Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!
The unanimous decision by the Pennsylvania high court is an indication that America’s racist rulers have decided to push now for the execution of Jamal. Even from behind bars, his powerful denunciations of inhumanity and injustice have mightily disturbed them. They barred his searing commentaries from National Public Radio so that his voice would not be heard. Mumia’s book, Live from Death Row, an indictment of the barbarous U.S. prison system, has been translated into numerous languages. After its publication, prison authorities cut off his access to the press and took away his writing materials hoping that his words would not be read. And the capitalist courts and politicians quickly stepped up the drive to silence forever this eloquent “voice of the voiceless.” They say Mumia Abu-Jamal must die. We say Mumia must live!
Everyone should understand: this fight is not just against a bunch of kill-crazy cops, a hanging judge and a tight-knit clique of local bigwigs who run the misnamed “city of brotherly love” through police terror. All of those elements are there, of course. But this Philadelphia story goes beyond the Main Line suburbs, where the bankers and insurance company executives who own Philly live, to the citadels of American capitalism, Washington and Wall Street. The fight to save Mumia is at bottom a class question. As the rich get enormously richer, and the poor get poorer–both under Republicans Reagan and Bush and Democrat Clinton–the capitalists need a beefed-up repressive apparatus. Here the death penalty plays a key role along with police forces that routinely execute hundreds of minority youth in the ghettos and barrios. We have to rip Mumia out of the clutches of this capitalist state murder machine.
And the official terror goes hand in hand with the unofficial terror
in the streets against racial minorities, against homosexuals, against
women, against immigrants. It goes together with the lynching of James
Byrd, Jr. by KKK fascists in Texas last June. It goes together with the
brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming because he was gay. It goes
together with the assassination of Dr. Barnet Slepian in a suburb of Buffalo,
New York, because he provided abortion services for women. The case of
Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the death penalty in general, cannot be understood
in isolation from the social, economic and political context of U.S. imperialism.
While the media and politicians still prattle about the “American dream,”
the evidence is everywhere of capitalist decay: real wages falling steadily
for the last quarter century, mass homelessness, the resurgence of diseases
of poverty (asthma, TB). What is necessary to defeat this whole capitalist
of racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-worker oppression
is international socialist revolution.
Death Penalty Is Racist Terror Machine
Pennsylvania’s Republican governor Tom Ridge (who was just re-elected) has vowed to sign a death warrant for Mumia as soon as he got a green light from the courts. An application has been filed with the Pennsylvania high court to rehear Jamal’s appeal, and an appeal to the federal courts is being prepared. Such legal appeals are necessary, but there must be no illusions in the role of the capitalist courts. Many liberals and reformist pseudo-socialists try to duck the fight for Mumia’s freedom by calling only for a “new trial.” This was the position taken by a recent full-page ad in the New York Times titled, “Should Mumia Abu-Jamal be executed . . . Or should he receive a new trial? You Be the Judge.” Yet the decades-long cop and judicial persecution of Mumia Abu-Jamal should make it clear that there can be no “fair trial” in the capitalist courts for this fighter for black freedom.
Brutally beaten and critically wounded by a cop’s bullet through his chest, Mumia’s real “crime” is that he lived after the police tried to kill him 16 years ago, and that he has continued to tell the truths that they want silenced. Jamal was hounded by the capitalist state from the time when as a young teenager he protested racist Alabama governor George Wallace. At the age of 15, he was put on the FBI’s Security Index of those deemed a “threat” to “national security” for his role as Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia. Two years later, Mumia’s name was added to the Administrative Index of those to be rounded up and thrown in concentration camps in a “national emergency.” For years he was tracked by the government’s COINTELPRO program of infiltration and provocation.
Later, as a radio reporter, Jamal was hated by long-time Philly police chief and mayor Frank Rizzo for exposing Rizzo’s 1978 siege of a commune of the MOVE organization. Seven years later, Philadelphia police dropped an incendiary explosive on another MOVE commune, destroying 62 homes in a black neighborhood in the firestorm that followed while burning to death eleven black women, children and men. This cold-blooded state murder was approved by Philly’s black Democratic mayor (Wilson Goode) and the explosives were supplied to the cops by Reagan’s “Justice” Department. While preaching “family values,” the bourgeois state celebrated Mother’s Day 1985 by incinerating black mothers and their children–a graphic demonstration of what it has in store for those among the downtrodden who “get out of line.”
A key role in the drive to kill Mumia is being played by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the political action arm of the racist killer cops. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is filled with justices who are endorsed by the FOP. “Hanging Judge” Albert Sabo, who ran the trial and sentenced Mumia, sentenced more than twice as many men to death as any other sitting judge in the U.S.; Sabo is a former sheriff and retired member of the FOP. The district attorney at the time Mumia was thrown in jail in 1981, falsely accused in the killing of a Philadelphia cop, was Ed Rendell; today Rendell is mayor. Rendell’s wife is a judge on the federal district court. Presiding over Jamal’s arraignment in 1981 was municipal judge Lynne Abraham; today Abraham is Philly’s district attorney, known for asking the death penalty more often than any other D.A. in the country. The assistant D.A. who prosecuted Mumia, Joseph McGill, is now a lawyer for the FOP. They all mesh together as gears in the capitalist state murder machine.
On the top of the heap is President Bill Clinton, who regularly attends FOP conventions in order to pose with the cops. Recall that Clinton interrupted his 1992 presidential election campaign to return to Arkansas to deny an appeal for clemency by Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally retarded death row inmate. The Democratic Clinton administration has vastly increased the number of federal crimes subject to the death penalty, and in the “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act” of 1996 it drastically curtailed the ability of death row inmates to appeal to federal courts over violations of their rights in the state courts. The Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that states could execute prisoners who were innocent as long as certain constitutional procedures were followed. And according to the 1996 law, executions can go forward if the violations of defendants’ constitutional rights are deemed not “unreasonable”!
Following the recent court decision, Jamal wrote in a statement from death row: “Once again, Pennsylvania’s highest court has shown us the best justice that FOP money can buy.” He added:
“I remain innocent. A court cannot make an innocent man guilty. Any ruling founded on injustice is not justice. The righteous fight for life, liberty, and for justice can only continue.”Philadelphia District Attorney Abraham absurdly declared that no innocent people are sentenced to die. The “Deadliest D.A.” in the city that is the “capital of capital punishment” (New York Times Magazine) said of death row inmates, “They don’t deserve to live.” Yet since 1977, federal courts have overturned more than one-third of all death sentences issued by state courts. And still the death row population keeps growing: going from 2,400 when Mumia wrote a 1991 article for the Yale Law Review to 3,000 in 1994 when his book Live from Death Row was published to over 3,300 today.
The death penalty in the U.S. is inherently racist. When a 1987 appeal by Warren McClesky (a black man sentenced to death in the killing of a white cop) cited a study by David Baldus showing that those accused of killing whites were more than four times as likely to be condemned to death as those accused of killing blacks, the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Rehnquist dismissed such facts as “irrelevant.” McClesky’s appeal was rejected because consideration of such blatant discrimination “throws into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system.” In Pennsylvania, the bulk of death row inmates are from Philadelphia and 83 percent of them are black. A recent (June 1998) study by Baldus showed that black defendants were sentenced to death four times more often than whites, while a black defendant in Philadelphia in the same legal position as Mumia was 14.6 times more likely to get a death sentence.
In fact, the prosecution in Mumia’s case peremptorily struck 11 out
of 14 potential black jurors, while Judge Sabo removed another. In 1987,
the Philadelphia district attorney’s office prepared a video instructing
prosecutors on how to eliminate poor blacks from juries. In the 1995 hearings
of his death sentence appeal, when Jamal’s attorneys attempted to subpoena
court officials to testify about the numbers of black and white inmates
on death row, arguing that his conviction was the product of racial bias,
Judge Sabo refused.
Mobilize the Power of Labor
From the late 19th century on, the American ruling class has used the death penalty as a centerpiece of political repression designed to intimidate and outlaw radical opposition to its rule. There were the Haymarket martyrs in Chicago, as the bourgeoisie sought to squelch the movement for an eight-hour day; IWW leader Joe Hill, executed at the height of the imperialist war fever in 1915; Italian anarchist workers Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti during the post-Word War I anti-immigrant “red scare”; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during the post-World War II McCarthyite anti-communist witchhunt. Mumia Abu-Jamal put on death row in the backlash against black militancy following the end of the Vietnam War.
This history also underscores the fact that when U.S. rulers were forced to temporarily halt use of the death penalty, in 1972, it was amid widespread antiwar agitation and following major upheavals in black ghettos across the U.S. Executions were resumed in 1976 in the subsequent period of reaction as U.S. imperialism sought to restore its power in the wake of its humiliating defeat at the hands of Vietnamese peasants and workers.
The same pattern can be seen in the granting and taking away of abortion rights for women, of affirmative action for racial minorities. The winning and losing of rights of the exploited and oppressed reflects the course of the class struggle. The capitalist rulers want Mumia dead so their cops can continue to terrorize America’s inner cities like slave plantations. They want to stamp out black radicalism which has haunted Washington ever since chattel slavery was abolished in the Civil War. J. Edgar Hoover vowed to prevent the rise of a “black Messiah” as his FBI gunned down and jailed the Black Panthers, protected the murderers of Malcolm X and viciously persecuted even the liberal Martin Luther King. Just as the plantation owners lived in fear of a slave revolt, the bourgeoisie wants to banish the spectre of revolution by what Karl Marx called its wage slaves.
In the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal we face powerful forces. In order to wage such a battle successfully you have to know your enemy, and also to know your own strength. Recently, U.S. capitalism has been riding high. Reveling in the counterrevolution that toppled Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and East Europe, the imperialists proclaimed the “death of communism.” Today, American imperialism acts as global policeman, declaring itself the defender of “human rights” as the butchers of Vietnam threaten to rain down high-tech “smart” bombs on Panama, Iraq, Serbia. Their power rests on intimidating their subjects into submission. But as financial speculators engage in a wild “dance of the millions” on Wall Street, bringing world capitalism to the brink of a crash, they are in fact dependent on the tens of millions of working people who make the wheels of industry, commerce and finance turn, and who can also bring them to a screeching halt. That is our power, and we must know how to wield it.
Freedom for Mumia and the abolition of the death penalty will not be won in the capitalist courts. Although we are obliged to do battle there, this is the terrain of the class enemy. What is crucial is to mobilize the tremendous power of the international working class in battle against the capitalists and their state power. This was the strategy of the International Labor Defense (ILD) set up by the Communist (Workers) Party in the mid-1920s in conjunction with the International Red Aid, affiliated with the Communist International. The first leader of the ILD was James P. Cannon, who was expelled from the CP in 1928 for Trotskyism. The ILD brought thousands into the streets to defend San Francisco labor leaders Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, and to defend more than 200 arrested textile strikers in Passaic, New Jersey.
The biggest mobilization by the International Labor Defense under Cannon’s leadership was to save the anarchist workers Sacco and Vanzetti from the executioner. An appeal to American labor in the Labor Defender (July 1926) by veteran socialist Eugene Debs thundered against “the refined malice and barbaric cruelty of these capitalist tribunals high and low” who went after the “‘foreign labor agitator’ in the hydrophobic madness of the world war.” During 1926-27, the ILD and allied labor groups brought out 15,000, 20,000 and 25,000 workers in New York City on different occasions for Sacco and Vanzetti, as well tens of thousands more in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle and elsewhere around the country. Around the world, affiliates of the International Red Aid held huge demonstrations of 30,000 in London’s Hyde Park, as well as in Berlin, Brussels, Vienna, and a two-day strike in Buenos Aires, Argentina demanding life and freedom for Sacco and Vanzetti.
Cannon pointed out that if it weren’t for these mass mobilizations “the judicial vultures of Massachusetts might long ago have seized and demolished their prey.” In an article on “Class Against Class in the Sacco and Vanzetti Case” (Labor Defender, September 1927), the head of the ILD declared:
“No faith in capitalist justice and institutions! That is the lesson of history confirmed by every development in the Sacco and Vanzetti case.Despite the thunderous protest from around the world, America’s rulers executed the two courageous Italian anarchist workers. In other cases, such as that of the nine Scottsboro black youths who faced the death penalty in Alabama in the early 1930s, a crescendo of international workers protests managed to stay the hangman’s noose although the frame-up victims languished in jail for years. Mass demonstrations and the mobilization of labor’s power are crucial in the fight to save class war prisoners. But it will take a socialist revolution to sweep away the death penalty and the whole system of racist injustice forever. For the capitalist system cannot survive without a massive repressive apparatus–the myriad cops, courts, secret police and armed forces that constitute the core of the bourgeois state. This is all the truer in capitalism’s deepening decay, when it no longer holds out a treacherous “dream” of prosperity and equality that it will never fulfill.
When a warrant for Mumia’s execution was issued in June 1995 by Pennsylvania governor Ridge, there was an outpouring of opposition from labor organizations around the world. In South Africa, where the death penalty was a mainstay of the hated regime of apartheid slavery (it was ruled unconstitutional in 1995), virtually all the major unions joined the clamor to save Jamal. In Italy and France, national labor federations took up his cause. Journalists unions around the world came out for their fellow writer. This was a token of the kind of protest by workers and the oppressed that will be necessary to free Mumia, but it is only a token. Now those fine words must be turned into action, into mass struggle in the streets.
Within the limits of our modest forces, the sections of the League for the Fourth International are seeking to carry out this program. Our comrades of the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil have organized a labor-centered demonstration on November 7 in the steel center of Volta Redonda, calling for freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal and linking the fight against the racist death penalty in the U.S. with the fight against killer cops in Brazil. In Mexico, the Grupo Internacionalista introduced a resolution calling to join international protest demanding Mumia’s freedom which was passed by an assembly of 150 students in the Science Faculty of the National University, as well as calling on unions to make urgent protests over the renewed threat to Jamal’s life. In the U.S., the Internationalist Group has participated in several demonstrations, calling to Mobilize Working-Class Power to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.
While abolition of the death penalty is a democratic question, the fight against it must be waged on a revolutionary class program. As the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1986, from the other side of the class divide, opposition to the inherently racist death penalty throws into question the underpinnings of the entire criminal “justice” system in the United States. Liberal death penalty abolitionists like Amnesty International pretend that the U.S. could simply be like the rest of the West and do without legalized state murder. Yet there is a reason why the United States is the only advanced capitalist country today with capital punishment: the death penalty in the U.S. is inherently racist because it is a product of slavery.
In putting an end to the period of Radical Reconstruction following the Civil War, the Northern and Southern wings of the American bourgeoisie adopted a three-pronged program to keep down the newly freed blacks while formally maintaining the constitutional amendments that declared the former slaves to be full citizens: on the legal plane, rigid Jim Crow segregation laws (under the fiction of “separate but equal”) along with de facto disenfranchisement through the poll tax; economically by reestablishing the plantation economy through sharecropping; and using the extra-legal terror of the Ku Klux Klan, in which the slave driver was replaced by nightriding lynchers (many of them former Confederate Army men) who terrorized the black population throughout the region. The death penalty is the continuation of this terror through legal lynching.
It took a Second American Revolution, the Civil War, to abolish slavery. Today it will take a workers revolution to get rid of the death penalty forever, as legal lynching is key to a whole system of racist repression. What is required is black liberation through socialist revolution. Such a program of revolutionary integrationism, of common class struggle against racial oppression, is sharply counterposed to black nationalism, which from Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan accepts and seeks to profit from the existing segregation and discrimination. Today Farrakhan stages “reconciliation” spectacles in Philadelphia with Mayor Ed Rendell on the stage as honored guest.
Revolutionary class struggle is needed to bring down the whole edifice of legal and extra-legal oppression of blacks and other minorities. The death penalty goes together with cop executions in the streets; enforcing a two-tier economy where large numbers of blacks, Latinos and immigrants are relegated to sweatshop wages or unemployment. To lead this class struggle, a Leninist vanguard party of the proletariat must be built which can act as a “tribune of the people” in championing the cause of all the oppressed. Only by fighting for the liberation of women, for genuine equal rights for gays, for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, legal and “illegal,” can such a genuinely communist party carry out the program of the Communist Manifesto, written 150 years ago, to build a society of abundance and equality in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
It is such a party that the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International seek to build as we fight today to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Now and to Abolish the Racist Death Penalty. n
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