Mumia Habeas Filing Exposes Injustice
The Case of Mumia:
Political Persecution From the Beginning
By C. Clark Kissinger
Revolutionary Worker #1041, February 6, 2000
Those who want to see Mumia Abu-Jamal executed often argue that his case was never political. They say that the whole notion of a political railroad is a desperate concoction of the defense. Some even claim or imply that Mumia was a virtual unknown in Philadelphia at the time of his arrest. Therefore, they argue, there was simply no basis for the prosecution and police to railroad Mumia. According to these forces, Mumia is just an ordinary criminal, who is trying to "spin" his case into something political.
The memorandum of law supporting Mumia's recent filing for habeas corpus relief proves, on the contrary, that the case against Mumia was politically driven from the start. Every newspaper in Philly ran the death of officer Faulkner on page one, and every newspaper drew links to Mumia's political activities and beliefs. The Philadelphia Inquirer headlined: "Jamal: An eloquent activist not afraid to raise his voice." The Daily News pointed out that Jamal "wears his hair in dreadlocks and was associated with several Black activist causes. . . he was a leader of the local Black Panther Party while still a teenager." The same article brought out Mumia's 1970 statement that "Black people are facing the reality that the Black Panther Party has been facing: political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."
Other coverage drew attention to Mumia's sympathy for MOVE, a radical, mainly Black group. Nine MOVE members had been unjustly convicted of the 1978 death of police officer James Ramp, who was killed during a 500-man police attack on a MOVE house. Mumia's reporting on what became the longest, costliest, and perhaps most controversial case in Philadelphia history earned him the enmity of the Philadelphia police and political establishment.
The media focus on Mumia's politics reached such a pitch that Claude Lewis, a columnist for the Philadelphia Bulletin, blasted his fellow journalists for "straying from their purported posture of `objectivity."' Lewis wrote: "They repeatedly attributed to Abu-Jamal a penchant for radicalism and militancy. Their characterizations sparkled with prejudicial passion, reducing in the public mind any possibility of innocence on the part of the suspect."
Simultaneously, the Philadelphia powers-that-be turned Faulkner's funeral into a major political event. City flags flew at half-mast; a crowd of 5,000 viewed his funeral bier; and a procession of 250 vehicles preceded his burial. The media paired coverage of the funeral with a police department version of the shooting. The atmosphere grew so feverish that one Inquirer columnist noted that radio talk shows were full of people who "want to lynch the man who calls himself Mumia Abu-Jamal."
The defense memorandum notes that of approximately 80 jurors in the jury pool, 73 of them were familiar with the media coverage of the case.
In 1995, the prosecutor characterized the case as "probably one of the biggest events in the criminal justice system in the City of Philadelphia for a quarter of a century."
Both the FBI and Philadelphia police department had kept Mumia under surveillance since he had been a teenager--unless this is done for all citizens in Philadelphia, this clearly indicates that some very powerful people wanted to spy on Mumia for a long time. Yet despite their constant scrutiny, Mumia was never linked to any criminal activity in all those years.
Does this sound like a case that was not political at all until Mumia's supporters tried to put a "spin" on it? Does it sound as if Mumia was a virtual "unknown" in Philly when the shots on Locust Street were fired? Does it seem likely that the jury was not influenced by this pro-police media barrage? Should we believe that the authorities did not carefully calculate the political stakes involved in the conduct and outcome of the trial?
A History of Political Persecution
The obsession of the political police with Mumia Abu-Jamal dates back long before the death of Daniel Faulkner. During the last several years, the defense has unearthed over 800 pages of secret FBI and police files, documenting how federal and city agents put Mumia under surveillance back in the '60s, starting when he was only 15 years old!
At 15, Mumia helped to found the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party. At 17 he wrote for the national BPP newspaper.
In August of 1970, while Mumia was serving as Minister of Information for the Philly BPP, the Philadelphia police tried to disrupt a Panther-sponsored national meeting. The police launched a midnight raid on the Philadelphia branch office. In a perverted attempt to humiliate the Panthers, police forced them to strip butt naked at gunpoint in front of the media. The raid was totally unjustified, and the Panthers went on to successfully hold their convention.
The police targeted Mumia during this entire period. They tapped phones and planted informants. They interviewed and harassed Mumia's relatives, acquaintances and teachers. A February 1973 FBI report recommended keeping Mumia on their "Security Index," saying that "should the opportunity present itself, [Mumia Abu-Jamal] would definitely be a threat to established local and national government."
As the 1970s wore on, Mumia remained a thorn in the side of the establishment, even as the form of his activism changed. He became a journalist, providing a voice for those who rarely get heard in society.
Meanwhile, police chief Frank Rizzo ascended to the office of mayor--a position he held from 1972 to 1980. According to a report from a federally funded research group, during this period the Philadelphia police killed 162 people, 75 of whom were not engaged in a violent felony and were running away when shot dead. The same report stated that police shot someone on the average of once a week and that two out of every three persons killed by police in the sample year of 1975 were either Black or Latino.
In the words of the veteran award-winning Black Philadelphia journalist Linn Washington Jr., "From paupers to house painters to prominent pastors, Blacks were the predominate target of police abuse." (See Washington's excellent article "The Reign of Frank Rizzo: Brutality Explodes," included in the Refuse and Resist! Resource Book on the Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.) Things got so bad that a federal judge ordered extensive reforms in the Philly police department, only to be overruled by Judge William Rehnquist--who is now chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1979, after months of political battling back and forth, the U.S. Justice Department filed an unprecedented lawsuit against nearly two dozen city officials, including Rizzo. Washington notes that "the lawsuit charged Rizzo Administration officials with condoning a pattern and practice of pervasive brutality by police.... The Justice Department's lawsuit stated Rizzo Administration officials had `pursued and continue to pursue policies and practices which result in widespread, arbitrary and unreasonable physical abuse..."' But once again the higher courts came to Rizzo's rescue, throwing out the suit as unfair to Rizzo and the other officials.
Washington concludes his piece by stating that "Mumia Abu-Jamal was among the handful of reporters who consistently reported on instances of police brutality. This reportage...earned these reporters the antipathy of Rizzo Administration officials and ostracism from their peers in mainstream media."
The MOVE 9
The most notorious instance of police abuse in Philly during this time went down around the MOVE 9. After several years of confrontations between the MOVE organization and the city authorities of Philadelphia, Rizzo got court approval to starve the MOVE members out of their Powelton Village house. On March 16, 1978, hundreds of cops invaded the neighborhood and sealed off a four-block area around the house. Three weeks later thousands of people marched around City Hall to protest the siege, and grassroots people from around the city began to defy the blockade, bringing food and water for the entrapped MOVE members. Rizzo's attack showed signs of backfiring into a major political defeat, and city officials negotiated a settlement.
But when the political heat died down, the city reneged, and on August 8 Rizzo sent hundreds of cops in flak jackets and riot helmets to again surround the house and force MOVE to surrender. MOVE refused, and the cops trained water cannons on the house. When a gunshot rang out--and two radio reporters later said that the shot did NOT come from the MOVE house--the police poured gunfire into the MOVE house. During this period of gunfire, police officer James Ramp was fatally wounded. When the MOVE people, holding their children above their heads in the flooded basement, finally surrendered, the cops went into a frenzy of brutality. The vicious police beating of Delbert Africa, in particular, was broadcast on the national news, again provoking major criticism of the Rizzo administration's fascist tactics.
Nine MOVE members were tried, and Mumia covered their trial for local radio. On May 8, 1980, Judge Edwin Malmed pronounced the MOVE 9 guilty and sentenced them all to 30 to 100 years in prison--sentences which they are continuing to serve today. Shortly after the verdict, Malmed was a guest on a local talk radio show. Mumia called in and asked the judge, "Who shot James Ramp?," to which Malmed blurted in reply, "I haven't the faintest idea." This exposure may have earned Mumia the added hatred of the powers-that-be, but it further solidified his reputation in the grassroots as "the voice of the voiceless."
Sentenced for His Political Beliefs
It is hardly necessary to read the transcripts or to research old newspaper clippings to ascertain the highly political character of the trial.
During the sentencing phase of the trial--and over objections from the defense--Sabo permitted McGill to question Mumia about political remarks he made in 1970, while a member of the Black Panther Party. McGill repeatedly asked Mumia whether he agreed with Mao Tsetung's statement that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," to which Mumia replied that "America has proven that quote to be true." (see RW # 1031 excerpts from the back-and-forth between Mumia and McGill). McGill then took this comment into his summation--linking Mumia's philosophy to "constant abuse and daily law-breaking," despite the fact that Mumia had no criminal record whatsoever!
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld this line of argument by the prosecution, in its review of Mumia's initial appeal, holding that his former membership in the BPP, "an unpopular political organization" with a "perceived violent philosophy," demonstrated his "longstanding disdain for the system." Thus did the Pennsylvania high court turn disdain for the system into valid grounds to impose the death penalty!
Even the U.S. Supreme Court has stopped short of doing this. When courts in Delaware used the Pennsylvania case of Mumia as a precedent to sentence a white supremacist to death through citing his political beliefs and associations, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that practice to be unconstitutional. But at the same time, the Supreme Court refused to hear Mumia's case along with the case from Delaware. Thus when the court ruled in Dawson v. Delaware that Dawson's death sentence was unconstitutional, it let Mumia's death sentence stand.
Still, Mumia raised the Dawson ruling in his 1998 appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Now the PASC, to quote the memorandum, "articulated a new rationale: that Jamal's quotation of Mao Zedong establishes that he `would use violence if necessary to quell what the [Black Panther] Party perceived to be rampant police brutality against Party members." This new rationale, and the new fact finding on which it is based, "departs from its 1989 fact finding solely to tailor its holding to the United States Supreme Court's holding in Dawson."
To sum up: a young man joins a revolutionary organization. As a result, the police spy on him for almost 15 years. During this time the man consistently and publicly speaks out against a police force so exceptionally brutal and repressive that even the Department of Justice files an unprecedented suit against it. When the man is arrested, every newspaper in town highlights his political history and beliefs. The orgy of prejudicial publicity reaches such a pitch that mainstream journalists feel compelled to warn against a lynch mob mentality. During his trial, the prosecutor puts forward the man's former membership in the revolutionary organization as an aggravating factor that should impel the jurors to sentence him to death. On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agrees that "longstanding disdain for the system" should indeed be weighed as a factor arguing for execution. This is the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Not political? Mumia's case has been saturated with politics, from 1981 up to today. It began in 1981 as an effort to dress up the tattered image of the Philadelphia police department and to forever silence a consistent and principled radical political opponent. It continues today, with even higher stakes, as a campaign for the state-sanctioned murder of a man who has developed into an international spokesperson against the very policies and system that unjustly put him on death row in the first place.
If we are to stop this execution, we must forcefully expose its highly political nature.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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