On UNR’s campus with Mumia

Joshua Sauvie is an English instructor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

After researching the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, I felt I had to do something about it. I am trying to teach my students the role writing has in social action and society. I figured I might as well give it a try myself.

So, a little nervous, I found myself in front of the University of Nevada, Reno, library next to a large sign I made that read, “Ask me about Mumia.” I sat down, pamphlets and a drink in hand, and waited.

People walked by, a little confused about my sign. Some looked at me, my sign, tilted their heads a little and walked on. Some slowed down, mentioned in passing that they were “late for class, sorry” or “I got to eat, otherwise I would ask you.” None stopped. No one asked.

I began to wonder what I was doing out there. A light drizzle started. I put up my hood, stood up and waited some more.

Finally, a young man stopped in front of me. He paused and then asked. “Alright. Who is Mumia?” I was rather surprised. But I began.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is an award-winning journalist. He was the president of the Association of Black Journalists and a founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party. He was called “The Voice of the Voiceless” for his award-winning reports on police brutality and racial discrimination. He is also currently on death row in a Pennsylvania prison.

The young man seemed hooked. Still nervous, I kept going.

Did you know that the police officer Mumia supposedly killed was shot with a different gun than Mumia had on him at the time and in 1999, a man named Arnold Beverly actually confessed to the murder Mumia was charged with?

No, he didn’t know.

Did you know that every witness who testified against Mumia has since (legally) changed their accounts of that night, citing police intimidation as reasons they lied during the trial?

No, he didn’t know.

Did you know that Mumia was denied the right to pick a counsel of his choice and also banned from most of his trial, having to read about it the next day in the newspaper?

No, he didn’t know.

Did you know that the judge of the case, Albert F. Sabo, was a member of the Fraternal Order of Police, was labeled by a Philadelphia newspaper a “defendant’s nightmare,” has sentenced more men to die (31 to date, only two of them white) than any other sitting judge in America? That he wouldn’t allow Mumia to defend himself because his dreadlocks made jurors “nervous?” Or did you know that the court stenographer came forward and stated that before Mumia’s trail began, she heard Judge Sabo claim that he was going to “fry that nigger?”

I could tell by his reaction that he didn’t. I handed him a flyer and told him to visit the Web site www.freemumia.org. I suggested he research more himself. Dig up what he could find. Decide for himself.

Before the young man thanked me and walked away, he asked me a question. “Well, if all of this is true, why is he still imprisoned?”

This time, I was the one who didn’t know.