Save Mumia Abu-Jamal

Against the Current, No. 58, September/October 1995

The Editors

THE LIFE OF Mumia Abu-Jamal hung in the balance as this issue of Against the Current is in preparation (mid-July 1995). At the beginning of June, governor Thomas Ridge signed the death warrant for this African-American journalist and revolutionary activist, setting the date of execution for August 17. Ten days prior to his scheduled dath by lethal injection, Mumia received a stay; pending exhaustion of all his appeals. Such a stay, of course, should have been automatic—but in fact it was a tremendous victory won by immense international pressure and outrage over the case.

Until recently in this year of super-saturation O.J. coverage, the very existence of Mumia Abu-Jamal was virtually buried by the mass media–just as Mumia himself has been virtually entombed on Death Row since 1982. The basic facts on his frameup and conviction in the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia policeman could be found only in the publications of the radical left and the newsletters of those groups which, to their immense credit, have worked tirelessly on the case–notably the Committee to Save Mumia Abu-Jamal, Partisan Defense Committee and Equal Justice USA, and of course Mumia’s own family.

At this point the main facts have become better known, at least to readers of the broad liberal-left as well as the African-American press, and most of our readers will have some familiarity with them: that Abu-Jamal as a teenager had been active in the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panthers and targeted for surveillance by the police and FBI; that he was an award-winning Black journalist who lost a job because of his sympathetic coverage of the MOVE organization; that he was moonlighting as a cab driver when, on December 9, 1981 he saw police beating a man on the street and recognized the victim as his brother; that when he intervened a fight ensued, in which Mumia himself was shot and severely beaten by police while police officer Daniel Faulkner was fatally shot–apparently, according to some witnesses who never testified at trial, by a man in a crowd who ran from the scene.

Mumia’s trial, before the notorious hanging judge Albert Sabo, was an unusual travesty even by the usual standards of the class-based and racist U.S. justice system. Effectively deprived of legal representation and with important evidence suppressed, Mumia was convicted, and then sentenced to death when Sabo allowed the prosecution to question him on his political beliefs. (An excellent concise summary of key facts and trial irregularities is E.L. Doctorow’s op-ed essay “From Here to Death Row,” New York Times, July 14, A25. For a thorough account of the trial, see the June 30 issue of Workers Vanguard.)

The system intended to “disappear” Mumia into the living hell of Pennsylvania’s Death Row, but he refused to vanish. Instead, his series of columns and a newly published volume, Live From Death Row (Addison-Wesley)–the publication of which has enraged prison and police authorities who wish to silence as well as to kill him–have chronicled life on Death Row and exposed its role in the physical and emotional destruction of humanity. The cowardly corporate liberals of National Public Radio, who contracted with Mumia to broadcast a series of these commentaries on Death Row, cancelled them when the Fraternal Order of Police in Philadelphia applied pressure as part of its aggressive campaign for Mumia’s death. (See ATC 52, Sept.-Oct. 1994.)

Prisons and American Apartheid

Mumia’s writings have touched upon the role of the prison system in the process of social disintegration. In many parts of the United States, prison construction is the leading, if not the only, growth industry. Indeed, the expansion of a prison-industrial complex into new lines of production; the revival of chain gangs; the reversion to a totalitarian system of prison control, made worse by the application of the latest technology; the wiping out of opportunities for prisoner education; and of course the manic drive for privatization of prisons along with other government “services”–all these and other daily atrocities are logical byproducts of a political economy in which tens of millions of people are defined as superfluous.

The weakening of trade unionism makes it more and more difficult to stop the expansion of prison labor, which pays maquiladora wages right in the American heartland. The political weakness and crisis of perspective within the civil rights leadership leaves prisoners with less and less voice. Mumia Abu-Jamal is such a voice.

Central to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s own struggle are two crucial issues. The first, obviously, is the system’s intention to kill him as a form of revenge on the entire Black Liberation Movement. The crime that the institutions of capitalist “justice” cannot forgive is that of organizing a potentially revolutionary African-American resistance. That is why Black revolutionaries, when the police and the courts have been able to lay hands on them, paid the highest price–murdered as in the case of Fred Hampton and several dozen other Panthers, buried alive in prison after frameup convictions as in the case of Geronimo Pratt–as a warning to any who might be inspired to follow in their footsteps.

Black America today confronts permanent structural unemployment of around 25%, a “war on drugs” that produces massive incarceration rates of young African-American males, and now a full-scale rollback of the very modest gains produced by affirmative action and by measures that sought to assure Black political representation. While this massive process of human destruction proceeds, conventional political discourse has virtually reduced the Black community to a metaphor for social pathology.

The system can tolerate, if necessary, the enormous homicide rate among Black men, the abandonment of whole cities and even occasional spontaneous rebellions; it can accept and ultimately profitably incorporate all kinds of cultural forms, from movies on the safely dead Malcolm X all the way down to the most degraded gangsta rap (much of which is now even written by white recording industry executives). It cannot accept, however, the possibility of a new young generation of revolutionary African American leaders.

The second issue is of course the death penalty itself. Far more important than the philosophical debates about its morality is the hardly accidental fact that the escalation in death warrants and executions coincides with the ascendance of the right wing and the assault on civil rights, on labor, on women and especially on Black America. The death penalty, with its inherent arbitrariness of application and its racist and class-biased qualities, is the simple corollary of today’s politics.

Is it surprising that South Africa has abandoned the death penalty along with apartheid–while the United States as it descends into a form of social and racial apartheid, more veiled by legal formalities of “equal rights” and thus in many respects more hypocritical than the South African model, is executing more and more prisoners by the month?

During the period when Mumia’s legal team is seeking a new trial, a stay of execution should be routinely granted. Yet it is not automatic, particularly in the current political climate and especially in the court of Judge Sabo. In an interview broadcast July 23 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Mumia’s attorney Leonard Weinglass indicated that the realistic hope for a stay and a new trial lies in the appeals or federal courts.

As of the first week in August, it appears that the tactic of Judge Sabo–coming out of retirement to hear the petition for a stay of execution and a new trial due to his own judicial bias in the first one–will drag out the proceedings as long as possible before ruling against Mumia, leaving the least possible time for the defense to take the case into state appellate and federal courts. Is it conceivable that a prisoner railroaded to Death Row in a caricature of a trial could now be killed before appeals can be filed, let alone heard?

It was possible—until Sabo himself recognized (or was instructed) that international publicity would make the cost of rushing the execution too high. Winning the stay opens up opportunities to build a broad, powerful campaign for a new trial and for Mumia’s freedom.

Yet the very fact that an August 17 execution remains possible for Mumia Abu-Jamal is the most telling indictment of this system and the death penalty–a political lynching, a sadistic act of revenge against African Americans, an atrocity beyond words.

ATC 58, September-October 1995