Movement Grows to Save Mumia Abu-Jamal

Against the Current, No. 79, March/April 1999

Steve Bloom

IN OCTOBER, MUMIA Abu-Jamal-Black activist and award-winning journalist who has been on Pennsylvania’s death row since 1982–had his appeal for a new trial turned down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (see ATC 78).

Since that time a showdown around this case has been shaping up between right-wing forces who want to drive ahead with more executions and greater restrictions on legal appeals and civil liberties, and those here and around the world who are committed to human rights, elementary justice, and an end to the death penalty.

If we cannot stop the State of Pennsylvania from following through on its campaign to legally murder Mumia, he would become the first U.S. political prisoner executed in over forty-five years -since the Rosenbergs in 1953.

Oakland and New Jersey

Two events illustrate just how high the stakes have become.  The first took place January 14 in Oakland, California where the teachers union set aside a day from regular classes in order to organize a discussion in the city’s classrooms about all the issues in Mumia’s case.

Originally the proposal to have such a teach-in was adopted by an overwhelming vote of both the union’s Executive Board and its Representative Council, and the plan was given support from school authorities.  But a few days before it was to occur, a police officer in Oakland was shot to death after a freeway chase.

This provided a pretext for opponents to bring substantial pressure to cancel the event.  The Representative Council voted again, and affirmed the plan-though by a much closer margin than originally-and the teach in went ahead.  As a result of the controversy, more than as a result of the plan for a teach-in, Mumia’s name and picture were daily fare in the Oakland papers, on TV and radio.

Two weeks later, on January 28, Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys and other popular bands put on a benefit concert for Mumia at New Jersey’s Continental Airlines Arena (Meadowlands).  Tickets sold out the day they went on sale.

This, too, became a cause celebr.  Politicians and the media soon began demanding that the event be canceled.  “Benefit Concert for Cop-killer Angers Officials” was one of the milder headlines (front-page in the Newark Star-Ledger).

Steve Dunleavy of the NY Post titled his column, “Concert Benefits a Cop-killing Vermin.” Nationally-syndicated radio “shock jock” Howard Stern attacked Mumia and the concert.

Police protested against having to provide security and threatened to picket.  NJ Governor Christine Whitman called on young people to return their tickets in protest.  (The bands agreed to provide refunds for anyone who asked, but only around 500 individuals took up their offer-out of tens of thousands sold.)

The frenzy surrounding these two events indicates how important Mumia’s execution has become to at least a substantial segment of ruling circles in the United States of America.  But the main effect of actions like these by police organizations and conservative politicians is to shine on this case a spotlight of publicity, which the movement to win justice for Mumia would not otherwise have achieved on its own.

As a result, tens of thousands of people who had previously never even heard the name of Mumia Abu-Jamal now know about the issues involved and certainly not all of them, perhaps not even most, will believe the frame-up rhetoric about a “convicted cop-killer.”

They will understand that something deeper must be involved if so many people care enough to organize in support of Mumia’s appeal.

The Appeal to Justice

The morning after the Meadowlands concert this correspondent heard a number of broadcasts on WINS news radio, which advertises itself as “the most listened-to station in the nation.”

Like most of the coverage from most of the media, WINS stressed that the overwhelming majority of the young people in attendance at the Meadowlands event had not known who Mumia Abu-Jamal was, nor for what cause their ticket money was being used. But it is clear that the concert-and the controversy surrounding it-started at least some thinking.

In one segment a band member was quoted, speaking from the stage, explaining that the concert was not to support cop-killers or any other kind of killer, but to assist in winning a new trial for a person who may have been wrongly convicted.  In another the reporter told of one concert-goer who said he did not know much about the case, but he had picked up literature and promised to find out.

Meanwhile, Mumia’s cause continues to generate substantial international protests.  On December 16th a delegation visited the European Parliament.  It included: Angela Davis-Critical Resistance Movement; Ramona and Sue Africa -MOVE/International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal; Bobby Castillo-Leonard Peltier Defense Committee/American Indian Movement; Sam Jordan-Amnesty USA, Director for the Campaign Against the Death Penalty; Leonard Weinglass-main counsel for Mumia Abu-Jamal; Professor Raymond Winbush-Fisk University Race Relations Institute; and Julia Wright-International Concerned Family and Friends for Mumia Abu-Jamal/France.

They spoke to the body about the racist nature of the criminal justice system in the U.S. and specifically about Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier.  The next day the Parliament, by a large majority, adopted a resolution condemning the death penalty in the United States and the lack of justice in these cases (see page 4).

April 24 and Beyond

Organizing efforts continue for the April 24 “Millions for Mumia” demonstrations in Philadelphia, San Francisco and cities around the world.

On January 23 in New York, a special national leadership conference took place to develop strategy and think through the next steps in Mumia’s defense.  There were representatives present from a broad range of political, religious and Black organizations, groups defending political prisoners or opposing the death penalty, plus most of the key individuals who have been working around this defense effort.

The meeting was hosted at Columbia University by Manning Marable, who made introductory remarks.  Despite its diversity the conference reflected considerable unity in strategic perspectives.

Everyone who spoke from the podium sounded a similar theme: We must build a broader and more inclusive movement, one which reaches out to the American mainstream.  We must put aside old divisions and work together in the struggle to save Mumia’s life.

The goals projected for the April 24 mobilization also clearly reflect this approach.  Two major organizing slogans have been adopted as the basis for unity: “Stop the Execution,” and “Demand a New Trial.”

The goal is to mobilize everyone who can support this call. Many at the NY meeting, of course, continue to believe that Mumia was the victim of a police frame-up and should be released unconditionally.  But more than one participant commented that the best way to achieve freedom for Mumia will be to build the broadest possible movement around the demand for a new trial.

A number of proposals for continuing activity were adopted, including plans for campus teach-ins to debunk the scandalous segment done by ABC’s television show “20/20” on Mumia’s case, and to stimulate debate.

The first of these will be at Smith College in Massachusetts, and that event is projected as a model which can then be duplicated on other campuses.  It was also clear from the reports on January 23 that a significant number of people are working to expand outreach to labor.

There are two upcoming regional conferences: a West Coast conference at the University of California, Berkeley on March 6 and one in Chicago on March 20, at Harold Washington City College.

The next focus for activity after April 24 will be local and regional events all across the country during the week of September 19-25.

On the Legal Front

Reporting to the January 23 meeting, Mumia’s lead attorney Leonard Weinglass reported that it now seems the timetable for appeals will extend at least until the end of 1999 or the beginning of 2000, even if every decision at every level of the federal courts is unfavorable.

Thus the September dates will represent a crucial period for continuing to put public pressure on the judges and politicians.  Indeed, it seems as if Pennsylvania Governor Ridge himself may actually be feeling the pressure.

When Mumia’s case was before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ridge vowed to sign a new death warrant immediately after that court turned down his appeal.  As of this writing, however, he has still not done so. It now appears he will probably not take this step before the case goes to the federal courts.

Finally, opening another legal front, the NY Committee to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal has launched a petition addressed to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, demanding a full federal civil rights investigation into the case. Copies of this petition can be obtained by writing to the coalition at P.O. Box 650, NY, NY 10009 or calling (212) 330-8029.

Steve Bloom is a member of SOLIDARITY’S Prison Issues Working Group.

ATC 79, March-April 1999