Mass Mobilization and Workers Action Are Key
Free Mumia Abu-Jamal
Black Panther and MOVE Prisoners!
Internationalist Group marched with hundreds in Philadelphia in May 2007.
December 9 marks the 35th anniversary of the arrest and attempted police assassination of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the foremost class-war prisoner in the United States. For three and a half decades, Mumia has been held behind bars – almost 30 years in solitary confinement on Pennsylvania’s Death Row – convicted on bogus charges of the 1981 shooting death of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. The former Black Panther and renowned radical black journalist has been the target of an unrelenting vendetta by the capitalist state. A potential legal opening for Jamal could come from a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that set a powerful precedent of throwing out a conviction based on prosecutorial and judicial misconduct. But for every legal precedent, bitter experience has shown that there is a “Mumia exception.”
On August 7, Jamal’s lawyers filed a new appeal based on a June Supreme Court decision in the case of Williams v Pennsylvania. That ruling held that, “Under the Due Process Clause there is an impermissible risk of actual bias when a judge earlier had significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant’s case.” Therefore the Supremes threw out the decision of the state supreme court upholding the death sentence against Terrance Williams. Significantly, the prosecutor/judge guilty of “actual bias” in the Williams decision, Pennsylvania chief justice Ronald Castille, also played a crucial role in Jamal’s frame-up and conviction. Legally, the two cases are analogous. Politically, there is a huge difference: Mumia is the potent symbol of resistance to racism, imperialism and the mass incarceration of millions.
Even after a federal court ruled for a second time in 2011 that his death sentence was unconstitutional and Mumia was resentenced to what he described as “slow death row” – life imprisonment with no possibility of parole – prison officials are trying to kill him by medical neglect. In August 2015, Mumia’s lawyers filed suit for negligence, malpractice and deprivation of his Eighth Amendment rights to medical care, including hepatitis C medication. This August a federal judge ruled that the state prison “protocol” for inmates with hepatitis C in fact violates the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. But Mumia’s appeal was denied on the grounds that it should have been directed to state prison officials rather than local authorities. On October 6, Mumia’s attorneys filed a new lawsuit demanding hep C treatment.
The ruling class and their enforcers, the cops, are determined to silence Jamal, the eloquent “voice of the voiceless,” who has courageously exposed and denounced their endless crimes. The Fraternal Order of Police, in lockstep with the bourgeois politicians and judicial mafia who vie for the FOP’s support, are determined to see their nemesis die behind bars. Like the decades-long persecution of the Black Panther Party, which continues to this day, and the racist police murder machine that grinds on despite tens of thousands marching in Black Lives Matter protests, the persecution of Jamal can only be defeated by mass mobilization and class-struggle workers action that doesn’t flinch at taking on the capitalist state. That is what it will take to bring Mumia home to his loving family, friends and legions of supporters.
Ronald Castille: Prosecutor and Judge, Over and Over
Ronald Castille was the Philadelphia district attorney who signed off on the death penalty for Terrance Williams, convicted of a 1984 murder. In 2012, Williams’ execution was stayed but the state appealed to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court where Castille was by then the chief justice. Williams’ attorneys moved that Castille recuse himself from the case. Request denied. Instead, the court led by Castille reinstated Williams’ death sentence. This double role, as prosecutor and then judge, is what the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional, violating the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Same pattern in Jamal’s case: During Mumia’s 1982 trial Ronald Castille was a senior Assistant District Attorney, and in Mumia’s 1988 direct appeal Castille was the District Attorney who filed the prosecution briefs opposing Mumia’s request to overturn the conviction and death sentence. After running for Philly mayor in the Republican primary in 1991 (where he was defeated by former police chief and mayor Frank Rizzo), Castille was elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. When Mumia appealed under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) in 1995, the case was referred to the same notorious hanging judge, Albert Sabo, who oversaw Mumia’s original trial and who, according to the sworn report of a court stenographer, was overheard saying that he intended to help the prosecution “fry the n…r.”
In Mumia’s appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court of Sabo’s denial of his petition for PCRA relief, he moved for Castille to recuse (remove) himself from the case because of his prior role as D.A. Castille refused and the state’s top court in 1989 turned down Jamal’s appeal. In 1999, with Castille again participating, the state supreme court again affirmed the denial of post-conviction relief. In 2003, 2004, 2008 and 2012 the court repeatedly refused appeals by Jamal’s lawyers, and, as Mumia’s new petition states, “each of those decisions were [sic] affirmed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court with Justice Castille participating in the consideration and deciding of each one.”
As for “actual bias,” of this there can be no doubt. Ronald Castille was elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1993 (becoming chief judge in 2008) in a campaign where he bragged that as district attorney he “sent 45 people to death rows.” Also as Philly D.A., Castille oversaw the production of a sinister 1986 “training tape” for prosecutors demonstrating how to exclude African Americans from juries (his name appears on the title piece). The number one argument in Mumia’s direct appeal, which Castille as district attorney opposed, was that a black woman was removed without cause and replaced with a white man with ties to law enforcement.
In 2011, the federal appeals court upheld (for the second time) a 2001 ruling that Mumia’s death sentence was unconstitutional. A few months later the state announced that it would no longer seek the death penalty. But at Mahony prison in Frackville, PA the state is now trying to carry out the original death sentence by denying Mumia urgently needed medical attention to treat a life-threatening hepatitis C infection. It’s been almost five years since Mumia tested positive for the hep C antibody. In March 2015, Mumia was hospitalized in critical condition and on the brink of diabetic coma. His attorneys filed for an antiviral treatment which has a 95% cure rate, but prison officials ruled that he wasn’t sick enough to be eligible. Now, while the courts dither over which officials should be sued, the infection continues to ravage Mumia’s body.
Ruling Class Vendetta Against Mumia
In the Williams case, the Supreme Court remanded (sent back to state courts) it for “further proceedings,” and perhaps Williams will get another day in court. Mumia’s legal defense team is seeking this as well. Marxists support using every legal avenue for defense in the bourgeois injustice system. At the same time, we know full well that the courts are prepared to shred the Constitution and the state will spit on its own laws to bury Mumia Abu-Jamal. As we have repeatedly stated, “The fundamental fact is, there is no justice for the oppressed in the racist, capitalist courts” (“Death Sentence Dropped Against Mumia Abu-Jamal,” The Internationalistspecial supplement, January 2012).
Mumia has been in the crosshairs of the state from the day in the 1960s when, as a teenager, he was “beaten into the Black Panther Party” by the Philadelphia cops. An award-winning journalist on the radio and in print, he championed the poor, the homeless and the MOVE commune against the Philly cops’ murderous attacks. By the late 1960s, the FBI had declared war on the Black Panther Party. At least 38 Panthers were killed in assaults across the country and hundreds were hounded to prison. Chicago Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were slain in their beds in a police/FBI raid in 1969. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover might as well have been talking about Mumia, as well as Hampton and Clark, when he wrote in March 1968, “The Negro youth and moderate[s] must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teaching, they will be dead revolutionaries.”
While racist reactionaries repeatedly denounce Mumia Abu-Jamal as a “cop killer,” the fact of his innocence has been proven over and over. On 9 December 1981, the night Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner was killed, Mumia was shot and then beaten nearly to death by the cops. But his Kafkaesque nightmare was just beginning. At trial, the state’s case consisted of a concocted confession, falsified ballistics and perjured witnesses who were intimidated, promised deals or had reason to lie. The playbook of dirty tricks was on display from the start: black potential jurors were repeatedly rejected by peremptory challenges, and Mumia was denied the right to represent himself and even to be in the courtroom during his trial. All of these were cited in Jamal’s appeals, to no avail. This is the typical modus operandi of Philly cops and courts.
Mumia Abu-Jamal was a threat to the racist prerogatives of the tight-knit local ruling class, Democrats and Republicans together, who ran Philadelphia like a Southern city, keeping the black population down through cop terror. In the early 1970s, the federal Civil Rights Commission denounced the Philly police as a “paramilitary institution” that acted like “a law unto itself.” It produced a 271-page list of thousands of people beaten or shot by the police. By the early ’80s, the FBI was investigating. In 1999, a professional hit man, Arnold Beverly, admitted that he had killed Faulkner, contracted by the mob and corrupt police who feared Faulkner was a danger to their system of graft and payoffs to allow illegal gambling, prostitution and drugs. Beverly’s videotaped confession was never allowed into evidence.1
But the vendetta against Mumia has never been purely, or even mainly, a local affair. It was part of the government’s continuing war against the Black Panther Party and black militants generally. This was summed up in, but by no means limited to, the murderous COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) masterminded by Hoover. By 1971 Mumia was on the FBI’s Security Index (people considered a threat to “national security”) and in Category 2 of the ADEX (those people to be picked up and put in concentration camps in a “national emergency”). Since the end of chattel slavery, the racist ruling class has held African Americans in thrall by terror, from KKK nightriders to unbridled police murder and the “stop-and-frisk” policing of black and Latino neighborhoods that Donald Trump wants to intensify. Mumia was a threat to that system because he talked back and exposed its workings.
The death penalty itself is a legacy of slavery. The unending campaign to kill Mumia recalls the racist pathology that swept the country a century ago when widespread lynching was a punishment for black people who “didn’t know their place.” Today this is continued as police wantonly murder civilians with impunity (current count as of December 6, 1,072 people killed by police so far in 2016), particularly black, Latino, immigrant and poor white people. Time after time, the killer cops’ justification is that their victim “refused to obey” police orders. The killers in blue get away with it, even in the exceedingly rare cases where a cop is actually charged with something, because grand juries are under the thumb of prosecutors, and the law itself provides ample immunity. Police protection societies like the FOP back this up by accusing protesters such as the Black Lives Matter movement of being “cop killers,” just as they do with Mumia.
How can we combat this murder machine which has kept Mumia behind bars for 35 years and continues to rob innocent people of their lives? Liberals and reformist would-be socialists keep putting forward doomed strategies hoping that somehow the system would work for the oppressed, that with enough pressure the “scales of justice” would be righted. For years they kept calling for a “fair trial” rather than demanding Mumia’s freedom, as if any trial in these rigged courts could be fair. Then came the appeals to Attorney General Eric Holder to open a civil rights investigation of Jamal’s case, and later calls on Barack Obama to pardon Mumia as he leaves office. But having a black president and head of the “Justice” Department made no difference. We are combating a whole system of racist repression, and its name is capitalism.
In this system, Democrats and Republicans are sometimes at loggerheads, but work together as partner parties of American capitalism when its vital interests are at stake. Prosecutor/judge Ronald Castille considered running for Philadelphia mayor as a Democrat in 1991, but then ran in the Republican primary, where he was defeated by ex-Democratic mayor and Philly top cop Rizzo, who himself switched to the Republicans after being defeated by Wilson Goode. Black Democrat Goode ordered the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE commune, torching a whole neighborhood in West Philadelphia. Castille’s predecessor as D.A., Ed Rendell (who ran the frame-up prosecution of Mumia in 1982), was a Democrat, as was Castille’s successor, Lynne Abraham, known as the Queen of Death for putting over 100 African Americans on death row.
Rendell went on to become Philly mayor in 1991 and then governor of Pennsylvania in 2003. As a wheeler-dealer in the national Democratic Party, he has made sure to squelch any moves in favor of Mumia. The whole Pennsylvania Democratic Party is a den of corruption, epitomized by now ex-state attorney general Kathleen Kane – convicted in August of perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice – who played a key role in the on-going frame-up of Corey Walker.2 Democrat Bill Clinton passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 that has blocked Mumia and other death row inmates from presenting new evidence of their innocence. And as we wrote, from city hall to the state house and the White House, “Democrats Are the Bosses of the Racist Killer Cops” (The Internationalist No. 42, January-February 2016).
Even so, we still hear calls on Democratic president Barack Obama to pardon Mumia. An article on the liberal/”progressive” web site CounterPunch (25 October), “President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal,” ended with the plea, “Yes You Can, President Obama, Yes You Can!” Actually, he can’t: only the Pennsylvania governor can pardon or commute sentences of those convicted of state charges (as the writer acknowledges). But beyond that, as we have detailed, Obama has repeatedly stated that anyone found guilty of killing a cop “deserve[s] the death penalty or life in prison.”3
Today, those who look to the bourgeois state have come full circle and again are looking for salvation in a new trial, foreseeing that an appeal based on the Williams decision could provide a path through the courts to overturn Mumia’s conviction, that “if successful” Mumia could then redo his numerous appeals including not only the sentencing but the frame-up conviction itself. But even in the unlikely event that a new trial were ordered, despite all the perjured testimony, phony ballistics “evidence,” recanting “witnesses” and the rest, historical experience and the Marxist analysis of the capitalist state concur: there is little reason to believe that Mumia could prevail in a judicial system organized from top to bottom to ensure that those targeted by the police are found guilty – the facts and the law be damned!
In short, even as lawyers pursue every legal avenue, we cannot look to the capitalist courts or politicians and parties for justice against the cops, who are the badge-toting hired guns of the capitalist rulers. But that does not mean that there is no hope, that Jamal will inevitably die behind bars. When Mumia was on the verge of being killed in the summer of 1995, with a warrant for his execution signed by the governor, mass, international protests were crucial in saving his life. Now, as judges in the same court that has repeatedly turned down Mumia’s appeals try to figure out a rationale for why the Williams decision doesn’t apply to Mumia, such mobilizations are again vitally important. Ten years ago, when Mumia’s life was in the hands of a federal appeals court in Philadelphia we wrote:
“The relentless repression against Mumia is proof positive that there is no justice for the poor, blacks and all the oppressed in the capitalist courts. This is particularly true for those seen by the rulers as a revolutionary threat to their system of exploitation of modern-day wage slaves. The Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International have called to mobilize working-class action to demand freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. In April 1999, our comrades of the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil initiated a statewide work stoppage by the teachers union in Rio de Janeiro, carried out in conjunction with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union which shut down U.S. West Coast ports, demanding that Mumia be freed. This was only a taste of the kind of class mobilization that will be necessary to win freedom for Jamal and put an end to the heinous system of state murder.”
–“It Will Take Workers’ Power to Free Muma Abu-Jamal!” The Internationalist No. 26, July 2007
Mumia has millions of supporters around the world. The point, however, is to mobilize an effective force that can win his freedom. Protests defending Mumia have fallen off since he was taken off death row, yet talk of “reigniting the movement” without a strategy to take on the capitalist state is so much hot air. Mass protest combined with an effective legal defense is vital, but it is not enough. In recent years, tens and hundreds of thousands of young (and not-so-young) people have taken to the streets to denounce racist police murder … and the killer cops keep on killing with abandon. To jam the gears of state repression we must mobilize workers’ power not just to block some streets and highways, important as that can be, but to impede the functioning of the capitalist system. And that requires above all a program for revolutionary class struggle.
Events may be pushing in that direction. With their all-out defense of killer cops, president-elect Donald Trump and his team of hard-line racists and KKK apologists could set off mass protests. Cop protection rackets like the FOP and PBA (Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association) do their bit by denouncing every protester and critic, from Black Lives Matter to Mumia Abu-Jamal, as “cop killers.” It’s not as if cops are in danger: police are one of the safest occupational categories in the U.S.4 Rather, by posing the issue as “cop killers” rather than “killer cops” they put the screws to liberals, who support the capitalist state.
So long as protesters see the issue as a few “bad apples,” they fall prey to the illusion that some “reform” scheme (civilian review boards, “community policing,” etc.) can somehow change the police, which as an institution is racist to the core.5 Moreover, protests will be derailed, as in December 2014 and July 2016, when a deranged person or a lone avenger out of desperation and despair sets out to even the score. Effective protest depends on understanding that American capitalism rests on a system of racist repression, including black as well as white cops, “soft cops” as well as hard.
From the outset, there have been counterposed strategies over how to defend Mumia Abu-Jamal, as has been true of the Scottsboro Boys, Sacco and Vanzetti and other major defense cases. As opposed to those who seek salvation through the bourgeois state, whether the courts or politicians, revolutionary Marxists look to the workers and oppressed. As James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotyskyism, wrote in 1927 on “Who Can Save Sacco and Vanzetti”:
“One policy is the policy of the class struggle. It puts the center of gravity in the protest movement of the workers of America and the world. It puts all faith in the power of the masses and no faith whatever in the justice of the courts. While favoring all possible legal proceedings, it calls for agitation, publicity, demonstrations – organized protest on a national and international scale. It calls for unity and solidarity of all workers on this burning issue, regardless of conflicting views on other questions….“The other policy is the policy of ‘respectability,’ of the ‘soft pedal’ and of ridiculous illusions about ‘justice’ from the courts of the enemy. It relies mainly on legal proceedings. It seeks to blur the issue of the class struggle, it shrinks from the ‘vulgar and noisy’ demonstrations of the militant workers and throws the mud of slander on them.”–International Labor Defender, January 1927, reprinted inNotebook of an Agitator(1958)
Mumia Abu-Jamal was supposed to die that night of 9 December 1981 when he was felled by a bullet from Daniel Faulkner’s gun and beaten senseless by the police. When he survived, the cops and courts have never rested in their crusade to kill him, whether in the gas chamber or now by denying him medication. Keeping Mumia imprisoned for 35 years and withholding life-saving drugs are a demonstration of the wanton cruelty of the capitalist state power. It is Mumia’s defiance of that power that inspires us and infuriates the state. Mumia is the living symbol of the defiant Black man. Despite every effort to squeeze the life and political spirit out of him, he remains unbroken. Even from death row and “slow death row” Mumia has continued to write and rail against the racism and imperialism of his oppressors.
The history of U.S. racism is the history of social control through criminalization of black defiance. It begins with the “slave breaker,” as Frederick Douglass in his autobiography called his tormentor, who through brutal beatings and gross deception sought to break young slaves “in body, soul, and spirit.” Then came the convict leasing system under Jim Crow segregation and now mass incarceration. A special place in their hell holes is reserved for those who don’t break. That is what binds Mumia and the struggle for his freedom to the resistance to cop terror on the streets all over this country. The common justification by the cops who murdered Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Missouri, Sandra Bland in Texas and Keith Scott in North Carolina is that their victims didn’t obey their orders, or didn’t do so fast enough.
Today Eric Garner is dead, Raymond Orta was jailed in retaliation for filming the police murder of Garner, while killer cop Daniel Pantaleo who chokeholded Eric to death has a cushy desk job where he pulled down $120,000 last year, including $35,000 in overtime and “unspecified pay.” The list of those wantonly killed by the police grows longer and longer. And Mumia Abu-Jamal is sick and still in prison, denied the life-saving medication he needs. Mumia is not the only one. Many of his former Black Panther comrades were condemned to life imprisonment. While some managed to get out after decades behind bars, their lives shredded, and others died in prison, a number are still being held as hostages (see partial list below) by a vicious ruling class determined to teach a bloody lesson to all those who dare to rebel.
This is the society we live in, and will continue to live in until a revolution of the workers and their allies, of African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, immigrants and all those who “have nothing to lose but their chains,” brings down the edifice of oppression and repression, opening the doors of the modern Bastille prisons and the road to freedom and justice denied them by the capitalist exploiters.■
Free the Panthers and MOVE Prisoners!
In demanding that Mumia Abu-Jamal be sentenced to die, the Philadelphia prosecutor pounded on his membership in the Black Panther Party. From the highest levels, the U.S. government had declared war on the Panthers. Not only were at least 38 BPP members killed by the police, hundreds were jailed, 348 in 1969 alone, according toPoliceMagazine (6 September 2012).
Several former Black Panther Party members eventually gained their freedom after decades in jail, including:
Geronimo ji Jaga (Pratt), former BPP Minister of Defense in Los Angeles, who was jailed for 27 years after surviving an LAPD/FBI assault four days after the December 1969 Chicago raid that killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark (see “Geronimo Is Out! Now Free Mumia!” The Internationalist supplement, 16 June 1997); Geronimo died in 2011 (see The Internationalist No. 33, Summer 2011).
Eddie Conway, former Baltimore Panther, who was released after 44 years in prison in Maryland due to an appellate court ruled that the jury in his case had been given improper instructions designed to produce the maximum sentence.
Albert Woodfox, released from Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison after 43 years in solitary confinement, one of the Angola 3. Woodfox was a marked man for starting a Panther chapter inside the prison’s walls in 1971 with fellow inmatesRobert King(who was released after 29 years in solitary) and Herman Wallace, who was freed in 2013 after 40 years in prison, 37 of them in solitary, and died three days later.
Other Panthers died in prison, including:
Hugo Pinell, the last imprisoned member of the San Quentin 6 (prisoners framed in a melee following the 1971 assassination of Panther George Jackson); Pinell was murdered in jail in 2015 with the connivance of officials at California State Prison at Sacramento.
Mondo we Langa (David Rice), one of the Omaha 2, who died earlier this year after spending 45 years in prison as a result of a frame-up orchestrated by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover personally to “neutralize” the Omaha Panther leadership.
But numerous Panthers are still behind bars, including:
Edward Poindexter, now in his 46th year in Nebraska’s maximum security penitentiary, who like his co-defendant Mondo was targeted by COINTELPRO;
Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown), jailed since 2000;
Russell Maroon Shoatz, 44 years in prison. 23 in solitary, jailed in the notorious 1972 mass raid on Panther headquarters in Philly;
Veronza Bowers, 43 years in prison;
Kamau Sadiki (Freddie Hilton), sentenced to life in 2003;
Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, jailed in California since 1969 (47 years);
Robert “Seth” Hayes, jailed since 1973;
Sundiata Acoli, jailed since 1973 (46 years);
Mutulu Shakur, jailed since 1981 (35 years) in connection with the daring 1979 escape of his sister Assata Shakur (Joanne Chesimard), who received asylum in Cuba; under the administration of Democrat Barack Obama, Assata was put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and the U.S. government had demanded she be handed over in negotiations over reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba;
and numerous others.
In addition, members of the MOVE 9, seized in the 1978 Philadelphia police attack on their Powelton commune, have been in prison ever since (38 years), including Delbert Orr Africa, a former member of the Black Panther Party in Chicago; Debbie Sims Africa; Charles (Chuck) Sims Africa; Janet Holloway Africa; Janine Phillips Africa; Edward (Eddie) Goodman Africa and Michael Davis Africa. The video of Delbert Africa being viciously kicked in the head by Philly cops has become a symbol of police brutality in the misnamed “city of brotherly love.” All nine MOVE prisoners have been eligible for parole since 2008, but their requests have repeatedly been turned down on the recommendation of the Philadelphia district attorney.
The Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International call on class-conscious working people and defenders of democratic rights to join in class-struggle defense demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal, for all remaining imprisoned Black Panthers, the MOVE 9, American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier and all class-war prisoners. And we repeat: Hands off Assata Shakur! ■
- 1. See “It Will Take Workers’ Power to Free Muma Abu-Jamal!” The Internationalist No. 26, July 2007.
- 2. See “The Frame-Up of Corey Walker,” The Internationalist, February 2016.
- 3. See “Mumia’s Life Is On the Line: Mobilize Labor/Black Power to Free Him Now!” in The Internationalist No. 30, November-December 2009.
- 4. See “Whose Life Is On the Line? Cop Stats” in The Internationalist, February 2016.
- 5. See “Bad Apples, Broken Windows, and Other Myths About the Police,” The Internationalist, February 2016.