BURLINGTON, Vt. — The Vermont Police Chiefs Association says members are “shocked and appalled” by the decision of Goddard College to have a man convicted of killing a policeman serve as graduation speaker Sunday.
“It is beyond belief that an educational institution would even consider such an act of disrespect to the family of slain Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner and the law enforcement community of Vermont,” said Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, president of the state chiefs association.
“It obviously means nothing to the school administration and graduates that Mumia Abu-Jamal murdered Officer Faulkner in cold blood by shooting him five times,” Merkel said.
The criticism joins a rising chorus of opposition to Abu-Jamal’s videotaped commencement address from law enforcement in Vermont and Pennsylvania, and from Faulkner’s family. The officer was slain in 1981.
Abu-Jamal and his supporters maintain his innocence and say he was the victim of a racist justice system. The authorities say evidence of the convict’s guilt is overwhelming.
Merkel told the Burlington Free Press on Thursday that his association, which represents more than 50 municipal police agencies, is asking Vermonters to write, email or call Goddard College to express outrage.
Abu-Jamal, who was a founder of the Philadelphia Black Panther Party, obtained his degree at Goddard through the mail while serving his prison sentence in 1996.
Abu-Jamal, 60, is scheduled to deliver a taped address that will be played when 20 students in a class of 23 receive their bachelor’s degrees at 4 p.m. Sunday in the Haybarn Theatre at the Plainfield campus. The students decided on Abu-Jamal to deliver the address.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is seen before an appeals hearing in Philadelphia in the case of police officer Daniel Faulkner, who was shot and killed in 1981 .
This is not the first time the Abu-Jamal case has led to controversy in Vermont. During the National Governors’ Association Meeting in South Burlington in July 1995, the police arrested 15 protesters for trespassing at the Sheraton Hotel. The protesters were trying to speak to Pennsylvania’s governor about Abu-Jamal.
Vandals also spray-painted obscenities on multiple buildings at the historic Ethan Allen Homestead, where the governors had a Sunday brunch.
Goddard officials defended the invitation to Abu-Jamal to deliver the graduation speech.
“Choosing Mumia as their commencement speaker, to me, shows how this newest group of Goddard graduates expresses their freedom to engage and think radically and critically in a world that often sets up barriers to do just that,” Goddard College Interim President Bob Kenny said in a statement.
The school’s communications director, Samantha Kolber, took to Twitter, making several posts about the selection and supporting the students’ choice.
“Murder is wrong. Free speech is right. Sometimes these exist together. #Duality #truth #complexity,” Kolber wrote in one tweet.
“We as a progressive College have a responsibility to grapple w/ and explore tough issues with our students,” she added in another, then added a quote attributed to Abu-Jamal: “Free people have a right to decide for themselves what they want to hear.”
In protest of the selection, the Vermont police chiefs are joining the slain officer’s family and other law-enforcement groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the Vermont Troopers Association, Merkel said.
Merkel called the selection of Abu-Jamal by the Goddard students a “callous decision.”
“While we support the protection of individual rights in Vermont, we find the choice of this convicted murderer as a commencement speaker offensive, and shows a lack of judgment on behalf of the college and its graduates, as well as a total disrespect for the family of the slain officer, who was sworn also to protect individual rights,” Merkel said.
Merkel said Faulkner, a five-year veteran of the Philadelphia police, was fatally shot during a traffic stop involving Abu-Jamal’s younger brother early Dec. 9, 1981. The authorities say Abu-Jamal shot Faulkner in the back, then stood over the officer and shot him four more times. Abu-Jamal was shot and wounded in the incident.
A jury convicted Abu-Jamal after three hours of deliberation in July 1982, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the conviction in March 1989. He originally was condemned to death, but the sentence has since been reduced to life without parole.