Africa: NUMSA Launches
Campaign to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal
NUMSA march on U.S. embassy in Pretoria, South Africa demanding freedom for Mumia, March 10.
On the eve of the shutdown of ports in the San Francisco Bay Area by International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 calling to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) announced a campaign for Mumía’s freedom. NUMSA is the largest, most powerful and most militant trade union in South Africa, and the entire African continent. It has been active for many years in the fight to liberate Mumia, including a powerful letter in 2016 to the governor of Pennsylvania demanding that Mumia and other prisoners infected with hepatitis C be provided life-saving drugs. After an international outcry, the medications were provided to some 5,000 prisoners in the state’s jails.
In announcing the campaign, NUMSA general secretary Irvin Jim issued a February 16 video proclaiming solidarity with Mumia as a “soldier of freedom and love” who had been wrongly imprisoned. He noted that the union had waged this campaign “over many years, separated by rivers and forests, with the people of the United States.” A letter by NUMSA to the judge in Philadelphia noted that “Mumia Abu-Jamal’s situation has long struck a chord in light of the history of our own freedom struggles in South Africa.” It recalled that “many innocent people have been murdered by the police – people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” and more recently Tyre Nichols in Memphis.
As part of the campaign, on March 10 NUMSA held a march on the U.S. embassy in Pretoria calling for Mumia’s freedom. The union’s open letter to the Philadelphia court was handed over, for forwarding to the judge. Speaking to the crowd outside the embassy, NUMSA national spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola recalled the civil rights movement, when “figures like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Junior, and Malcolm X … fought and died for human justice.” NUMSA’s solidarity campaign should be a clarion call to labor internationally to mobilize its power in workers action to free Mumia! ■
In Solidarity with Bay Area Dock Shutdown
“Mumia’s Freedom Is Labor’s Cause”
February 16 New York City teach-in for freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Labor is in the house.
Teamsters, subway and health workers, immigrant worker organizers, education unionists and other labor, anti-racist and left activists joined students from New York-area campuses in a Black History Month teach-in for workers action to free Mumia Abu-Jamal on February 16. Held in solidarity with that day’s Bay Area longshore workers’ port shutdown for Mumia’s freedom (see acticle in this issue), the event brought out 85 in person to a theater in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, with others participating via Zoom. When Mumia himself phoned live from the state prison in Mahanoy, Pennsylvania to convey his greetings to the teach-in and to salute the longshore workers, the theater rang with the chant, “Brick by brick, wall by wall, we’re going to free Mumia Abu-Jamal!”
Those attending the event were made up, in roughly equal parts, of activists who have participated in efforts to free Mumia for some time, and trade-unionists and students who have recently learned of the case. This reflects the reasoning behind the teach-in, organized on short order after plans for the February 16 longshore shutdown came together. Organizers from the Internationalist Group (IG) and Class Struggle Education Workers (CSEW) contacted NYC-area unionists on the need for a local labor-centered event in solidarity with the Bay Area dockers’ action. Noting that many younger workers are unfamiliar with Mumia’s case, Teamsters Local 808 secretary-treasurer Chris Silvera suggested a teach-in; Charles Jenkins of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) New York chapter, added that Black History Month was a prime time for such an event.
In view of the police frame-up of Jamal and continuing judicial vendetta against him, the IG and the League for the Fourth International have emphasized the need for international workers action to free Mumia. Highlighting the scope of the struggle was the announcement, on the eve of the internationally coordinated February 16 events, by Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), of a campaign fighting for Mumia’s freedom. (See “NUMSA Launches Campaign to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal,” above.)
Subsequently, on March 31, Judge Lucretia Clemons in Philadelphia dismissed the request by Mumia’s lawyer for a court hearing on evidence from boxes of papers on his case, belatedly “discovered” by the district attorney’s office, showing how key to his conviction were witnesses who were paid or promised leniency for testifying against him and how black jurors were systematically stricken from the lists (see article on facing page). While many have looked to the courts for Mumia’s salvation, this shows once again that there is no justice for the oppressed in the capitalist courts, and underscores the importance of mobilizing workers power to free him.
On the speakers list at the New York City event, along with brothers Silvera, Jenkins and Sándor John for the CSEW, were Cleo Silvers (formerly of the United Auto Workers, SEIU health care workers union 1199, the Black Panthers and Young Lords); Virgilio Aran (Laundry Workers Center and National Domestic Workers Alliance); and City University of New York historian Johanna Fernández (writer and producer, Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal and author of The Young Lords: A Radical History). Anchoring the event as moderator was Kaitlan Russell of the CUNY Internationalist Clubs.
Mumia and Workers Struggle
A notable aspect of the NYC teach-in was the presence of several dozen trade-unionists. When the chair asked that members of the labor movement present in the hall stand and give the names of the unions they were from, there were a dozen Teamsters, mainly from Local 808 (Metro-North Railroad), but also from Locals 804 (UPS in NYC) and 25 (Boston). There were also members of TWU Local 100 (NYC transit), 1199 health care workers, DC37 city workers and other parts of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), United Federation of Teachers, Professional Staff Congress-CUNY and others. Also attending were three leaders of Student Workers of Columbia, which won a strike in December 2021.1
The presence of Teamster activists was especially important given the looming labor battle between the union and UPS – the contract covering over 340,000 Teamsters delivery and warehouse workers there expires on July 31. Also notable was that various left and labor activists helping build the teach-in had spoken at a 7 December 2022 rally in front of Grand Central Station to protest government strikebreaking against the railway workers by the Democratic Biden administration and Congress (including the “Squad” of Democratic Socialists of America and other Congressional “progressives”).
Kicking off the event was Jack Heyman, longtime class-struggle activist in ILWU Local 10, speaking live online from San Francisco, where the union was shutting down Bay Area ports demanding freedom for Mumia. “What does Mumia mean for us as workers?” he asked. “When you hear him speak on recordings from prison, you know why they call him ‘the voice of the voiceless.’ That’s why the capitalist rulers have kept this innocent man in the dungeons of this racist system for 41 years now to try to silence his voice and stop his writings and bury his living example. In fighting for his freedom, we’re fighting for the rights and freedom of all of us.”
Heyman noted that Mumia has devoted his life to solidarity, embodying the inseparable connection between the struggle of labor and the fight for black freedom. He cited the famous words of Karl Marx on slavery in the United States: “Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where in the black it is branded.” Key to the ILWU becoming strong in the Bay Area, Heyman said, “was consciously taking on and breaking down the color barrier, fighting against racist oppression and all forms of discrimination.”
“Our union emerged from the big maritime and general strike of 1934 in which the San Francisco cops killed two of our union brothers and wounded hundreds of strikers on Bloody Thursday. Today, the fight against racist police terror is key and on Juneteenth 2020, amid the huge nationwide protest over the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, we shut down all 29 West Coast ports against police brutality and systemic racism.”
Heyman, who has played a leading role in organizing powerful solidarity actions by the ILWU for decades, emphasized this is not something that just happens spontaneously. “Back in 1999 I got a call from the Internationalist Group with the news that in Brazil, teachers were going to shut down the schools to demand freedom for Mumia,” he said. “We set to work to bring out longshore workers here and shut down the ports – and that’s what we did,” on Mumia’s birthday in April 1999. Nine years later, he noted, “on May Day 2008, the ILWU shut down all 29 West Coast ports against the U.S. imperialist war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Explaining why we call Mumia “America’s foremost class-war prisoner,” Heyman noted that the term goes back to the Industrial Workers of the World, the International Labor Defense led by James P. Cannon (who later founded the Trotskyist movement in the U.S.) and others who fought to free Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti and the Scottsboro Nine – a few of the names of those we remember today for their fight against the capitalist injustice system. “The tradition of class-struggle defense taught us that while using every legal possibility, we must put no faith in the capitalist courts but rely on the power of our class, the working class, and all the oppressed.”
Next up was Teamsters Local 808 leader Chris Silvera, who sent a video pointed out that, “It’s been 41 years since Mumia has been imprisoned and we need to educate new people while we continue to struggle for justice for Mumia.” Silvera noted that “we now have evidence that there was suppression of evidence that was kept away from the defense” in Mumia’s 1982 trial, referring to revelations from materials in boxes “found” in the Philadelphia DA’s office. “We continue to struggle globally,” he added, pointing to “my brother and sister railroad workers in Japan” of the Doro-Chiba union who are standing up for Mumia’s freedom.
A solidarity message was read from Germany’s Metalworkers Union Working Group for Internationalism, that also called for freedom of Leonard Peltier, the Native American leader who has been in prison for 46 years as the result of yet another classic frame-up trial. It was reported that stagehands union (IATSE) Local 28 in Portland recently passed a motion calling for workers action to free Mumia.
The teach-in also watched a video greeting sent from Brazil, in which members of the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil and the Class Struggle Committee spoke about the resonance of Mumia’s case in Latin America’s largest country, which has the largest black population in the world after Nigeria. They explained the history of actions for Mumia’s freedom there going back to 1995, when South America’s first “Free Mumia” rally was held in Brazil’s “Steel City,” Volta Redonda. The next year, Mumia wrote a powerful piece defending the Brazilian comrades facing state repression in their fight to remove police from the municipal workers union.
Also played were recorded messages on the meaning of Mumia’s case for black freedom struggles by former Black Panther Assata Shakur (sent in 2021 from Cuba, where she has taken refuge since 1977); and Angela Davis’ greetings to the February 16 Bay Area port shutdown.
Mumia Addresses the Teach-In
The highlight of the event came with messages from Mumia himself, which were arranged by Prof. Johanna Fernández. In a recorded greeting he said he wanted to “thank you all for organizing this teach-in, in support of collective protest by the ILWU – the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and NUMSA, the brother union of metal workers in South Africa,” also mentioning several of the union and education groups at the teach-in. “Why should this wide swath of labor groups unite in protest? Because an injury to one is an injury to all.” Emphasizing the centrality of labor’s power, in a separate written message to union supporters Mumia stated: “When workers unite, the earth trembles and the heavens shake.”
But then a live phone call came in, electrifying participants. Mumia’s voice came on the line, saying “Let’s call this a teach-in for freedom – how about that?” only to be interrupted by the mechanical announcement: “This is the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution – Mahanoy; this call is subject to recording and monitoring.” Mumia went on to say that he was calling from “slow death row,”2 a/k/a “Death by Incarceration, or DBI – life sentences.” He continued:
“That makes that phrase, ‘mass incarceration,’ into a grim, ignoble reality. Pennsylvania is one of the states with some of the highest numbers of lifers – people under DBI sentences.
“If I’ve learned anything in here, it’s this: movements, social movements, change society. It’s the only thing that ever has. When we gather together, when we work together, when we breathe together, we can truly transform society. So let us gather together. Let us build a movement that resonates like thunder in summer.”
The next speaker was Cleo Silvers. Appearing via Zoom live from Memphis, she based her remarks largely on the statement she had sent to the January 31 Hunter College speak-out on the police murders of Tyre Nichols and Atlanta activist Tortuguita (see page 10 of this issue). Comrade Silvers also called attendees’ attention to the death of former Black Panther Eddie Conway, who spent 44 years in Baltimore prisons on frame-up charges. She concluded:
“About the time I joined the Panthers, a young brother in Philadelphia, my home town, did the same thing. His name is Mumia Abu-Jamal.... Tyre and Mumia, despite difference in age and residence do, or did, share one fundamental thing: being black men in a racist society.
“The media keeps talking about how we need a ‘new conversation’ about race. We’ve been having a conversation – after each of these deadly horrors – and nothing has changed. What could change things? What force can stand up to the institutions of capitalism backed up by their armies of police? Look to the Bay Area today, February 16. The dock workers there have voted to shut down the port of Oakland demanding freedom for Mumia. That’s what we need here, and in every city.”
“Labor Is in the House”
Charles Jenkins (second from left) of Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists speaks at the February 16 teach-in.
Charles Jenkins of the New York subway and bus workers union (TWU Local 100) and the CBTU began his remarks by asking, “Is labor in the house?” Answered by cheers and applause, he said:
“So we know that labor is in the house and we know that it’s not the top but it’s the base.... We’ve seen the outrage across this country, on Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tyre Nichols that we just saw murdered in these streets – and for the last 41 years, Mumia on slow death in prison. This evening we are here in solidarity with the dock workers holding back their labor. It should tell us the power we have – it is clear: nothing moves, nothing gets accomplished without us.
“I see some TWU members here. I want to talk about what happens to our leaders in the movement. They jail us. I remember in 2005, when Transport Workers Union Local 100 went on strike. One of the penalties was jailing our president, to teach us a lesson not to go against the capitalist system.… Until we break the system, comrades, it won’t change. We will continue to talk about those lives that were cut down, far too soon, at the hands of the system, be they black or white, they hide behind a system which we have to dismantle.”
From Portland, Oregon, Wyatt McMinn then addressed the teach-in, explaining how his union, Painters (IUPAT) Local 10, passed its resolution last October calling for workers action nationally and internationally to free Mumia.
“Our union’s anti-racist mobilization committee, which came out of the organizing to stop the white-supremacist and Nazi provocations of 2016, introduced the resolution for Mumia after screening a documentary about his case. In 2017, as part of the Portland Labor Against the Fascists mobilization, we helped mobilize hundreds of workers to stop the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer from marching through the streets of Portland just days after the infamous MAX train stabbing in which one bystander was injured and two others were murdered by a racist who was threatening two young women.
“This experience, as well as our participation in mass anti-racist protests in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, underlined the need for labor to mobilize for Mumia’s freedom. Experiencing first-hand the violence of the police as they attacked anti-fascist and Black Lives Matter protestors with tear gas, flash grenades and batons, clearly demonstrates the role of the police in enforcing racism in our society. For us, the class line is clearly drawn and Painters Local 10, as our resolution concludes, ‘call[s] for a policy of working-class struggle through agitation, publicity, protest, and continued coordinated workers action on a national and international scale to free Mumia Abu-Jamal’.”
This was followed by a recording of Mumia’s remarks on the Painters resolution (see see “Message from Mumia: Workers of the World, Unite!” The Internationalist No. 67-68, May-October 2022). Video footage from the day’s port shutdown was shown together with a brief statement by ILWU Local 10 activist “Newt” Newton saying, “We’re shutting down the ports of Oakland and San Francisco – no ship, no cargo will move, to show our solidarity with these fallen comrades and with this living comrade.” Newton recalled the “long wrongful incarceration of Geronimo Pratt,” the Los Angeles Black Panther leader who spent 27 years in San Quentin before being released and exonerated in 1997 after the frame-up against him was exposed.3
Roots of a Ruling-Class Vendetta
Professor Johanna Fernández speaks at the Mumia teach-in.
The vendetta of the U.S. ruling class against Mumia must be understood in the historical context of frame-ups and legal lynchings against labor martyrs, CUNY historian Johanna Fernández emphasized in her presentation. The “Haymarket Affair” of 1886; IWW leader Joe Hill; immigrant anarchist workers Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the ’50s – all followed periods of working-class upsurge. In the 1960s and early ’70s, Angela Davis, Huey Newton and others who were fighting against racism were imprisoned – and later came the frame-up against Mumia Abu-Jamal “to send a message to black people of what’s going to happen if you dare stand up and fight.”
Fernández underlined that the state targeted the Black Panthers, “as a danger to U.S. empire and ‘national security’,” by “standing up to police lynchings, upholding the right of self-defense.” As they explained, capitalism is the historical cause of racism. The ruling class went all out to silence the Panthers. In addition to Geronimo’s case in L.A., a crucial point of reference is the police murder of Chicago Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969. Fernandez detailed key aspects of how, in 1982, Mumia was “railroaded in the courts,” which handed down a death sentence. In 1995 this was all set to be carried out – it was only stopped by intensive protest on an international scale.
“So we stand here today because we have the right to defend ourselves from the predations of capitalism; we have the right to defend ourselves from police lynchings, and to defend our most basic human needs – but when we do so, the government imprisons us. We will not stand for them imprisoning our leaders.... We need to free our brother Mumia Abu-Jamal. We couldn’t save [the lives of] Malcolm X or Medgar Evers or the Rosenbergs or Sacco and Vanzetti, or the Haymarket martyrs. We have to do that with this American revolutionary Mumia, that’s why we’re here.”
Next to speak was Virgilio Aran of the Laundry Workers Center, who has played a key role in immigrant workers organizing drives including those at the Hot and Crusty restaurant, B&H Photo, Wash Supply laundry and in the ongoing campaign of immigrant indigenous construction workers in New York (seeThe Internationalist No. 67-68, May-October 2022). Saluting Mumia’s call to the teach-in, Aran said: “We want Mumia to speak to us in person – not just by phone. We want him free. As we organize, we must connect our struggles to this issue, just as he always [speaks about] the connections between our everyday struggles.”
Behind the Persecution of Mumia: the Democratic Party
Summing up a number of themes addressed in the teach-in, CSEW speaker Sándor John said, “This is an international struggle, part of the struggle for revolutionary internationalism. It means fighting for workers of the world to unite and use their power, against every form of oppression, against the capitalist system, which is threatening humanity with thermonuclear war in U.S. imperialism’s drive toward World War Three.” He went on: “Among those we are remembering tonight, we remember Mumia’s wife Wadiya Jamal, who died on December 27. He is grieving for her under circumstances few of us can imagine. He could not attend her funeral; he was behind bars, as he has been for 41 years.”
John noted that, “The port shutdown for Mumia here in the U.S., a society born from slavery and from genocide against Native Americans, strikes a chord in Brazil, a society also founded on slavery, where there is a powerful working class chained to capitalism through its reformist leaders in their popular-front alliance of class collaboration. In South Africa, black workers waged massive, heroic strikes to bring down apartheid. Now there is neo-apartheid under the African National Congress government – but the most powerful union on the continent of Africa, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, is raising the banner of Mumia’s freedom, which evokes hopes and aspirations for the working class.”
John underlined that “The Democratic Party, its politicians and frame-up artists are the ones at each level that framed up Mumia Abu-Jamal and have kept him imprisoned all these years, despite all the evidence, both old and newly revealed.” The role of the Democrats is central too in the racist police murder of Tyre Nichols, he added. He pointed to the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE commune in Philadelphia, who Mumia had defended for years. This was “deliberate racist murder by the capitalist government of eleven black people, five of them children. An incendiary device was dropped from the sky on their house; it was provided by the FBI. Black Democratic mayor Wilson Goode ordered the bombing.”
“We had an experience here not long ago with capitalist state repression, and hypocrisy,” John added. “The Democratic Party, including ‘the Squad,’ used the Railway Labor Act for strikebreaking against the railway workers.” This underscores that “the most fundamental rights of labor, connected so closely to the struggle for black freedom and against all forms of oppression, require a radical break with the Democratic Party and all capitalist parties and the forming of a revolutionary workers party to fight for a workers government. That’s a fundamental part of what genuine socialism means. Such a party would uphold the struggle for black freedom. It would fight for free abortion on demand. It would defend the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people against bigotry and discrimination. It would fight against the imperialist war drive and it would bring internationalism into the scene on a world scale, fighting to abolish capitalism all across the face of this planet and to inaugurate a genuine classless society.”
The CSEW speaker concluded with an appeal: “As we fight for the freedom of our imprisoned brother Mumia Abu-Jamal, and all of the inspiration he gives us, let’s bring this message to our coworkers and into our unions. We need workers action to free Mumia Abu-Jamal – because Mumia’s freedom is labor’s cause.” ■
- 1. The ten-week strike defeated the haughty anti-union employer with a “Shut It Down” action of hundreds of strikers and supporters (see Class Struggle Education Workers, “Columbia Strike Wins, More Struggles Ahead,” January 2022).
- 2. Mumia was on death row from 1982 to 2001, when – in the wake of a worldwide campaign to save Mumia’s life and win his freedom – a federal judge vacated the death sentence, citing irregularities in the penalty and sentencing aspects of the 1981 trial but not the frame-up conviction itself. Mumia’s first book, published in 1995, was titled Live from Death Row. Attempts by Philadelphia DAs to reinstate the death penalty were dropped ten years later (see “Redouble the Fight to Free Mumia Now! Death Sentence Dropped Against Mumia Abu-Jamal!” The Internationalist supplement, January 2012. In 2021, Mumia’s life was threatened yet again due to medical neglect by prison authorities (see “Don’t Let Them Silence ‘The Voice of the Voiceless’: No Execution by COVID – Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Now!” The Internationalist No. 62, January-March 2021.
- 3. On Geronimo’s case, and its relation to the government’s COINTELPRO campaign of frame-ups and murder against Black Panthers and other fighters against capitalist racism, see “Geronimo Is Out! Now Free Mumia!” (The Internationalist supplement, June 1997).