Voice of the Voiceless: Mumia Speaks, Students Listen, Conservatives Freak

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Urging them to take on "the challenges that abide in the world...and strive to make it better," longtime Death Row inmate, award-winning journalist and progressive icon Mumia Abu-Jamal gave a recorded commencement speech to a small group of graduates at Vermont's Goddard College this weekend, thus outraging police and others who called him a "cop killer" and "cold-blooded murderer" with nothing to say, and who introduced a bill to prevent others of his ilk from imposing such "mental anguish" again. Abu-Jamal, 60, was a Black Panther in 1981 when he was found guilty of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner - he has always maintained his innocence - and sentenced to death. During his over 29 years on Death Row, he became an outspoken critic of a racist justice system: He wrote scores of essays and eight books, hosted an award-winning public radio show, earned a Bachelors degree from Goddard in 1996 and a Masters degree from California State University, and became known as “the voice of the voiceless” for many around the world. In 2011, his death sentence was vacated, and after much legal haggling, he was resentenced to life in prison, where he remains.
While widely celebrated for his fortitude and courage in the face of what many view as institutional injustice, he was repeatedly blasted as nothing but "a remorseless killer" when it was announced students had chosen him to speak at commencement. Protesters organized a silent vigil in honor of Faulkner, and GOP lawmakers quickly introduced a bill allowing victims or survivors of a crime to sue those found guilty of "re-victimizing" them by speaking publicly - a move that scholars say will likely face legal problems because "that's how freedom of expression works in this country." But a Twitter campaign supported Abu-Jamal, as did Goddard officials, who defended him as "a Goddard alumnus, social critic, and member of the millions of people incarcerated in the United States (who) knows what is means to obtain a degree in the face of overwhelmingly challenging circumstances...(Abu-Jamal as) a polarizing figure does not make our choice of him problematic. The fact that we still live in a society in which we can not engage in thoughtful discussion about what makes him polarizing without people resorting to death threats, hyperbole, smear campaigns and naked opportunism is what is problematic."
In his pre-recorded speech, Abu-Jamal praised "the green life" and "grand opportunity" of Goddard, which "allowed me to study human liberation (from) one of the most repressive environments on earth - death row." He cited a nation "in deep trouble," where "old thinking...has led us into the morass that the nation now faces, which may be encapsulated by references to place-names that ring in our minds: Gaza; Ferguson; and Iraq—again!” He urged young people to explore the meaning of social change and the complex questions of power, politics, race, gender, place, "questions about where one stands in the world."

"How does a person, young or old, looking at the vast wide world with a quiet sense of terror, have a voice within that monstrous din?" he asked. "How does s/he find that voice that can create space to think, to be, to grow? We know that it must come from the place within, that which moves you...Take what you know and apply it to the real world. Help be the change you're seeking to make."


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