Attacks in Philadelphia, Lies in VANITY FAIR: A New Campaign Against Mumia

— Steve Bloom

THE AUGUST ISSUE of Vanity Fair published an article purporting to show that death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal had “confessed” his guilt in the early 1990s in a conversation with a Pennsylvania Prison Society volunteer, one Philip Bloch. At an August 3 press conference held at the studios of WHAT, a Black radio station in Philadelphia, Mumia's attorneys presented evidence exposing the Vanity Fair report as a fraud.

The new “revelations” against Mumia have arisen against the backdrop of a series of attacks on supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal in Philadelphia since the April 24 Millions for Mumia demonstration (see ATC #81).

  1. Pamela Jenkins—a former prostitute who signed an affidavit for Mumia's attorneys bolstering the case that police attempted to manufacture evidence against him before his original trial—was arrested immediately after the April 24 demonstration. In addition to the time and money required to fight even bogus charges in court, Jenkins fears these recent difficulties will be used as an excuse to remove her children from her custody.
  2. Attempts have been made by city officials to sabotage the work of the Black United Fund (BUF), Philadelphia's main Black charity. This is in retaliation for the fact that the BUF serves (completely legally) as a conduit for money donated to Mumia's defense.
  3. A series of attacks have been launched against the MOVE organization, International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and their principal spokesperson Pam Africa. Two former MOVE members claiming (in a style reminiscent of the FBI's COINTELPRO disruption operation from the 1960s and `70s) to speak for the “real MOVE” have been appearing on TV and radio denouncing Pam and the defense effort around Mumia.

    They even arrived one day on the porch of the MOVE residence, accompanied by an array of press correspondents, in an effort apparently designed to provoke an incident. And at 5 AM on June 28, police invaded the property around the MOVE house claiming to be in pursuit of a suspect who had fled in that direction. They said they were unaware that the house was occupied by MOVE members.

    All of this is deadly serious, recalling the worst police practices during Mumia's original trial, and even incidents which occurred before the infamous bombing of the MOVE house in 1985, resulting in the destruction of an entire city block.

    Until July, however, the stepped-up anti-Mumia campaign was pretty much limited to Philadelphia itself, the only exception being an unsuccessful effort by right-wing forces to get Mumia disinvited as a commencement speaker at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. (Mumia sent a recorded message.)

    Then the August issue of Vanity Fair magazine came out with a feature article by one Buzz Bissinger. Some might see this as merely another in a long line of smear jobs by establishment journalists against Mumia and his supporters—and this is true so far as it goes. But much more, Bissinger's article represents a new stage in the campaign to railroad Mumia and assure his execution.

    Who is Buzz Bissinger?

    Though Vanity Fair does not bother to inform its readers, Bissinger is not some disinterested journalist. As a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer Bissinger's articles were instrumental in assuring the 1987 election of Wilson Goode over former mayor Frank Rizzo in 1987.

    When current mayor Ed Rendell succeeded Goode after the 1991 election, Bissinger was given privileged access to the Mayor's office, and in return for these favors he wrote his book, A Prayer for the City, in which he praises Rendell for saving Philadelphia through union-busting against city workers and cutbacks in city services.

    Rendell, by all accounts, will soon seek higher office. But he faces a difficulty: his record as Philadelphia District Attorney in the early 1980s, when Mumia's trial took place. Clearly a new trial resulting in Mumia's acquittal would be a severe black eye and would damage Rendell's chances in another election.

    Thus Bissinger's services were called upon once again to do this new puff piece in an effort to whitewash Rendell's record.

    Regular readers of ATC who took note of the response in our January/ February issue to the slanderous segment about Mumia on the ABC news show “20/20,” and who also read the Vanity Fair article, may recognize many of the same techniques used by Bissinger:

    •The prosecution case against Mumia is presented as fact, the questions about it as speculation, and the most important questions about it ignored entirely.

    •Bissinger selectively cites “evidence” and quotes the statements of prosecution witness without raising any of the serious questions about the use of coercive tactics by the police to secure testimony favorable to their case against Mumia.

    •He presents the fact that Mumia's appeal was turned down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as if this were an objective statement about its merits—ignoring the reality that the justices of this court, being elected, could not sustain Mumia's appeal without having their defeat in the next election virtually assured by the withdrawal of support from the FOP and powerful political figures.

    Bissinger characterizes Mumia's appeal hearings before the same judge who heard the original case, Albert Sabo, and before this state Supreme Court, as “exhaustive appeals”!

    •Those involved in the movement for a new trial are portrayed as foolish leftist dupes who “haven't read the trial transcript” and are therefore ignorant about the case. (The relevant transcript is 12,306 pages. Bissinger himself has certainly not read it.)

    •Maureen Faulkner, widow of the police officer Mumia is accused of shooting, is presented as a lone, persecuted voice in the wilderness seeking justice. The fact that she is amply supported by the Fraternal Order of Police and Pennsylvania's political and financial elite is never mentioned.

    Bissinger goes even further than previous media attacks in portraying Mumia not as a victim of injustice, but as one who has actually benefitted from being on death row. According to this article it is only his trial and imprisonment that revived an otherwise dying career as a journalist. “A growth industry has sprouted on his behalf, a mass of merchandising at rallies and college lectures that any movie studio would envy.”

    Unnamed “former journalistic colleagues” are cited explaining that Mumia was on the skids personally and professionally before his arrest. Naturally his readers do not hear the voices of others who have given a different account.

    Thus the reader is left with the distinct impression of a powerful worldwide movement in support of a popular icon arrayed against a poor beleaguered Maureen Faulkner fighting for justice. This is consciously designed to weaken sympathy for Mumia, and especially activism on his behalf.

    But the reality is precisely the opposite. Despite the international campaign for justice in this case, those who want to see Mumia executed still have the upper hand, and the movement to win a new trial faces an uphill battle.

    A Dangerous New Twist

    What gives the Vanity Fair article its special, more sinister character is the new “revelation” of another alleged “confession” by Mumia. Bissinger has uncovered one Philip Bloch, “a former volunteer for a prison-reform organization.”

    Bloch came forward with the following story: In the early 1990s he had a number of conversations with Mumia in prison. During one of those conversations he asked, “Do you have any regrets about killing the officer?” According to Bloch Mumia answered, “Yes.”

    Mumia himself issued the most eloquent possible reply to such a fantastic tale (see box below). These kinds of fabricated jail-house “confessions” have long been the stock in trade of police and prosecutors trying to manufacture evidence where they had none, or not enough to win a conviction.

    Subsequently, looking through his papers, Mumia discovered a letter Bloch wrote to him months after the supposed “confession.” In this letter (in Bloch's handwriting), Bloch states that he is looking forward to justice for Mumia, and that Mumia would be acquitted if he got a new trial. Obviously these are not the words of one who “knows” that Mumia is guilty because he has already heard a “confession.”

    The new angle here is that Bloch was not a fellow prisoner, but a prison volunteer (who was, by the way, dismissed by the Pennsylvania Prison Society for violating its code of ethics). But of course Bloch's story has now been trumpeted by the pro-execution faction as new “proof” of Mumia's guilt.

    ABC news reran its previous 20/20 hatchet job, with the addition of this “new information.” Bloch has appeared on TV and radio shows nation-wide, without any of the establishment news media posing the obvious questions about his credibility. In Philadelphia a right-wing talk show host, Mike Smerconish, has used this “evidence” as an excuse to go on a daily witch-hunt against Mumia's supporters.

    Now that Bloch has been revealed as a fraud, the Philadelphia press has covered the new developments. It remains to be seen whether Vanity Fair, ABC's 20/20 and other media outlets give this the same play they did to Bloch's original “exposure” of Mumia.

    Renewed Effort Needed

    The attacks against the Mumia movement in Philadelphia and the Vanity Fair article demonstrate that the international campaign for a new trial is having an effect. The Pennsylvania establishment feels the need to fight back. All of this takes place on the eve of major developments in Mumia's federal court appeals, which are expected during the month of October.

    Organizers are gearing up for Mumia Awareness Week—the next series of national actions scheduled for September 19-25. The week will culminate with actions in “100 Cities for Mumia” on Saturday, September 25. This autumn promises, therefore, to be a crucial period in the fight to win justice for this most famous of U.S. political prisoners.

    ATC 82, September-October 1999

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