Death row inmate speaks at Occidental College ceremony

By Andrea Cavanaugh Associated Press Writer
Monday May 21, 2001


LOS ANGELES – A death row inmate convicted of killing a police officer gave a tape-recorded address Sunday at a graduation ceremony for a private college. 

Unlike Mumia Abu-Jamal’s commencement address last year at Antioch College in Ohio, which brought hundreds of demonstrators, his speech at Occidental College drew no protests. 

Students chose Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1981 of killing Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, to speak at the baccalaureate, a ceremony held for seniors before they graduate. 

“Had I known this was going on I would have gone down there and held up a picture of Danny,” the slain policeman’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, said in a telephone interview from her Southern California home. “He was in college when he was murdered and he never got a chance to graduate.” 

About 250 students and relatives attended the baccalaureate. Some cheered loudly as students introduced the 3 1/2-minute speech. 

“I think he has a message that fits perfectly with (Occidental) — radicalism, justice, activism,” said Bre Fahs, 21, a graduating senior who led the effort to have Abu-Jamal speak. 

Occidental College President Theodore Mitchell said he supported the students’ decision to invite Abu-Jamal. 

“This is a college that’s quite committed to the free expression of ideas,” Mitchell said. “So I’m pleased that we are able to provide a venue for Mumia to speak.” 

Abu-Jamal, 45, was convicted of fatally shooting Faulkner after the officer had a physical confrontation with Abu-Jamal’s younger brother during a traffic stop. 

He has repeatedly said he is innocent. His supporters contend he was framed because he was an outspoken radio journalist and a former Black Panther activist. 

Abu-Jamal did not refer to his own case in his taped speech, but spoke instead about the “loneliness and alienation” of life in prison. 

Prison is “a world that you do not know and hopefully you will never know,” Abu-Jamal said. 

Abu-Jamal noted that the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet houses 25 percent of its prison inmates. 

Two million people are now incarcerated in this country, he said. 

“Imagine, if these people were all assembled in one place,” they would “achieve the population of states like Idaho, Maine, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Nebraska,” Abu-Jamal said. “There are more people in U.S. prisons than the entire population of some nations.” 

Some relatives of graduates questioned whether Abu-Jamal should have been invited to speak. 

“To have a convicted killer as a baccalaureate speaker is probably inappropriate,” said Mary Wieand, 86, of Lombard, Ill. 

Abu-Jamal’s speech was not seen as controversial by the majority of students at the private, liberal-arts college located a few miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. 

“Everyone I know either supports it or doesn’t care,” said graduating senior Eric Way, 22. “Even if he is on death row he still has his First Amendment rights.” 

Faulkner said, “Danny was murdered at the age of 25 and he lost his freedom of speech. I feel (Abu-Jamal) should also lose his freedom to speak out on issues. 

“I feel the students who made this decision, if they ever have a tragedy in their own lives, I think they’ll look back and realize what a mistake they’ve made,” Faulkner said. “They make these criminals into heroes and the victims are forgotten.”