti-Mumia sentiment of the

powerful–the local mass media, legislators, and the nationally organized lynch mob led by

the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police who have many allies. These groups have

pressured National Public Radio (NPR) not to carry Mumia’s recordings. At Temple

University, the president forced their radio station to cancel the Pacifica show,

"Democracy Now", which carried interviews with Mumia. The administration at

Evergreen has caved in part of this way to this blatant attempt at political censorship.

My guess is only their fear of protest by supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal has prevented a

total erasure of his powerful message.

What I also find interesting is that the same arguments used against

Mumia speaking today would have been used in the mid 1960’s against Malcolm X being the

commencement speaker at any college in the U.S.–that the majority doesn’t support him,

that the college will alienate the outside community (by which they mean those with power

and influence), that Malcolm will deal with political and controversial issues that are

not appropriate at graduation, that he is violent, etc. It is easier to see the absurdity

of this argument in the past than in the present.

In response to the idea that the speaker should please almost

everyone, I counter that this means a speech full of platitudes signifying nothing that

nobody will remember one year later. Mumia Abu-Jamal gives people attending graduation the

opportunity to hear a brave and courageous person speak on issues of substance when we are

living in a time when the U.S. is fighting a major war against Yugoslavia, 3000 people are

on death row, the prisons in the United States are overflowing and police brutality is a

daily occurrence.

For reasons that are not altogether clear, there has been far more

protest against Mumia Abu-Jamal as speaker at graduation than there was to having a speech

written by political prisoner, Leonard Peltier, read at the 1992 graduation at Evergreen,

the year of the Columbus Quincentennial. With regards to Leonard Peltier, who was unjustly

convicted for killing two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge reservation, the FBI has no doubt

worked hard to prevent clemency for Leonard and against a new trial although there is a

world wide movement demanding justice for Leonard Peltier. They did not put however put

pressure on the Evergreen State College to cancel the invitation and neither did the right

wing on and off campus.


What You Can Do

According to the local newspaper, "The Olympian" , the

president of the college has been getting from a daily minimum of two dozen letters

protesting Mumia’s verbal presence to as many as 90 form letters on May 24th. I suggest

that if you support Mumia’s right to be heard and for a new trial, write a letter

supporting him as the commencement speaker at the Evergreen graduation in a letter to

President Jane Jervis, the Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA 98505 or by emailing her

at jervisj@evergreen.edu.

Even more important, if you see his case as a key part of the

struggle to further social justice and human rights, and as part of the necessary support

for political prisoners, publicize Mumia Abu-Jamal speaking at Evergreen’s graduation. A

press release from concerned students, faculty and staff should be on the ZNET web site,

or if you can’t find it, email me at bohmerp@evergreeen.edu and I will send it to you.

Maybe, Mumia Abu-Jamal can be awarded an honorary degree at your college next year, and/or

you can get your church, union, or some other group you are connected to, to take a stand

against his legal lynching.  




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