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Familiar look, scary sound

Tuesday, June 15, 1999

By Tony Norman

Saab Lofton was irritated when I called him at his Bremerton, Wash., home two nights ago. Earlier in the day, a cop sent a chill up his spine by casually remarking that he "looked familiar." After living in a state of low-level paranoia since the spring, Saab was convinced that any contact with the cops during the weekend of his graduation from college could mean the loss of his "judicial virginity."

"It was supposed to be the happiest day of my life," he said. "But instead it was tainted" by fear. Depressed over the end of a love affair and the prospect of moving to Las Vegas with his mother in a couple of days, Saab, 30, sighed like a man who'd known only woe his entire life.

I was sympathetic, but I wanted to talk about Mumia Abu-Jamal, the celebrated anti-death penalty crusader awaiting execution on Pennsylvania's death row. Mumia's disembodied voice was one of several commencement speakers at Saab's graduation from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., the day before.

Of course Saab was resentful of the media circus, he insisted. Of course he voted for Mumia when nominations for commencement speakers circulated last fall. "Leonard Peltier spoke to a graduating class a few years ago and nobody cared," he said. "In Mumia's case, it became one giant 'Jerry Springer Show.'"

Saab believes in Mumia's innocence based on arguments that aren't as persuasive to me. We agree that the former radio journalist, MOVE-sympathizer and self-styled revolutionary didn't get a fair trial.

But since somebody killed patrolman Daniel Faulkner, Mumia is as good a suspect as any until he and his lawyers present a counter-narrative that explains why he looks guilty but really isn't. But back to Saab, who was feeling embarrassed on his big day because several of his classmates wore outrageous costumes to commencement. A woman sat behind him in a banana suit.

Hunkered down in his seat, his mortar board obscuring his dreadlocks, Saab listened to Mumia's 13-minute pre-recorded speech, agreeing with nearly every word. He saw himself in the same revolutionary tradition as the death-row inmate: spiritually descended from Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party and MOVE. What intrigued Saab most was that the majority of the students around him seemed to be as open to Mumia's message as he was, despite their upper-middle-class white privilege.

Mumia delivered a message that sounded like a version of the old "Seize the Day" speech for budding revolutionaries. What sounded like a screed to me when Saab read it over the phone moved him quite profoundly. But as only one of a handful of black graduates in the class of '99, Saab internalized it in ways he said his classmates never could.

Only two dozen people out of 1,000 graduating students protested. According to Saab, even those who disagreed with the decision to invite Mumia seemed grateful for the opportunity to debate capital punishment and "the oppression of minorities."

But Mumia's presence, even as a voice on tape, drew a lot of cops to the campus and Saab hadn't counted on that. Because he's never been ensnared in the criminal justice system, Saab wondered if his luck was about to run out.

When an officer he casually encountered said he "looked familiar," Saab said nothing. He was a black intellectual wearing dreadlocks in all-white Olympia. Despite his fears, it went no further than that.



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