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Long Distance Revolutionary: an uneven look at the fervor surrounding Mumia Abu-Jamal

Gregg Reese | 3/13/2013, 5 p.m.

The LAPD's history of impropriety casts an especially long shadow across the annals of law enforcement, given the city's scrutiny as a media center, but it has its competition, especially in the persona of Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia police commissioner and mayor, whose polarizing bravado easily rivaled the legacy of the LAPD's William Parker and Darryl Gates.

Rizzo is a center figure in the documentary, "Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal." Mumia is a most convenient figurehead in the tale of his city's police and their clash with the Black-Panther-radical-journalist-turned-cause-célebre, in the wake of his conviction in the shooting death of Officer Daniel Faulkner.

Although the film opens with denunciations by conservative commentators Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin, it is by no means an evenhanded look at the circumstances behind Mumia's incarceration. Indeed, the question of his guilt or innocence takes a back seat to the chronicle of his writing and an indictment of the American justice system.

Brief excerpts of White native Philadelphians (a proprietor of one of the city's iconic cheese steak emporiums reveals he stopped patronizing the films of screen idol Paul Newman after he learned the actor had championed Mumia's cause) rigorously upholding the court's verdict are overshadowed by a plethora of celebrity advocates who articulately vouch for Mumia's stature as a cause célebre and symbol of the prison industrial complex of the United States.

To be fair, as the film documents, the city's police had it in for Mumia long before the December 1981 shooting. He credits his radicalization to his vicious beat-down at the hands (and feet) of Philly's finest at a George Wallace rally when he was 14 years old. The rest of his teen years were spent within the ranks of the local Black Panther Party, all the while under the close surveillance of law enforcement.

Adulthood saw his development into a journalist who did nothing to endear himself to his employers by his willingness to tackle controversial subjects and refusal to conform to the standards of professional etiquette. One memorable episode, he showed up wearing a ratty T-shirt to a suit-and-tie press conference for then-President Jimmy Carter, then earning praise from the chief executive for his probing, insightful questions.

Talent and professionalism alone did not guarantee job security, however, and Mumia was forced to work as a cabdriver to provide for his family, leading up to the incident that changed his life.

Guilty or not, there is no denying Mumia's charisma as a high profile radio commentator and, after his imprisonment, a prolific essayist, historian, and social critic whose publications have garnered him a cadre of global admirers and supporters, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, heads of state, the Japanese parliament, Nobel laureates, and so on.

With 30 years of imprisonment under his belt, Mumia remains a lightning rod for the provocative, as two dozen cities across the globe he has not set foot in have granted him honorary citizenship, including Paris, France. A few miles away, the French township of Saint-Denis, the burial site of several Gallic kings, has named a street in his honor, the Rue Mumia Abu-Jamal.

All of this has prompted resolutions from his country's House of Representatives condemning these tributes, while Mumia continues to receive honorary degrees and has recorded commencement addresses to be replayed at the graduation ceremonies of institutes of higher learning. International activist, historian, and world celebrity Tariq Ali went so far as proclaiming that he deserved the Nobel Prize more than the man who actually won it that year, President Barack Obama (a man Mumia has regularly criticized for, among other things, his complicity in maintaining the high American prison population).

The question of whether this apparent paragon of Black Nationalism is guilty or innocent will likely never be conclusively proved. It will, like the commotion surrounding another celebrated murder case, that of O.J. Simpson, never reach satisfactory closure, instead passing into mythology for coming generations to argue over and ponder.