Mumia Abu-Jamal was one of hundreds of journalists who received in the mail a packet of covertly-copied COINTELPRO documents. They were sent by eight activists who broke into FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971–and whose identities just became known last week. On WBAI’s “Law and Disorder,” on January 13, Mumia told us that he wasn’t sure if he received the papers because he was a radio reporter at the time, or whether the activists saw his name as a Black Panther Party member targeted for surveillance. The papers detailed names and activities of individuals he knew well for years, living and working closely together in communal spaces, who were FBI informants.
Mumia calls the Media activists the “linear ancestors of Edward Snowden.” In our radio conversation, we marveled at the fearlessness of ordinary people, like the eight of the heist, who, moved by their consciences, knowingly broke the law in the 1960s and 1970s for the betterment of society.
We asked Mumia, “Who are your ordinary heroes?” He was quick to point out that when we talk about Martin Luther King and Huey P. Newton we must ask: would their names be known to us without the everyday activists who joined movements to push them forward? “For Martin’s case it was church women for the most part. Think about the Baptist Church–probably 70% of its population are women, and black women, those nameless black mothers, and grandmothers, sisters, and daughters–they made that movement possible, so they’re my heroes.” He also mentioned women like Frankye Malika Adams from the Brooklyn Chapter and Sister Love from the Philadelphia Chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) who came out at great personal expense and built the BPP from the ground up. “We remember the names of the brothers, but how many of us remember the work and the sacrifice of the Sisters who got it done, who made it possible?” he asked.
A decade after receiving the papers, Mumia went on trial in Philadelphia for the killing of police officer Daniel Faulkner. The trial was politically charged because of his 1960s membership in the BPP and because the crime involved the alleged killing of a white police officer by a black man. At the time of his arrest, Mumia’s muckraking radio journalism on police brutality and corruption in City Hall, and his sympathetic reporting on the radical MOVE organization made him an obvious target of the state. Declassified memos revealed that the Philadelphia police, in consultation with the FBI, had for many years tried to peg a crime on Abu-Jamal. During the sentencing phase of his trial, an article he wrote for the Party newspaper denouncing the COINTELPRO-orchestrated murder of his colleague Fred Hampton was read out of context and used by the prosecutor to argue premeditation. This, along with other prosecutorial misconduct, resulted in a sentence of death.
To listen to the full interview, click here.
Heidi Boghosian is executive director of the National Lawyers Guild and a co-host of Law and Disorder.
Johanna Fernandez is a professor of history at Baruch College and a co-coordinator of the Campaign to Bring Mumia Home.