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NABJ's Dilemma

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On a June morning in 1976, Don Bolles of the Arizona Republic waited in a Phoenix hotel for an informant who'd offered to fill him in on a crooked land deal. Bolles was called to the telephone. Then he was seen walking swiftly out to the hotel parking lot. He climbed into his white Datsun, six sticks of dynamite planted under the car's frame exploded, and Bolles died 11 days later.

After the murder more than 20 investigative reporters from around the country descended on Phoenix to "continue Bolles's work"--as they put it. They followed a trail that led from the thug Bolles had named with a dying breath into the upper reaches of Arizona's political and business establishment. They also sent a message: take out one of ours and there'll be hell to pay.

To draw parallels between Don Bolles and Mumia Abu-Jamal might seem not only presumptuous but offensive. Bolles was assassinated; Abu-Jamal awaits execution for the December 1981 murder of a Philadelphia policeman. Let's simply observe that both were reporters who provoked their cities' powers that be. Bolles's professional peers rallied to find the truth behind the crime. Abu-Jamal's peers turned away.

Which is not to say he has no friends. Abu-Jamal has become a worldwide symbol of American racism and the moral corruption of capital punishment. There have been demonstrations in Europe, intercession by Amnesty International, a letter to the governor of Pennsylvania from the African National Congress in Johannesburg. Last week I was handed a petition over the names of more than 30 members of the British Parliament; the MPs asked Governor Tom Ridge to stay the August 17 execution and the state's courts to grant Abu-Jamal a new trial.

Some of the mystery surrounding the 1981 murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner is of Abu-Jamal's own making. His new attorneys argue that his trial was tainted by incompetent counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, perjured testimony, and prejudicial rulings from the bench. None of that guarantees his innocence. Abu-Jamal has never offered his own full account of what happened the night he was wounded and Faulkner slain by gunfire on a Philadelphia street. Neither has Abu-Jamal's brother, who was there.

And when he went on trial in 1982 Abu-Jamal did his cause no good by trying to act as his own attorney. Abu-Jamal denounced the lawyer the judge imposed on him as "a baboon, a shyster," and was expelled from the courtroom several times for disruptive behavior. When his sentence was announced Abu-Jamal told Judge Albert Sabo, "Judge, you have just sentenced yourself to die."

But incivility is not a capital offense. Neither is radical politics. Nor even murder necessarily. Abu-Jamal had no prior police record, and his case has become notorious largely because a death sentence was pursued with such apparent zeal by (1) Judge Sabo, who, according to a New York Times Magazine article this month on capital-punishment fervor in Philadelphia, "presided over 31 death sentences, more than any judge in the country [and] made suggestions to prosecutors on how to strengthen their cases," and (2) prosecutors who read Abu-Jamal's most extreme political rhetoric to the jurors during the sentencing hearing. This invective dated back to his mid-teens when he was an organizer for the Black Panthers. Later he turned to advocacy journalism. He became a reporter for National Public Radio and chaired the local chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Abu-Jamal's stature as a First Amendment martyr grew even larger 14 months ago. NPR booked him to provide All Things Considered with occasional commentaries on prison life, but backed down almost immediately after being denounced by Philadelphia police officers. Last spring Abu-Jamal managed to publish a book, Live From Death Row, that is now being given frequent public readings by supporters.

But this contagion of solidarity hasn't swept up the National Association of Black Journalists. "Setting aside the incendiary legal issues of the guilt or innocence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, or whether he deserves a new trial," NABJ president Dorothy Gilliam declared July 12, setting forth her organization's latest position, "Abu-Jamal still has the right to speak, write, be heard--and interviewed. . . . Even during the times of harshest Communist rule, the public managed to read the works of Russian writers Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevski." This worthy sentiment (Abu-Jamal was muzzled in February) set aside the legal issues at an odd time: on June 1 Governor Ridge had signed Abu-Jamal's death warrant.

On July 15 Gilliam produced a column for the Washington Post that took a tougher line. She said Abu-Jamal's lawyers had raised "serious charges" and now justice demanded a stay of execution and a new trial. But Gilliam was writing only for herself. The board of the NABJ had just voted overwhelmingly to keep the organization on the sidelines. The best the board could do for Abu-Jamal was a workshop during NABJ's annual convention, which starts August 16 in Philadelphia. That's a day before he's scheduled to die.

"It's a delicate situation. They probably will kill him during our meeting," said Channel Two's Monroe Anderson, who's on the board of the NABJ. He read to me from a letter he'd received from Brooklyn: "You have disgraced your Black African self. You have disgraced your Black African Sisters & Brothers. You are surely a victim of eurocentric brain-whitewashing."

Anderson just isn't sure. "Usually we cover cops, we don't kill them," he said. "But I don't know the circumstances."

The circumstances are what NABJ at any point in the past 14 years might have decided to explore. Last week I sat in on a meeting of the autonomous Chicago chapter, the Chicago Association of Black Journalists; Abu-Jamal wasn't on the agenda, but I'd heard that WVON's Cliff Kelley might show up and raise the issue from the floor. That morning he'd had Gilliam on his call-in show, and afterward he talked to me about her contemptuously. "She told me I wasn't listening to her. I said, "What do you mean? You're not saying anything.' I apologized to my listeners for putting her on. It was ridiculous. She said, "Is this a legitimate show?' I said the only illegitimacy I see here is my guest."

But Kelley couldn't make the meeting, and the subject of Mumia Abu-Jamal never came up. Why should it? I soon wondered. This wasn't a political organization. It was a forum for schmoozing and networking, a refuge from the white-dominated shops in which so many of the members spend their days. The head of a search firm discussed job hunting; the new black general manager of Channel Five described his rise to the top and fielded questions about advancing in your career while hanging on to your values. If the members felt as self-conscious at work as I felt sitting among them, the NABJ doesn't need to crusade to justify its existence.

I said some of this the next day to City Hall reporter Mary Johnson Mitchell of the Sun-Times. A vice president of the Chicago Association of Black Journalists, Mitchell had also missed the CABJ meeting.

"First of all, I don't agree that it could never become politically active," she replied. "Down the road one of the goals of the organization is to become politically active. We were founded on advocacy, not networking. We have the ability to become an organization that could become politically active with journalists, an organization with some teeth. It's obvious we're not there yet, in that an issue like this cannot be discussed or brought up.

"The national organization is a very conservative organization. It's an organization that's dependent for funding on the very people they're trying to educate, sensitize, and make demands upon. You're dealing with publishers, with people who tend to be conservative."

I asked her if black journalists might have flooded Philadelphia the way journalists flooded Phoenix after Don Bolles was murdered.

"When it comes to black journalists it's a survivor thing," she said. "We work very hard to keep our heads above water. I will tell you that, personally, it was only when the first stories started surfacing three or four months ago that I really understood this whole issue, who the man really was, that the man was a journalist, is a journalist, his connection with the association. Now these stories are beginning to come out, and it's becoming a matter of conscience. If we cannot get together and take a public stand on an issue like that what do you take a public stand on?

"We're going to Philadelphia, which is the other ugly, ugly thing. We're finding ourselves in a very embarrassing situation to me. Each person has to ask themselves how they can sit back as a journalist, as a member of the organization, and do nothing.

"There's going to be friction among the national board members about this. They're avoiding the whole issue, and it's an issue that cannot be avoided. I'm as guilty as anyone else. I have to look at myself in the mirror and I really don't like what I'm seeing, that I personally am not doing anything."

This Monday Mitchell called me. The executive board of the Chicago chapter had just held an "emergency" meeting and taken a stand. The Chicago board now formally supported a stay of execution and would so inform the board of the NABJ.

Mitchell told me, "I won't be in Philadelphia for the purpose I go every year, to get nurturing and support and the career development I need. I won't be going down to have a good time with friends and to destress from a year in the newsroom environment. Which is why I usually go down there."

This isn't the year for a good time, and if the national board continues to do nothing, she'll stay home. "NABJ is bringing thousands--if not hundreds of thousands--of dollars to Philadelphia," Mitchell said. "I can't be a part of that. The only way I could attend is if they issue a statement saying they protest the rush to execute this man."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Beach.

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