The Suppression of Dissent in America
By LINN WASHINGTON, Jr.
September 11, 2008
In presenting a compelling examination of the plight of death row
journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal the documentary "In Prison My Whole Life"
also probes one of the deeper contradictions of America: persistent
suppression of dissent.
For a nation that extols the provisions of the First Amendment,
politicians and police have histories of running roughshod over the
rights of citizens to exercise their constitutional freedoms of
speech, assembly and presenting grievances to government.
The recent actions against peaceful demonstrators and non-mainstream
journalists by federal and local law enforcement personnel during the
Republican National Convention in St Paul, Minnesota is yet another
example of suppression of dissent.
Amnesty International is among the organizations condemning the
assaults and arrests at the Republican Convention, terming that use
of force and mass arrests excessive.
Amnesty International has officially endorsed "In Prison My Whole
Life" – the first time this respected human rights organization ever
placed its imprimatur on a film.
This well received documentary that premiered simultaneously last
October 25th at the London and Rome Film Festivals focuses on the
journey of one young man – William Francome – to discover more about
the death row inmate arrested on the day he was born.
Francome's birthday is December 9, 1981 – the day Abu-Jamal was
arrested for murdering of a Philadelphia policeman. Francome's
American-born mother followed the Abu-Jamal case, reminding her son
on each of his birthdays about the man languishing on death-row for a
conviction based on what the AI report determined was a grossly unfair trial.
The film follows Francome across America from New York City to
California's Bay Area in his journey to discover more about the
Abu-Jamal case and related issues like racism, class prejudice and
suppression of dissent.
"In Prison My Whole Life" will have two screening in New York City at
the Urbanworld Film Festival – on Thursday 9/11 and Saturday 9/13.
Additionally, a screening is set for 9/26 at the CR10 Conference in
The only previous US screening of this documentary occurred this past
January during the Sundance Film Festival.
In 2000, Amnesty International authored the comprehensive yet concise
report on the Abu-Jamal case that presented a unique examination of
unethical and suspect conduct by the Pa Supreme Court in this
controversial case – newsworthy material that the US news media buried.
Only two American daily newspapers carried articles on that
news-laden AI report according to the NEXUS newspaper database and
both of those articles were 'news briefs.' The news brief on the AI
report published by the Philadelphia Inquirer in Abu-Jamal's hometown
was the fifth of six items in the B Section, listed below reporting
on two non-fatal shootings, a small nightclub fire and a proposal to
ban cell phone use while driving.
The Abu-Jamal case is fraught with suppression of dissent.
Incidents of suppression include the well publicized 1994 action by
police and politicians forcing NPR to cancel airing prison
commentaries by the award-winning journalist, the little known 2000
federal imprisonment of a leading Abu-Jamal activist for speaking at
an anti-death penalty rally during the GOP national convention held
that year in Philadelphia and 2007 strong-arming by Philadelphia's
police union to block a pro-Abu-Jamal program.
Francome's "In Prison My Whole Life" interviews include Noam Chomsky,
Angela Davis, Mos Def, Snoop Dog and Alice Walker – famed persons
who've endured violations of their First Amendment rights.
This documentary also presents the first film interview with
Abu-Jamal's brother, Billy Cook. The slain officer's beating of Cook
during a traffic stop allegedly triggered the shooting. Cook shows a
head scar he still carries from that beating. Cook also confirms the
presence of his close friend long suspected by some as the person who
fatally shot the officer.
Producers for the documentary are acclaimed British actor Colin Firth
and his wife Livia Giuggioli who enlisted renowned director Marc Evans.
Producer Livia Giuggioli, during a recent interview with Hans
Bennett, said intense passions displayed by advocates and enemies of
Abu-Jamal is one of the things that interested them about pursuing
"This is what really fascinated us all when we started to approach
the subject and research," said Giuggioli who lives in London.
"If you detach everything from this "figure" you just find a man who
has been a victim of politics more than anything else," Giuggioli
noted echoing a conclusion of the 2000 AI report that politics had
polluted judicial rulings in the Abu-Jamal case.
"In Prison" presents extraordinary evidence pointing to Abu-Jamal's
innocence inclusive of crime scene photographs discovered in 2006
that contradict core elements of the prosecution's case against the
man whose written five books while on death row.
The photos, for example, show no bullet marks in the sidewalk where
prosecutors declared Abu-Jamal shot into the sidewalk around the
fallen officer three times before shooting him once in the face. The
photos show no cab behind the officer's squad car where prosecutors
told jurors a cab driver observed the murder. Additionally, the
photos show police tampering with evidence at the crime scene.
A consultant for the documentary, German professor Dr. Michael
Schiffmann, located these photos shot by a Philadelphia news
photographer who arrived at the shooting scene minutes after the crime.
Schiffmann published the 2006 book "Race Against Death" one of the
two most thorough examinations of the Abu-Jamal case. The other book
is "Killing Time" by Philadelphia-area investigative reporter Dave
Lindorff. Both Schiffmann and Lindorff have "In Prison" appearances,
walking Francome through various aspects of the Abu-Jamal case in Philadelphia.
"Hopefully the film will help people to think and realize that maybe
there is more to the story," Giuggioli said. "Until there is a proper
new trial – Mumia is just a man who has been sitting in solitary
confinement for 27-years and it is a disgrace."
The Abu-Jamal case is presently heading for an appeal to the US
Supreme Court after the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals
earlier this year rejected a request for a new hearing, principally
on the issue of racial discrimination during the selection of the
jury at Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial.
That Third Circuit ruling created new standards for jury
discrimination appeals that are more stringent than standards
established by the US Supreme Court. That 2000 Amnesty International
report faulted courts for improperly creating new legal standards to
deny justice to Abu-Jamal.
Linn Washington Jr. is a Philadelphia journalist who's followed the
Abu-Jamal case since 1981. Washington appears briefly in the "In
Prison" documentary talking about police brutality in Philadelphia.