Editor’s note: Exclusive new information about Mumia Abu-Jamal in the sidebar below. This article incorporates that information.
Raw racism deeply embedded in law enforcement connects the fatal January 7, 2023 police beating of a Black man in Memphis, Tennessee with a vicious December 9, 1981 police assault on a Black man in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
That deadly 2023 police beating of motorist Tyre Nichols and the barbaric 1981 beating of journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal each occurred in cities with documentable histories of racist policing from false arrests to fatal shootings.
Evidence of brutal, bigoted behaviors that often animate law enforcement culture are evident in the merciless beatings of Nicholas and Abu-Jamal through such commonalities as police unleashed each assault without resistance from their targets and the lawless law enforcers in each incident reflexively denied any misconduct.
Police brutally battered both Nichols and Abu-Jamal with punches and kicks.
With Nichols, one policeman also hammered his head with a metal baton.
Policemen who assaulted Abu-Jamal, at one point, held his body battering-ram- style to smash his head into a street sign pole…multiple times. Police beat Abu-Jamal with such intensity that some who witnessed it said seeing that assault made them physically sick.
Like the Nichols beating where Memphis police callously left the badly injured Nichols suffering at the scene for nearly thirty minutes, Philadelphia police maliciously refused to quickly render medical aid to the critically injured Abu-Jamal…despite him bleeding from a policeman’s bullet.
Unlike the Nichols beating, when police finally took Abu-Jamal to a hospital emergency room, officers attacked him again, beating him before life-saving surgery and beating him during his post-op recovery. Nichols was not attacked inside the hospital but that police beating caused his death days later.
One salient difference does exist between the police assaults on Nichols and Abu-Jamal – incarcerated since 1981 for fatally shooting a policeman.
In the 2023 Nichols beating death, undeniable video evidence from police force installed anti-crime surveillance cameras helped defeat initial denials of wrongdoing from the policemen who attacked Nichols.
In the 1981 Abu-Jamal beating, the lack of video evidence during that pre-high-tech era enabled authorities to dismiss multiple eyewitness accounts of that beating. Typically, Philadelphia authorities accepted pleas from police who denied beating Abu-Jamal. Authorities ignored the obvious evidence of multiple broken bones and other serious internal injuries the journalist sustained from those police beatings.
Even more absurd, authorities embraced belated claims from police that Abu-Jamal confessed – claims not made until two months after Abu-Jamal’s arrest. During an investigation into a brutality complaint Abu-Jamal filed against his attackers, two policemen claimed they suddenly remembered hearing Abu-Jamal utter a confession.
That belated confession claim helped prosecutors convict Abu-Jamal in a murder case that lacked any credible forensic evidence that connected Abu-Jamal to the crime. One of those two belated confession claim cops filed a report hours after Abu-Jamal’s 12/9/81 arrest stating the journalist “made no comments.”
Many proclaim racism is not an element in the fatal beating of Nichols because the five officers initially arrested for his savage death are Black.
Persons who’ve made this ‘no-racism’ declaration range from Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, a Black woman, to British broadcaster Piers Morgan, a white man.
Chief Davis postures that Black police involvement blunts criticisms that “problems in law enforcement [are] about race.” Morgan pretends that Black police involvement proves Nichols’ death “isn’t a racist act of white supremacy.”
In February 1981, while Abu-Jamal worked as an award-winning journalist, he questioned Philadelphia’s then District Attorney about racism in that city’s justice system, according to Abu-Jamal’s original audio recordings of that encounter.
That DA rejected racism as a factor in a Philadelphia judge’s highly unusual dismissal of assault charges against three white policemen for their vicious beating of a Black radical in 1978. TV news captured that 1978 beating live and broadcast it around the world. That televised 1978 beating of the unarmed, surrendering radical came 13-years before the infamous videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King in Los Angeles.
Attempts to downplay racist police culture embedded in the beatings of Nichols and Abu-Jamal evidence either willful ignorance or deliberate deception about the realities of institutionalized, race-based inequities operative across American society since the inception of the United States in the late 18th Century.
For example with the Nichols beating, if anti-Blackness is not embedded in police culture, then Blacks in Memphis would not comprise 86 percent of the persons subjected to use of force from a Memphis police department that is 58 percent Black.
As a New York Times article about Nichols’ death and policing in Memphis noted, “…the data shows that Black residents were subjects of police use of force at a rate nearly three times that of white residents, and eight times that of Hispanic residents.”
Commentators on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean rebuff attempts to downplay racism in law policing.
Wendell Griffen, a recently retired state court judge in Arkansas, noted on his blog that terrorizing people of color for social control is embedded across American society.
“People like Tyre Nichols are abused…and slain by police to satisfy White supremacist notions of what “safe” and “public safety” mean,” Griffen wrote.
Richard Sudan, in a commentary posted on London’s African-Caribbean, The Voice-Online, called-out the law enforcement attitude that Black lives hold less value than white lives.
“Black officers beating and killing Tyre Nichols does not suddenly mean that race no longer becomes a factor in another Black death in custody,” Sudan wrote. “It makes the officers involved, whatever their complexion, complicit in a system blighted by white supremacy.”
The plight of Mumia Abu-Jamal is a prime example of institutional racism embedded throughout America’s justice system.
Racism in law enforcement stalked the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal years before his controversial 1982 conviction – a conviction that initially sent him to death row for decades before conversion of his sentence in 2011 to life in prison without parole.
In October 1968 a white Philadelphia police detective wantonly beat a teenaged Abu-Jamal and falsely charged the teen with assault. A judge dismissed that charge due to evidence Abu-Jamal did not attack the detective. That detective beat Abu-Jamal when Abu-Jamal sought protection from bigots who attacked him for his participation in a protest against a prominent white supremacist then campaigning for the presidency of the United States.
In the Abu-Jamal murder case, Philadelphia police unlawfully manufactured evidence of guilt and Philly prosecutors illegally withheld evidence of innocence, some evidence withheld for nearly four decades.
Further, courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have consistently dismissed this egregious misconduct by police and prosecutors to uphold Abu-Jamal’s flawed conviction. Those appeal dismissals clearly violate Abu-Jamal’s constitutional rights…evidence that courts consistently shirk their prime duty to ensure justice.
In one ugly example, the judge at Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial declared on the eve of that trial that he would help prosecutors “fry the nigger.” That odious pronouncement of racial bigotry and pro-prosecution bias corrupted Abu-Jamal’s constitutional right to a fair trial.
Yet, appellate courts consistently whitewash trial judge Albert Sabo’s racist misconduct with contorted contentions that Abu-Jamal suffered no legal harms during his trial undermined by Sabo’s bias.
In 2003, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found no fault with Judge Sabo’s judicial conduct code violating admission to assist prosecutors “fry the nigger.” Years later, the Pa Supreme Court justice who authored that 2003 whitewash ruling was forced to resign from Pennsylvania’s highest court when exposed as a participant in a scandal that involved sending racist/sexist/homophobic emails.
Corrupted, racist procedures in Abu-Jamal’s case have triggered criticisms nationally and internationally for decades.
In February 2000, Amnesty International, the respected human rights organization, released a report on its thorough review of Abu-Jamal’s racism-tainted case. One finding in that AI report stated: “The record of this case indicates a pattern of events that compromised Abu-Jamal’s right to a fair trial.”
In December 2022 the United Nation’s Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent issued a legal document regarding the Abu-Jamal case. Criticisms in the Group’s document sent to the Philadelphia judge handling Abu-Jamal’s current appeal cited content and context regarding “impropriety and racial discriminatory effects” embedded in the Abu-Jamal case.
Demands for federal legislation to address racism-rooted abusive policing across America erupted again in the wake of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols.
In September 2021, Republican U.S. Senators stifled approval of the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” – named after a Black man murdered by police in Minnesota the year before. Senators responded to police union demands to kill the George Floyd bill approved by Democrats in Congress over objections from Republicans in that body.
Reticence to approve federal legislation addressing abusive policing is reminiscent of the U.S. Senate’s century-long refusal to approve legislation outlawing lynching of Blacks. Lynching of Blacks raged from the end of the Civil War into the mid-1900s. Rampaging racist mobs, often with assistance from racist police, murdered thousands of Black men, women, and children — with few of those murders ever prosecuted for their crimes.
Capitol Hill did not approve anti-lynching legislation until March 2022. Members of Congress introduced 200 anti-lynching bills with only three successfully approved, each of those approved measures killed by racists in the Senate.
The first federal anti-lynching bill came in January 1900, introduced by the last African American to serve in Congress during the 19th Century. That measure introduced by then Congressman George H. White never received consideration.
When White, a Republican and former prosecutor in North Carolina, spoke on behalf of his anti-lynching measure, he poised a question relevant to the current need for anti-police-brutality legislation.
“Should not a nation be just to all of her citizens, protect them alike in all their rights, on every foot of her soil?”
SIDEBAR: Todd Steven Burroughs
EXCLUSIVE BOOK EXCERPT: That Time Philadelphia Radio Journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal Asked Ed Rendell About A Filmed Beating Of A Black Man By Police
Not long after MOVE claimed a 1976 police raid led to the death of Life Africa, a MOVE baby, the Family Africa set up an armed compound around their Powelton Village section headquarters and held off the Philadelphia Police Department for more than a year. Mayor Frank Rizzo, now leader of the city but still clear on law-and-order and us-versus them, broke MOVE on August 8, 1978. An unarmed Delbert Africa was beaten by white Philadelphia police, on camera. A Philadelphia police officer, James Ramp, died during the raid. Ten MOVE members were originally charged with murder; they would eventually become known as the MOVE 9.
Rizzo held a press conference after the raid. Mumia Abu-Jamal asked him a pointed question about the police version of events, and Rizzo exploded: “They believe what you write, and what you say, and it’s got to stop. And one day–and I hope it’s in my career–that you’re going to have to be held responsible and accountable for what you do.”
The officers who beat Delbert Africa were acquitted in 1981. The city’s District Attorney, Ed Rendell, held a press conference in February to discuss the verdict— 42 years ago this month.. Abu-Jamal was there, and taped part of the proceedings. He was the first to bring up race, according to the recording:
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Mr. Rendell, you talk about the system working. What you have—
RENDELL: In one half of the case.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: What you have—
RENDELL: The system did not work in this part of the case.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: What you have is a wealth of information. You have videotapes, you have blown-up photographs. You have reporters testifying as to what they saw.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: And you still had a case where it was blown up by [Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Stanley] Kubacki….
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Can Blacks expect justice in Philadelphia? That’s a significant question that must be raised.
RENDELL: I don’t think it’s a Black-white issue—
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL [firmly]: I think it does.
Rendell disagreed, thinking the real issue is whether people of all classes—establishment and working-class people—can get justice in Philadelphia. Another Black broadcast journalist, Vernon Odom of WPVI-TV, pointed out that it might have been a Black-white issue because of Blacks challenged off the jury. Rendell replied, “I guess,” but the jury never had a chance. “I think it’s impossible to speculate about the jury.” The former Black Panther would get to know Rendell very well under horrendous circumstances after that press conference. Within months Abu-Jamal would be arrested, prosecuted by Rendell’s staff, convicted in 1982 of first-degree murder and in 1983 formally sentenced to death in the electric chair:
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Mr. Rendell, what you have here is a [DA’s Office] police brutality unit that has a less-than-sterling performance record. As far as—
RENDELL: Hey, we don’t decide cases.
MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: As far as—I’m just talking about net result gain—as far as when Black people come before this justice system, and are seeking justice. Now, that’s a very basic kind of demand.
Rendell responded that his results were far from bad. There were more Philadelphia police officers convicted for brutality under his watch than any time in the city combined, he told Abu-Jamal. He denied race as an issue; whites get abused by police, too, he argued, and it is just as hard then to convict white policemen for white police brutality cases with white victims—even when, Rendell added, the victim is white and the abusing policeman is Black. It’s the police part that’s tough, he told the more-than-skeptical radio journalist.
–an excerpt from the forthcoming Mumia Abu-Jamal biography, Talking Drums And Raised Fists: Mumia Abu-Jamal, A Biography Of A Voice by Todd Steven Burroughs. Excerpt copyright © 2023. All Rights Reserved.