Future generations might find it odd that our society repeatedly gave people a stage to talk about important social issues based on nothing more than the fact that they once starred in a movie we liked.
We wouldn't mind, if celebrity causes were simply vapid or silly. But sometimes, they're down right evil.
Google the words "free Mumia Abu-Jamal" and you'll find a long list of websites that howl at his incarceration. It's like if Interpol threw Conan O'Brien in jail for making fun of the Pope. The story goes that in 1981, Abu-Jamal was arrested for shooting Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner while he was issuing a traffic citation to Abu-Jamal's brother. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Since that time, everybody from Paul Newman to the European Parliament has lobbied, in one way or another, for his release.
Prince wrote Purple Rain as an extended allegory of Abu-Jamal's story.
Some who get involved are simply against the death penalty. Others decry the whole thing as institutionalized racism. As Free Mumia supporters like Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin and Nelson Mandela rightly point out, Abu-Jamal was a Black Panther and the American judicial system hasn't exactly been kind to African Americans. Unfortunately, that tends to be the only detail they get right about the case.
For instance, accroding to the "Free Mumia" conspiracy theory, a .44-caliber bullet was removed from Faulkner's body but Abu-Jamal had a .38.
"Mr. Baldwin, please put on a shirt and stop tampering with that evidence."
However, according to the ballistics expert hired by Mumia's own attorney, the bullet fragments pulled from Faulkner's body were a ballistics match to a gun registered to Abu-Jamal. A gun which, it should be pointed out, was found next to Abu-Jamal at the crime scene along with five empty casings. There's also the matter of the four witnesses who were at the scene of the crime who all implicated Abu-Jamal as firing the fatal shot. There's also the fact that, in almost 30 years, his story has changed numerous times, including the recent claim that it was, get this, a mysterious mafia hit man who killed Faulkner because he was a dirty cop. Faulkner's widow, who was spat on and screamed at during the trial, must especially love that theory.
The only thing more traumatic than losing a husband: Bad reggae music celebrating the guy who killed him.
The Low Point:
Arguably the saddest thing about the entire circus is that there were plenty of racist convictions celebrities could have been throwing their weight behind. DNA evidence has exonerated a disproportionate number of wrongly convicted African Americans who Paul Newman had never heard of. Meanwhile, Mumia has the distinction of being the only person to ever give a college graduation commencement address from a jail cell (Antioch College, 2000). At least he's not getting rich off his celebrity or anything. Well, unless you count all the books, like Live from Death Row, for which he was paid an advance of $30,000.
Peltier is right up there with Abu-Jamal as far as celebrity causes go, except he's been locked up longer, his support network is bigger and his case involves the FBI. Also, he's a Native American, so the opportunity to tap into white guilt couldn't be better. Take that, Mumia!
See how his head is fused with a hawk? Clearly he's a Native American.
Peltier was convicted and sentenced in 1977 to life imprisonment for the murder of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. That day, the two agents followed a car they thought belonged to a man wanted for robbery and assault. What they found instead was Peltier and two other members of the American Indian Movement who, after fleeing the agents, initiated a shootout that left them both dead.
Since his conviction and sentencing, his legend has grown to practically saint-like proportions, as if he not only didn't commit murder, but is incapable of so much as swatting a fly. U2 count themselves as Peltier supporters, along with the Dali Lama, David Geffen, Danny Glover and Amnesty International.
Cracked's support is limited to appreciation of Peltier's mustache.
What these people ignore is that Peltier ran from the agents that day at Pine Ridge because he thought the agents were there to arrest him for a previous warrant for his arrest in Wisconsin. The charge? Attempted murder of an off-duty police officer. Then, in 1979, he led a violent prison break attempt that resulted in the death of a fellow inmate.
The same man that did all that has reportedly been nominated for multiple Nobel Prizes.
All of that is enough to get you a supportive song from Rage Against the Machine ("Freedom") and U2 ("Native Son"). Though it appears U2 did some further research on the subject, because they rewrote the song and removed all reference to Peltier (the tune would be re-released as "Vertigo" and win a Grammy).
The Low Point:
While Peltier never got a $30,000 book advance like Abu-Jamal, he did run for president in 2004 (fun fact: in the USA it's illegal for prisoners to vote for President, but perfectly legal for them to run) and got nearly 30,000 people to vote for him.
It's not just bleeding heart types who take up the "Free _______" cause. Back in 1957, a guy named Edgar Smith was convicted of murdering a 15-year-old girl. It only took a jury under three hours to declare him guilty, and he was sentenced to death. Somehow, he wound up in correspondence with conservative commentator William F. Buckley (the founder of the National Review). Buckley worked for years to get Smith released until, in 1971, he was.
"Awww. We can't stay mad at you."
After his release, Smith appeared on Buckley's talk show and collected $1,000 speaking fees touring college campuses around the nation. All was well until five years later, when he abducted 33-year-old seamstress Lefteriya Ozbun while she was going home from work. She survived, but Smith is back in prison, serving a life sentence.
"Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, life sentence."
Then we have George Davis, a convicted bank robber who was serving a 20-year sentence for aggravated robbery. His friends started a movement to get him freed and once more, celebrities jumped on board. Davis's case got mentioned in several UK rock songs, culminating in Roger Daltry of The Who wearing a "George Davis is Innocent" shirt on stage.
If Tommy says it, it must be true.
After galvanizing his cause to the point where it became a national priority, British Home Secretary Roy Jenkins recommended Davis's release in 1976, determining his conviction to be "unsafe."
Davis lasted two years on the outside before he was caught trying to rob another bank.
The Low Point:
Topping them all, however, has to be Jack Abbott. He was sent to prison for forgery, but had his term extended for stabbing another inmate to death. His cause was taken up by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer. Riding Mailer's coattails for Abbott's release was none other than Random House Publishing, who wanted to publish a book by Abbott when he got out.
He was granted parole in 1981, then appeared on The Today Show and got interviewed by Rolling Stone.
Six weeks later, he killed a guy in New York. Why? The poor sap wouldn't let Abbott use the bathroom in the cafe where he worked.