Reporter's Notebook from Philadelphia
Running With the Freedom Summer Youth
Frontline in the Struggle to Save Mumia Abu-Jamal
By Debbie Lang
Revolutionary Worker #967, July 26, 1998
I first saw the Freedom Summer volunteers at the July 4 demonstration for Mumia in Philadelphia. Throughout the summer, dozens of these youth had come to Philadelphia to build the struggle to stop the execution of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. I knew right away I wanted to talk to them. So the next weekend I drove down from New York to run with them for a while. From Center City Philadelphia I took the highway west toward Valley Forge and exited on Lincoln Drive. This tree-lined, picturesque road winds up the west side of Germantown, one of Philadelphia's oldest neighborhoods. A quick right turn and I found myself in what seemed like another world, the neighborhood where the Freedom Summer volunteers were staying.
Germantown is a Black neighborhood northwest of Center City and just north of the area where Mumia grew up. Many of the houses are over 100 years old. In the 1800s, some were stops on the Underground Railroad that hid slaves who were running for their lives. One of the first things I noticed was that there were cops all over the place. But evidence of the Freedom Summer volunteers was also everywhere. There were Mumia posters in the windows of stores on Chelten Avenue, a major shopping strip, including at some of the larger chain stores. Many private houses and smaller mom-and-pop stores displayed them too.
A group of volunteers were hanging out on the porch discussing their plans for the day when I drove up to where they were staying. The first two young women I interviewed were the youngest Freedom Summer volunteers, both 15 years old. Diane lives in Manhattan. She's been to sweatshop rallies against Nike, Guess, the Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy. She said the MOVE kids knew all the clothes that were made in sweatshops and told her this included the Adidas she had on. The MOVE kids joined the Freedom Summer volunteers at workshops, hip hop shows and going out to neighborhoods in West Philly--where the city dropped a bomb on a MOVE house in 1985, murdering 11 men, women and children.
B.K.'s from Washington, D.C. and told me she had gotten lots of literature about Mumia at punk shows and that there's "a definite vibe going on" about Mumia. She said a punk zine called Profane Existence had a cover story on his case and a speech by Ramona Africa (from MOVE, and the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal). B.K. learned about Freedom Summer when she skipped school to go to the Jericho protest to free political prisoners last March. Like the other volunteers I spoke with, she was deeply concerned about not just her future but the future of society. She said before she came to Philly she felt sad about humanity because she couldn't understand how the government could try to kill someone like Mumia. Now she was excited both because she learned more about Mumia himself and because of the love and concern for Mumia she had seen among the people in Germantown and West Philly.
All over the neighborhood, people knew the Freedom Summer volunteers. B.K. said they've gotten a great response and now when they walk by, people yell, "Hey, we've got our poster!" I asked her how it felt to be part of Freedom Summer: "There's a lot of us who don't have a lot of money. People have quit their jobs. There's a girl who came from Germany. Our living conditions are quite squat-like. They're poor living conditions. You know, food can be hard to come by. But it's just like I don't even care about that because we go out and I will come back and I will feel so good--like I've never even felt that way before because it's the most inspiring thing I think I've ever done, talking to these people who are so unified over this one man. And before I came I did not understand why Mumia was so famous. I was like why this one guy? There's so many people, you know, so many political prisoners and so many people out there in general. And the significance of the case is that he created so much unity in Philadelphia between all races and with the working class people who are fighting against oppression."
B.K. likes the "group dynamics" among the volunteers, that "people don't care I'm 15" and is excited about the impact the volunteers are having on the people and vice versa. "The neighborhood is great, the way the kids come and play with us and the way you can feel that people are so influential on each other. We're influential on each other. We're influential on the guy who works in the store and he's influential on us."
FACE OF JUSTICE
The Freedom Summer project this year focused on demonstrating that there is widespread support for Mumia among people in Philadelphia. The youth did a poll in Germantown and West Philly and found that a majority of people here support Mumia. Some people were even insulted when they were asked "Do you think Mumia should be executed?" and said things like, "No! What kind of question is that?" The volunteers asked people to put up a "Face of Justice" poster that demands a stop to the execution. The street vendors especially liked the posters and spread them all over. Diane told me: "A water ice man took a huge stack of posters and gives them out to people as he sells his water ice. Same thing with the hot dog guy. Every time he gives you a hot dog or a hoagie he'll give you a poster and this little flier that we have explaining the `Face of Justice' campaign." In both Germantown and West Philly many street vendors took stacks of posters. B.K. told me about an incense and oils vendor who kept running out of posters. She said he told them, "If anyone tries to mess with you, you just come back and tell me.' "
The other kids decided they wanted to leave so we set off to the bus stop. As we walked through the neighborhood people nodded at the volunteers. When we were waiting for our second bus, I talked with C.C. from Chicago. She's 22, just recently graduated from college and works with Refuse & Resist!.
Like many of the volunteers, she came to be right in the eye of the storm: "I came because this is the center of everything. Philadelphia is where the whole incident happened and where Mumia's from and where he was doing his work as a journalist, speaking out against police brutality, exposing things that most people don't expose because of fear of the cops. So I wanted to come where it was all happening....I feel like this is being part of history. I feel like this is my civil rights movement. I'm ethnically mixed, my dad's Black and my mom is half white and half Lebanese and both of them were somewhat involved with the civil rights movement, my dad more than my mom. But they were truly inspired by it and I've always been inspired by it and I've always wanted to do something like that, be a part of something like that. And I feel like this is a part of history and if we can get him free, or first if we can stop the execution and then we can get him free, it would be amazing. And I can say to my kids if I have kids, and hopefully I'll have kids and grandkids, I can say that I did this."
C.C. and I were almost finished with our interview when I heard a woman standing nearby say, "I did time with Merle." I shut off the tape recorder to talk a minute. Her and her friend told us they knew Merle Africa, as well as Debbie, Janet and Janine, the other imprisoned women MOVE members. Proudly they said, "I know Mumia and Ramona too!" They took bunches of posters and gave us their names. The volunteers all had stories about people they'd met who said they knew Mumia or MOVE members, and who believe Mumia was framed for a crime he didn't commit. Many more had listened to Mumia on the radio and spoke fondly of him.
April, an anarchist who grew up in Philadelphia, has been part of Freedom Summer for four years. She told me most people know about the case. "People on the streets of Philly remember Mumia as a radio journalist and remember what he did for people and remember being a kid and playing with him and remember working with him in the Black Panthers and remember being friends with his girlfriend and all this and they really want him back on the streets."
S., a volunteer from the RCYB, met a man who used to be a Black Panther who pulled out his Red Book and began reading her quotes from Mao on youth because he thought it was cool that they were out there and wanted to help. He took a stack of posters.
GREEK WEEK PICNIC
Greek Week is a yearly event where Black fraternities from around the country converge on Philadelphia. It ends with a concert at Fairmount Park, which is where we were headed. The volunteers all thought this was an important group of people to go out to with Mumia's case. Some of the volunteers were hesitant to go because the night before, at a restaurant downtown, one of the volunteers had been grabbed at and sexually harassed by three fraternity members. After this, there was a lot of debate among the volunteers over whether or not to go to the Greek Week Picnic. The group that did go reported that even though there was a real "party hard and pick up women" atmosphere, they got a good response from a lot of people.
I interviewed April and some other volunteers while fraternity members chanted their slogans in the background. I asked April what her impressions were of how the atmosphere had changed among people in the two Philadelphia neighborhoods. "The tone I've seen change is like from people mumbling about things to each other and talking about the problems of the world and talking about the problems they have to go through and then talking about the baseball game, changing to people on each porch talking about the need to resist and how there are a lot of people doing it and it needs to happen more and we can't be afraid and that it is possible to create some kind of change."
Jana is one of the core organizers of Freedom Summer. She has been in Philly every year for Freedom Summer since the first time when Mumia was under an active death warrant in 1995. Annie is a member of Refuse & Resist! who's been to Freedom Summer before. Some of the volunteers had already gone home so I asked them to tell me about the crew that came to Philly this summer. She told me over 40 kids took part in Philly Freedom Summer this year, ranging from 15 to 25 years old. Some came for a few days, others on the weekends, and some for three weeks. They came from all over the eastern part of the country, as far north as Detroit and Chicago and as far south as Florida and Atlanta. There were some students from Whittier College in Los Angeles. There were kids with lots of political experience and some who came to just check it out. There were Refuse & Resist! and Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade members, anarchists, punks, and kids not hooked up with any group, circle or religion. It was youth-run and problems were worked out collectively. Ways were figured out for everyone who came to make a contribution.
One Stanford student came to make a documentary of the Freedom Summer Project. Annie told me, "He'd go out and ask people, `I'm a white guy, I don't really experience police brutality. What do you think of the cops?' And people would tell him stories how they were framed by the cops, their friends were, their family's store was shaken down every other day."
There was one guy who was part of Freedom Summer whose father is a cop. Jana said he was very angry: "He was like, `I grew up thinking Mumia was guilty. I grew up thinking he should fry. My dad is a cop...But it's not like that and I'm so glad that I have this opportunity to find out the truth. And I don't quite know where I fit into it and I don't quite know what I really can do about it but it's like really messed up and I know that I've been lied to and that so many of my friends have been lied to.' "
BUSTING THROUGH THE CLIMATE OF FEAR
When we left the park we had to wait almost an hour for a bus. And then, to get back to where we wanted to go, we would have had to wait and catch another bus. Instead, we caught a cab. This experience gave me a sense of one major contradiction the volunteers had--while they were in Philly, the transit workers went on strike. There were no trains or buses running. Twenty to 40 kids had to get from one place to another with only two vehicles. The strike was now over, but the youth told me it had been really frustrating and hard--but they worked it out because they were all focused on the fact that they were there to stop the execution of Mumia.
I went with Bill, a volunteer from Detroit, back to the Germantown house to get my car so we could join the rest of the kids who took a bus to West Philly. Bill has worked in the movement to free Mumia in Detroit. The money for him to come was raised in just a few hours. He had talked to a lot of teenagers. He said most of them knew about Mumia from their parents or the news and "They don't want to see him killed either. They think his trial's unjust."
The volunteers told me the two biggest questions among people in the neighborhoods were fear of the police and what difference will it make to take up the Face of Justice poster? Bill said lots of people talked about how the police abuse them, kids warned them not to be out past curfew and some brought up how the city had bombed MOVE in 1985. He told me about his experience with one man that showed how the "Face of Justice" campaign was able to help break through the fear some people have of openly supporting Mumia. "I asked him, `Have people been talking about this much, about Mumia's case and stuff around here?' And then they said people don't really talk about it much but now with you people out here talking about it, people feel that people are able to put this poster up."
Dee, a volunteer from R&R! in New York City told me later, "We've gotten people in their own neighborhoods where they live to realize they're not the only person that supports Mumia and there's a visible sign of that now because of the poster." O. from the RCYB told me about how there was debate among people about taking up the posters. One guy told her, "You guys can go home and it doesn't matter how much resistance you build on this block, because look what they did with MOVE. They'll bomb our block just like they bombed those houses." He took a poster but wouldn't put it in his window. His neighbor who had been watching came up and said, "Give me his poster!"
We drove across town to a fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania in West Philly where another group of Freedom Summer volunteers were staying. The volunteers were outside talking, laughing, eating dinner and making their plans for the next day. They'd been going on four hours sleep, walking and standing in the hot sun for hours and were still full of enthusiasm. I sat and listened for a while. Then I noticed that one of the volunteers who wouldn't talk to me earlier was sitting alone. I asked him if he changed his mind, he sat next to me and we talked about Mumia.
D. is a 18-year-old Black man from a country in South America. He met the Refuse & Resist! Youth Network at a cultural event in New York City. D. said when he first came to Philly, he didn't know whether Mumia was guilty or innocent, but he did know Mumia and his brother Billy were victims of police brutality the night the Philly cop Faulkner was killed. He said, "They could charge me with something I didn't do. I mean I could tell you about the police. Where we live at we get disrespected. They can stop you and ask you where you going and coming from in your own fucking neighborhood."
D. had many, many stories of firsthand experience with police brutality. The first time was in junior high. A kid's book bag was missing and the police went up to him and took his book bag and searched it. Another time he was riding his bike and some cops ran their car into him and knocked him down. They said someone just got robbed and he "fit the description." D. talked angrily about how the police always say they've heard gunshots as an excuse to come through, stop and search you for nothing. "I've had police tell me they were going to send me back to my country in a board box (coffin)." D. said he thought people needed to stand up against this and come and show support for Mumia.
The Pi Lambda Phi, Epsilon Zeta Chapter is a fraternity on the southwest side of the University of Pennsylvania. The next morning I got there early to take some pictures of the Mumia posters in their windows. Suddenly three guys walked up to me to find out what I was doing. They turned out to be members of the fraternity. First they told me, "We're always looking out for people that we don't know taking pictures of the house." Then we talked about Freedom Summer and Mumia. I asked them why they were letting the Philly Freedom volunteers stay with them. They said their frat does community service, that they have music, plays and theater that other places won't host. "We sort of have a tradition of doing activist-type stuff, whether it's officially or unofficially."
James, one of the members, told me, "There are people that support the case for a variety of reasons. There's the death penalty angle and there's the whole trial, there's people that firmly believe he was innocent, people that aren't even sure what happened but they can tell, like it doesn't really matter at some level. Personally, I don't know what happened cause I wasn't there but obviously something weird is going on and it's just a little too convenient and too obvious." He said about the death penalty, "Mostly people are just in denial that okay, yeah, it's selectively enforced, but it'll never be against me. It's against those other people. And it all comes back to Holocaust era thinking. Oh, look, there are all these oppressive laws but it's only against those people. Oh, there are more oppressive laws but it's against those people." Another member named Matt said simply, "No matter how you believe, like no matter how you feel about the case, if you're at least against the death penalty, you should at least stand up."
The volunteers came out and we sat down and we all started talking. Astrid is a young woman from Germany who has been active in the anti-fascist movement and the movement to free Mumia. She came to Philly "to catch some of the spirit" to take back to Germany to build the movement there. She's concerned about political prisoners all over the world. "Mumia, he's like really brave. He spoke up all the time and they could not shut him up ever. He just says what he needs to say. And he's supportive of young people fighting for anti-fascism, anti-racism and I'm impressed by him doing his work being on death row for so long and still being able to create new thoughts and support a movement."
Astrid didn't expect so many people in Philly to be talking about Mumia's case. She met people who used to be in the Panthers with Mumia or knew his wife or his daughter. Everyone had a story about police brutality or losing their job or some other way the system messed up their lives.
When I introduced myself to R., he stood up and hugged me. R. describes himself as a "16-year-old tall, Hispanic Jew." He works with Refuse & Resist! in New York City. He said he liked the atmosphere among the volunteers, where people with different views get along and care about each other. He explained what he thought about Mumia and why he came to Freedom Summer: "Mumia represents a lot of things. He wasn't just a Black nationalist who was arrested by the police and had an unfair trial. He represents a sort of suppression of speech, a suppression of a lot of things in this country--suppression of people, suppression of forces. And what happens to him happens to all of us. Whenever his fate ultimately gets decided, it's like that conviction also has been done on the rest of us. If he gets executed, a big part of what we as people in America are allowed to do gets executed also, a lot of free speech. It would be a scary thing. It would be really frightening to know that you could be killed for your political beliefs, for speaking out on your political beliefs, for being eloquent and for daring to be eloquent on the radio and speaking to the people."
THE PAGEANT OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS
The volunteers had different interests and political views, and they contributed in different ways. Danyel is an anarchist, artist and photographer who grew up in a rural suburb of Philadelphia. She was the Freedom Summer volunteer who took responsibility for the group's participation in the Pageant of Frederick Douglass. This was a parade held July 3 in Old City, the part of Philadelphia that contains buildings hundreds of years old as well as most of the city's art galleries and studios. The theme of the pageant was the Douglass essay, "What To The Slave Is Your Fourth of July?" The parade was sponsored by Sunoco and was part of the official July 4th celebration. The radical puppet company Spiral Cue Puppet Theater invited Freedom Summer and other groups to take part.
Danyel told me, "We had this huge six foot Mumia head in the parade. Barkers were reading the essay. There were different pods or sections of the parade and there was the Mumia pod. There was the slave ship pod. There was the earth pod. There was the people dancing with fire pod. There was a lot of drumming. We had this beautiful big Mumia head with dreadlocks. We made this prison and it was basically composed of four sides. On the outside were horrific images of faces twisted and screaming and crying and on the other side you put them together and it made a flag and on the flag was painted `America Has Political Prisoners.' Yes, America does have slaves and they are our political prisoners. Our system isn't the great democracy that we think it is." Thousands of people saw the parade. It was on television and in the newspapers.
HIP HOP FOR MUMIA
One of the things the Freedom Summer volunteers did was stage a hip hop show to raise money. Kel was one of the organizers. He's 22, from New York City, recently became active in politics, is "very much into hip hop culture" and is a graffiti writer. He's worked with R&R! for a few months. The show was held at Bobbito's Footwork in Old Town. It's a hip hop store with graffiti art on the walls.
About 100 kids--Black, Asian, Latino, and white--packed the store to see the bands. Kel said, "There's a stereotype about hip hop shows. Everybody thinks it's just a bunch of Blacks and Hispanics hanging out but every hip hop show I go to is mad mixed and that's something I love about it." Every artist spoke about Mumia. People walked out of there with posters in their hand.
The show was hosted by poet Rich Medina, owner of the store, who gave a short rap about Mumia. Kel told me, "The whole place was packed. Most people were there to see this one group that didn't show. But after the night went on and people seen that the night was about Mumia and Mumia was explained to the people, more and people were interacting with R&R! people outside and after the whole night was over, even though all these people were probably really pissed off and disappointed that these bands weren't there, only one person asked for their money back."
The volunteers focused their work in Germantown and West Philly, two Black neighborhoods. But there were stories about many different kinds of people who took the posters or lent their support in different ways.
Matt is a 17-year-old high school student from the Youth Network of Refuse & Resist! in New York City. He told me Mumia is on people's mind in Philadelphia, that "this is "part of people's lives" the way Abner Louima is on people's minds in New York." Everywhere he went, people wanted to talk about Mumia, pro or con--the Hare Krishna temple, the basketball court, the hip hop show. Two homeless white guys in a park said they had listened to Mumia when he was a radio DJ and they wanted Matt to know "the most important thing was that we knew that it was white people that were listening to him too, and that that's why the system got all scared."
Some of the volunteers stayed at the building run by the Catholic Worker and Matt said the 75-year-old man who put them up "wanted to help out and show that there were young people that were caring and wanted to help out in Mumia's case."
A young Black woman who described herself as "a card carrying member of Refuse & Resist!" spoke of one interesting experience. A few days before July 4, the city passed a new law that made it illegal to hand out fliers. She said, "We were down in the mall folding up all these Mumia leaflets and the security guard came over to us and he was like, you're not to pass those out here. And we were like yeah, we know. We're just folding them and drinking coffee. And he goes: `Cool, and I really appreciate the work you're doing. You women are doing a wonderful job. I think the brother got a raw deal and he should be free.' And he leaves. But then he comes back and he like picks one up off the table and he goes, `I'm taking this and if anybody asks I just took it, you didn't give it to me, so you won't get in trouble.'"
One of the most striking things about the Freedom Summer volunteers was their diversity and their determination to do whatever they could to stop the execution and free Mumia. Everyone I spoke with described how it had been a learning experience. They told me at first it was hard for kids with different political views, priorities and experience to work together. But they said that they fought hard and worked through that because they knew how important it was to unite to stop the execution of Mumia. They respected each other and worked through whatever contradictions came up.
There were debates about religion and god. Then on Saturdays, when R., who is an orthodox Jew, couldn't ride public transportation because of his religious beliefs, other kids joined him to walk however many miles he needed to go to get the word out to people. Dee told me she was worried that because she was Black she would get singled out and arrested. But other volunteers told her, "We won't let that happen, we'll chain ourselves to you."
S.J. is a 20-year-old art student. She met R&R! through hip hop shows. Other kids who'd been to Freedom Summer before told her it would change her life. So she quit her job and staffed the R&R! national office for months in advance to make Freedom Summer a success. She helped raise money, coordinate volunteers and get new contacts. S.J. told me, "I'm still in a learning process very much. I didn't want to wait until I knew everything before I started getting active because I don't think that's the way to go about it." She noted that R&R! encouraged kids to take as much responsibility for this as they could: "I was one of the core people that was like helping to organize it even though it was my first time. I think when people say Mumia's case is the most important of our generation, I think that's the truth because I think that to live in a society where someone can be legally executed for speaking out is a very frightening thing. I think that for a land of freedom, which is what we're supposed to be, we need to fight for those freedoms. That's not going to be given to us by the government."
Damian from the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade in New York City commented about the volunteers, "We were very diverse but there was room for everybody." Damian ran down some of his thoughts on the importance of Freedom Summer: "I dream of bringing another world into being where all this shit that the masses of people go through they don't have to keep going through because it's unnecessary. We don't have to live like that. And Mumia embodies that in a lot of ways and that's why they're trying to kill him. First of all, I don't like them killing the people and Mumia concentrates so much of what people hate but also so much of what people love. As a revolutionary, like I said, I don't like seeing revolutionaries jailed and we have to fight to win their freedom and we have to protect our revolutionary leaders and the people that we support who are revolutionaries."
I asked all of the volunteers I interviewed what they thought it would take to stop the execution and free Mumia. There were many different answers. One interesting one stuck in my mind. One youth told me, "That people out there feel like they have to take a stance on Mumia. Like AIDS, for example, you know what I mean? In the mainstream it has become, like you have to have a thing about AIDS. You have to be like, I'm in a Fight for the Cure kind of thing. When Mumia's case becomes like that--and the media will call it radical chic or whatever the hell they call it--but we've got to make it where it's like people feel they have to say something about Mumia, that they can't let this go by without them having a piece of it."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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