While many US colleges seek out world leaders, titans of business and celebrities of all stripes to speak at commencement ceremonies, one group of graduates decided to choose a different person to address them: a convicted cop killer.
The small group of graduating students at Vermont’s Goddard College chose world-renowned activist and school alum Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a police officer in 1981, to provide a recorded commencement speech for their ceremony this Sunday.
Yet the students’ choice of Abu-Jamal, a former journalist and dedicated social justice activist despite his incarceration, has provoked furious reaction from law enforcement and prison officials from Vermont and Pennsylvania, where he is serving his life sentence without parole.
“I cannot express my disdain enough about Goddard College’s decision to allow this individual to be a commencement speaker,” Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said, accordingto The Washington Post.
“We have a college allowing an individual convicted of murdering a police officer to share his opinions with impressionable students. This fact is very troubling.”
Abu-Jamal and advocates have long maintained his innocence in the killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, claiming the conviction was a product of an unfair trial. Since his incarceration, Abu-Jamal, once heavily involved with the Black Panther Party, has gained a dedicated following for his writings on, among other topics, racial biases of the US justice system.
“This was a police frame-up against a revolutionary journalist and activist, very well known organizer in Philadelphia, outspoken against police abuse,” Sarah Flounders, co-director of the International Action Center, told RT in 2011, 30 years after Abu-Jamal’s conviction.
Honored with awards in over 20 cities worldwide, with a street named after him in France, Abu-Jamal has been dubbed “the Voice of the Voiceless” by human rights activists. His work has been translated into several languages and distributed across the world. His conviction has been questioned by such Nobel laureates as Nelson Mandela,Toni Morrison and Desmond Tutu.
“[Abu-Jamal’s] analysis is a revolutionary analysis. That this system is rotten to its core, that it’s racist, classist, sexist, evil and that it is the head, the leader of an imperialist domination of the world,” Suzanne Ross of the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition told RT in 2011.
Just days before the 30th anniversary of his conviction, in 2011, prosecutors dropped pursuit of the death penalty for Abu-Jamal. Seen worldwide as a victim of an unjust American legal system, he is expected to spend the rest of his life in the SCI Greene facility in Pennsylvania.
Nevertheless, his latest commencement speech – he previously addressed graduating students at Washington state’s Evergreen State College, in 1999, and Ohio’s Antioch Collegein 2000 – has again sparked outrage.
Maureen Faulkner, widow of the slain Officer Faulkner, told Fox News the selection of Abu-Jamal to speak at Goddard was “despicable.”
“It’s not appropriate,” Faulkner said. “His freedom was taken away when he murdered a police officer in the line of duty. It seems like our justice system allows murderers to continue to have a voice over the public airwaves and at college commencement. It’s despicable.”
Goddard, located in Plainfield, Vermont, is a private liberal arts college that has around 600 enrolled students who are allowed to build their own curriculum. Sunday’s commencement ceremony will mark the graduation of 23 Goddard students, according to PennLive.com.
The Vermont Troopers Association also disparaged the selection.
“We are outraged that Goddard College is hosting a man who shot and killed a police officer,” the group told AP.
Abu-Jamal, 60, pre-recorded the ceremonial address from prison, according to reports. A video documentary of his life will also be shown. While in prison, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Goddard in 1996.
The students’ choice of Abu-Jamal “shows how this newest group of Goddard graduates expresses their freedom to engage and think radically and critically in a world that often sets up barriers to do just that,” said Bob Kenny, Goddard’s interim president.
Dylan Byerly, Goddard’s associate director of advancement and alumni affairs,added that “it’s a complicated dialogue [Abu-Jamal] brings up in racism, imprisonment, the prison industrial complex. I think these conversations are important to have. We encourage our students to have complicated dialogue and they don’t run from them.”
Byerly underscored Abu-Jamal’s activism as reason for the students’ selection.
“He is convicted of murder. We all know that. The college is not questioning that nor are we condoning violence in allowing students to choose him as a commencement speaker,”Byerly said.
“What students are attracted to in Mumia is his journalism, his ability to continue to speak for a very underrepresented population, the prison population, and his ability to do so in a way that’s powerful to people of this generation.”