March 2007    

A Quarter Century on Death Row –
No Justice in the Capitalist Courts

It Will Take Workers’ Power to
Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!
Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!

Mumia Abu-Jamal (Photo: © Lou Jones)

Since this article was published, a a federal circuit court hearing date has been set for May 17 in Philadelphia to hear oral arguments on appeals by the prosecution and defense.

Twenty-five years ago last December in the city of Philadelphia, Mumia Abu-Jamal was shot, arrested and beaten to within an inch of his life while in police custody. When he survived the cop assault, he was framed up, dragged through a racist travesty of a trial and sentenced to die, for a murder he did not commit. For a quarter century, the former Black Panther and renowned radical journalist has been kept in isolation on Pennsylvania’s death row. The ruling class is determined to silence the innocent man who has powerfully exposed their crimes and championed their victims, for which he became known as the “voice of the voiceless.”

After a federal judge overturned Mumia’s death sentence in 2001 but upheld his conviction, both the defense and prosecution appealed the verdict. With his case before federal appeals court in Philadelphia, Mumia’s life is in danger. A panel of three judges could restore the death sentence at any time and Democratic governor Ed Rendell, who was Philadelphia district attorney at the time of Jamal’s arrest and engineered the 1981 frame-up trial, has pledged to sign a third death warrant. Since the Supreme Court has repeatedly refused to hear Mumia’s appeals, the decision of the Philadelphia circuit court could be the final legal decision in this case. The Internationalist Group urgently calls to rekindle mass protests and particularly to bring out the power of the working class to abolish the racist death penalty and win freedom now for Mumia!

Over the years, millions of people around the globe have taken up Mumia’s cause. In Europe, it has had a great echo due to revulsion at the barbaric death penalty. In 2003, the city of Paris named Mumia an honorary citizen, the first time this status had been bestowed since it was given to Pablo Picasso in 1971. Last April, the city of St-Denis, a working-class suburb of Paris, named a street Rue Mumia Abu-Jamal at the initiative of a multi-ethnic youth group. This set off a firestorm of denunciations in the United States. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which says it is the largest cop organization in the world, went ballistic and got a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress condemning the city of St-Denis for honoring Mumia.

On December 6, this resolution, HR 1082, written by a Pennsylvania Republican who was defeated in the last election and pushed by rabid right-wing immigrant-basher James Sensenbrenner, was rammed through the House of Representatives by a vote of 368-31. This lopsided vote gives a measure of the ruling-class hatred of Mumia. Voting against were members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the New York City delegation. Joining the racist lynch mob which “commends all police officers in the United States and throughout the world” were House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and liberal “antiwar” Rep. Denis Kucinich. Pelosi also announced that the Democratic-led Congress would continue to vote to fund the war on Iraq.

Three days later, hundreds rallied in the streets of Philadelphia to support Mumia Abu-Jamal on the 25th anniversary of his arrest.

Five of the recently indicted Black Panthers: (from left) Hank Jones, John Bowman (deceased), Ray Boudreaux, Harold Taylor, and Richard Brown. 
(Photo: Scott Braley/Freedom Archives)

Mumia’s persecutors are on a rampage. He was jailed and sentenced to die as part of the government’s war on the Black Panther Party (BPP). The state assassinated no less than 38 Panthers in its terrorist assault. Others died in jail. On January 23, six former Panthers, ranging in age from 58 to 71, were arrested in early-morning police raids, charged with a 1971 killing of a San Francisco policeman. The six are former Bay Area BPP organizers Richard Brown, Richard O’Neal, Francisco Torres, Ray Boudreaux, Hank Jones and Harold Taylor. Several of them were jailed in 2005 for refusing to testify in a grand jury frame-up on the same charges. In addition, two former New York Panthers who are already imprisoned on false charges of killing a New York policemen, Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqin (Anthony Bottom), were indicted.

The case against the “Panther 8” was built on “evidence” gained through torturing a group of 13 black activists arrested in New Orleans 34 years ago. A press release by the Center for Constitutional Rights notes, “In 1973, New Orleans police employed torture over the course of several days to obtain information from members of the Black Panthers who were stripped naked, beaten, blindfolded, covered in blankets soaked with boiling water, and had electric probes placed on their genitals, among other methods. A court ruled in 1974 that both San Francisco and New Orleans police had engaged in torture to extract a confession, and a San Francisco judge dismissed charges against three men in 1975 based on that ruling.” The CCR compared this torture of African Americans in the U.S. with the “horrific” torture carried out by U.S. military and intelligence agencies in bases at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.

The cops have also been on the warpath against Assata Shakur, who like several of the recently arrested former Panthers was part of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), an offshoot of the BPP. Shakur was wounded in a 1973 ambush by state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike, and seized along with another BLA supporter, Sundiata Acoli. Acoli has spent the last three decades in jail, but Shakur escaped from prison and has since been living in Havana under the protection of the Cuban government. Labeled a “cop killer,” like Mumia, because a state trooper was killed (by a police bullet) in the crossfire, even though she hadn’t touched a gun and was shot with her hands up, Assata Shakur now has a $1 million bounty on her head by the “Justice” Department. Ex-Panther Kathleen Cleaver compared this to the bounty by the state of Maryland on Harriet Tubman in the 1850s for her work in organizing the “Underground Railway” for escaped slaves.

Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil brought Mumia campaign to Brazil. LQB sparked statewide work stoppage by SEPE teachers union in Rio de Janeiro in April 1999 demanding “Freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal.”
(Photo: Vanguarda Operária)

Predictably, the government labeled the former Panthers “domestic terrorists,” linking them to its “war on terror” whose purpose is to terrorize the world into submission to Washington’s dictates. This underscores the fact, as we have repeatedly insisted, that imperialist war invariably brings with it police-state repression against the “enemy within.” After the 11 September 2001 attacks, Arabs and those of Near Eastern and South Asian origin were particular targets. The net has since spread to undocumented workers from Mexico and Latin America, as the hated ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) police of the Department of Homeland Security round up hundreds at a time in factory raids. To put a stop to the raids, to end the decades-long war on the Panthers, what’s needed is sharp class struggle to defeat the imperialist war abroad and the bosses’ war on workers, immigrants and minorities “at home.”

Many of those protesting the glaring injustices in Mumia’s case have called for a new trial, presuming (or hoping) that the hounding of this courageous fighter against injustice was an aberration. It is not. The drive to carry out a legal lynching of Mumia Abu-Jamal is not just another defense case. Many have compared it to the trial and imprisonment of the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, which summed up racist “justice” under Jim Crow segregation in the rural South. Mumia has come to symbolize the oppression of blacks under police siege in the Northern ghettos, but more than that he embodies the persecution of fighters for black freedom throughout capitalist America. He is the personification of the struggle against the racist death penalty that goes back to the chattel slavery on which this country was founded.

Rio CUT labor federation included demand for Mumia’s  freedom in general strike that November (right). Union banner also hails Zumbi, leader of Brazilian escaped slaves in late 1600s, and João Cândido, leader of 1910 revolt in Brazil’s navy against whipping of black sailors.
(Photo: Vanguarda Operária)

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.

Already, dozens of unions and hundreds of union activists and leaders have come out in defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal. This includes not only West Coast and East Coast (ILWU and ILA) dock workers locals, the 1199 SEIU Hospital Workers union and several transit workers locals, but also local labor bodies such as the Alameda County Central Labor Council in California. The San Francisco Labor Council put forward a resolution to the 1999 AFL-CIO convention for “a nationwide day of labor action to free Mumia Abu-Jamal.” But such motions, like the multitude of calls for union action against the draconian U.S.A. PATRIOT act, have remained a dead letter as the labor bureaucracy does everything to hogtie the power of the working class for fear that it could threaten the capitalist system it supports. Now more than ever, we call on working-class and union militants and all defenders of black, immigrant and democratic rights in general to mobilize the power of the working class to free Mumia now!

Mumia Targeted in Government War on the Panthers

J. Edgar Hoover, May 1969J. Edgar Hoover in May 1969. In 1968 memo, FBI chief threatened that blacks who “succumb to revolutionary teaching ... will be dead revolutionaries.” (Photo: AP)

At 4 a.m. on 9 December 1981, Mumia Abu-Jamal was shot in the chest by Philadelphia police. By that time, he had been in the crosshairs of the Philly cops and of the Federal Bureau of Investigations – as well as U.S. Army Military Intelligence, the Naval Investigative Service, the Air Force Office of Special Investigation and the U.S. Secret Service – for more than a dozen years, ever since he became a spokesman of the local Black Panther Party at the age of 15. In 1968, he was brutally beaten by racist thugs, including Philadelphia police, at a demonstration against Dixiecrat segregationist George Wallace. The 700 pages of (heavily expurgated) documents on him later turned over to Mumia under the Freedom of Information Act show that by 1971, Mumia was placed on the FBI’s Security Index (of people considered a threat to “national security”) and in Category II of the Administrative Index (ADEX), listing those to be picked up and confined in concentration camps in a “national emergency.”

Talking of a “war” on the Black Panther Party by federal, state and local governments is no exaggeration. By the late 1960s, the FBI’s COINTELPRO (for Counterintelligence Program) had decided to concentrate on black radicals. A 4 March 1968 memo from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared: “The aim is to track, expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist organizations” (File 100-448006). Three weeks later, on March 25, Hoover instructed COINTELPRO to “prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups . . . prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement . . . prevent the long-range growth of militant black nationalist organizations especially among the youth.” The FBI chief went on:

“The Negro youth and moderate[s] must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teaching, they will be dead revolutionaries.”

On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King, long a target of intensive FBI surveillance, was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. The potential “messiah” gone, Hoover concentrated his fire on the Panthers, who he described in an interview with the New York Times (8 September 1968) as “the real long-range threat to American society.”

Hoover’s vow to turn black radicals into “dead revolutionaries” was no idle threat. In his book, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party (South End Press, 2004), adapted from his thesis for his Masters degree from California State University, which he obtained while on death row, Mumia Abu-Jamal quotes Attorney General John Mitchell, President Richard Nixon’s top cop and hit man, who swore to “wipe out the Black Panther Party by the end of 1969.” Mumia documents how the feds used sinister “brownmail” of anonymous letters and smears trying to set one group of Panthers against another, leader against leader, husband and wife against each other. He discusses several cases of FBI agents and provocateurs in the BPP and other black groups who tried to instigate crazed terrorist plots and murdered Panthers.

These government plants included members of the US (“United Slaves”) organization of Ron Karenga who as part of a US effort to gain control of the Black Studies Program at UCLA murdered L.A. Panther leaders Bunchy Carter and Jon Huggins. FBI fink George Sams in New Haven accused a new Panther, Alex Rackley, of being an informer and murdered him, then tried to pin the killing on BPP chairman Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins (whose husband Jon had been killed a couple of months earlier). Another government snitch, Louis Tackwood, set up a 1969 raid on L.A. BPP offices; in Chicago, an FBI fink, William O’Neal, vainly tried to get Chicago Panther chairman Fred Hampton and Bobby Rush (now a U.S. Congressman) to agree to a plot to bomb city hall. He provided the floor plan to facilitate the police/FBI raid in which Panthers Hampton and Mark Clark were slain.

Mumia Abu-Jamal in Philadelphia Black Panther office. (Photo: Philadelphia Inquirer)

In Philadelphia, the policy of local police under chief Frank Rizzo of having BPP members “arrested on every possible charge until they could no longer make bail” was held up as a model in COINTELPRO directives. In August 1970, Rizzo’s racist cops raided the BPP offices and had the entire Panther leadership stripped naked and paraded on the streets to humiliate them. In Mumia’s case, the FBI repeatedly tried to set him up: once for having an Exacto knife in his pocket when he was arrested; on another occasion searching him for weapons when he flew to a BPP meeting on the West Coast. In 1973, they tried to stick him with the murder of the British governor of Bermuda using the fact that the year before Jamal had taken courses at Vermont’s Goddard College, “which attracts black extremists from Bermuda,” according to a letter by the acting director of the FBI. All these attempts failed.

Jamal left the Panthers in 1970 as the BPP was falling apart in a split (stoked by FBI provocation) between the West Coast wing led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, which turned toward Democratic Party local politics, and the East Coast wing led by Eldridge Cleaver, who went into exile in Algeria. COINTELPRO was formally (but not actually) disbanded in 1974 after activists from Swarthmore College seized and publicized mountains of documents exposing the massive program of spying and provocation. In Philadelphia, Rizzo continued his own COINTELPRO operation, first as police chief from 1967 to 1972, and then as mayor during 1972-80, compiling files on 18,000 people. He ran the city as a mini-police state, subjecting the population – particularly black people – to a reign of unchecked cop power.

Frank Rizzo, June 1969“Rizzotown”: Philly police commissioner Frank Rizzo in tuxedo with nightstick protruding from cumberbund, June 1969. (Photo: AP)

In We Want Freedom, Mumia writes that Philadelphia “is formally a northern city, but as it virtually straddles the mythical Mason-Dixon line, it is, in many ways, a southern city as well.” Frank Rizzo ruled Philly “up North” in much the same way as Sheriff Eugene “Bull” Connor ran Birmingham, Alabama “down South.” In 1967, Rizzo set his cops on 3,000 students protesting at the Board of Education, yelling: “Get their black asses!” In 1978, he sent an army of 600 police to assault a largely black Powelton Village commune of the MOVE organization, followers of the back-to-nature philosophy of John Africa who upheld the right of self-defense. TV footage and front-page photos in the Philadelphia Inquirer showed police viciously stomping MOVE member Delbert Africa in the head. In the crossfire, a cop was killed, leading to the imprisonment of 12 MOVE members, nine of whom are still behind bars 29 years later.

The rulers of the misnamed “city of brotherly love” have long kept the black and Latino population down through unbridled police rule. In 1972, the state committee of the federal Civil Rights Commission called the Philadelphia police a “paramilitary institution,” which acted like “a law unto itself.” Police abuses in “Rizzotown” became so notorious in the late ’70s that the federal Justice Department began an investigation. The feds produced a list of thousands of people, 271 pages of names, who had been beaten or shot by the police. The  local Bar Association documented 299 killings by Philly cops during 1970-78 which they deemed illegal. And this reign of cop terror continued after Rizzo was replaced by a black Democratic mayor, Wilson Goode. In May 1985, city police, with Goode’s approval, used C-4 explosives supplied by the FBI to firebomb a second MOVE commune, killing eleven black men, women and children, and burning down the whole Osage Avenue neighborhood in West Philadelphia.

After having been targeted by the FBI and local police as a spokesman for the Black Panther Party at the age of 15, Mumia Abu-Jamal earned the hatred of Rizzo and Philly cops for his coverage of police abuse as a radio reporter, particularly over the 1978 Powelton Village siege. Meanwhile, the police department was thrown into turmoil by an unprecedented 1979 federal lawsuit over years of brutality and rampant corruption on the force. Police officials were worried about an informer in their ranks leaking information to the Justice Department, particularly about the Center City district where cops were deeply involved in prostitution and drug rackets. Years later, in 2001, it was revealed that the cops organized a mob hit to take out the suspected leaker, police officer Daniel Faulkner. When Jamal showed up on the scene  at 4 a.m. on 9 December 1981, seeing his brother, Billy Cook, staggering after being beaten by cops, the police saw their chance. They shot Mumia in the chest and then pinned the rubout of Faulkner on their nemesis.

Liberal Lawyers Betray Mumia

Philadelphia is an extreme example of how oppressed racial/ethnic minorities are ruled in racist capitalist America. With slavery defeated by the 1860s Civil War, and Jim Crow segregation formally outlawed following the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, across the country black ghettos and Latino barrios are treated by increasingly militarized police forces as occupied territories. Cops use “racial profiling” to “stop and frisk” dark-skinned people on the streets or in their cars: more than 500,000 people were searched by the New York Police Department last year alone, 85 percent of them blacks and Latinos. Vast numbers of minority youth are imprisoned (more than 2.1 million people are currently in jail across the country, a far higher percentage than in any other economically advanced country), then denied basic rights after release. Police hit squads murder “suspects” with abandon: a NYPD “street crime unit” gunned down Amadou Diallo with 41 shots in 1999 and the “club enforcement unit” assassinated Sean Bell with 50 shots in 2006.

Philadelphia police firebombing of MOVE commune, 13 May 1985. AP photoPhiladelphia, city of brotherly love: on 13 May 1985, Philly cops under black Democrat mayor Wilson Goode dropped military explosives supplied by FBI on MOVE commune, killing 11 black men, women and children. Police sharpshooters forced MOVE members back inside their burning home and let fire rage, burning down the entire neighborhood.
(Photo: AP)

The drive to lynch Mumia Abu-Jamal has been a judicial horror show from the start. After Mumia was shot in the chest that December 9, police picked him up and rammed his head into a telephone pole. When the police wagon arrived at Jefferson Hospital, the cops threw him to the ground and beat him again. At the hospital doors Mumia was subjected to a new beating. His real “crime” in the eyes of the police is that he survived the attempt to murder him in the streets, so for the past 25 years they have been trying to lynch him in the courts. To accomplish this the government has fabricated a whole tissue of lies. “Mumia Abu-Jamal stood over Officer Faulkner and shot him in the face, mortally wounding him,” claims House Resolution 1082. False. This story was concocted by prosecutor Joseph McGill, the bullet casings on the sidewalk do not match the gun Jamal was licensed to carry as a taxi driver, the bullet removed from Faulkner’s body was a different caliber, the trajectory of the shot that killed the policeman is the opposite of someone standing over him, there were no divots (loose chips) in the sidewalk.

A cop later claimed that Mumia “confessed” in the police wagon, but his partner reported that Mumia said nothing. Two months later, at a conference of the police with the district attorney, a story was invented about Jamal “hollering” a confession in the hospital corridor, but this is denied by the physician, who said the patient had lost too much blood to be able to say anything loudly, and another police officer reported that that Mumia “made no comments.” None of this was brought out at the 1982 trial, because the police claimed the officer was “not available” and Jamal’s incompetent lawyer didn’t subpoena him. Witnesses on the scene were coerced by the police into saying that Jamal shot Faulkner. A main prosecution witness, a prostitute, Cynthia White, was known to “turn tricks” for the police. A second prostitute, Pamela Jenkins, who was a key government witness in the federal investigation into the 39th Precinct corruption scandal, reported the police pressure to perjure herself and name Jamal as the shooter.

A third prostitute, Veronica Jones, said in a 1996 hearing that police coerced her into changing her account that she saw two men run from the scene; when she insisted on telling the truth about what happened, she was taken from the stand in handcuffs and jailed on an “outstanding warrant.” Another witness, white cab driver Robert Chobert, later recanted key elements of his original testimony to an investigator for Jamal’s defense team. His recantation was never brought out in court. Another eyewitness, taxi driver William Singletary, stated flatly in a deposition that Mumia Abu-Jamal did not shoot Faulkner, that the shooter was a black male wearing a green army jacket who then fled the scene. Altogether five witnesses reported seeing a man in a green army jacket on the scene, several saying they saw him fleeing. (Jamal had on a red quilted ski jacket with a blue stripe.) Yet Singletary was never called to testify by the prosecution or the defense, and others were not questioned about the man in the army jacket.

The vital importance of this became clear when one Arnold Beverly, who had previously told members of Jamal’s defense team that he knew who shot the police officer, finally admitted, in June 1999, in a sworn and videotaped deposition, that “Jamal had nothing to do with the shooting” and that “I shot Faulkner in the face at close range.” Beverly was wearing a green army jacket that night. His deposition gives a detailed account of the events, and an explanation of why Faulkner was killed:

“I was hired, along with another guy, and paid to shoot and kill Faulkner. I had heard that Faulkner was a problem for the mob and corrupt policemen because he interfered with the graft and payoffs made to allow illegal activity including prostitution, gambling, drugs without prosecution in the center city area.”

Several witnesses reported seeing two men fleeing the scene. The second one was quite likely Kenneth Freeman, who had been in a car with Mumia’s brother, Billy Cook. Freeman, who was also wearing a green army jacket, later told Cook about “a plan to kill Faulkner. He told me that he was armed on that night and participated in the shooting.”

Arnold Beverly depositionArnold Beverly confessed to killing police officer Daniel Faulkner in mob hit. Liberal lawyers wouldnt present his testimony showing Mumias innocence.

The Beverly confession is consistent with the facts in the case, unlike the prosecution’s story which is riddled with holes and contradictions, and also clears up the motive for the shooting of the police officer. Yet Jamal’s own defense lawyers, Leonard Weinglass and Daniel Williams, refused to present his testimony. Nor did they call on Billy Cook to testify, nor did they ask Singletary about what he saw (in fact, lead attorney Weinglass undercut Singletary’s credibility), nor did they question Chobert about his recantation of his previous testimony. Why not? Because they refused to raise at any time the innocence of Mumia Abu-Jama or allow any testimony on this vital issue. Rachel Wolkenstein, counsel of the Partisan Defense Committee, who had participated as one of the attorneys in the defense team, had interviewed Singletary and Beverly and insisted to Weinglass and Williams that their testimony must be presented in the 1999 federal habeas corpus appeal. In an August 2001 affidavit, Wolkenstein reported:

“Co-counsel Williams argued that if accepted, Beverly’s account would mean that police had knowingly framed an innocent man, and Williams asserted that it was ‘unbelievable’ that police or the prosecution would do that.”

At bottom, what was going on here was a battle over the fundamental issue of the capitalist state. In Rizzo’s Philadelphia, of all places, it is utterly believable that the police and prosecution would frame up an innocent man. They did it all the time and everyone knew it. Even the federal government sued the Philly police department for its blatant corruption and systematic violation of rights. But as bourgeois liberals, Mumia’s then-attorneys Weinglass and Williams refused to uphold his innocence, because to do so would go beyond the matter of strictly constitutional issues of law and inevitably point to the nature of the state as a machine for the suppression of the oppressed in the interests of the ruling class – and that they would not touch. On top of this, Williams published a vile insider’s account” of the Mumia defense, Executing Justice (2001), in which he outrageously declared, “I have no idea whether Mumia Abu-Jamal is innocent or guilty.” For this outright treachery, Jamal rightly fired his backstabbing defense lawyers.

Mumia Abu-Jamal’s new lawyers filed an amended appeal. As we wrote five years ago:

“The credibility of the charges brought in Jamal’s new appeal is not why his former attorneys refused to touch them. It was their credibility with the bourgeois legal system they didn’t want to jeopardize. While lawyers are pledged to defend the interests of their clients, a trust that Weinglass and Williams horrendously betrayed as they stabbed Mumia in the back, they are also sworn in as ‘officers of the court.’ They can be disbarred or refused the right to representation in the courts, as President Clinton has discovered. But more fundamentally, they are an integral part of the bourgeois ‘justice’ system, which defends the interests of the exploiters and oppressors by meting out injustice to the exploited and oppressed. To argue that Mumia was framed by the police, prosecutors and courts as well as by the FBI – as he was –  would mean indicting the capitalist state. That they would not do, because like the whole layer of liberals, rad-libs and reformists who only call for a ‘new trial,’ Weinglass and Williams peddle the illusion that you can get justice in the courts. Bottom line: they support the state that is hell-bent on silencing Mumia Abu-Jamal forever.”

“Battle Escalates for Jamal’s Freedom,” The Internationalist No. 13, May-June 2002

When in December 2005, the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed to consider three of the claims raised by Mumia in his federal appeal, liberals who had been calling for a new trial proclaimed this a huge “victory.” Yet the verdict of the court could well be to reinstate the death penalty lifted by U.S. District Court judge Yohn, for the three-judge panel is also hearing the prosecution’s appeal. Or the judges could order a new sentencing hearing, in the present reactionary political climate, in which Democrats and Republicans compete over who is tougher on “terrorism.” And if a new death sentence is handed down, there will be a fast track to execution.

The counts that the judges agreed to hear concern, first, the grossly racist jury-rigging in the original trial, when the prosecution struck eleven black potential jurors on peremptory challenges, and the final jury had a single black person, in a city that is over 40 percent black. Second is the question of judicial bias in the 1995 state appeals hearing before the same Judge Albert Sabo, the notorious “hanging judge” who presided over the original 1982 trial. Third is the issue of Prosecutor McGill’s instructions to the jury, when he argued for conviction on the grounds that there would “appeal after appeal and perhaps there could be a reversal of the case, or whatever, so that may not be final.” Even on these issues, the full story won’t be heard. A court stenographer, Terri Maurer-Carter, revealed in 2001 that she overheard Sabo say of Jamal, “I’m going to help ’em fry the n----r.” But her testimony is ruled out because it concerns the original trial, not the appeal. Nor will the videotape be shown where Philadelphia prosecutors were shown how to exclude black jurors.

What won’t be considered at all includes:

  • The state’s manipulation of eyewitnesses into changing their testimony to finger Jamal.
  • The state’s suppression of the evidence of the shooter fleeing the scene.
  • The state’s use of a fabricated “confession,” cooked up by the prosecutor and cops two months later.
  • The state’s destruction of crucial physical evidence, and keeping from the jury the fact the medical examiner’s report said Faulkner was shot by a bullet of a different caliber than Jamal’s gun.
  • The hundreds of pages of documents showing longstanding police surveillance of and bias against Jamal.
  • The denial of Jamal’s constitutional right to representation by the multiple failures of his defense counsel at trial.
  • The trial court’s stripping of Jamal’s right to defend himself.
  • The court’s denial of funds to hire experts to pursue potential issues and witnesses.
  • The prosecution’s use of Jamal’s affiliation with the Black Panther Party a decade earlier to argue for the death penalty.

Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to die because the government considered him a revolutionary threat to the system. When Jamal rose in court to read a statement protesting the guilty verdict, the judge let the prosecutor “cross-examine” him about a 1970 newspaper interview in which he quoted Mao Zedong’s maxim, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Asked if he believed that, Mumia responded: “I believe that America has proven that quote to be true.” He read from the rest of the interview to set the context, coming shortly after the police assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago. But the prosecution used this to claim that Jamal intended to kill a cop “way back then.” To combat this blatantly political frame-up, limiting the defense to points of constitutional law won’t do – it is necessary take on the system that vows to turn black radicals into “dead revolutionaries.”

All Faith in the Power of the Masses, No Faith in the Capitalist Courts

Major courtroom battles always lay bare the class nature of society, for the judicial system is part of the machinery of the ruling class to ensure its domination. The Dreyfus case in France at the turn of the 20th century, in which a Jewish officer was the victim of an anti-Semitic frame-up; the Sacco-Vanzetti trial of two anarchist workers, arrested in the post-World War I red scare and executed in 1927; the 1930s trial of the Scottsboro Boys, exposing lynch law “justice” in the South; the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg at the height of the post-WWII anti-Soviet Cold War spy hysteria – all of these trials had to be fought politically, for fundamental social forces were involved. And in each case there were sharp differences over the defense, counterposing revolutionary politics to the dead-end of reformist and liberal legalism. Just as the racist frame-up and drive to execute Mumia Abu-Jamal is no aberration, neither is the betrayal by his former attorneys, whose loyalty to the bourgeoisie was greater than that to their client.

In the 1920s, in the Sacco-Vanzetti trial alongside the defense committee led by the International Labor Defense (ILD), headed by James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, and linked to the Communist Party, a second defense committee was organized by the pro-capitalist union hacks of the American Federation of Labor, who accused the CP of trying to get the defendants killed by demonstrating in the streets. In the Scottsboro case, the bourgeois liberals in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) likewise denounced the Communist-led defense for calling for worldwide demonstrations on behalf of the nine black Alabama youths. In the 1950s, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) refused to defend the Rosenbergs from McCarthyite witchhunting because they were accused of spying for the Soviet Union. And for years Amnesty International refused to defend Jamal because someone accused of killing a cop couldn’t be a “prisoner of conscience.”

Port of San Francisco stands empty and idle during 24 April 1999 work stoppage that shut down ports along the U.S. West Coast demanding “Freedom for Mumia!” This is a taste of the proletarian power that will be needed to free this courageous champion of the oppressed and abolish the racist death penalty.  (Internationalist photo)

Revolutionary Marxists are in favor of pursuing all legal avenues of defense against state repression in the capitalist courts. We do not object to Jamal’s lawyers seeking a new trial and making appeals to every available instance in the judicial system, so long as there is a forthright defense against the repressors. But as communists we understand that the whole “justice” system is rigged against the poor, minority and working people for its job is to defend the interests of the ruling class against the victims of its system of oppression and exploitation. It is no accident that the courts stand behind the cops, because they are all part of the backbone of the capitalist state, which is defended by the capitalist politicians, bourgeois liberals, the bourgeoisie’s “labor lieutenants” and petty-bourgeois reformist leftists alike.

ILWU contingent in April 1999 march chanted: “An injury to one is an injury to all, Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!” (Internationalist photo)

These forces join together on the political platform of calling for a new trial, expressing the confidence (explicit or implicit) that Mumia could get a fair shake with a different judge. Social-democratic, Stalinist and pseudo-Trotskyist groups including Socialist Action, Workers World Party, International Socialist Organization, Revolutionary Communist Party and others all climbed on the “new trial” platform, appealing to the same liberal milieu that Mumia’s former lawyers were looking to when they argued that asserting Mumia’s innocence would not be “believable.” Now that the legal team has changed, the leftist camp followers try to combine calls to “free Mumia” with appeals for a “new trial.” Many of these same groups have in the past crossed the class line by bringing the courts into the labor movement, supporting suits against the unions over corruption in the case of groups like Teamsters for a Democratic Union and Miners for Democracy . This again shows their expectations of getting justice in the capitalist courts. Class-struggle union militants insist instead that “labor must clean its own house.”

As did the International Labor Defense in the 1920s, we say that there can be no justice in the capitalist courts. Mumia’s 1982 trial was a racist abomination, his liberal lawyers sabotaged his 1995 appeal, and even if a new trial were granted by the appeals court, it would hardly be fair. To defend Mumia it is necessary to mobilize the power of the working class in the streets, in the workplace – in sharp struggle, not just with paper resolutions – so that the rulers fear for their own system. That may have an effect on the courts, or the rulers may be so dead-set on carrying out their state murder – as was the case with Sacco and Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs – that they won’t be stopped short of a revolutionary upheaval. But in every case, the job of revolutionaries is, as Trotsky wrote in the founding program of the Fourth International: “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be.”

As James Cannon wrote in response to labor fakers who criticized the ILD during the fight to save Sacco and Vanzetti:

“The Sacco-Vanzetti case is no private monopoly, but an issue of the class struggle in which the decisive word will be spoken by the masses who have made this fight their own.  It is, therefore, necessary to discuss openly the conflicting policies which are bound up with different objectives.

“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. This is what has prevented the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti so far. Its goal is nothing less than their triumphant vindication and liberation.

“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….

“The conscious proletarian elements with whom we identify ourselves unconditionally, are for the first policy. The bourgeois elements, and those influenced by them, are for the second.”

–James P. Cannon, “Who Can Save Sacco and Vanzetti?” International Labor Defender, January 1927, in Notebook of an Agitator (1958)

We demand that the MOVE 9, the Panther 8, Sundiata Acoli and all former Panthers still behind bars be immediately released! Hands off Assata Shakur! Mobilize workers’ power to free Mumia NOW! n

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