Johanna Fernandez, advocate and educator fights for the soapbox

April 14, 2013

By Marilyn D’Angelo, @knowitallphilly
 
(Image courtesy of Johanna Fernandez)

No longer on death row, political activist, journalist, and convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal was recently offered an opportunity to speak about his fight, his past, and his future during an interview with Washington D.C. talk radio host and award winning journalist David Shuster. Off-air, professor Johanna Fernandez waited patiently to fill out the story for listeners.

It was billed as a rare phone interview. The show was syndicated across the country and streamed live via YouTube this past Saturday afternoon.

“No inmate is as controversial,” said Shuster, as he introduced Abu-Jamal. “Prosecutors say he’s a cold blooded killer who’s never expressed any remorse.”

Harsh words for a harsh man, it would seem. He is a convicted killer.

From a prison 26-miles away from Philadelphia, Mumia Abu-Jamal addressed his interviewer with a polished poise.

But did his words fall on deaf ears? Those that were listening may not have even been able to hear them.

“Why shouldn’t people believe that you saw Officer Faulkner get into an altercation with your brother?”

“If I believed everything I saw in the media, I’d believe that too,” responded Abu-Jamal.

The cab driver, the prostitute and motorist: “Are those witnesses liars?” … “Lets put aside whether you did this or not. Do you have any compassion for Mrs. Faulkner?”

Each inquiry seemed to begin innocently though as the interview progressed Shuster fired questions without giving time for full responses. He talked over Abu-Jamal while simultaneously demanding explanations.

Harsh tactics, to be sure. But what’s to say a man who spent 28-years on death row deserves any more.

The witnesses had recanted, his brother had been threatened so as not to testify, and as for having compassion for Mrs. Faulkner, “Of course I do,” he said. “I’m not mad at Mrs. Faulkner. I think of all the cases where people have been brutalized or killed by police. I’ve been away from my family for 30 something years.”

“Any regrets,” asks Shuster?

“I don’t regret surviving. And I don’t regret fighting every day that I was in a courtroom. I regret that I didn’t fight harder.”

There was talk over ballistics, berating over jury selection and even agreement on the fact that the Philadelphia police department was indeed corrupt and racist.

But people still want you to come clean, said Shuster.

“I have fought for myself and for others every day of my life. I continue to fight for freedom and I continue to fight for justice until the day I die.”

With that, the line went quiet.

Mumia’s 15 minutes were up

Shuster thanked his previously departed guest and wrapped up the spot with an open door to Philadelphia’s police department.

Immediately the on-air criticisms begin, pegging Abu-Jamal as evasive – obviously unaccustomed to interviewers being so confrontational.

He was nervous, the radio personality exclaimed. In the same breath categorizing the interview as adversarial while justifying his reality:

“He’s very well spoken. And there are injustices, and mistakes, but to me, he was the one and it was his .38 caliber.”

Waiting off-air, professor Johanna Fernandez, was on the line ready to fill out the interview for listeners. Sure, berating a convicted felon is fine, but the messenger will get her 15-minutes, to be sure.

A quick explanation, a decent plug and possibly an upcoming event — we all know the formula.

“I think that it’s important to tell both sides of this controversy,” said Fernandez. “Of the 35 police officers that collected evidence, 15 of them went down in an FBI probe to prove that corruption was rampant.”

Her words trailed off, barely comprehendible over Shuster’s retort.

She attempted to continue.

“Had you read the transcript, you would have found that the coroner testified that the office lost a piece of the bullet” … “Mumia was convicted in the absence of material evidence.”

There were more questions, sometimes barely audible.

Why was it that the police department failed to conduct the paraffin test? There are arguments that the gun was mishandled. And what about the Amnesty International Report?

The line went dead. She was disconnected. Moments later she was back on air – only seconds away from making a point she was again cut off. It was time to bring in the syndicated stations…
Hold on – no, 40 seconds from now.

Fernandez was finally given the go to finish her thought.

Shuster was again dominating the conversation; as if some Dallas Cowboys fan had called in on WIP to regale a recent win.

But Johanna Fernandez, isn’t some wack-job caller. And she’s not rallying for the freedom of a relative.

Fernandez is a professor at Baruch College in New York. She teaches 20th-Century U.S. History, the history of social movements, the political economy of American cities, and African-American history. She received her Ph.D from Columbia and her B.A. from Brown. She’s also spent the past nine-and-a-half years completely immersed in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case.

But on this talk show, she, the one who set up the interview, wasn’t given the decency or respect to have her viewpoints heard.

In this age of Internet freedom, any person with WiFi access and a web cam has been skyrocketed to a level of importance known previously only to time-tested broadcast anchors. In that same vein, I wouldn’t have this outlet to voice my disdain. But with so many opportunities out there to make arguments or exchange ideas, civility and a respect should be par for the course.

I followed up with Johanna Fernandez, wondering what her point of view actually was. And how as an educator and a supporter of Mumia Abu-Jamal it feels to be treated with such contempt.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation:

Q – How is it you came to support Mumia?

I became aware when I was getting my Ph.D at Columbia. In the 90s Mumia was a household name. Then I landed at Carnegie Mellon. At the behest of a colleague I wrote to Mumia. He responded. 
He was so sober and so rational. To meet the man who was depicted as this rabid cop-killer… I was shaken. 
I immersed myself in the literature of the case and was shocked to find that this man was pretty much railroaded without a speck of credible evidence of his guilt.

Q – How many years/ how many interviews have you scheduled on his behalf?

I’ve been familiar since 1995 but I’ve been intensely involved for nine years. This is now my life. I didn’t plan my life in this manner but after visiting him on death row – and not just him but other death row inmates, I was completely taken by the level of dehumanization there was. And I learned on a visceral level that the prison system is not at all about rehabilitating people. But throwing them away.

Q – When an interviewer is adversarial, as David Shuster was this afternoon, how does it affect you as a supporter? As an educator?

What I understand is that there is a media machine around this case and around issues of crime, punishment and incarceration that is adept at manipulating information and manufacturing consent that fuels a prison industry that is incredibly profitable.

What was really disturbing was that they were really unethical about the character and tenor of the interview. This was a stealth operation on their part and they lied to get this interview. We were side swiped.

Mumia was supposed to be executed on three different occasions in the 90s. This is a man who has looked in the face of death. He was on death row for 28 years, unconstitutionally. And this journalist broke all of the commandments of journalism with integrity, and also just demonstrated an absence of humanity for a prisoner and also for me. And what I’m going to fight for is to get back on the show because he said many things that were absolutely untrue.

Q – If there was one message you could get across to the supporters and the naysayers, what would it be?

It’s moments like this make me recommit myself for the struggle of justice and equality in the United States. Read the Amnesty International report. Read J. Patrick O’Connor’s book on the case, The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal. And I think it’s important to acknowledge, that no one has gotten justice in this case. 
Maureen Faulkner hasn’t gotten justice. Mumia hasn’t gotten justice.

The full interview can be found below. Mumia’s portion of the show can be found at about 1:25:00.

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