When a group billing itself as "Academics for Mumia Abu-Jamal" held a press conference in Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention, it was inevitable that Jonathan Kozol would be a featured speaker. A publicity hound of the first order, Kozol has made a nice career out of writing books about the unfortunate.
Naturally, Kozol has latched like a barnacle onto Mumia, the biggest liberal icon since Che Guevara. Mumia's claim to fame? He's black, and he's on death row for the 1981 murder of one of Philadelphia's finest ("pigs" to the "Mumiacs" outside the press conference). Pro-Mumia rallies have become a staple of civic life in Philadelphia, and the cause has even gained adherents overseas. Demonstrations in Paris have attracted thousands.
More like 200 squeezed into the Old Reformed Church in Society Hill last week, but with 11 television cameras filming, the event was guaranteed to win Mumia yet another burst of media coverage. In honor of the occasion, the imprisoned former cab driver even sketched a special self-portrait, printed on fliers (and reproduced here).
There was just one problem: The speakers were more interested in talking about their own pet causes than in proving Mumia's innocence. Kozol dutifully denounced the death penalty as racist. But he quickly moved to other subjects, excoriating George W. Bush, the Republican party, the prison industry, environmental racism, and performance-based standards in schools.
As Kozol droned on, littering his talk with references to himself, the crowd began nodding off in the 100-degree heat, or simply leaving. A tiedyed hippie started clipping his toenails.
The problem with covering leftist press conferences is that performances like Kozol's are the rule rather than the exception. Another speaker, Robert Meeropol, the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, bloviated for what seemed two hours. Subtlety wasn't his strong suit. He called Tom Ridge "Governor Death Warrant," while George W. Bush was simply "Governor Death."
I would have liked to ask this pair what they made of Mumia's statement on the night of the alleged murder, "I shot that m -- f -- and I hope he dies." But the event turned out to be a press conference in name only. There would be no questions until everyone on the panel had spoken, so 75 minutes passed before reporters got the floor. And even then, there was time for only two questions -- one from a children's news network -- because Jesse Jackson was arriving. I decided to leave.
But later in the day, something called the "People of Color Network" held another Mumia rally. As best I could tell, the network's only "person of color" was its redheaded spokesman. He announced to a small clutch of reporters that 100 members of a pro-Mumia splinter group, the Anarchist Clowns, were meeting at the corner of 18th and Franklin -- a happening not to be missed.
But a few blocks away, at Spruce and Broad, the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade had shut down the streets. Outfitted in black T-shirts reading "I was born in this sewer called capitalism, but now I'm living for revolution," the brigade distinguished themselves by chanting slogans nearly as vacuous as the Bush campaign's. (My favorite: "Ain't no power like the power of the people because the power of the people don't stop.")
The brigade's antics were rich with irony. Ostensibly protesting to benefit minorities and the poor, many in the overwhelmingly white crowd carried high-priced video cameras. They sang "We Shall Overcome," as the latex-gloved police force, including many blacks and Hispanics, carted them off to jail. I would find myself recalling this scene the next night when I crossed paths again with Jonathan Kozol, scourge of capitalism -- at a star-studded party hosted by clothing designer Kenneth Cole.
Meanwhile, a few miles away, in South Philly, another Mumia-related protest was unfolding. But the 500 people present -- burly Frank Rizzo types -- were honoring the memory of Danny Faulkner (www.danielfaulkner.com), the Philadelphia policeman Mumia killed.
Though taking place just a few miles from the site of the Republican convention, this rally didn't have much to do with the convention's theme of "Renewing America's Purpose Together." Vendors were selling T-shirts bearing a photo of the dread-locked Mumia with a slash through it and a simple message: "Officer Danny Faulkner was murdered. The jury said death. Now do it."
Los Angeles, supposedly a better city for a political convention, will have a hard time topping this.