When John McNesby, president of Philadelphia FOP Lodge #5, first heard that students at Goddard College in Vermont selected convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal as its commencement speaker, he wasn’t thrilled.
“My immediate reaction was the same thing that would come to any cop’s mind — I was angry,” McNesby said.
McNesby’s level of disgust mirrors that of Maureen Faulkner, whose husband Daniel was gunned down by Abu-Jamal in December 1981. Jamal was famously sentenced to death in July 1982 after a protracted trial, only to find that sentence reduced to life in prison without parole in 2011 for killing Faulkner. Since that time, Abu-Jamal has maintained his innocence and sought new trials while also becoming outspoken about free speech and prison rights. Not only has he given pre-recorded commencement speeches at other colleges (Evergreen State College in Washington and Antioch College in Ohio), Abu-Jamal received a BA from Goddard, the 245-student liberal arts college in 1996 through a correspondence course.
On Sunday, while Abu-Jamal’s commencement speech was being played at Goddard College, members of the FOP #5, Faulkner’s widow, and others with opinions, pro and con, attended a 4 p.m. rally at 13th and Locust, the intersection near where Faulkner was slain.
McNesby made one thing very clear: the event on Sunday was not a protest where the police where concerned. “This is not a protest, silent or otherwise. It’s a vigil. We wanted to do something to show support for Maureen Faulkner and the Philadelphia Police Department. Somebody came up with the idea of doing a ceremony at the plaque in honor and remembrance of Danny.”
The goal wasn’t just to honor the memory of the deceased Faulkner and his widow. McNesby stated that the secondary goal was to draw attention away from the Vermont speech. “We want to focus on the real victim here – Danny Faulkner.”
In a prepared statement, Goddard College Interim President Bob Kenny said that his college holds 20 personalized graduation ceremonies. "As a reflection of Goddard’s individualized and transformational educational model, our commencements are intimate affairs where each student serves as her or his own valedictorian, and each class chooses its own speaker. 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."
McNesby says that his conversations with Faulkner’s widow Maureen regarding the commencement speech and the vigil are as they’ve always been. “It’s the same that occurs year after year,” states McNesby. “There’s outrage for him (Abu-Jamal) having gotten away with all this from inside prison. There’s also disappointment. Every time things die down, events like this spring up like a thorn in her side. This guy just has the ability to get in front of a microphone and get his name out there.”
A crowd of more than 300 gathered in Center City for the event, including young Police Academy cadets and bikers from several motorcycle clubs.
“I’m too young to remember,” said Bobby DeVincent of Kensington’s Hellraiser Club. “But I’m here to support the Philadelphia Police the best way I know how.”
After the Lord’s Prayer and a final salute, McNesby said the vigil was “beautiful” and “more well-attended” than he could have hoped. “It was quiet and respectful.”