Convicted Cop Killer, Mumia Abu-Jamal

DrHerukhuti - Lambda 2014 ReceptionBy Dr. Herukhuti

“Convicted cop killer”

That’s the meme that spread across social media and conservative cable tv to refer to the fall 2014 Goddard College Undergraduate Programs and BFA Creative Writing Program commencement speaker, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal is a Goddard College alumnus serving a life sentence for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.


10.5.14 Mumia Abu-Jamal Commencement Speech with Slideshow from Goddard College on Vimeo.

“Convicted cop killer”

It’s the basis for the objection to his ability or right to speak used by many of the participants in the campaign to protest Abu-Jamal’s invitation as a commencement speaker. A convicted cop killer should not be allowed to present her or his views to the public. A convicted cop killer should not inhabit the hallowed platform of a commencement podium.

“Convicted cop killer”

The phrase moves beyond indictment to offer a glimpse into the values that spawned it. The term cop killer is meant to suggest a crime more heinous or worthy of attention than the killing of a civilian citizen, i.e., the murder of a police officer. What makes the murder of a cop more egregious than the killing of a civilian citizen? Do we believe the family of a civilian who was murdered would feel more of a lost or more pain if their loved one was a police officer? If not, then why specify the kind of victim Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering?

Until very recently, the post-911 era created a climate of unquestioned support for police officers and policing in the general public as we mourned the deaths of New York City police officers who ran into harm’s way at the World Trade Center to save lives and looked to police officers around the country to be our local defense against terrorism. Since 9-11, unconditional support of police officers and policing has been a mark of patriotism and civic responsibility. Government and mainstream media across the political spectrum promoted these ideas through ceremony, public relations, and social policy.

“Convicted cop killer”

So it is not surprising that there would be a ground swell of opposition to what might appear to be the legitimization of a convicted cop killer through an invitation to speak at a commencement address. I have already written about the context for the recent invitation from Goddard College to Abu-Jamal to speak at our commencement. In this article, I want to explore the social and historical context for the opposition as well as the reasons why there exists an opposition to the opposition.

Policing did not always have the elevated position it took on immediately following the 9-11 attacks. In The History of Policing in the United States, Gary Potter describes the roots of policing in “mercantile interests, who through taxes and political influence supported the development of bureaucratic policing institutions. These economic interests had a greater interest in social control than crime control.” In colonies, and then states, in which slavery was legal, policing took the form of slave patrols that “had three primary functions: (1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules.”

Alongside this history of corruption and collusion with efforts of social control, there was a more personal aspect to policing in the United States. So-called “ethnic European” families, such as among the Irish and Italians, developed a family guild identity associated with policing as generation after generation of male family members embraced policing as a profession. Young men could find meaning and purpose as well as a sense of patriarchal kinship with their ancestors and elders through entering the ranks. Membership in the fraternity of police was a sign of personal, family and ethnic pride. Part of how ethnic Europeans were allowed to become white in the United States after the end of slavery was through their willing participation in enforcing the social order as police officers and maintaining a buffer between Africans and the merchant class as well as the real white folks—i.e., the wealthy, aristocracy whose ancestors were believed to be Anglo-Saxon.

“Convicted cop killer”

Recognizing this historical backdrop is important to appreciating the depth of feelings underneath the attacks on Abu-Jamal as convicted cop killer turned commencement speaker. Attacks on policing and police officers are experienced as attacks on one’s personal identity, family and ethnic pride. Any of us can appreciate the lengths people will go to protect and defend their identity, family or ethnic pride. For those whose heritage is tied to this history, convicted cop killer is synonymous with the killer of the Self, killer of family, killer of community.

For those of us who share a different legacy, convicted cop killer can mean something different. One of the most influential organizations in the racial justice movement of the 1960s and 70s was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP). The original group emerged out of the need to monitor race-based human rights abuses perpetrated by the police department of Oakland, CA. It was tragically ironic that one of the other memes used to discredit Abu-Jamal and protest the invitation to him as a commencement speaker was to identify him as a former member of the BPP. Because any critiques of policing or police officers are experienced as attacks on the personal identities, families and ethnic pride of the protestors, they were unable to understand how the association of Abu-Jamal with the BPP not only legitimizes the questions raised upon his conviction and reinforces his status as a political prisoner but it also provides a platform to consider the sociopolitical context of the incident he and Officer Faulkner had that fateful day in December 1981.

“Convicted cop killer”

The current protests against police brutality and violations of civil and human rights in Ferguson, MO remind many of us who were present for protests of the same nature during the 80s and 90s (e.g., protesting the murders of Arthur McDuffieEleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, etc.). Not until the mob beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department did we have recorded footage of the commonplace state-sanctioned terrorism that many people of African and Latino descent experienced in their neighborhoods on an everyday basis. Footage of state-sanctioned human rights violations by police officers against civil rights protestors already existed. But the video of LAPD lynch mob  torture of Rodney King was an example of the violence police were capable of perpetrating outside of the extraordinary circumstances of  their response to civil disobedience and unrest.

In the contemporary era of social media, recorded footage has become almost as commonplace as the abuse and torture it has captured. Over the last several years, we have seen the erosion of the post-911 image of policing and police with each new video e.g., the execution of Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and John Crawford and brutalization of Marlene Pinnock, Kametra Barbour, and Levar Jones by members of the police force in every corner of the United States. The footage reinforces for many people familiar with the experience of being black or brown in the United States what is already known about its history of policing. For people whose personal or family identities are tied to policing, this footage means something completely different. For the real white folks, who enjoy the benefits of policing as a buffer between themselves and people of color and working class white folks, the footage is just an example of the cost of maintaining the status quo.

“Convicted cop killer”

The invitation to Abu-Jamal, the convicted cop killer, provided a opportunity for people frustrated with their inability to legitimately enter into the current conversation about the nature and quality of policing in the United States to finally do so. They seized the opportunity to push back against what they experience as the dismantling of the mythology of the inherent goodness of policing in the United States by attacking the idea that a convicted cop killer could be allowed to speak. In their attack, they drew upon the image of the dutiful, neighborhood police officer who serves and protects everyone equally. They conveniently ignored the history of policing as a tool of commercial interests and racist agendas. And they privilege the life of the citizen police officer over the civilian citizen. Underlying their argument is the belief that Officer Faulkner’s life was more valuable and worthy of consideration than any civilian’s life including those who have been murdered by police officers.

Through their activism, these passionate and committed people demonstrated their ideological investment in order over law, social control over civil society and power over people.

UPDATE July 24, 2016: Read how people who are racialized as white and socialized to fear Black people undermine the relationship between police officers and Black people and put police officers in danger in this article at the Daily Mail.

Leave a Reply