This article originally appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 59 (Summer 1999).
The struggle to free Mumia Abu-Jamal is moving into its final stretch. To the racist capitalist state this Black political prisoner, a well-known fighter against racism, police brutality and other injustices, is a key enemy who must be destroyed. Incarcerated following his false conviction for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1982, Mumia has retained his steadfast opposition to the system in general and the racist anti-worker police in particular.
As a radical journalist, his exposure of the racist Philadelphia police was the main reason he was targeted for a frame-up. Despite 17 years on death row, a treatment including a 23-hour-a-day lockdown from Monday to Friday and a complete lockdown on weekends, Mumia has continued to speak out on every police atrocity -- from Amadou Diallo to Tyisha Miller -- and on many other issues.
No wonder the capitalist class recognizes Mumia not only as a militant Black but as a class enemy. No wonder the Fraternal Order of the Police and all their ruling-class friends in high places have organized a fund-raising and media assault on Mumia and his supporters that is unprecedented in recent times. This attack has even escalated: in April, the Philadelphia Inquirer carried out a media campaign composed of false allegations and innuendo designed to severely hamper fundraising by the Black United Fund, which handles donations for Mumia’s defense. The authorities have refused to allow Mumia urgently needed medical attention.
At the April 24 rally for Mumia in San Francisco, actor Ed Asner said: “Not since the Scottsboro Boys, not since the Rosenbergs, have we had such a nationwide controversy as exists over Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death row incarceration.”
Yes, just as with Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920’s, the Scottsboro Boys in the ’30’s and the Rosenbergs in the ’50’s, this is an historic case in which the ruling class is politically conscious of the need to railroad its victims by any means necessary. The difference is that the American working class, which was mobilized in great numbers around Sacco and Vanzetti and the Scottsboro Boys, is not conscious of what is at stake now.
The capitalists and their armed thugs want to show Blacks and the working class that radical opposition won’t be tolerated. This reality has turned Mumia into a living symbol of the fight against the murderous capitalist police. If a movement can win his freedom despite all the forces ranged against him, that would be a serious blow against police brutality as well as the death penalty. It will be a huge step in the struggle to free all political prisoners. And it would encourage the working class to make a bolder fight against all the attacks coming down from bosses, politicians and police.
In April, Mumia’s lawyers filed a writ of certiorari before the U.S. Supreme Court, focusing on Mumia’s exclusion from the courtroom during his original trial and his lack of adequate legal representation at that time. A denial of this writ is expected in the fall. Lead attorney Leonard Weinglass said, “We could be looking at a very dangerous situation at the end of 1999 or early 2000.” (For more information, check the web site www.freemumia.org.)
Also ominous are two recent Supreme Court decisions on other death penalty cases. One, Jones v. U.S., reviewed the sentencing provisions of the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 for the first time, holding that jurors in death penalty cases do not have to be instructed clearly about the consequences of their failing to choose between life imprisonment or death. More relevant to Mumia, Strickler v. Greene upheld a lower court ruling that the state of Virginia was not negligent for concealing exculpatory evidence in a death penalty case. The Court held that even if the evidence had been disclosed, the outcome probably wouldn’t have changed.
This article will focus on major questions facing activists fighting for Mumia’s freedom, a discussion we began in our last issue.
According to virtually everyone who has any sense of “justice” American-style, including Mumia’s lawyers and defense organizations, mass mobilization is the absolute key to victory. A stay of execution was won in 1995 in large part because of national and international mobilizations for Mumia. A lower level of mobilization continued in subsequent years until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling last October, which rejected Mumia’s final state appeal. At that point a high gear effort went into effect.
The April 24 “Millions for Mumia” marches in Philadelphia and San Francisco were built as the centerpiece demonstrations of 1999. With parallel demonstrations in many cities internationally, these were the culmination of months of effort on the part of the central defense committee for Mumia, the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal (ICFF-MAJ), as well as local coalitions and committees in an expanding number of cities. As a whole, the effort was fueled overwhelmingly by left organizations and resulted in demos reported as 20,000 in Philadelphia and 15,000 in San Francisco.
There were also some labor protests which, however limited, were impressive because they happened in an overwhelming climate of labor inaction. On the West Coast, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) reportedly declared a “stop-work” for Mumia on the day shift on April 24. While this activity fell short of strike action, combined with the participation of workers at the San Francisco rally it was still an inspiring step forward. (As well, Brazilian teachers in the state of Rio de Janeiro declared one hour stop-work meetings on April 23 related to Mumia.)
Nevertheless, it has to be said that the overall success of the campaign has been limited so far. The April Philadelphia rally was supposed to have a momentous effect. While the protest reached numbers well above previous Philly rallies for Mumia, it remained far short of what is needed to halt his execution. It attracted many white anarchist-minded youth, but other youth, particularly from the working-class, were not evident. While more Blacks participated than at previous events, there were still many layers of Blacks and Latinos, and workers in general, not involved.
The protests for Mumia in Philly over the weekend of July 4 drew only a few hundred people -- not good as a test of the strength of the movement in the wake of April 24.
Our point is not to downgrade the effort made but to look at it soberly in relation to the tasks ahead. The LRP has participated energetically in the defense work, joining the local coalitions in New York and Chicago. (See the COFI/LRP report in this issue for more details.) But the Mumia campaign cannot grow exponentially based on word of mouth alone. A more massive action for Mumia requires the forces of the trade unions and other major organizations to be mobilized in a way that hasn’t yet happened.
Here is one concrete example of the problem. Through efforts of the Workers to Free Mumia Committee in New York, which the LRP was participating in, a motion was passed overwhelmingly in two citywide hospital workers’ union (1199) delegate assemblies last winter to demand a mass mobilization of union forces for Mumia:
The 1199 Delegates Council reaffirms support for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal and encourages all union members, families and friends to attend the Millions for Mumia rally on April 24 in Philadelphia and the mass meeting on February 26 at New York’s Town Hall.
The Council recommends the following measures to the 1199 Executive Council:
- To publicize these events to the members through the magazine, printed notices, phone-banking and at delegate and chapter meetings, and to orient the organizers to help mobilize member participation.
- To subsidize bus transportation to Philadelphia for members and family who wish to attend the rally.
- To assign a full-time staff member to coordinate the union’s participation in these events.
The problem is that 1199 paid for buses and took credit for them -- but despite this motion, few 1199ers made the trip. President Dennis Rivera didn’t use the power of his position to convince members to turn out, as he does when he wants to. It was left up to a few individual activists to sign people up for the buses.
What could have been done? At the rally against police brutality in New York on April 15, neither Rivera nor Al Sharpton, another nominal supporter of Mumia, even mentioned Mumia or the April 24 mobilization -- even though the Mumia protest was just a few days away and the issues are so clearly linked! No literature about Mumia distributed by 1199 or Sharpton’s National Action Network. A vigorous call by Rivera, Sharpton or other influential leaders could have grabbed the attention of the ranks of working-class participants against police brutality.
The LRP and some other leftists there did of course have Mumia literature. But neither we nor even larger left groups can have the same effect as union or other leaders who lead big numbers of working people. That is why it is important to place demands on them.
Alleged progressives like Sharpton and Rivera cannot be expected to respond energetically to Mumia’s case unless they are forced to. Yearning for mainstream respectability, the last thing they want is to be closely associated with a Black militant who is supposedly a “cop killer,” no matter that he is innocent of the charge. While the forces of racism and reaction go all out to polarize support for the Fraternal Order of Police by painting Mumia as the devilish enemy of law and order, Sharpton, Jackson, Rivera and others who claim to support his case refrain from really trying to galvanize forces by telling it like it is.
History has shown that when pro-capitalist leaders -- liberal politicians or union heads -- have mobilized masses, it is in response to pressure from an existing movement of the working class. There has not yet been a major resurgence of class struggle in this country. This factor, not the presence or lack of clever organizing tricks, is fundamentally responsible for producing a mass mobilization or not. Working-class upheavals have rocked countries from South Korea to Indonesia, driven by the international economic crisis; the U.S. will not remain immune. But recognizing the political scene, the question is what can be done now.
Despite the small size of left forces at the moment, the layer of activists around the Mumia case -- in the unions, the anti-police brutality movement, the civil rights organizations, etc. -- is not an insignificant force. Even in the absence of a big class struggle scene in the U.S., if more pressure was exerted within these organizations -- particularly by the committed cadre of leftist and Black nationalist groups -- concrete action could be the result. Such interventions would also have the effect of weakening the grip of the current misleaders over the workers’ movement, an important aspect of the struggle to build the kind of big fightback that could change the overall political scene.
Pressure on popular leaders who could mobilize masses is more necessary than ever now. As a small group, the LRP will continue to do what we can. But we urge other organizations to also carry out such an effort.
Unfortunately, most of the activist forces do not agree with this strategy. On January 23, an invitation-only “Emergency Leadership Summit Meeting” was held in New York. Hosted by Manning Marable of the Committees of Correspondence, the meeting selected an official leadership for April 24 and other national actions, including July 4 in Philly and mobilizations in multiple cities the week of September 25. The national coordinating committee consists of Pam Africa of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Herman Ferguson of the New Afrikan Liberation Front (co-chair of the Free Mumia Coalition in New York), Clark Kissinger of Refuse & Resist and the Revolutionary Communist Party, Monica Moorehead of the National Peoples’ Campaign and the Workers World Party, Joan Parkin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the ISO, Jeff Mackler of Socialist Action, Mark Taylor of Academics for Mumia and Steve Wiser of the Bruderhof communities.
According to the published web site report, the leadership agreed that a “broader” movement was necessary to stop Mumia’s execution and win his freedom. But what precisely did this mean? In order to achieve broadness, it was decided to make “Stop the Execution” and “For a New Trial Now” the only official demands for April 24, leaving out “Free Mumia” and “Abolish the Death Penalty.” The stated intent of the decision was to expand support beyond opponents of the death penalty or people convinced that Mumia should be free.
We support the official demands as well as a number of others. But the real question in dispute was strategy. This decision was an attempt to broaden the movement in a particular direction, and not a radical one. Some claim that the aim was to build more working-class participation, since the less radical demands can appeal not only to conservative union leaders and preachers but also to masses of conservative workers. But such workers will not be the next layers galvanized for Mumia in any case.
Many Black and Latino working-class people have turned out for demonstrations against police brutality. While the bulk of protestors do not yet see themselves as radicals or revolutionaries, clearly these protestors, the youth especially, would not have problems with slogans to free Mumia and to end the death penalty. Orienting to these layers of the working class is what the LRP has been arguing for. As we noted in PR 58:
Our class is far more than the small unionized fraction of the workforce: it includes the employed, the unemployed and youth. ... Over the past few years, time and again Black and Latino workers and working-class youth have poured into the streets in outrage against racist atrocities. ... Revolutionaries would pose Mumia’s defense as a way for everyone who opposes police brutality to come together across the country in a mass protest.
But the emergency summit decision attempted to gear the campaign to the leadership of mainstream organizations (from the Democratic Party to Amnesty International and even “progressive” union leaders). Such leaders, it was hoped, could be seduced into playing a bigger role for Mumia if concessions on the official demands were made. As it turned out, some (but not all) of these organizations did play a role -- but only from the podium.
Sam Jordan of Amnesty International spoke at Mumia conferences and on April 24. Yet no one challenged him over why his organization refuses to defend Mumia as a political prisoner (Amnesty supports him only as a potential victim of the death penalty). More critically, organizations like Amnesty International are paper groups; their endorsement is useful but they can hardly build a movement of fighters. It is correct to include them in the campaign, but to orient or depend on them is a mistaken strategy.
Democratic Party figures like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton failed to show up, as usual. The union contingents in Philadelphia were quite small, and although there certainly were other workers at the demo, they hadn’t been organized to come as workers. Neither union representatives nor rank and file workers of any type spoke from the platform as part of the working class.
The official decision did not, it turned out, dictate that organizations were required to limit their literature to the two official slogans -- although a number of left representatives, like Steve Bloom of Solidarity in New York and Joan Parkin of the ISO in Chicago, tried unsuccessfully and opportunistically to push that notion after the Summit meeting.
Further, anyone at Mumia Coalition meetings or conferences in various cities or the April 24 demos could see that Free Mumia, Stop Police Brutality, Abolish the Racist Death Penalty and even calls for revolution predominated on banners and placards. These are clearly views that galvanize demonstrators for Mumia, whether they are members of left organizations or not.
A number of left organizations who have taken a leading role in the campaign abstain from challenging mass leaders who fail to mobilize masses. In our previous issue we criticized the views of Jeff Mackler of Socialist Action. Here we note the opinion of another campaign leader, Clark Kissinger of the RCP. Right before April 24, Kissinger wrote:
We must soberly assess that we are still not at the level where the government feels that it would be simply too dangerous for it to proceed with its vicious plan to execute Mumia. So we have to think about what it really means to “take the struggle to a whole new level.” (Revolutionary Worker, April 25.)
A promising start. But after the event, Kissinger repeated his question -- and gave only the pretense of an answer.
We face a real challenge: how to get things to a level -- a higher level -- where we can actually compel the political establishment to back off their murderous plot. ... To go to that higher level, we have to assess both our real strengths and achievements, as well as our weakness. (Revolutionary Worker, June 20.)
What followed was an uncritical review of the April 24 event, including overstatements such as “The power structure must reckon with the fact that Mumia has inspired a whole generation,” and “The turnout from Philly’s Black community marked an extremely important development.” (The latter assertion is simply not true.)
As well, Kissinger points to the need for more “defiant” action, but misjudges the evidence:
Historically such actions have ranged from the mass civil disobedience arrests in New York around the killing of Amadou Diallo to the ways in which the people of Los Angeles expressed themselves after the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted.
The equation of Sharpton’s passive civil disobedience with the L.A. riots is false, but even so, the response of an urban rebellion in Philadelphia is wishful thinking under current circumstances. And Kissinger does not even think of fighting for strike action. He concludes:
Every organization that is opposed to the execution will be challenged -- and empowered -- to both do things that involve and activate their own constituencies in their own ways, as well as to reach out broadly in society.
This generic call for more broadness ends the article without the promised sober assessment of weaknesses as well as strengths. There is no discussion of the absence of the ranks of labor and other mass organizations. Not one leader or organization is named to be challenged to do more.
On the other side, one group, the Spartacist League, used the summit decision as an excuse for actually withholding support for the April 24 protest altogether! Workers Vanguard approvingly reported the speech of a Spartacist supporter at one of their events as hostile to April 24:
I have here a flyer for a planning meeting for April 24; it says, “Race for Justice, New Trial Now.” How about somebody telling the truth, that there’s no way that Mumia’s going to get justice in the courts. It’s going to be exactly the same frame-up bullshit that happened the first time. So start there, tell the goddamned truth! (April 16.)
While the article doesn’t explicitly oppose April 24, in fact the SL did not endorse it or, even more importantly, build for it. The article goes on to argue that calling for a new trial automatically means spreading illusions in capitalism and relying on the bourgeoisie instead of the working class. But in reality, the only way to free Mumia will be through a new trial forced by the pressure from the working class.
The Spartacists’ politically sectarian claim is only an excuse for their organizational sectarianism. Since their defense front, the Partisan Defense Committee (PDC), lost its leading role in Mumia defense work, it appears that the Spartacists have lost interest into putting major resources into the case, even though the efforts are sorely needed. There wouldn’t be any instant organizational gain or big credit.
There was a debate of sorts, mainly informal, within the Mumia movement over the official slogans. The Spartacist position was held by a number of independent militants, although to our knowledge no one else went so far as to oppose April 24 or other Mumia protests.
Lenin long ago explained that revolutionaries have to learn to utilize bourgeois institutions like elections and court trials. In Mumia’s case, if a new trial were to be held, this will only happen as the result of mass pressure. This would be a huge victory! Of course, the mass pressure would have to be sustained in order to win a successful verdict. As well, with politically astute lawyers, a trial could be used to expose the bourgeois court system itself, in the way revolutionists use bourgeois elections to expose electoralism itself. But to think that at this time the bourgeoisie is going to free Mumia without going through at least the ritual of a trial, is fantasy.
Another reason why a new trial could have a positive outcome has been brought up by reactionaries who oppose the demand. An interview was recently published on Online Court TV with Dudley Sharp, vice president of Justice For All, an anti-Mumia grouping. According to the interviewer, who wanted to know why Sharp was dead set against a new trial despite his insistence on Mumia’s absolute guilt,
Sharp does not acknowledge that a guilty verdict in a retrial would shatter the movement for Abu-Jamal. His apprehension may stem from increased anti-police sentiment after several nationally-tracked police brutality cases and tensions between minorities and police. The suspicion of widespread police corruption could be enough to obfuscate the issues at a new trial and possibly win Abu-Jamal an acquittal. ... Since Abu-Jamal’s 1982 conviction, the nation has seen cases such as those involving Eleanor Bumpurs, Rodney King, and Abner Louima. Jurors today may be more likely to suspect police corruption and less tolerant of an alleged “blue wall of silence.”
Moreover, given the recent conviction of a New York police officer in the Louima case, jurors appear increasingly likely to send a message in cases as controversial as Abu-Jamal’s.
One cannot expect reactionaries to admit that Abu-Jamal is innocent. But nevertheless the point is well made that a retrial for Mumia would clearly put the police on trial as well -- and that public feeling about police is shifting dangerously, from the point of view of the authorities.
There is no truth to the notion that the demand for a new trial inevitably raises illusions in the ultimate fairness of capitalist courts, although reformist leaderships will certainly raise them. Rather, new trials may reverse unjust decisions and free particular individuals under special circumstances -- like an explosive mass movement -- but that hardly proves that the system can mete out genuine justice as a rule!
The basic error of those who, even with good intentions, argue for Mumia’s freedom without posing a new trial as the vehicle is that they offer no ready alternative. There is none right now: neither mass revolution to overthrow the state nor a successful jailbreak through masterly guerrilla activity is on the immediate agenda. The Workers Vanguard article heavily implies that mass strike action is the answer but has to hold back from posing it as immediately possible. Revolutionaries must be able to point the way forward, and if the path goes through the bourgeois courts then we have to say so. Not to do so is sectarianism.
At the April 3 March against police brutality in Washington, D.C. Pam Africa stated that she was making a “challenge” to the NAACP and all other civil rights organizations present to mobilize buses full of members for April 24 in Philly. Her challenge clearly did not bring about the massive result she wanted. One problem was that she was not joined in this effort by others that day -- like Ron Daniels, the organizer of the event, who has endorsed Mumia’s struggle.
Another effort in this direction was made when Jesse Jackson visited Paris. According to a statement from the ICFF-MAJ, on June 21 a group of 50 Mumia supporters held up banners for Mumia as Jackson was scheduled to deliver a lecture to the American University. On behalf of ICFF-MAJ, Julia Wright handed him a letter, saying:
The anti-segregationist sit-ins that at the behest of Martin Luther King wrested so many civil rights victories back in the sixties were now, ironically, re-emerging to warn those very Democrats who claim to be King’s heirs that they are all the more accountable and that they cannot fall asleep on the cushions of power or laurels covered with the blood of those who were killed with their eyes on all the prizes, including the supreme right not to be executed.
Activists with the opportunity to do so who don’t challenge the mass leaders are contributing to the weakness of the movement they’re supposed to be building. Temporary cooperation with middle-class organizations is often appropriate to fight for specific aims -- like the demand for a new trial for Mumia. But mass working class action remains the key to Mumia’s defense. Simply calling for more “broadness” masks that fact. Working-class struggle is the most practical way to force the courts to grant a new trial and free Mumia.
We as revolutionaries take the position of fighting for mass action, rather than tailing established “mass leaders” in the style of centrist leftists. It is also only through the struggles of the working class, including the fight against its current pro-capitalist misleaders in the trade unions and elsewhere, that a revolutionary party can be built. The key to freeing political prisoners and smashing the system of racist oppression and repression, brutality and exploitation is the socialist revolution to overthrow capitalism once and for all.