1999: A Crucial Year


By C. Clark Kissinger

Revolutionary Worker #1011, June 20, 1999

Once again, the movement to prevent the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal stands at a crossroads. We are coming off an important advance: 35,000 people demonstrated on April 24 to save Mumia's life. These rallies were the largest and most diverse outpourings to date. The thousands in Philly and San Francisco made clear that those who intend to murder Mumia have a tremendous fight on their hands. And these actions came on top of the Oakland, California, teach-ins and the concert by Rage Against the Machine that followed Pennsylvania's refusal to grant Mumia a new trial.

Even with this great upsurge of support, we still face an incredible challenge. Mumia's would-be murderers made their intentions clear immediately after April 24, with a series of vicious counterattacks. First, on April 25 the Philadelphia Inquirer launched a campaign to financially destroy the Black United Fund (the charity that handles donations for Mumia's legal defense and his key support group, the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal). [See RW 1010.] Then the same day, Pamela Jenkins--one of the witnesses who came forward to expose the police coercion of witnesses in Mumia's original trial--was arrested on an old bench warrant (she had appeared on stage at the April 24 rally).

Right on the heels of this, two disgruntled former MOVE members were given city protection and huge press resources to launch a highly political attack on the MOVE organization, singling out Pam Africa in particular. This has all the earmarks of a provocation, one designed not just to create confusion, but very likely to provide an "incident" to serve as a pretext for a police attack. And this wasn't all, as both daily papers in Philly continued a propaganda campaign attempting to divide the huge movement growing up around Mumia's case from the overall movement against the death penalty.

Beyond these stepped-up attacks, Mumia faces a crucial juncture in his legal case. Mumia's certiorari petition is before the U.S. Supreme Court. This will be ruled on soon--either late June or in early October. Unless the Supreme Court decides in Mumia's favor--which we certainly cannot count on--then, by the end of October, Mumia's lawyers must file their habeas corpus appeal in the Federal Courts. This filing for habeas will initiate the crucial and final rounds of the legal battle.

In short, at the very moment when the movement has reached its highest level, it must rise still higher yet. We face a real challenge: how to get things to a level--a higher level--where we can actually compel the political establishment to back off their murderous plot? And how to do this while facing escalating attack? I offer this article as a contribution to a necessary dialogue in the movement.

Building Off Advances

To go to that higher level, we have to assess both our real strengths and achievements, as well as our weaknesses. In this light, I want to review some of what was accomplished on April 24 and the months leading up to it. Just as important as the high attendance at the rallies was WHO came out. Even the press had to remark on the fact that these demonstrations were overwhelmingly young. The power structure must reckon with the fact that Mumia has inspired a whole generation. The student walkouts that were called for April 23 (see RW 1007), though relatively few in number (for now), showed the kind of spirit and defiance that has to get more infused into our movement. And the little-noted attempts by the authorities to lock down some key ghetto high schools in Philadelphia showed how seriously they take the potential for a "youthquake" for Mumia.

The demonstrations also had the largest turnout yet from the Black community. The militant nationalist section of the movement mobilized in force and lent an important edge to the demonstration. The turnout from Philly's Black community marked an extremely important development. Prominent Black artists and activists like Ossie Davis, Dick Gregory and Kathleen Cleaver represented. And an April 23 statement of support from the Black Congressional Caucus added a new, and very necessary, dimension. All this gives very serious pause to Mumia's would-be killers. America's rulers remember the 1960s very well, and do not want to set off what could be social and political dynamite.

Another important advance was the greater diversity of the demonstrations. People and organizations representing those in the middle classes who oppose injustice came out in a new way--including speakers and marchers from Amnesty International, the American Friends Service Committee, a number of important groups opposed to the death penalty, and many others. There was a statement in support of Mumia's Supreme Court filing by the ACLU. The strong organized participation of the Latino, Asian, gay, Jewish and other contingents further added to this powerful diversity. This diversity also worries Mumia's persecutors, who are trying to "contain" the contagion of this movement from spreading throughout society.

And then there's organized labor. The one-day stop-work protest by west coast Longshore workers on April 24 was a new and dynamic component. When significant unions entered the political arena on the side of Mumia and compared him to labor martyrs like Joe Hill and Sacco and Vanzetti--well, to put it mildly, this is not the sort of thing that corporate America wants to hear from the labor movement!

Together these social forces create a very positive political chemistry. At the same time, the poor and working people of some of Philly's proletarian neighborhoods began to turn out in a new way for Mumia, both in the march itself and through things like community banner signings, putting Mumia posters in windows, etc.

As those on the bottom of society increasingly identify with Mumia--as those with nothing to lose more and more see not only a kindred spirit but indeed a champion on death row--you begin to have a politically explosive mix.

Put all that into an international context in which people from around the world not only oppose the execution, but even came to the U.S. to make their opposition felt, and you see the potential for a movement that could actually win justice for Mumia and in the process change the political dynamic of U.S. society.

This is a mix, a chemistry, a movement, that the powers-that-be fear. April 24 marked a big step towards the movement that we're going to need to save Mumia's life. It is for that reason that the authorities lashed out in response.

Advances Bring New Attacks

It is precisely the advances represented by April 24 and, even more so, the potential for further advances that have called forth the attacks described earlier. These attacks tell us two things: first, that we have seriously stung and threatened the enemy; and second, that they are seriously fighting back, attempting to tie up and divide the movement.

We also have to understand something about how the press covered--and didn't cover--April 24. On the one hand, the press in Philly and the Bay Area gave a lot of coverage to the 24th, and there was other important coverage in the national media. But the pillars of the establishment press--the New York Times, the Washington Post, the major TV networks--essentially whited out this demonstration. Now these media outlets clearly knew about the demonstrations, so they can't plead ignorance. Nor was it because the 35,000+ demonstrations were "too small." These same media gave daily coverage to a small band of 200 right-wing fanatics demonstrating in Buffalo that same week against a woman's right to choose.

No, this whiteout was quite conscious on their part. It should remind us that the class forces for which these papers speak are dead set on killing Mumia and doing so as much as possible out of the public eye. At this point, other than running an occasional vicious attack on Mumia and the movement, their main tactic is to suppress the information...and they evidently feel that they can get away with it. Of course, we can't measure our movement's success by its coverage in their press! On the other hand, we MUST build our movement to the point where the established media feel forced and compelled to speak to the question.

There's an important principle involved in the round of attacks that followed April 24, and it's one that Mao Tsetung laid out a long time ago: to be attacked by the enemy is a good thing! Mao said that if they weren't attacking you, it meant that you weren't hurting them too much. When they do attack you, it shows that they're getting worried...and that you're making progress.

Now Mao's point was NOT to just ignore such attacks. You don't lead a victorious struggle by just taking your lumps! No, Mao taught that the movement grew by taking on such attacks, by "giving tit for tat" as he used to say. He said we've got to expose these attacks to the people, explain what's going on, and mobilize them as broadly as possible to resist these attacks. He taught that we have to expose these attacks to more clearly show the lowdown nature and straight-up desperation of the enemy.

When we do this, we show that we are not going to be backed down or intimidated, nor will we be panicked or swayed from our goal--and in showing that, we bring still more people to our side. So we're going to defend Pam Africa, we're going to defend the Black United Fund and everyone else under attack, and we're going to answer the attacks aimed at dividing us from the anti-death-penalty movement--and we're going to do it all in a way that expands the support for Mumia.

From here on out, we can expect the rulers to attack in an increasingly relentless and underhanded way. For our part, we must pledge to be even more relentless in making their attacks boomerang against them, turning every obstacle they put in our way into a stepping stone to saving Mumia's life.

Broadness, Diversity and Determination

Let's be clear: we have a long way to go on the road to justice, and a very short time to get there. The people CAN win this--we can prevent Mumia's execution and we can ultimately win his freedom. We CAN do this--but it's going to take an effort not seen in generations. That effort needs three things: broadness, diversity and determination, all on a higher level than ever before. And it needs them pretty damn quick.

First, our movement must be much broader. We need to be speaking to millions. The work that so many people did for the 24th in going out to churches, to unions, to anti-death-penalty folks, to community organizations, to the organizations and people of different nationalities...all this has to be built on. And the hard work and creativity that did get media coverage for the 24th will have to be redoubled.

As part of this, we need to create a situation where politicians, well-known public figures, and prominent representatives of "mainstream" organizations feel not only that they cannot ignore an event like April 24, but that they must actually be there. We want them involved because their participation shows that they feel that people very broadly are determined to stop the execution of Mumia and get justice in this case, and hence they feel compelled to use their public voice--and in so doing they build support even further.

Second, we need many more diverse organizations and people to take this up in their own ways. This includes student and youth organizations, legal and human rights groups, death penalty opponents, religious organizations and congregations, unions, etc. One key link is to reach still more deeply into the Black community, building on the strong base of support that already does exist--this means getting to the churches and mosques, the fraternities and sororities, "mainstream" organizations like the NAACP, and the Black media.

When diverse groups develop creative ways to bring this question to their own constituencies, two things happen: first, they connect the case to the concerns of many new people; and second, they can set off larger reverberations throughout society. I've often talked about the Oakland, CA teach-in in this light, as well as the Rage Against the Machine benefit for Mumia in New Jersey. You could see the same kind of effect from the actions of the dock workers' union in California on April 24.

One important initiative now picking up steam is "Mumia 911: National Day of Art to Stop the Execution." This project involves many different artists and producers creating and performing works, and holding concerts, shows and exhibits devoted to the case of Mumia, all on a single day--September 11, 1999. On the same day, in addition to the special events being planned, other artists and art institutions around the country will be dedicating their regular performances to stopping Mumia's execution. This can and will, in the words of the initiators, "break through the sound barrier and make Mumia's name a household word." We need more of these kinds of initiatives.

Third, we need increased determination--and by this I principally mean that we need an increasingly militant and defiant element in our movement. To be clear, we certainly cannot limit our movement to those ready to "put it on the line" for Mumia. But those who are ready to take action like this have an important and crucial role to play. Historically such actions have ranged from the mass civil disobedience arrests in New York around the killing of Amadou Diallo to the ways in which the people of Los Angeles expressed themselves after the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted. Determined actions make strikingly clear how people feel about this, they shine a powerful light on injustice, and they inspire others to take a stand in their own way.

A final point concerns the international dimension to all this. The U.S. rulers need to cloak their imperialist adventures, like the bombing of Yugoslavia, in the rhetoric of "human rights." It is very damaging to them when people around the world tune in to the case of Mumia and see what "human rights" really means in America. We have to be aware how much this stings them and do all we can to continue reaching out internationally for Mumia.

In all, we need collective deliberations and imagination--and efforts to come up with new initiatives that can reach people in bold new ways. And we are going to have to do this in a very short time frame--October will be the last time when Mumia can file his habeas appeal, which will set off the final round of battle in the courts.

Key Initiatives
Before the Movement

The good news is that we're not starting from nowhere. There was the great advance of April 24, coming on top of years of organizing by many dedicated people. A growing unity in the national movement has developed. And there are a number of important initiatives already under way which, taken together, will help to get things to the next level. These include:

  • Philadelphia Freedom Summer, beginning on June 28, will bring youth from around the country to descend on Philadelphia to further develop support for Mumia in the grassroots neighborhoods. Last year, people were mobilized to display Mumia posters in many store and home windows (the "Face of Justice" campaign), blowing away the media lie that "Mumia has no support in Philadelphia." This year should witness further expressions of support coming from the neighborhoods.
  • The annual July 4 demonstration for Mumia in Philly will take place. This year, coming in the face of the counterattacks discussed earlier, this demonstration will have a particular importance. In addition, people are organizing for civil disobedience in Philly on July 3, which could have an important impact.
  • September 11 will witness "Mumia 911," the nationwide Day of Art to Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, described above.
  • Finally, there is the September 19-25 Week for Justice for Mumia.
  • I want to highlight the Week for Justice, because I feel it is particularly crucial. The Week needs to feature many different kinds of expressions of outrage against the execution of Mumia, reaching all through society. We want to, and need to, involve hundreds of thousands of people in one or another activity that opposes Mumia's execution.

    Some ideas already in the air include a national day of teach-ins; a day in which religious congregations take up the case; informational mailings from national organizations to their memberships and expressions to the press; a powerful expression against the execution from the legal community; and a concluding day of activity in 100 cities. Other ideas for the week are no doubt in process, and many more are needed. Right now, it is crucial for us to get these ideas out of the air and onto the ground, rolling!

    Every organization that is opposed to the execution will be challenged--and empowered--to both do things that involve and activate their own constituencies in their own ways, as well as to reach out broadly in society. By doing all these diverse and decentralized activities in a single week in response to a unified call, the effect of each will be greatly multiplied and the cumulative impact of all together can be massive.

    Justice--and the people--demand nothing less from us.

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