Mumia, Diesel, Zirin and Everything

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A Newark movie theater owned by Shaquille O'Neal, which happens to be the only movie theater in Newark, decided to shut down a screening of a documentary about Mumia Abu-Jamal just hours before its much-publicized Newark premiere. (Abu-Jamal, an activist and journalist, was controversially convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer in 1981). The Nation's Dave Zirin is on the case, speculating first that O'Neal's deep ties to Newark law enforcement might have played a role; by the end of his brief blog post, Zirin has moved on, challenging Shaq to provide a forum for debate and encouraging him to show the film, but also provide forceful counterpoint if he does indeed disagree with it. Maybe even in person. The idea of Shaq writing an op-ed for the Newark Star-Ledger is mentioned.

As Zirin admits, there's no way of knowing how involved Shaq himself was—or if, indeed, he was even paying attention. Shaq has long had a cop fetish of sorts, and a special emotional connection to Newark's police department, but this decision could have been made by a surrogate, family member, or like-minded business partner. But again, this borders on conspiracy theory. In the Tri-State area, Mumia remains as polarizing as ever, a raw nerve that seems only to get more raw. What's more, even if one doesn't side emotively with the angry anti-Mumia-ites, there are at least two indirect reasons to fall in that camp: 1) pro-law enforcement 2) friend of The Establishment. Mumia's cause is both less specific (MOVE is hardly a sympathetic organization) and less general (his case isn't exactly a catch-all for free speech, anti-death penalty, or civil rights). By implication, Shaq is involved; it's possible that through soft pressure, the film was canceled.

It's this murky dynamic that makes Zirin's closing thoughts hard to digest. Mumia's supporters espouse a single, uncomplicated thought: FREE MUMIA, unjustly accused of a crime he didn't commit. But opposition to the film isn't even an indictment of Mumia per se. Instead, it's indicative of a more complicated system of relationship between institutions. It can take into account everything from MOVE's weirdness to the overall precept of law and order. Were Shaq potentially taking a stand, albeit a reactionary one, it would make sense for him to account for it, and it would be the responsible thing to do—if political or social engagement by athletes is allowed to lean right as well as left, then the corollary of that must be engagement with the other side of the issue. It's also only fair to expect that of the progressive-minded athletes Zirin celebrates.

The problem here is that, as is so often the case with conservative positions, the (implicit) Shaq's (implicit) stance is hard to pin down. If the right can forever elude easy categorization—the moderate can easily morph into extremism and just as readily morph back into vague, commonsensical thinking—the left has a problem with being cast as single-minded and hard-line. That caricature is as much a question of perception and opposition spin as it is messaging. In Newark, though, we are seeing how readily the middle ground of open debate can be elided by employing this same formulation. When there's no clear actor and the motive is protean, Zirin's invitation can be answered with a shrug. Who would show up and with what? It's ideology hiding behind, if not actively employing, the excuse of bureaucracy. And it's the scariest kind of lopsided imaginable.

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