The Battle for Mumia and the Attack on the Black Community

Analysis: Racist Agendas in the Attack on the Black United Fund

Revolutionary Worker #1014, July 18, 1999

This May the Philadelphia power structure launched a massive attack on a major Black charity. The city government abruptly cut off participation of the Black United Fund of Pennsylvania (BUF/PA) in the Combined Campaign--where voluntary payroll deductions of city workers go to certain charities. This exclusion endangered the survival of BUF/PA and threatened many associated charities serving the African-American community.

The cause of the attack? The BUF/PA provides "fiscal sponsorship of donor-advised funds" for the legal defense fund of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia (ICF&F). This means that people who donate to Mumia's defense or to ICF&F can write a check to BUF/PA and BUF/PA will cash the check and monitor how it is spent. BUF/PA does this for a fee and provides the same service to many other groups. But this was too much for Philadelphia's power elite. In the words of Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell (who was the District Attorney when Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted): "You can be a mail drop for Mumia or you can participate in the Combined Campaign. You don't get both."

The message couldn't be clearer to the Black United Fund of PA: "Do what we say, now--or die."

The openly high-handed white supremacist character of the whole thing is shocking. But it is in step with the history of brutal attacks on Black people in Philadelphia. This is the city which bombed the MOVE house in 1985, killing 11 Black people and incinerating an entire Black neighborhood; the city that elevated an openly racist cop, Frank Rizzo, to mayor; the city infamous for its midnight raids on the Black Panthers in the '60s; the city whose current DA was called the "Queen of Death" by the New York Times for filling the state's death row with people of color. Now this same power structure is at it again, dictating to a Black charity what perfectly legal things it may and may not do in the Black community.

BUF/PA has fought back. They've appealed the city decision, restated their commitment to the fiscal sponsorship, and rallied support. Thomas Paine Cronin, president of AFSCME D.C. Council 47, spoke at a press conference called in support of BUF/PA: "I think once you begin to cut off segments of the Combined Campaign such as the Black United Fund, or threaten them, that is a significant threat to the entire community.... Let's rip off the veil of racism here because it's a thin veil of racism."

State Representative James Roebuck, president of the Pennsylvania State Legislative Black Caucus added: "If we allow this to happen to this organization, then every organization in turn is placed in jeopardy.... I stand firm with my colleagues in saying that this should not, this cannot happen."

Behind the Attack on BUF/PA

The attack on BUF/PA fits a pattern. Let's say the rock group Rage Against the Machine does a benefit concert for Mumia's legal defense, or teachers in Oakland plan lessons on his case, or students at Evergreen State University ask him to address (by tape) their graduation ceremonies. Immediately they find themselves besieged by a deafening media din distorting their positions and forcing them to justify themselves.

The attack on BUF/PA went a few steps further still. For one thing, BUF/PA has not taken a position on Mumia's case; they provide a routine, but essential, service that enables Mumia to pursue his legal case and ICF&F to carry out educational activities and mobilization in his behalf. For another, the city has used its considerable financial and political leverage to put the very survival of the BUF/PA in doubt. The power structure clearly intends to exact a high price from anyone who dares to step out for Mumia, and, in keeping with all of American history, a higher price still from Black organizations and individuals.

Those who come under attack for stepping out must be backed up, and the attacks upon them turned into boomerangs. We cannot fail to do that and still hope to win.

The attack on BUF/PA makes clear the high stakes involved in stepping out for Mumia.

But there are still higher stakes for not stepping out.

The Agendas Behind Executing Mumia:
Silence a Critic, Destroy a Symbol

Why are the powers-that-be putting so much into carrying through the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal? Why are they attempting to silence any who dare question it? Why, in the particular case of BUF, are they attempting to destroy an organization that enables those struggling against this railroad to function?

Several related agendas drive the offensive to kill Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the first concerns their hatred for Mumia and what he has come to represent. Mumia is a living link between the spirit of the 1960s and the youth of the '90s. Youth of different classes and all nationalities increasingly see and cherish Mumia as someone who questioned, exposed and resisted the status quo, someone who never gave up or turned back or lost faith, even in the face of death. No wonder students want him to give their commencement address! Older folks see that too, and when they hear about how his case went down, it smells like all the other railroads they remember from "back in the Day."

Moreover, Mumia is not just a living reminder of the corruption and racism of the judicial system, he is one of its most articulate and courageous critics! For millions worldwide, Mumia's case represents the barbarism of a country that dares to style itself the "champion of human rights."

Finally, for the poor and oppressed, Mumia is a revolutionary who has never given up. He rarely focuses on his own case or his 18 cruel years on death row; much more often, he exposes or comments on the many other injustices that show, from different angles, the utter corruption and worthlessness of the status quo. He upholds the right of the people to fundamentally overturn this system and to put a more just system in its place. For all this, he is precious to those on the bottom, someone who must be defended.

Simply put, this is intolerable to those who rule America. At a time of rising inequality and brutality, at a time of renewed stirrings of resistance, they intend to literally bury Mumia and everything he represents in a coffin.

The White Supremacy Agenda

At the same time, Mumia's case connects to a larger agenda directed against the African-American people.

During the last 20 years this government has locked up in prison what seems like an entire generation of young Black men, as well as increasing numbers of women. It has instituted (and justified) "racially profiled" traffic stops from the major highways and city streets to every lonely country road--stops which almost always mean abuse and often end in police murders. We've witnessed the wholesale reversal of the anti-discrimination reforms of the 1960s and '70s, and the simultaneous insertion of former welfare recipients (who are disproportionately people of color) into the low-wage dead-end jobs fueling America's "recovery." And we are forced to hear the soundtrack for it every day in the crude stereotypes and straight-up ignorance pervading everything from the TV news and radio talk shows and top movies to the bestseller lists and political campaigns.

This agenda obviously goes way beyond Mumia. As we've documented and analyzed elsewhere, this all-round resurgent racism has been driven by deep changes in the U.S. and global economy. Severe political and social dislocations have resulted from these changes--with a potential for great upheaval. As one part of their answer to this, the power structure have buttressed their institutions of white supremacy and refitted them for the new millennium.

Over the years the case of Mumia has developed into a flashpoint, an extreme concentration of what tens of millions people of color face every day because of this agenda (and the underlying societal relations this agenda reinforces.)

The Divide-and-Conquer Agenda

There is yet one more agenda at work here. The white power structure in this country has historically attempted to isolate Black revolutionaries and radicals like Mumia from those political forces in the Black community who are not revolutionary. They tried to do this with the Black Panther Party; with Malcolm X; with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Dubois; and with countless others. With Mumia, they've tried to do this by portraying it as a "simple case of a cop-killer and a widow's search for justice"--acting as if the specific racial politics that saturate Mumia's railroad and sentencing don't even exist, and covering over or denying the links to bigger social questions. And they've increasingly backed this up with threats and reprisals, a la the attack on BUF/PA.

Sometimes the power structure will give "advice" to Black political forces that they should stay away from Mumia's case so that "whites won't be alienated from the `just demands' of the Black masses." And they'll demand that other political and cultural figures either denounce the radicals or, at minimum, distance themselves from them. In the case of BUF/PA, the politicians and editorial writers lathered their attack with crocodile tears for "worthy Black charities" and promises of restoring the money--if only BUF/PA would drop Mumia. Both Philadelphia daily papers have gone so far as to claim that attention to Mumia's case was somehow hurting the other people on death row--as if these papers have ever done anything to expose Philadelphia's atrocious record for putting people of color onto death row.

There is a name for this tactic: divide-and-conquer.

But when has this sort of distancing or division ever led to anything positive for the masses of Black people? Think again about the deportation of Marcus Garvey, the exile of Dubois, the silencing of Robeson, the purging of Black radicals and communists from the trade unions and civil rights organizations in the '40s and '50s, the persecution of Robert F. Williams, the censorship of SNCC at the 1963 March on Washington and 1964 Democratic convention*, the hounding and assassination of Malcolm X, and the ferocious assault against the Black Panther Party. Think--again--about the bombing of the MOVE house in 1985, with its murder of 11 innocent people and the subsequent incineration of an entire Black neighborhood. Has any of this ever somehow helped the masses, or strengthened the struggle? Indeed, just the opposite was the case. To the extent the divide-and-conquer tactics surrounding these outrages succeeded, they weakened the ability of the Black people to mount a united fight against oppression.

The Stakes for Black People

There are important stakes in Mumia's case for every single person in the world who's concerned with justice--and everyone who wants to end the discrimination and oppression of Black people.

What would it mean for the entire Black community in the U.S. if the government were to succeed in executing Mumia?

It would mean that it is legally and morally okay to execute a Black man in America despite the systematic exclusion of Black jurors from his jury and despite the presiding judge's record of sending more people to death row than any judge in the country--all but two of them people of color.

It would mean that it is legally and morally okay to execute a Black man in America even though the prosecution used his earlier political statements and associations as arguments for his death. (Meanwhile, the death sentence of a white neo-Nazi has been reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court because his views had been made known to the jury before sentencing.)

It would mean that a Black journalist who had exposed police abuse against the Black community, a journalist who had drawn open threats from the racist mayor Frank Rizzo, a journalist who himself had never even been arrested before, can be convicted and executed on the basis of cooked-up confessions and coerced testimony, and that no court will allow a review of the "evidence" against him.

It would mean that the 80 people rescued from death row in recent years by new evidence mean nothing, and that the new evidence in the most famous and disputed case of all will not even be given another day in court--even though people around the world are aware of and protesting against the injustice involved.

And make no mistake. Today the media does all it can to keep Mumia and his supporters silent--unless it is to misrepresent and slander them. However, if they are able to succeed in executing him, then they will send out the message loud and clear. They will turn his murder by the state into a celebration of their power to take revenge for what they consider the most heinous crime of all: the defiance of the first line of white supremacy--the police force--by a Black man.

What effect would such an execution have on the millions of Black children, teenagers, and college students? What message would this send them about their futures and their fates? What would it say to a young person who wants to serve the community, to a student who wants to become a journalist to expose poverty and discrimination, or to an ordinary person who wants to speak out about an abuse?

These questions answer themselves: we cannot afford such a message. Nor can we afford to lose someone who's emerged from death row to become a true hero. The execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal MUST be prevented. A different message must be sent.

In order to have a hope of preventing this execution, there needs to be massive mobilization and struggle from every corner of the U.S. and far beyond. Everyone who professes to be for justice needs to step out and stand up--to refuse to be intimidated. And a key part of this will be the involvement of an extremely broad spectrum of the Black community at a very deep level.

Think about it: the current level of support for Mumia has already forced his would-be killers somewhat onto the defensive. They are lashing out, but this vicious frenzy does not come from a position of calm confidence. As the saying goes: a stuck pig squeals. But we've hardly begun to plumb the wells of potential support and activism, including in the Black community. The people CAN win this--but it's going to take an effort not seen in generations.

Black political forces with very different agendas can see a common interest in this one particular demand: Justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal--STOP THE EXECUTION. Radicals and liberals, moderates and revolutionaries, people of all religions and no religion, nationalists and communists and those working within the system, can all share the same platform to demand that this travesty of a verdict be thrown out of court. Folks with different agendas and even opposed points of view can work together with mutual respect and good faith. There are too many bitter lessons when it hasn't happened.

The good news is that this IS starting to happen. The recent April 24 demonstrations in Philadelphia and San Francisco were the biggest yet by far, and had the largest turnout yet from the Black community. Militant nationalists mobilized in force and lent an important edge to the demonstration. There was a high turnout from Philly's Black community, with a flurry of meetings, teach-ins, statements, and other shows of community support that went into the 24th. Prominent artists and activists like Ossie Davis, Dick Gregory, Kathleen Cleaver, Geronimo ji Jaga and many others represented. Black activists and officials from human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Friends Service Committee and many others spoke from the platform. And a statement of support from the Congressional Black Caucus added a new, and very necessary, dimension. More recently on the July 4 weekend, Congressional representative Chaka Fattah from Philadelphia, Bennie G. Thompson from Mississippi, and Cynthia A. McKinney from Georgia demanded a new trial for Mumia. And Ron Daniels, the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, publicly called on Jesse Jackson to meet with Leonard Weinglass, the lead counsel of Mumia's legal team, and representatives of International Concerned Family and Friends, "to discuss ways and means of intensifying the struggle for a new trial for Mumia."

But the breadth and depth of support there is not yet sufficient to win. Much much more is needed. We are going to have to strain every nerve and muscle to prevent Mumia's execution. No political figure or community institution can afford to sit on the sidelines. Everyone must step up their commitment and effort.

Victory is never guaranteed; to paraphrase Frederick Douglass, you may not win everything you fight for, but you will most surely fight for everything you win. This battle to win justice for one more Black revolutionary unjustly railroaded--and this time sentenced to death!--demands the most powerful unified fight that can be mounted.

Will we inaugurate the 21st century with the execution of a Black revolutionary, convicted in a racist proceeding? Or will we stamp it with a new major victory in the struggle for emancipation? That's the question of the hour. In the words of Ossie Davis, "Every generation should have a moral assignment... and one of ours must be justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal."

* These incidents were part of what led to SNCC's decisive break in 1966 with any white ruling class control.

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