Radical Chic?

For most of the thirteen years that Philadelphia journalist Mumia
Abu-Jamal has sat on death row for allegedly killing a police
officer, The New York Times, like other mainstream media
outlets, has ignored the contested facts and racial tensions
surrounding his conviction and imprisonment. But when a long list
of celebrities and literary figures, including Naomi Campbell,
Roger Ebert, David Byrne, Norman Mailer, Oliver Stone, Susan
Sarandon, Spike Lee, Paul Newman, Maya Angelou, and Joyce Carol
Oates added their signatures to full-page pro-Mumia newspaper ads
this past August, the paper of record had much to say about the
matter. Dubbing the signatures the return of radical chic (a la Tom
Wolfe’s satire on Leonard Bernstein’s cocktail party for the Black
Panthers some 25 years ago), writer Francis X. Clines cried elitism
and professed sympathy for the nation’s 3,009 other death row
inmates who can only sit in silence while Mumia, an attractive
exception to the lumpen felons, attracts all the celebrity patrons.

In an angry rebuttal in The Nation (Sept. 11, 1995),
columnist Katha Pollitt exposed The Times assessment as inaccurate
and hypocritical. ‘I can’t speak for Jacques Derrida,’ said
Pollitt. ‘But I signed that ad because I oppose the death penalty
and am disquieted by the questions raised by the original trial.’
Radical chic is a term that connotes dilettantish frivolity, she
added, something that can hardly be said of E.L. Doctorow, Henry
Louis Gates, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie and many other
co-signers who have been advocates for human rights and racial
justice all of their adult lives.

While Mumia’s case actually raises relevant issues — a police
vendetta, a biased judge, a political trial, a ferocious sentence
for cop killing — Pollitt adds that Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson,
multimillionaire celebrities accused of crimes against women and
defended by flocks of lawyers, have received far more attention as
test cases of racial treatment in the justice system. Few
journalists or news organizations took up the Mumia case, and even
National Public Radio withdrew an offer for a regular slot for
Mumia on All Things Considered due to pressure by police
groups. If the Free Mumia movement is finally gaining steam, it is
because a tireless group of defenders who have, over the course of
many years, attracted the support of unions, Amnesty International,
and human rights groups to bring the case to national
consciousness. ‘Given this history,’ says Pollitt, ‘it is beyond me
how anyone can portray Mumia Abu-Jamal as the darling of the
wine-and-cheese circuit or lampoon his supporters as radical

Even more curious is why, if The Times cares so much about
lesser known, tongue-tied inmates on death row, it fails to bring
their cases to public attention. And therein lies the paradox of
the coverage granted to the pro-Mumia ads: As Pollitt questions,
‘Isn’t the mainstream media, which ignored Mumia for so long, what
makes it politically necessary to harness famous names to a

Original to Utne Reader Online, September

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.