I have no idea whether Mumia Abu-Jamal killed Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. Vanity Fair's new revelation -- that a visitor says Abu-Jamal admitted the murder in a prison conversation in the early 1990s -- doesn't necessarily prove his guilt (though the well-researched article doesn't leave lots of room for doubt). In fact, the revelation of Abu-Jamal's private conversation with a visitor made me feel a tad sorry for the celebrated prisoner, who's been embraced by the loony left as though he was the reincarnation of the Rosenbergs, Huey Newton and George Jackson combined.
But Abu-Jamal's former prison visitor, Philip Bloch of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, says he finally revealed the alleged confession out of "disgust" with the militant idiocy of Abu-Jamal's supporters. The heartsick do-gooder, who's now a substitute teacher, says he was driven to honesty, after years of keeping the conversation secret, by the way Abu-Jamal's supporters have tormented Faulkner's widow, Maureen, for the crime of believing the Pennsylvania prisoner was correctly convicted.
I know how Bloch feels. The Mumia cult sickens me like little else in American politics today. For the white left, it's Black Panther worship all over again, with even less to worship. At least the Panthers, for all their violence and corruption, purported to be about economic uplift and breakfast programs for children and black self-determination in a city, Oakland, Calif., run by a white Republican machine left over from the 1940s. Abu-Jamal has done little but run a one-man self-promotion machine from prison.
All these years after the Panthers self-destructed, masochistic white leftists still seem to need a big black avenger to act out their fantasies of rebellion against the system. For the most part, Mumia madness seems a white thing -- you don't get much whiter than Evergreen College up in Olympia, Wash., where Abu-Jamal delivered a controversial recorded commencement address. (Sample wisdom: "Out of the many here assembled, it is the heart of he or she I seek who looks at a life of vapid materialism, of capitalist excess, and finds it simply intolerable.")
But mixed with the left's prisoner fetish is something even uglier, especially in a movement supposedly devoted to economic justice: a hideous class bias. The telegenic dreadlocked Mumia, with his books and commencement addresses and public radio commentaries, is so much more loveable than, say, Anthony Porter, the scruffy Illinois African-American man with a low IQ who was wrongly locked up on death row until a group of Northwestern students, led by a crusading journalism professor, came up with the evidence that freed him late last year.
Those students, armed less with ideology than curiosity, have helped free three death row prisoners, while Mumia's minions are content with marching in the streets and signing petitions on behalf of their cuddly convict. "He is just beautiful," says author Alice Walker. "He has a lot of light. He reminds me of Nelson Mandela." What an insult to Mandela.
Abu-Jamal's supporters' slogan, "Millions for Mumia," is unconsciously reminiscent of the Federalist declaration, "Millions for defense, but not one penny for tribute." Maybe the subtitle is, "Millions for Mumia, but not one shred of concern about anything that matters."
Mumia madness pushed me over the edge earlier this year, when Oakland teachers demanded to stage a teach-in on his behalf throughout the Oakland schools. This when Oakland students have among the lowest test scores in the state, and Oakland's scandal-plagued school system was on the verge of being taken over by the state.
Anyone who wants to improve Oakland schools must deal with the fact that a generation of black administrators has done as lousy a job educating black kids as the whites who came before them, and today many of them stand in the way of reform. (The good news is a majority of black parents and voters understand that, and attempts to race-bait school reformers, as Mayor Jerry Brown recently learned, don't work very well in Oakland anymore.)
Friday, the same day the news broke about Mumia's alleged confession, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about a school survey by a group of fed-up Oakland parents who toured classrooms and buildings and found appalling conditions, nauseatingly filthy bathrooms and broken glass on desktops. Why is no one marching about that? Why aren't Mumia's millions up in arms about the one in five American children still living in poverty?
One reason is because the answers aren't simple. There are no silver bullets that will magically end poverty in America or turn public schools into first-rate learning institutions. When it comes to the most pressing issues facing America's poor, like poverty and the shocking conditions in low-income schools, there are no white devils and black heroes anymore.