Largest Outpouring Ever for Mumia

Against the Current, No. 81, July/August 1999

Steve Bloom

THE APRIL 24 “Millions for Mumia” demonstrations in Philadelphia and San Francisco represented, by far, the largest public outpouring around the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.  Crowd estimates varied, naturally.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reported 10,000, with many observers also saying 10,000-15,000.  But others, including march organizers, were citing figures in the 25,000-30,000 range.  All who attended both this year’s demonstration in Philadelphia and the 1995 national action-after the first death warrant was signed, previously the biggest mobilization-declared that there were more participants this time.

The San Francisco march of 10-20,000 was headed by a contingent from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which had organized a one-day work stoppage along the entire West Coast in support Mumia’s appeal for a new trial-the first time in ILWU history that the union closed the ports for a social cause.

Demonstrations also took place in cities around the world, including: Toronto, Ontario; Vancouver, British Columbia; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Barcelona, Spain; Berlin, Karlsruhe, and Stuttgart, Germany; Cork and Dublin, Ireland; Lisbon, Portugal; Lucerne, Switzerland; Oslo, Norway; Vienna, Austria; Zurich, Switzerland; and Melbourne, Australia.

The Philadelphia action was overwhelmingly youthful, with contingents coming from scores of college campuses around the country and many high school students.  It was also extremely interracial, an unusual feature for any U.S. action.  There were labor contingents from SEIU, AFSCME, UE and the postal unions.  Thus April 24 provides many positive elements that the Mumia movement can build on as the battle to stop his execution and win a new trial heats up in the next few months.

The Appeals Process

The day before the demonstration, Mumia’s lawyers filed papers with the U.S. Supreme Court.  This writ of certiori is a request for the nation’s highest court to take jurisdiction in this case, bypassing the appeals process in the lower federal courts.  The overwhelming majority of such requests are denied, however, and it is expected that the Supreme Court will refuse to take up Mumia’s appeal as well.

Mumia’s case will then proceed through more normal channels, starting with the Federal District Court in Philadelphia.  His attorneys would like that court to hold a full evidentiary hearing, an independent review of the facts of the case and of the original trial.  But there is no guarantee that this will happen.  It depends on the inclinations of the appellate judge to whom the case is assigned.

Before Congress passed the “Effective Death Penalty Act” of 1996, it was routine for the federal appeals process to include such a hearing, and thirty-eight percent of all state death penalty cases were overturned as a result.

The 1996 law, however, mandates federal judges not to undertake an independent review of a case like Mumia’s, but to accept all determinations of fact as they were established in the state courts, along with all judicial rulings that cannot be declared “unreasonably wrong.” In effect, this law attempts to repeal the right (guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution) of habeus corpus-that is, for an independent federal judicial review of the legal evidence against any prisoner.  For that reason there is considerable doubt about its constitutionality.

Nevertheless, federal judges have responded unevenly, some going by the letter of the 1996 statute and others rejecting Congress’ right to dictate to the judiciary in this way.  The Supreme Court has not ruled on the matter.  The approach taken by the judge who gets Mumia’s appeal is one of the most important factors that will determine how the legal process unfolds from that point onward.

Expanding the Movement

All of this underlines the importance of maintaining, and expanding, the campaign of public protest.  We cannot rely on the legal appeals alone to win justice in this case.  And we have to acknowledge that despite the success of April 24, the demonstrations still did not mobilize the numbers that we need to guarantee that the judges and politicians will be forced to take notice.  We should strive to make our mobilizations so massive that government officials will accommodate to the demand for justice in Mumia’s case.

Problems in Tapping the Potential

What’s more, in the judgment of this author (and many others), our efforts on April 24 did not tap the real potential for this movement that presently exists.  There are a number of reasons why this did not happen.

For one thing we were unable, after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision turning down Mumia’s appeal in October, to maintain the sense of emergency among broad layers of activists which existed immediately after that ruling.  Clearly-to cite an extreme example-if Governor Ridge had signed a new death warrant and we were facing an imminent execution, much larger numbers would have been spurred to help organize around and attend April 24.

In addition, some people certainly stayed away because of a fear that there would be a confrontation with the Philadelphia police.  The city administration worked hard to help generate this anxiety in the weeks before the action, with its effort to deny the right to hold a mass march.  Someone was even spreading reports about civil disobedience that was supposed to take place, even though there was no call for this in the official literature, and no plans along those lines by the march organizers.

While sentiment around this case is widespread, the active organizing does not reflect the same breadth of sentiment.  Many, even those who are leading efforts around related issues (such as police brutality or the death penalty), have failed to raise a voice in support of Mumia, let alone actively attempt to mobilize their constituencies for protest actions.  Given the tremendous pressure around this case from forces like the Fraternal Order of Police, and the hue and cry in the mass media against those who support “a convicted cop-killer,” many seem to fear that getting involved might discredit their efforts to win other reforms of the criminal injustice system.

But to some extent the style of a demonstration like the one that took place in Philadelphia on April 24 is also a problem.  During the evaluation of the day’s activities at a meeting of the New York Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition, a number of people pointed out that the speakers platform did not reflect the breadth of the movement we are attempting to build.  Indeed, despite the fact that the formal call for the demonstration was issued around two demands-“Stop the Execution” and “Demand a New Trial” (with a specific goal of broadening the base of those who would be willing to participate)-no one attending the action would have known this from listening to the speakers or reading the official signs and banners.

Rather, the theme that came across, with only a few exceptions, was much more along the lines of “Stop the Execution! Start the Revolution!” And there’s simply a limit to how many people in the United States will come out to a demonstration that projects overturning the system as the means to win justice for Mumia, or as the logical consequence of doing so.

If the movement is able to overcome these weaknesses, the potential for organizing and mobilizing around Mumia’s case during the coming months-while the appeal is working its way through the federal courts-could expand dramatically.

Everyone must respect the positive leadership that the main defense committee-International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, functioning in collaboration with Mumia himself-brings to this process.  It is because of the tireless work of these dedicated individuals that Mumia’s case has become an international cause.  It is incumbent on every activist for justice and human rights to do everything we can in the next weeks and months to support this defense campaign.

In early June Pam Africa, after visiting Mumia, reported that his health has deteriorated.  His grotesquely deformed ankles and shins may be a sign of diabetes, heart problem or even gangrene.  Call or fax Martin F. Horn, Secretary Commissioner of the PA Dept. of Corrections and demand that Mumia receive immediate outside medical attention: 717-975-4859 (phone), 717-787-1758 (fax).  Also contact PA Governor Tom Ridge: 717-787-2500 (phone), 717-783-4429 (fax).

Steve Bloom is active in the New York Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition and author of Solidarity’s pamphlet, Fighting for Justice.

ATC 81, July-August 1999