By Chris Dixon, July 1999
Each educational institution has its own challenges and opportunities for organizing. However, what follows are tips applicable to many different situations. Keep in mind that, loosely interpreted, these tips can be useful for bringing speakers other than Mumia, too.
- Think long-term. In order to gather student support (beyond your core group) and prepare for administrative resistance (and eventually, some public resistance), you need to think ahead. Create a timeline which incorporates each of the tips listed here. Plan for organizing and outreach quickly starting in the fall. Don’t wait until the last minute for anything–or else it will blow up in your face. And don’t forget to factor in countless dreary meetings with campus administrative bureaucrats as you pressure them to accept the nomination of Mumia as commencement speaker.
- Do your research. If you’re going to gain support, you’ll have to know your facts about Mumia’s case. You don’t have to be an “expert.” Just get an understanding of the injustices and inaccuracies in his case (it’s not difficult to find them). If you have World Wide Web access, you’ll find plenty of material. Check out the International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s website to begin with. Eventually, you’ll want to look at the website of the (anti-Mumia) Justice for Daniel Faulkner folks, too. A good movie to watch is “Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for a Reasonable Doubt?” produced by HBO. Once you begin understanding some of the facts, try explaining them to friends and family members. The practice can’t hurt.
- Get the word out. The key word here is “outreach.” Getting Mumia as a commencement speaker means mobilizing major student support (beyond campus “activists”). Mobilizing support means making Mumia’s case and what he represents common campus knowledge. Realize that this requires creativity, commitment, energy, and openness. You might try fliers, public speakouts, panel discussions, film showings, chalk graffiti, announcements in class, going door-to-door in the dorms, articles and letters in the campus newspaper, and/or anything you can think of. Don’t be afraid to be bold, but don’t unnecessarily alienate others, either. And don’t forget to reach out to faculty and staff at your school, too. Remember: you want to make “Mumia” a household word in your community.
- Do more research. If you’re going to make it past outreach to the actual possibility of Mumia speaking at your graduation, you’ll have to learn exactly how your school makes decisions about graduation speakers. Where do nominations come from? Who makes the final decision? Is there a ballot? Is the ballot really just “advisory”? Is there a graduation committee? Who is the chairperson of that committee? How can you make sure that committee is really representative? Regardless of how democratic or undemocratic your school’s graduation speaker selection process is, you must understand who is ultimately in charge of the decision. And even if it appears that students have the final say, you’ll need to prepare for your administration to take the power out of your hands when its public image is at stake in the face of controversy. Once you get a handle on all of that, plan your timeline accordingly. Like it or not, your success will hinge on your ability to negotiate with and (when necessary) pressure your administration. Know their procedures better than they do, and always expect that they’ll backtrack on or “forget” what they promise.
- Consider your student graduation speaker. Whether your campaign to select Mumia as commencement speaker succeeds or fails, the question of the student graduation speaker is crucial. In other words, a student speaker who is supportive of Mumia is an incredible asset. With Mumia as speaker, your student speaker can help organize and lend support in his/her speech during graduation. And in the unfortunate case that your administration bars Mumia from speaking, your student speaker can deliver a sympathetic speech or read one from Mumia–an incredible embarrassment to your administration. In order to make sure that a student is selected as graduation speaker who is supportive of Mumia, you will have to use each of the tips listed here for the student speaker selection process at your school in addition to the commencement speaker selection process.
- Plan for the media. The controversy of Mumia’s case is a ripe media playground. Take advantage of that and, above all, be prepared. In your timeline, include media preparation months in advance of your graduation ceremony. You’re going to need press advisories (advising that you’ll be sending a release or doing a press conference), press releases, press statements, spokespeople, press packets, and press conferences–all prepared well ahead of time. Cultivate any press contacts that you already have and assemble a national list in addition. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help from other activists (students and non-students) who have experience with the media. Remember: you are setting the stage for how you and your graduation are being portrayed. Maintain control.
- Plan for the graduation crowd. While you will be reaching out to an inter/national audience through your interactions with mass media, you will be mainly reaching out to the audience that is present through your actions at graduation itself. Bear both audiences in mind at all times. The family watching you on television and the grandmother attending her granddaughter’s graduation ceremony are basing their understanding of Mumia and what he represents on what you do. For the graduation crowd, carefully prepare a flier or pamphlet of some sort. Put yourself in the shoes of a bewildered friend or relative of a graduate coming from far away to your graduation. Make your words relevant to them. Also, consider using visual images and themes that can unite all Mumia supporters in the audience. They can usually translate and impact better than screaming, slogans, or signs. Remember: the point is to invite, not alienate, potential allies.
- Plan for hostility at school. If you begin to succeed in your campaign for Mumia as a commencement speaker, you will meet resistance. For one, your school administration will do the its best to avoid controversy and blemish on its public image. Use whatever leverage and pressure you can to move beyond that point. If you have followed the other tips to organizing, you should have enough public support to make your pressure real. Start with phone calls or letters from angry seniors who don’t want their choice of Mumia violated. Faculty support at this point can help as well. Escalate from there if need be. A different kind of resistance may come from graduating seniors who don’t want their graduation marred by “politics” (as if politics aren’t part of every graduation ceremony). Keep an open dialogue with them and be respectful. Many may not fully understand who Mumia is, i.e., that he is internationally significant as a radical writer and radiojournalist–not just as a political prisoner.
- Plan for hostility from outside of school. In other words, plan for the Justice for Daniel Faulkner organization–one well-funded outgrowth of the national Fraternal Order of Police. They truly believe that Mumia killed Officer Faulkner, and they won’t stop until they see their version of “justice.” They will try to shut you down, embarrass your administration, and make you look like stupid kids. Moreover, they have access to resources and police officers (and family members), and they will travel far to make their point. Remember, though, that justice for Daniel Faulkner requires a fair trial for Mumia. Simply put, Mumia’s guilt is “in dispute”–an especially important phrase when they attempt to argue details of the case with you in front of the media at your graduation. More crucial, remember that it’s your graduation with the graduation speaker that you selected. You are the establishment. Anyone there to disrupt it is just that–a disrupter. Don’t let hostility and resistance take the day, and make sure that you frame the message your way.
- Remember to congratulate yourself. Whatever you manage to accomplish, regardless of whether you end up with Mumia as your graduation speaker or not, you are undertaking valuable educational work. We each start in our communities and move from there. And each of our small successes deserves congratulations.
These tips were originally written for and distributed by the Prison Activist Resource Center in Berkeley, California, following Mumia Abu-Jamal’s commencement speech at the Evergreen State College in June, 1999. For my account of the commencement, see Mumia Abu-Jamal as Graduation Speaker.