Reporter's Notebook

Freeing Mumia, Changing the World

by Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #992, January 31, 1999

Last October, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the appeal of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been on death row for 17 years. They did this despite overwhelming evidence that Mumia never got a fair trial. On November 7, 2,500 people protested in the streets of Philadelphia, and one of the most striking things about this march was that at least half of the people were high school and college kids. They came from Philly, all over the east coast and midwest, from cities, suburbs and small towns. Some came with organizations, others with friends. That day, all across the country, youth from different class backgrounds and nationalities spoke out and marched to stop the execution of Mumia.


I hooked up with a "feeder march" that was organized by youth. It started in West Philadelphia near the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, a predominantly Black neighborhood where lots of political activists and progressive people live. Mumia posters were on every available surface--abandoned buildings, light poles, street lights. Most of the youth on this march were new to the battle for Mumia and many had never been in any political protests. A banner at the front read: "Free Mumia Or Else."

Jason Guard, a 24-year-old activist against the death penalty from Richmond, Virginia, told me: "We got here the night before, made some banners, slept, woke up and compiled noisemakers and gathered for a rally at the site of the march. For this portion of the rally roughly 100 of us gathered in West Philly, two miles from City Hall, and started our trek, immediately spilling into the street, drumming, tooting horns, blowing through bicycle handlebars and shaking cans with rocks inside. Cars backed up behind and before us. Police cars tagged along. People came out of their houses and their cars to see what the hell was going on. We've followed Mumia's case and can't comprehend why he's still on death row. The transparent intentions of the powers-that-be in the justice system that imprisons Mumia are a smack in the face to us. Who do they think they are to try and kill this man right in front of us? Surely they expect a reaction. We were pissed."

A week later I exchanged e-mail with Jason, then called him up to talk. He works with Food Not Bombs, General Strike and Unitarian Universalists Against the Death Penalty. He and his friends hold candlelight vigils at Greenfield Correctional Center every time a prisoner is executed. He's been to gay rights protests in D.C. and actions by Amnesty International. When I asked him why he's taken up Mumia's case he said, "For me it was a death penalty issue at first because I didn't really have a whole lot of information off the top of my head that would tell me that he was very possibly innocent."

Jason said when he read Mumia's book Live from Death Row Mumia went from "a faceless man on death row to an incredibly righteous role model for me." Jason wrote, "Foremost, he is a man with dignity that cannot be taken away by unfounded accusations, confinement or oppression. We could all learn a lesson from this man (which would be much easier if he were on the outside, among us) as we will probably never have to go through what he has in the name of the American illusion of justice."

I asked Jason what he'd say to people to get them to make this struggle a priority. He said, "Giving of your time to the cause of saving another person's life and bringing justice to someone besides yourself, I mean, I think it frees up the soul...." He also wanted to send a special message to students: "When I was a college student I kind of gave myself a little vacation from the rest of the world. And I really hope that college students don't do that anymore. The more students that take action on issues that come up, the stronger our society will be. If you look at history, a lot of the revolts and demonstrations were led by students."


Youth who already knew about Mumia, had some political experience and organization were the backbone that pulled thousands of others into the struggle when the appeal was denied. Refuse & Resist!, local Mumia coalitions, the December 12th Movement and student groups like Vassar Socialists and Progressive Action Network at U. Penn mobilized lots of people. They got the word out on the Internet. They organized campus showings of videos like the HBO video "A Case For Reasonable Doubt." They held teach-ins and assemblies at their high schools. And they called contacts from past actions such as the October 22nd National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, the Million Youth March and the Jericho demonstration for political prisoners.

I returned to Philadelphia a week after the march to talk to two organizers of the feeder march. Chief UN "arms inspector" Richard Butler was speaking downtown. Some people picketed while others went in to disrupt his speech. This is where I met Dave Onion, a 26-year-old anarchist. He talked about how Mumia influenced his life: "He started organizing early on as a kid. While the Panthers kept getting fucked with more and more by police, and then MOVE, he didn't back off. He stayed strong, kept being active, he kept being vocal about things. And that's a good example to live by or to have an effect."

Next I headed over to visit Dylan. She lives in a row house that's typical in West Philly--two- or three-story walkup buildings built the first part of the century. A big "Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal!" poster hung on her front door. Dylan is 17. She moved to Philly from a small town in Massachusetts. She dropped out of school "as a political decision to start actually learning as opposed to just being force fed." Dylan has been deeply touched by what's happened to Mumia. While we talked there were times when she had to stop and collect herself because she was so upset. She told me she has nightmares about Mumia being executed.

When she heard his appeal was denied she was upset, angry and immediately took action. "I always mistakenly think how can they do this again? The facts are so clear, how can they possibly deny him a trial again? It's like what could they be thinking? I forget that we live in a horribly unjust system and especially the justice system is completely racist, and in Philadelphia it's totally corrupt. So I felt pretty wounded. Like I wasn't expecting it. I just kind of feel, it's like my heart just bleeds? But also I get really mad. It pissed me off so bad. I was just sort of sad and really angry."

We sat at her dining room table beneath walls covered with leaflets announcing different protests and cultural events. Dylan said, "There's a sense of urgency. If you don't get involved Mumia's going to die. I guess he's sort of a role model, too. He's so courageous and brave. Man, I can't imagine being on death row, being in prison and still writing all the time. I just have a deep amount of respect for him cause he's been fighting the same struggle that we're all fighting, for a long time. And all the other political prisoners, you know? I guess you could say every prisoner is a political prisoner.... We can't let them get away with this cause we can't afford to have more racist murder in the name of the U.S. I mean that's like my thing, that things are so awful right now and the system's so racist and it has been forever.

"I think the facts are clear. Like it's not so cloudy. They've been tracking Mumia since he was 14 or 15 in the Black Panther Party. So I think if we do rally enough support and win this, this is sort of like a brick wall or something. If you can get someone to stand behind Mumia then that means they're recognizing something that's inherently bad in the system. If they're standing by Mumia they're recognizing that the U.S. has political prisoners and that Mumia's in jail because he was a Black Panther and because he stood up against police brutality in communities where he lived.... So I think that small bit of seeing through the false democracy, or the sense of freedom in the United States people seem to think they have--I think will give people a broader analysis of the whole system."


The gross injustice of the court denying Mumia's appeal compelled many youth who hadn't been active or never even heard about Mumia into action. Suddenly they saw that the government could execute someone for speaking out against the government. A Chicano student said, "We will not tolerate city officials who will do things like this who so clearly ignore justice." A high school student told me, "They're trying through him to oppress people's independent thought."

Quite a few youth who have come out for Mumia have also been involved in protests against police brutality and are drawing links between the two struggles. And for many of these kids, illusions about the government are being shattered. Isolat is one example. She's a young Black woman who goes to a high school in the Bronx. She emcees at Act Your Rage, a monthly event organized by the Refuse & Resist! Youth Network in New York City. Kids come together to read poetry, rap, play music or just talk--and to organize political protests. They've discussed Mumia a lot. Isolat told me when she heard Mumia's appeal had been denied, "I couldn't believe it at first. I was like all right, damn. This is the justice system that I was taught about in school and I was taught that they were all good and they do this and they do that and they uphold the law and later on, to find out that it wasn't true was really stunning to me. It really opened my eyes to what else is going on around me." Isolat said if the government executes Mumia, "I think that it's a big lump of shit on that constitution. I mean all those laws would mean nothing now if this one man or any political prisoner can't get a fair trial in this supposedly democratic state, this `great state' that the United States wants the whole world to imitate. It would just be horrible."

Paul is a 16-year-old Dominican student living in Washington Heights, a neighborhood with barricaded streets and cops who force you to show I.D. just to walk up the block. Paul gets searched by cops for just sitting in the park. I caught up with him after school one day and we talked in one of the many Korean delis around the city. He'd heard about Mumia from friends at school and a song, "Spottie Ottie Dopalici" by a rapper named Naz. "I've heard before Mumia was the voice of the voiceless and if they can kill him they can kill anyone else, you know? Think about it. If that could happen to him and he was a journalist and a lot of people knew him and he had a show on the radio why can't that happen to me? It can happen to me 10 times easier. It happened to him and he represents a lot of people. Tell me there's not a lot of youth who are out here that wants to organize something, be part of something progressive. And if it can happen to him, why can't it happen to any of us? And it's not just why can't it happen to any of us, it's also messed up that it happened at all."

Jennie helped organize a R&R! Youth Network protest in December at ABC's studios after they aired a pro-police 20/20 segment on TV. She's a high school senior who first heard about Mumia at Act Your Rage. She said the 20/20 show really got her mad: "They only brought up the old evidence and they left out a lot of things. It was obviously very biased. So we were talking about it here and at that point I still didn't know very much about Mumia. I started learning more about it right before the protest. It was a matter of it being irresponsible journalism because they weren't showing a very objective viewpoint and personally that's what I think the news is supposed to do..."

Ronnie, a college student from a Philadelphia suburb, grew up thinking Mumia was "the guy who killed that cop"--partly because his dad's a cop. But he heard a different story about Mumia from friends, underground punk bands like "Man Is the Bastard" and R&R! He wants people to stop believing the "corporate media" and is angry about the hypocrisy in this country: "A lot of people I talk to, especially adults, they're very proud of America. They act so proud like we have such a great government, everything's so great about us. I mean this situation is one of the many examples of a lot of the deep problems with our government.... To just sit by and not do anything about it, that's just like going along. That's just what the government wants you to do. They don't want you to complain. They don't want you to argue against them. If you say nothing, it's fine. That means you're just going right along with it. We need to let them know that we don't want to go along with this. We don't agree with them."


The youth fighting to stop the execution of Mumia are from many different nationalities, have different political viewpoints and come to this struggle with unique experience and insight to offer. Keefer is a 21-year-old film student and documentary filmmaker who did a film on the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. He thinks Mumia's case is important because it spotlights the grave injustice of the death penalty and the fact that there are political prisoners in the United States. He told me, "As a result of that Act and the current climate in the judicial system we've really put people on death row in a position where not only can they not afford to get the lawyers that they need, which isn't really Mumia's problem, but the system in general is just slanted totally against them. And they're trying to streamline this death penalty process which I think is the most ludicrous and dangerous thing you can do when it comes to law because you're talking about someone's life.... When it comes to anybody on death row as a citizen of this country you have kind of an obligation to make your opinion known, especially if you're against the death penalty, which you should be. It's dangerous to live in this country if the country can kill you easily and the justice system is not perfect."

Michele is a 25-year-old feminist and AIDS activist who went to college in Kansas. She is concerned about the "industrial racism represented by our prison system" and told me, "I knew about Leonard Peltier and I think that was probably as far as political prisoners go. When I moved to Philly a year ago, I started hearing more and more about Mumia--of course, this is where it all happened--and also about the MOVE family and the absolute atrocity that was committed against them [the 1985 police bombing of their house]. It just makes things more real and urgent to know these specific people this happened to and it's still happening. And it sort of brought everything into the present for me as far as issues of race and the status of African-American people in this country."

Vin, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCYB) in Boston, said, "Mumia is inspiring because all the time he's been in jail he's still delivering commentary. He's in there and he's not just talking about himself from in there. Even though death is knocking on his door he's still doing his journalistic work." He told me what happened when Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell spoke at the JFK Library in Boston on "Bobby Kennedy and his legacy in the civil rights struggle" just a week after Mumia's appeal was denied. Rendell was the DA who oversaw the frame-up of Mumia and the MOVE 9. "As soon as he began to speak, people from the crowd began yelling, chanting `Free Mumia!' and `Murderer!' He got to make his speech but when the question-and-answer session came up, everyone who had any questions were all concerning Mumia and after answering one question he refused to answer any more. They asked if anyone else in the crowd had any other questions on any other subjects and no one did so he refused to speak anymore. It effectively shut the whole thing down."


One thing youth of all nationalities talked about is how Mumia's situation concentrates the way this system routinely treats Black people. Rohan is a 20-year-old student at Hofstra University whose parents are from the Caribbean. He has friends who've "grown up" in the prison system. Rohan sees the decision to deny Mumia's appeal, "a microcosm of about, say, 500 years of oppression" and he said, "Mumia, to me, represents the past merging with the present, his involvement with the Black Panthers and the political activism that's going on now. To me he inspired that, indirectly or directly. However you want to face it, he inspired that. I'll read his essays, it gives me more hope. There are times when I say, you know, it's too much of a problem. I can't deal with this. It's real hard. I sit and I'll read an essay. I'll read Live From Death Row and I realize that this man has a lot to offer not just me and the Black community and the Latino community, but everyone. Because first and foremost the man strove to tell the truth and that's all he tried to do."

At a program at Revolution Books in New York, I caught up with two members from the Ghetto Liberation Party--a group in Philadelphia that considers itself Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. Erica and George are Black youth who grew up in the same area where Mumia did and they came up with lots of misinformation about Mumia. George told me, "Mumia is, so to speak, a personification of us in the community. So as we see this happen it's more of the fact that we understand that this is how this system operates, on these principles, and we understand that what's going on is that the only way, really, that capitalism can function, is to imprison the dynamic sectors of the population that disagree with the status quo." He said the denial of Mumia's appeal "made me even more determined to change the conditions and change the circumstances that allow these people to have this type of power over us."

Erica told me she came up believing Mumia was "dirty" because of his dreadlocks and his association with MOVE. This was a line put out by the authorities and the media to justify the attacks on MOVE, including the 1985 bombing of a MOVE house in which 11 people were murdered. She said, "When I first heard about Mumia's case, that's the image I got and it was an awful image of him 'cause they separated him from me and it shouldn't be like that.... The image they gave the community of Mumia was to turn them against Mumia. Now it's going to take us to get together and organize around this." Erica and members of her group have been taking this battle out to proletarian neighborhoods linking it with the struggle against police brutality and other injustices people face under this system.

George had a special message for youth: "Youth from all colors, from all classes also, all economic status--we gotta ask what kind of world do we want? I mean think about it, do we want these people to have control over us like this? Do we want the pig to be in a position to pull us out in the future? We gotta understand that the only way we have a future is through revolution. And we understand that right now, right at this moment, the struggle to be involved in is the struggle to save the life of Mumia because this struggle embodies our future. Mumia fought against oppression just like we're trying to fight against oppression now. If we let them kill Mumia, basically we letting 'em kill our future."

Andre English is the youth network coordinator for the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality and was an organizer of the Million Youth March. Andre first learned about Mumia three years ago when, angry at the "party" focus of the Black Student Union, he and his friends formed a "Black think tank" called the Black Caucus at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Andre told me Mumia's book Live From Death Row had a "dramatic effect" on him because, "I'm an activist, I'm a revolutionary and I see what's happened in his case could easily happen to any of the people that I love and cherish in my daily work as a revolutionary. And it could even happen to myself. I mean I have a son and just the thought that Mumia's been separated from his children for so long I don't know if it's for the whole time he hasn't been able to have contact with his children but I know for part of the time that he hasn't been able to touch them. The thought of that, just for fighting for freedom, which people all deserve, and to end oppression, especially of Black people, is something that has affected me and gotten me more into taking up this fight to free Mumia.

"They know his voice could have caught on and brought more young people into a revolutionary movement for change. So they had to get rid of him. So they had to get him off the streets. They had to attempt to silence his voice. And it's important that we, who are often the voices of the people who don't really have media outlets, who don't usually have our voice and our concerns printed in the media, that we take up this brother who has provided that voice for us for years and years, even in the face of the most oppressive state of human conditions that could possibly be imagined.... I feel that it's very important for us as young people to take up this fight for Mumia because it's going to have a critical effect on us and our future either way--whether we win this battle or whether we lose this battle. And as young people we have to take the position that we can't lose this battle."

Damian, a member of the RCYB, told me, "We're up against a growing prison population, repressive laws that grow more repressive every day, police brutality and all the hell the system rains down on the people--things Mumia has been a victim and sharp critic of. Mumia is the exception and the rule. He's an exceptional writer and revolutionary. But he's also the rule in the sense that he concentrates so much of what literally millions of Black people and other oppressed peoples go through under this system. For all the people that this system tramples on, for those behind bars, for those kicked off their jobs and thrown onto workfare, for all of those that this system would deem non-existent, he gives those people voice and dignity, something that goes right in the face of everything that this system is about. He's been bold about that and he's never backed down and that's why they hate him.

"When you take a sober look at what it's going to take to bury this system--the kind of love for the people and revolutionary determination that Mumia has is a minimum. And whether or not we let them kill Mumia will help determine how soon we can get this system off our backs and put it in its grave so we don't have to live in a world where the pigs shoot us in the back, the courts lock us up and the ruling class exploit us day in and day out without even thinking twice about it."


For many of the youth I talked to, Mumia was a big factor in them becoming political activists and revolutionaries. The youth have been amazed by Mumia's selflessness in the face of the inhuman conditions of death row at a time when hedonism and self-interest are the currency in society. They've learned profound insights from his writings about the conditions of life for Black and other oppressed people in the U.S. His faith in the struggle of the people have provided them with hope. And his belief that the youth today "are all potential revolutionaries, with the historic power to transform our dull realities" have encouraged them.

Sheila lives in Brooklyn, is 18, and says she heard Mumia's name everywhere she went. She got pamphlets at a Rage Against the Machine concert. She read a book of poems about Mumia in the library written by rapper KRS-1 and some other artists, and read interviews in the RW. She thinks the problem in this country is the government is "made up of these hardcore holy roller Christian whites." She was moved by "The Visit," a piece from Live from Death Row. In it Mumia describes the first time his daughter Hamida visited him in prison. When Hamida found a Plexiglas barrier between her and her father, she pounded on the glass and cried, "Break it! Break it!" Sheila said she was shocked that Mumia was not allowed to touch anyone and moved by his ability to persevere despite the inhuman conditions he's in. She said, about the struggle for Mumia: "It's about anyone who has ever spoken out against the government or who has ever had a problem with anything or who has ever, whatever way they went about it, screamed or cried for change. He represents all those people who are not content with the way things are.... This is our chance to step in and say fuck you. You can't do this to us. You can't do this to people."

I first met Jana from the Refuse & Resist! Youth Network during the summer of 1995 in Philadelphia. She was one of the first Freedom Summer volunteers. She traveled from her home in the midwest when she heard Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge had signed a death warrant for Mumia. Jana told me, "We're prepared to do whatever it takes to stop the execution. This is like our major priority because frankly there wouldn't be a youth network of Refuse & Resist! if it wasn't for Mumia Abu-Jamal at this point. He's the person who inspired most of us.... We've said that we want to make Mumia's name a household word. Well, one of the things that we really need, one of the strongest forces that will get people active for Mumia is young people, because of what he means to us. With all the shit that they're coming down with, like the prisons and the cops in the schools and like curfews and you can't skateboard in many cities in this country without a ticket, all these things--he represents wanting to live a different way. And in the movement to free Mumia you've seen all these people come together around that. So one of the most powerful forces for Mumia right now is the inspiring effect he has on young people."

Jana said the R&R! Youth Network has called for a third National Student/Youth Day for Mumia on February 26 and they are going to organize another Freedom Summer in Philadelphia. (See RW #967 for interviews with youth from Freedom Summer '98).


The RW has said that it will take a broad, diverse and determined movement to stop Mumia's execution, that Mumia's name must be made a household word and that this must become a major political battle throughout this society. Most of the kids I talked to had very little political experience and were struggling to figure out what could compel the government to back down. Some are not sure if it can be done, others have views on how to do it. But everyone said they were ready to do whatever it takes to keep Mumia alive.

The youth told me a big problem is that most people don't even know about Mumia's case--and the mainstream media has put out a lot of lies about this case. Thoughts on how to build this struggle reflected their breadth and diversity--building a strong united front, writing to elected officials, voting, shutting the system down, concerts by well-known musicians, famous people speaking out, and using the media.

Andre English said, "It's obviously going to take a huge, huge public outcry. It is going to have to sort of become a general topic of discussion in communities throughout the country, and when I say that I mean a broad array of communities, whether it be in the Asian community or the white community, whatever. But it also has to be taken up in the Black community.... I think that they in particular really need to rally behind this man who's been a pillar of strength and a pillar of freedom fighting for them since the time he was 14 years old. I think that in general there is going to have to be massive public outcry with massive discussions about Mumia. That probably is the only way. The power of the people."

Chaz is a student at Vassar College. As part of The Vassar Socialists, he worked with the Black Student Union and other campus groups to bring a contingent of students to the November 7th march in Philadelphia. Chaz told me, "It's not only that Mumia's inspiring this new generation, it's that he represents the new generation. We're all criminalized and we're not all that far from his position. That's what October 22nd was about. It's like the Millions for Mumia slogan, "Mumia Is All Of Us!" That's not as far fetched as it may seem.... The assassination of Malcolm X or the Panthers and other people who were taken down by COINTELPRO, it was done in the silence or in the dark. But they're trying to take Mumia away in front of us. Literally millions of us have the chance to get in front of the bullet this time and that's very significant. I think it's going to take millions and I think ultimately it's not a court's decision, but it's the people's decision and the people will decide what happens. It's going to depend on what we do in the end."

Ronnie, who dropped everything he was doing when Mumia's appeal was denied and dedicated all his time to spreading the truth about the government's attempts to execute Mumia, had this to say about what people need to do now: "With something as serious as this is, there's like no going back. I mean I can put all my time and effort into studying for a test and I'll get like a D. Well, there's going to be other tests, you know? But for this, there will be no tomorrow. I think it will take relentless demonstrating, relentless efforts to get the word out, to make people aware. We really can't be lazy about it now. We can't just say I need to take a rest from this. I mean we really have to stay on this because I really think it's now or never."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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