Sen. Patrick J. Toomey blasted a Vermont college for choosing Mumia Abu-Jamal to give the commencement address and urged the invitation be rescinded.
"I cannot fathom how anyone could think it appropriate to honor a cold-blooded murderer — one who ambushed a police officer, shot that officer in the back, and while that officer lay wounded and defenseless on the ground, lowered a gun to the officer’s face and took his life. Abu-Jamal has never apologized or expressed any regret for his heinous crime," the Pennsylvania Republican said in a letter to Robert Kenny, Goddard College's interim president.
Abu-Jamal, a Goddard alumnus, is a black nationalist who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of white Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner. After a lengthy appeals process, prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty, but Abu-Jamal remains in prison without the possibility of parole. The graduating class made the decision to invite Abu-Jamal. The address, scheduled for Sunday, would be pre-recorded and would be shown alongside a video documentary of his life and activism at the graduation exercises for the 23-member graduating class, according to the Patriot-News in Harrisburg .
“The college’s associate director of advancement and alumni affairs argues that Abu-Jamal will spark a ‘complicated dialogue’ on ‘imprisonment,’” Toomey said in the letter. “This begs the question: Is there any crime so heinous that Goddard would not reward the perpetrator with a spot as commencement speaker? This is not a question of free speech. It is a question of judgment and your school's basic sense of right and wrong.”
In March, Toomey helped lead the effort to defeat the nomination of Debo P. Adegbile to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division . Toomey opposed Adegbile because he previously worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which helped commute Abu-Jamal’s death sentence.
Toomey also argued that the college’s effort continues the saga over Abu-Jamal at the expense of the Faulkner family.
“What lesson is Goddard teaching its students about their moral responsibilities, as members of a civil society, to their fellow citizens? Danny Faulkner’s family has been subjected to three decades of untold pain,” Toomey said. “They have been forced to sit by and watch as political opportunists exploited Danny Faulkner’s death to further their own agendas — spreading lies about the trial and the evidence and organizing rallies that, amazingly, portrayed Mumia Abu-Jamal as the victim. They have watched Abu-Jamal be made a cause célèbre, complete with adoration from Hollywood celebrities, 'Free Mumia' t-shirts and posters, his own HBO special, and a street named after him in France.”
“I hope that you will seriously consider these points, and that your college will revoke its invitation to Mumia Abu-Jamal,” Toomey said.
Dustin Byerly, Goddard associate director of advancement and alumni affairs, recently told the Patriot-News in Harrisburg that the Plainfield, Vt.-based college has a history of empowering its students to make their own decisions.
"The students made the argument that convinced their fellow graduates that he was an appropriate commencement speaker," Byerly said. "It's a complicated dialogue he brings up in racism, imprisonment, the prison industrial complex. I think these conversations are important to have. We encourage our students to have complicated dialogue and they don't run from them."
The Abu-Jamal case goes back to a dark period in Philadelphia history, when the MOVE group of black separatists clashed frequently with the Philadelphia political and law enforcement community. The case bounced around the appeals process for years, with the backdrop of continued violence between MOVE, which Abu-Jamal was affiliated with, and the predominantly white police force. The feud reached its apex in 1985, when police allowed a MOVE compound in West Philadelphia to burn in a confrontation, and the conflagration went on to consume several city blocks. That incident is the topic of a recent documentary by Jason Osder, “Let the Fire Burn,” which has renewed interest in the conflict and stories behind it, such as Abu-Jamal’s case.
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