One summer day in 1968, Mumia Abu-Jamal took the Broad Street subway to a rally for independent presidential candidate George Wallace on Philadelphia's south side. He was 14, still known as Wesley Cook, a precocious black teenager from the projects of North Philadelphia off to protest.

But as he shouted "Black Power," he and three friends were set upon by a gang of white men, he says. He was hit in the groin and then on the head and when he called out to a police officer nearby for help, he says, the officer came over and kicked him in the face so savagely that later in the hospital his mother did not recognize her own son.

"We must have been insane," Abu-Jamal recalls in his recently published collection of essays. "Four lanky dark string beans in a potful of steaming white limas."

Mumia Abu-Jamal is now on death row, convicted of the 1981 murder of Daniel Faulkner, a white Philadelphia police officer, and he was to have been executed last Thursday. At the last minute, however, he received a stay, the result of an avalanche of support from writers, intellectuals and celebrities from around the world and a well-funded legal team that argued that key evidence surrounding his case was either ignored or suppressed. For some, Abu-Jamal is this summer's cause celebre, his dreadlocked profile a symbol of black martyrdom.

But the roots of the Abu-Jamal case -- and one of the reasons for the support he has attracted -- lie in the bitter racial conflicts that rocked Philadelphia in the late 1960s and 1970s. What happened on the morning of Dec. 9, 1981, when Abu-Jamal happened upon his brother, William Cook, in a violent struggle with Officer Faulkner was not an isolated incident but rather the last and most violent of a series of confrontations between Abu-Jamal and a police force that then had a reputation as one of the most brutal in the country.

Abu-Jamal was a member of the radical Black Panther Party in 1969 at a time when Philadelphia's police commissioner publicly called the Panthers "imbeciles, psychotics and yellow dogs." In one of the numerous raids police conducted on the Panthers in Philadelphia, Abu-Jamal says, an officer put a gun to his head and shouted: "Freeze, nigger. If you {expletive} blink, I'll blow your black goddamn head off your shoulders."

At the age of 15, Abu-Jamal was placed under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- with the help of the Philadelphia Police Department -- in the covert Cointelpro program. The FBI amassed a file on him that would run to 700 pages.

In 1973, the FBI tried to link him to the assassination of the white governor of Bermuda. In 1978 one of Abu-Jamal's close friends, Delbert Africa, was beaten senseless by Philadelphia police in open view of television cameras. Three years later, nine members of the radical back-to-nature sect MOVE, with which Abu-Jamal was closely aligned, were convicted of murdering a police officer. Abu-Jamal believed they were innocent. The trial, which he covered, left him emotionally shattered, convinced, in his own words, that "the law did not matter."

The history of Abu-Jamal's dealings with the Philadelphia police does not resolve, one way or the other, the controversy over his conviction. Those who insist on his guilt contend his repeated clashes with the law fueled in him a violent anger that tragically spilled over on that December night. Those who insist on his innocence, however, who say a second assailant shot and killed Daniel Faulkner, believe the police department's repeated clashes with Abu-Jamal led investigators to deliberately ignore and suppress evidence in his favor.

The police of Philadelphia knew about Abu-Jamal not just because they had a file on him but because as a journalist in the 1970s he made allegations of police brutality his specialty. Day after day he was on local radio, testifying to what he seen and learned, signing off in his distinctive baritone: "This is Mumia Abu-Jamal." In his book "Live from Death Row," Abu-Jamal describes walking past a police car on his way to work one day and coming face to face with the driver:

"He smiled, put his hand out the car window, and pointed a finger at me, his thumb cocked back like the hammer of a gun: bang -- bang -- bang -- the finger jerked, as if from recoil, and the cop gave it a cowboyish blast of breath before returning it to an imaginary holster."

But this feud was personal for Abu-Jamal as well. As he was led away to prison 13 years ago, after being condemned to death, he turned to the judge and flung a final threat across the courtroom: "You have just convicted yourself, and sentenced yourself to death," he shouted. "Judge, you have just sentenced yourself to die."

In 1968 Harvard University political scientist James Q. Wilson published his classic study of two kinds of police departments. The West Coast model was the "professional" department run along centralized, bureaucratic lines, with officers who were recruited on the basis of achievement and had few ethnic ties to the neighborhoods they patrolled. The East Coast "fraternal" police department, on the other hand, was "ethnically particular" and informally organized. Recruits were less educated, hired through ethnic connections and often assigned to the same areas where they were reared.

Fraternal officers, Wilson said, were more likely "to urge restrictive and punitive rather than therapeutic measures" in dealing with criminals, more prone to corruption and police brutality, and more reliant on the discretion -- and prejudices -- of individual officers. Wilson did not specify which cities best represented each paradigm. But Elijah Anderson, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, put it bluntly: "The ideal typical fraternal department is clearly Philadelphia."

In Philadelphia in the 1970s, the police department was dominated by Irish Americans and Italian Americans. According to Anderson, the department enforced the city's unwritten ethnic rules about "who stays in what neighborhood . . . leading to racial tensions and a kind of battle mentality between blacks and other groups."

Police officers shot an average of 75 people a year and civilian complaints ran to about 1,100 annually. Those few black police officers on the force filed a complaint in court in 1978 saying that they were being followed by plainclothesmen in unmarked cars. Officers found guilty of misconduct by the courts were retained without disciplinary action. Such was the climate that by 1979 the Justice Department, after a series of sensational hearings, filed a landmark lawsuit against then-Mayor -- and former police chief -- Frank Rizzo and 18 senior police officials charging them with a vast coverup of police brutality. The department's conduct toward minorities, the indictment read, "shocks the conscience."

This is the Philadelphia in which Abu-Jamal came of age. He was raised along with four brothers and a sister in the projects of North Philadelphia. Friends remember him as earnest and politically aware.

In the fall of 1968, after he was beaten at the Wallace rally, Abu-Jamal joined the Black Panthers. It was the first step in what would be a steady radicalization.

"You didn't have to read Mao to recognize back then that your circumstance {as a black male} was one of great difficulty," said Reggie Bryant, a longtime Philadelphia radio talk host who has known Abu-Jamal since he was a teenager. "You had a choice. You could become a thug, or you could find some way to escape. Mumia chose to be a revolutionary."

He changed his name from Wesley Cook to Mumia Abu-Jamal. He studied Third World politics at Vermont's Goddard College and then came back to Philadelphia to work at the student radio station at Temple University. By the mid-1970s, he was a full-time radio reporter, roaming the city on assignment for a number of stations. With his infant son in a pouch on his back, he covered the streets and housing projects, bringing with him his own particular political perspective.

"Let's say there was a shooting," said Linn Washington, a longtime friend and colleague of Abu-Jamal's. "Most of the reporters would be huddled around the cops. Mumia would go across the street talking to the people."

In 1977 he met up with MOVE, and his politics took a further step to the fringe. MOVE was a small sect whose adherents rejected all elements of modern society. They threw their refuse and excrement into the front yard of their compound as a form of recycling. Their children ran naked on the sidewalk. In late 1977, responding to neighborhood complaints, the Philadelphia police began an almost year-long siege of the compound. Food and supplies were eventually cut off and on Aug. 7, 1978, a gun battle erupted between MOVE followers and surrounding police. One officer was killed. In response, Delbert Africa was beaten into submission and nine MOVE members charged with murder. Abu-Jamal became their champion.

"He was radicalized by the events of August 7, 1978," said Washington. "He saw the unprovoked beating of Delbert Africa. And he saw that after that nothing happened."

In the manner of MOVE members, Abu-Jamal began to wear his hair in distinctive dreadlocks. By the time of his own trial four years later, he would repeatedly request that the MOVE founder -- John Africa -- be allowed to serve as his legal adviser.

During the 1970s Abu-Jamal was under almost constant surveillance both by the FBI and the Philadelphia police, which had a full-time civil disobedience unit with 18,000 suspected dissidents on file.

In 1970, when Abu-Jamal flew to San Francisco at the age of 16 to work for the Black Panthers in Oakland, the FBI ordered a special search of his luggage, hoping to find a gun. They found nothing. In 1972, the Philadelphia police arrested him on a weapons charge after he was found carrying an X-Acto knife. The charges were later dropped. In 1973, the FBI conducted a fruitless investigation of whether Abu-Jamal was linked to the assassination of the Bermuda governor, Sir Richard Sharples, apparently because a number of black Bermudian extremists had visited Goddard College while Abu-Jamal was a student there. Long after he left the Panthers, he was followed, his movements noted and everyone from his mother to his high school principal interviewed.

The animosity between Frank Rizzo's police department and Abu-Jamal and other black activists became highly personal. When the Black Panthers were at their height, Rizzo made them a kind of public challenge, as if the police and the Panthers were combatants on a playground.

"We'd be glad to meet them on their own terms," Rizzo said. "Just let them tell us when and where."

In 1970, after the Panthers declared war on police officers nationwide and called for a "revolutionary people's convention" to be held in Philadelphia, Rizzo raided the party's local headquarters. After confiscating shotguns, rifles and pistols, police herded the Panthers outside and ordered them to strip naked while their pictures were taken by news photographers.

Abu-Jamal in interviews describes the 1981 MOVE trial, in which all nine members were sentenced to life imprisonment, as a kind of personal breaking point. He speaks of that period -- which took place just months before the Faulkner killing -- as if the strain of more than a decade of harassment had finally become too much.

"It is impossible for me to describe my feelings at that time," he said in a jailhouse interview in 1989. "When I saw that kind of gross injustice, it rankled me to the core."

In one of his commentaries in "Live from Death Row," Abu-Jamal writes with great sympathy of another embattled American radical, a man for whom he clearly feels a kind of kinship: David Koresh of the Branch Davidians.

At 4 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1981, while moonlighting as a cab driver, Mumia Abu-Jamal saw his brother struggling with Faulkner on a street corner in Philadelphia's red-light district. He ran to his brother's aid with his licensed .38-caliber revolver in his hand. When police arrived minutes later, they found Faulkner lying fatally wounded on the sidewalk, Abu-Jamal sitting on the curb with a gunshot wound to the chest, and Cook spread-eagled against a nearby wall.

The jury that heard the case and the appeals courts that confirmed the murder conviction concluded that Abu-Jamal shot Faulkner twice, once from 10 feet away and once in the head at close range, and that between the first and second shots Faulkner fired and hit Abu-Jamal. There is multiple eyewitness testimony to support this account, plus physical evidence showing Abu-Jamal's gun had been fired five times.

Abu-Jamal's supporters contend Faulkner shot Abu-Jamal while a second assailant -- a man allegedly seen running away by some eyewitnesses -- shot Faulkner, and that the Philadelphia police then contrived to pin the crime on Abu-Jamal.

The two versions have been argued back and forth in the news media over the past few months. But beyond the verdict lies another question, one that has less to do with what happened that morning than with the 13 years leading up to it: In the long confrontation that began at a rally for George Wallace in South Philadelphia, who broke first? Was it the police? Or was it Mumia Abu-Jamal? CAPTION: As a youth, Mumia Abu-Jamal says, he was beaten by police at a George Wallace rally. CAPTION: Death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal was a Black Panther and journalist who often reported on police brutality in Philadelphia.