The Oscars, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the Senate smear of Debo Adegbile


“12 Years a Slave” won an Oscar for Best Picture, but don’t think that we’ve entered some enlightened period of post-racial bliss.

You saw proof of that if you caught the Oscar-worthy performances for “best racist smear campaign, in a supporting or lead role” this week, as the U.S. Senate considered the nomination of Debo Adegbile as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.


If you were still basking in the afterglow of the Oscars, I don’t blame you.

It was such a mass feel-good session to see the beautiful Lupita Nyong’o being honored, even though she had to acknowledge the irony of victory coming from her portrayal of our historical pain. And then when the film that I called “electroshock for racists” won, there was a real sense of relief.

The Academy could defy “Gravity.”

As Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres joked, there were two possibilities for the night. Either “12 years…” wins or we’re all racists.

So hooray, we’re not all racists. Not all the time. Because then came that Oscar-worthy portrayal on the Senate floor.

All they had to do was utter the name “Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

If you don’t know Mumia, then you’re showing your youth. Or you’re showing how effective the orchestrated effort has been in convicting Mumia as a “cop killer,” locking him up in a Pennsylvania prison, and turning him into a pariah we can easily forget.

The quick primer: Mumia, a member of the Black Panther Party, was convicted in 1982 in the shooting death of a white Philadelphia police officer. The facts of the case are disputed to this day. Key dispute: There was evidence that another suspect, identified as the shooter, fled the scene. But that evidence, among other things, was suppressed, and Mumia received a death sentence. After 30 years, his lawyers were able to remove Mumia from death row based on an improper jury instruction.

Mumia remains imprisoned, but not forgotten. To this day, Mumia, a former radio reporter, maintains his innocence and puts out audio commentaries on Prison Radio through producer Noelle Hanrahan. With writer/director Stephen Vitorria, Hanrahan also co-produced last year’s “Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

But the truth is Mumia’s story has become such a toxic issue that it’s more readily used by his enemies, such as when the Fraternal Order of Police and its allies use Mumia as a handy weapon to poison political opponents.

That’s exactly what Senate Republicans like Ted Cruz and Pat Toomey did when they invoked Mumia’s name to taint and reject the nomination of former NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department.

What’s the connection between Adegbile to Mumia?

Adegbile, as head of the NAACP-LDF legal team, had his name on the briefs in Mumia’s appeal but was not the lead attorney in this case.

This police association used a nasty “guilt by association” ploy. But then again, wasn’t Adegbile just doing his job like any other self-respecting lawyer is required to do in defending the Constitution?

Say, someone like John Roberts?

As has been pointed out this week, Roberts offered his pro bono help in the defense of John Errol Ferguson, an African American from Florida who was an accused mass killer of eight people and put to death last year.

But that wasn’t enough to get conservatives to derail Roberts’ nomination to head the U.S. Supreme Court.

It just shows the hierarchy in crimes of race in America. Ferguson was convicted of mass murder. Mumia was convicted of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, a white cop.

Black man, white cop killer, African American attorney.

It’s racist code that’s political poison for anyone involved.

Put that in the mix and you see the stunning hypocrisy of this week: 44 Republicans joined seven Democrats to reject Adegbile’s nomination, 52-47. (Majority Leader Harry Reid changed his vote to allow the nomination to be considered again.)

Post-racial America? With “12 years…,” maybe the nostalgic and sentimental view of the antebellum South and slavery is gone with the wind. After more than 30 years, I think it’s going to take a lot longer for some to get over Mumia.

In the meantime, Debo Adegbile, an esteemed and gifted civil rights lawyer, pays the price.

And we see in living color how truly dysfunctional the Senate–and this country—remains on the issue of race.

For more background information, watch Democracy Now‘s report on the Adegbile nomination.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
read Emil's bio