Philly Freedom Summer 1999:
Report from the Frontlines

By Osage

Revolutionary Worker #1016, August 1, 1999

Thanks to one of the volunteers at Philly Freedom Summer for the following article.

On the train ride down from New York City to Philly, I was thinking a lot about the young people who volunteered to go down into the Deep South during the summer of 1964 to register Black voters during the Mississippi Freedom Summer (MFS). I thought about the three students who were killed by racists during that summer. It's hard for radical youth today to think of registering people to vote as dangerous activity, but I imagine the students who headed south in 1964 were very conscious of the time period, the intensity of the situation, and how registering Black voters in the openly racist, segregated south, where lynchings were a common occurrence, meant putting your life on the line.

Inspired by MFS, Philly Freedom Summer (PFS) is about mobilizing the people of Philly and fusing them with the fiery determination of youth to make their support for Mumia Abu-Jamal more visible and stop his execution. Mumia is a revolutionary Black journalist who is on death row because he speaks out against all the brutality and corruption he saw the people living under. And we were going to be asking the people to stand with him, against his execution, and to do it together, as a community, with the Face of Justice poster campaign. Together, we would expose the lies and misinformation popularized by much of the media, and show that the people of Philly do, in fact, support Mumia. How the police would react to us now arriving in Philly was uncertain and an ever-present question for some of us.

The fact that this is a really crucial time period for Mumia's legal battle was constantly at the forefront of our minds.

Making connections with the people of Philly was something we were looking forward to, especially in Germantown (G-town), where some of us got to stay for part of the last PFS. I especially couldn't wait to see the little kids.

DAYS 1 and 2: Arrival of the Troops

When we arrived, there were about 15 of us, 10 of whom were from New York, with more expected to arrive that day and the next. In fact, on the Monday that PFS officially began, we received 15 more people than we'd expected! In the first few days, it seemed like every moment was spent figuring out stuff like who was going to pick up the woman coming into the airport from Santa Cruz, or meet the youth from Cleveland, or stay up until four in the morning for the youth from Chicago whose train was four hours late. By the time we had our opening orientation, there were almost 40 of us! We came from New York City, Upstate New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, California, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii! We were of many different nationalities and ethnicities and political views, and we ranged in age from 15 to 31, with most of us being in our late teens and early 20s.

A lot of people had learned about PFS through friends, through the work they did with Refuse & Resist!, and some learned about it through large events like the Millions for Mumia on April 24 in Philly and San Francisco. D., an 18-year-old student from Boston who led a walkout in his high school for Mumia in April, said he came to learn more about Mumia's case and how to organize around it: "This was definitely something that I had to do. I definitely had to be here. This is a crucial time for Mumia's case and we're doing a lot of stuff to try and get him free." C., 22, from Hawaii, said he came for the same reason, but also because he wanted to be in Philly, the heart of the battle, and where Mumia's from: "I also wanted to learn from young activists from all over the country and how to reach out to more, because I think that's really crucial--more walkouts, more things going on at universities and schools."

L., a volunteer from the Bay Area, brought to PFS her experience with the hunger strike against the dismantling of the Ethnic Studies program at UC Berkeley. She said, "This was a chance to get out and have real contact with people and interact with other youth, find out where they're coming from, and learn how they've been able to take up the case of Mumia." D., an 18-year-old volunteer from Cleveland, said he came because of the importance of the work and the time period. "The battle to free Mumia is really going to determine a lot in the future, in terms of what the system can get away with, and also how much the people can start stepping out. If he was free, then really people will start feeling a lot more motivated to stand up," he said.

Our poster campaign, the Face of Justice (FOJ), which we started last year, would be the focus of our work. The new and beautifully designed poster, with its big picture of Mumia holding up his fist and bright, bold words, "Stop the Execution!" was something we could actually put into people's hands. "It's a way for people to take up Mumia as their own and show their support by hanging the poster in their window," said J., a 25-year-old volunteer from the New York City chapter of Refuse & Resist! It was also something they could take further and bring to their parish, mosque, friends and family.

The Face of Justice campaign really allowed us to get to know the town and its people. Going door-to-door, discussing the execution of Mumia with people and the purpose of the Face of Justice, we invited people's experiences and stories to be told. In return, we'd get invited onto people's stoops, inside for a glass of lemonade, or just into their lives. Red, from the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade in Boston, said, "I've never gone door-to-door to talk to people before. These people have a knowledge of the whole screwed-up situation we're living in that you can't get except from being on the street and talking to them." We got the chance to connect with people and talk about how they see Mumia, the police, and the city. And we get to see their reaction to us. A., from New York, said that our enthusiasm and determination was a real strength for us. "[The volunteers] gave up a lot just to get to Philly. They were willing to learn a lot and keep their eyes and minds open. The volunteers gained a real love for the people and Mumia." And I think the people saw this.

DAY 3: Ballyhoo

We had decided to announce our arrival by doing a `ballyhoo'--an energized but slow-going march in the community, where we would stop along the way to talk to people and hand out the FOJ poster. We carried a banner that read, "Mumia's Fearless, So Are We! We Won't Stop Until He's Free!" and we chanted that most of the way. As we started out, we waited so that the kids from the nearby houses could catch up with us. We received such a welcome! People raised their fists, called out, "He's innocent!" or "Right on!" and many people took the poster. It really pumped up the volunteers, too. It showed those who hadn't been here before just how much support there is for Mumia here. The youth realized there was nothing to be nervous about.

Later that day, we were organized into our squads, the group of volunteers that we'd be living and working with. This was a whole new way of organizing for most of us. Each squad was staying at a different house--two in G-town and one in West Philly. At our house, known as the "o.g." (Original Germantown), we discussed what our approach would be with the Face of Justice--What questions would we ask? How would we introduce ourselves? How can you get into a discussion with people? Some of us had never done this kind of door-to-door work before, and were somewhat intimidated. So we discussed the questions and concerns we all had, like, "Will people think a bunch of kids knocking on their door is rude?" "What if they start yelling at us?" "What if they invite us inside?" "What if they ask why we came to their neighborhood?"

At first D. was really hesitant about how people would react to us knocking on their doors, but the people's reactions made him feel better. "You really get to know the supporters, when they get all excited when they see you coming down the street," he said. We photocopied maps and divided up G-town so that once our squad of about 12 was divided into `squadlets,' smaller groups of three to four, we would have a more concentrated method of work. We were also still trying to organize the pick-ups of more incoming volunteers. This got harder after the first day since the phone no longer rang when it received incoming calls. When people tried to call, they'd get half a ring and then static. It remained that way the whole time we were there, and is still that way. Oddly enough, we learned that the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, SYSTEM, and the Philly R&R! Chapter voice mail all had similar telephone problems!

The extreme heat was a difficult obstacle to overcome. It tired us, made us sleepy, or made it hard to concentrate. Sunburn was expected and heatstroke was imminent. We went through gallons of water a day, sprayed each other with water bottles, or fanned ourselves with notebooks--whatever it took for a moment of relief. Sometimes, the heat was a plus, though, if only because people saw how truly determined we were to be going door-to-door in the heat.

Our house decided we'd go out with the poster from about 3 p.m. until 7 p.m., and then go out for more after dinner. We went up and down different streets, marking down house numbers for places that the people were really cool, or very hostile, or just not home. Then we'd return to those who weren't home or were very interested in what we were doing and Mumia. A lot of people we met were really impressed with the idea that young people were taking up Mumia's case and were coming from all over the country to Philly to spend our summers talking about it. Many people were surprised that these kids were actually interested in what they had to say and actually wanted to discuss the case and the issues involved with them.

A common question among the people was `why Mumia?' So many of them have known people who've wound up in jail unjustly or were beaten by police and presumed guilty. Sometimes it had happened to them. So rather than skepticism toward Mumia's story, the volunteers were met with questions of the significance of this one man. Many of the people we spoke to remember him on the radio. M. from Detroit said, "The people believe he should get a new trial and be free." They remembered what happened to MOVE. They're familiar with the corruption and brutality of the police, and they remember how Mumia spoke out against that, and some even know he still does. So many people want to associate with him. Volunteers met people who say they were his prom date, girlfriend, neighbor, classmate or cellmate.

DAY 6: Shutting Down the Liberty Bell

July 3 and 4 was our most hectic weekend. There was a huge influx of volunteers, a number of whom were completely unexpected. Many came down specifically for the Friday night hip-hop show and the July 3 civil disobedience (CD) action at the Liberty Bell. July 3 was the day of Mumia's sentencing in 1982. The CD really marked a stepped-up, determined action in support of Mumia, with 95 people putting their bodies in front of the entrance to shut down the Liberty Bell. Plus, there was enough of us that some of us could stay back and continue gearing up for the community march on the 5th that we were planning in G-town. These would be the last few days to get the word out. The excitement and intensity were heightened. Four of the Freedom Summer volunteers were planning to take part in the July 3 action and get arrested. There was some concern that they could spend all night and even longer in jail, since the next three days were holidays. Luckily, they all got out in a matter of hours.

Youth who were at the event have said it was the most exciting rally they'd ever been to. S., a 20-year-old college student from New York, said, "Everyone was so emotional, intense and supportive. I felt that everyone in the movement was supporting each other regardless of [different groups], which is new," she said. A chanting human chain surrounded the Liberty Bell pavilion, blocking everyone from entering. Some people were inside, in front of the Bell and had to be dragged away by police. Two protesters had climbed up on the roof of the Pavilion with a banner that read: "Freedom Rings for Mumia." They were the last two to be arrested. The park rangers had to find a forklift to get them down. People even laid down in front of the police vans that were trying to drive away with those who got arrested. Some protesters were held for more than nine hours. That evening, the car we were driving in broke down and a number of people stopped to help us. When we told one man why we were in Philly, he pulled out the bunch of FOJ posters that had been in his back pocket and said, "That's who y'all are? I just saw a group of you down the street. I'll see y'all get where you're going." Then another man said he'd been on the same cellblock as Mumia for two years, and gave us his address and made us promise we'd stop by with posters. "That's a strong brother," he said.

Later that night, sleeping out on the roof of the o.g. house, I thought about how living so closely with the other volunteers, we get drawn into each others' lives and experiences. Here we all were, brought together by the determination to stop this execution, and we have to figure out how to live with each other, too. Lack of personal space and heat could have been real obstacles.

At any moment from our house, you could hear jazz, hip hop, reggae, someone playing his sax, or the sound of someone rhyming over baroque music. We had discussions about what kind of a world we wanted and how we might get there. We talked about how our house would work. We discussed what collectivity is, if we wanted it, and how we'd achieve it. Some of us really saw, even for the first time, that we don't have to live the way society tells us. Struggling through these questions was really intense at times in different houses. We talked about what we could do so that the volunteers who would spontaneously volunteer to cook and clean wouldn't be the women, and we talked about why that might be. We had questions on what it would take to get rid of things like police brutality, poverty, the oppression of women, and injustice and what our role was in all that. M. from D.C., who stayed in West Philly, said, "We're living what we preach."

Discussion, trying to cook together, trying to stay up late to just talk, or play board games, or play freeze tag, brought a lot of us closer. In our house, people put up posters on the walls with quotes from Refuse & Resist!, poets, Ossie Davis, Che Guevara, and Mao Tsetung. We created a community in our house that a lot of the kids in the neighborhood wanted to be a part of. Of course, the little kids also wanted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, piggyback rides, and to play on the house piano. With 8 to 15 people living together and working together, with little escape from each other or the 110-degree heat and humidity, it definitely wasn't always a harmonious community. It definitely was never calm, but we shared a sense of responsibility as to how we worked as a squad.

DAY 7: July 4th

This day, many more volunteers joined us. People came from Atlanta, Detroit, San Francisco, North Carolina, Minnesota, Ohio, New Jersey and more people from Philly itself. At the "What, to the slave, is your 4th of July?" demonstration, there were about 60 of us in total. Some were PFS veterans or were part of the R&R! Youth Network; some were part of anarchist youth networks, some just met us through the large Mumia demonstrations on April 24. Others have been working in their local areas to stop the execution--like in the Minnesota Free Mumia Coalition or the Santa Cruz Free Mumia Coalition. Some heard about PFS on their campuses and others of us were in the Philly-based SYSTEM (Students and Youth to Stop The Execution of Mumia), the Binghamton Anti-Death Penalty Network, or the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

On July 4, President Clinton was scheduled to award the "Liberty Medal" to South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who once faced the death penalty for being a political dissident in his country. And the Associated Press reported that our voices could be heard throughout Dae-jung's speech. E., whose was sponsored to come to PFS by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, spoke for PFS again with M. from the Youth Network of R&R!. F. from Philly said that the way M. described the Week of Awareness for Mumia in September was the most inspiring he'd heard. I was really inspired to hear E., who'd only recently gotten involved with R&R!, speak with such conviction and passion and convey our determination.

DAY 8: Community March

Red, from Boston, said that if 10 percent of the people who said they were coming to the community march came, we'd have a really big march. The response from the people was really positive. People thought this march needed to happen, and liked the idea of it being right in the community. Early in the day, volunteers had noticed an increased police presence--both uniformed and in plainclothes. We didn't learn the significance of this until later.

More intimidating, though, was that it was the hottest day of the year and a record at 110 degrees. This didn't stop us either. We marched along Chelton Avenue, the main road and main commercial area, for about 4 to 6 blocks to a park where we were expecting people to meet us. "[The cops] made us feel like we were accomplishing something. But some of the PFS volunteers were a little scared, so there was some hesitation about taking the streets from the beginning," said D. from Cleveland.

We were expecting a lot of people to be at the park and just wanted us to get there. When we arrived at the park, we were all surprised to see less than a handful of people from the community waiting for us. We were all kind of like, "Where is everybody? Where are all those people who said they'd come check it out?" Some people, including Jana from the Youth Network, did some agitation. Jana said if we didn't take ourselves seriously, the people weren't going to. So, we took to the streets. As we saw the response from the people in their cars, on their front steps, on the sidewalk, peering out store windows, honking and raising their fists or the Face of Justice, we marched with greater confidence and energy. Some cars circled blocks so that they could come back and rejoin us from behind. Our heads and our fists went higher in the air.

Our crew was jumping around and dancing in the street chanting: "This goes out to my man Mumia, put your fists up in the air if you feel me, freedom all day, freedom all night, we gonna set him free!" (to the beat of a Jay-Z song). We stopped at the corners to talk about the case, to explain what Philly Freedom Summer was about, why we came from around the country to be in Philly, what the Face of Justice poster campaign was, and what it would take to stop the execution. Everyone walking by got flyers and the poster, and some joined in passing out posters. People in the community liked that we were from all over the country. A couple of times, we'd stop and then charge for a block or two like we did during the Millions for Mumia march [See RW 1005].

We circled back to the o.g. house to see if we could gather more of the people from our neighborhood. A number of kids from this area followed us on their bikes, weaving in and out of us, with FOJ posters taped to their handlebars. Later, back on the main road, a cop car tried to drive past us and push us toward the sidewalk but, as he passed, we charged right behind him for more than a block and a half, yelling and screaming! The people really loved that!

The kids who had been following us on their bikes went up ahead of us, and when they saw us coming, they started chanting, "He's innocent!" or "Free Mumia! Free Mumia!" As we got closer, we could hear them telling their friends and family, "And then they ran after the cops!" The community buzzed with this story! We were practically a legend. For once, the people chased the cops rather than vice versa, said a volunteer. Later, the people in our neighborhood told us the police were riding around warning people to stay in their homes and not go outside because they would get arrested if they joined us.

DAYS 12-14: Changes

One street near the o.g. house is a play street, where some of the moms block off the street from traffic so that the kids could play. There are a number of posters in the windows on this block. After the community march, a number of girls and boys from this play street came up to us saying they really wanted to have their own "parade" for Mumia. They said their parents thought what we did was "really good" and "really needed to happen," and the kids thought it was really fun, too. So we talked to them and decided to help them make a banner for Mumia the next day on the play street. On a bed sheet, the kids put their handprints and in bright rainbow colors colored in letters that read, "Mumia's Fearless, So Are We!" They sang, chanted, danced and posed in front of it with their fists in the air. One girl who seemed to be the oldest at 10, said, "It's not fair to be on death row for 17 years!"

On the Monday after we left the city, on the play street, cops with guns drawn swooped down on the children playing, saying they were responding to a call about a burglary. They claimed that a "neighbor" had placed a call and then they proceeded to try to "collect statements" from people. Some of those who witnessed the scene said that the cops were grinning and laughing the whole time, while waving their guns around. The cops also threatened to shut down the "play block"--i.e. leave it open for traffic. People in the neighborhood said they felt the incident had to do with things heating up around Mumia. We're encouraging people to keep their eyes on Philly so the people there won't be standing alone.

Saying goodbye to the friends we made and all the little kids was something we really didn't want to do. When the veterans of PFS talk about Freedom Summer, we talk a lot about how PFS has changed our lives, and at first, a lot of the new volunteers kind of laughed at this idea. By the end, though, many more had been changed by the experience in Philly. J., one of the skeptics at the beginning, said, "[PFS] created a real sense of what kind of tremendous effort it's gonna take to save his life. Getting to talk to the people of Philly was a really incredible experience in and of itself. There is a really high level of support for Mumia from so many different types of people, and for so many different reasons, and to be able to get in touch with that on such a personal level with people really had an impact on me that I can't quite describe. L., from the Bay Area, summed it up well when she said, "You probably wouldn't measure Mississippi Freedom Summer just by how many new voters they got. You'd look at how it changed the volunteers who went there." Maybe the same should go for PFS.

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