Reporters Notebook, February 28, Washington, D.C.

Taking a Stand for Mumia:
Mass Arrests at Supreme Court

By Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1046, March 12, 2000

On February 28, close to 1,000 people took part in a protest at the United States Supreme Court to demand a new trial for political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and an end to the death penalty. For two hours protesters blocked the streets in a civil disobedience action and 185 people were arrested. Inside, the Supreme Court was hearing a case called Williams v. Taylor--a case challenging the restrictions on habeas corpus appeals put in place by the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

Mumia's lead attorney, Leonard Weinglass, has described the importance of the Williams case for Mumia's appeal: "This decision will greatly impact Mumia's case because it will set the boundaries for federal judges--either they will be able to conduct independent reviews of state cases or they are going to be severely restricted in independent reviews in what they do. What Williams is about is whether or not federal judges have to accept the findings of state court judges or whether or not they are independent."

Judge William Yohn of the Philadelphia federal district court will decide whether or not to hear new evidence in Mumia's case some time in April.

Broad Support

The action began with rallies directly in front of the Supreme Court and across the street. Speakers included Sam Jordan, director of Amnesty International's Program to Abolish the Death Penalty, Steven Hawkins, Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Pam Africa of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal and many others.

The crowd was very multinational, mostly high school and college students. People came from all over the East Coast for the demonstration. Students from Maryland; busloads of people from New York City on buses donated by Local 1199; vans from Chicago; a contingent from a DC Catholic high school, all in uniform; a contingent from Howard Law School, American University, and George Washington University; Campaign to End the Death Penalty; Bruderhof; Amnesty International; MOVE; SLAM; youth from Western Massachusetts; contingents from Vassar and Bard Colleges; another from SUNY Stony Brook, and many other places.

Many different political organizations took part and there were contingents from chapters of the Campaign To End the Death Penalty, Amnesty International, Refuse & Resist! and many local Mumia support groups. Activists in the movement to free Leonard Peltier and other political prisoners were also represented.

Signs exposing the unjust treatment of Black people in this society were everywhere--and many people were drawing the links between the acquittal of the cops that murdered Amadou Diallo and the unjust imprisonment of Mumia. The mood was one of determination--that together we can win and stop the execution of our brother Mumia.

It took two hours for the police to remove everyone who was blocking traffic. Those arrested included former South African political prisoner Dennis Brutus; human rights attorney Jennifer Harbury, a member of Leonard Peltier's legal team; Rev. Nozomi Ikuta, President of the National Interreligious Task Force on Criminal Justice; Rev. Michael Yasutake, an officer of the National Council of Churches Racial Justice Working Group; Professor Mark Taylor of Academics for Mumia; and C. Clark Kissinger of Refuse & Resist!.

Just before he was arrested, Dennis Brutus told the RW: "I'm opposed to the death penalty. I went to prison for my opposition to racism and I'm right here opposing racism and injustice. I think we're going to make a very powerful impact. The whole concept of legal lynching has to be reexamined, the discrimination in the people who are executed--the poor, the Blacks--all that has to be reexamined. We want a new political and legal order where there is true justice."

Rev. Nozomi Ikuta said: "We have a long-standing record of opposition to the death penalty. We believe that it has many, many aspects of injustice and Mumia's case is certainly an example of that. We're here to call for justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal." Attorney Jennifer Harbury, whose husband, a Mayan resistance leader in Guatemala, was tortured by military people on CIA payroll, told me: "The Mumia Abu-Jamal case is one more instance of the United States intelligence division attacking and oppressing minority leaders throughout the United States and outside the United States and crushing civil rights movements. I've read through the judicial record. Mr. Mumia did not receive a fair trial. Much of the evidence was falsified against him. It's one of a package of cases out of the COINTELPRO era of repression against people of color and it's time for the United States government, I believe, to set this matter straight for once and for all."

Clark Kissinger explained why they chose this place to take a stand for Mumia: "The Supreme Court has had a crucial role in the continued imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal. In the Dawson case, the case coming out of Delaware, they ruled that the political beliefs and affiliations of an individual could not be used as an argument for the death penalty. They did it in another case from Nevada, I believe, with a guy named Flannagan. But when Mumia's case was brought up before the Supreme Court, they wouldn't even hear it. So this shows the partisanship of the Supreme Court. Constitutional rights can be upheld for white supremacists like Dawson but they're not upheld for Black revolutionaries."

Rebellious Youth

Students and other youth were a powerful part of the crowd. A student from Harrisonburg, Virginia told the RW: "Whatever happened to our freedoms? It's a personal attack on anyone who sees what's going on or just anyone who wants a change in any sort of way. I see wrong in what's going on. I see an innocent man that's in a place where he should not be and I want to do everything that I can to stop that. Most people don't know what's going on. We have to tell them about Mumia, about this case, about the injustices that are going on."

A member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty who goes to George Washington University said: "Before I came to college I had heard a lot about the Mumia case but all from the state's side, about how it was a good thing that they were putting a cop killer to death. Then I came here and learned more about the case. I was totally ashamed that something like that could happen in America and just amazed that something like that would happen and people weren't aware of it. Mumia is a brilliant and well educated man who fought for a lot of the beliefs I share. I'm pro-trade unions, anti-police brutality. And on the other hand he's also a symbol for the movement to end the death penalty because he's been so outspoken against it."

A student from St. Mary's College in Maryland who just got involved in the struggle to free Mumia and Leonard Peltier said: "On my way up here I just kept thinking how dare they break the law like that, just blatantly, you know? You learn in grade school all about the great melting pot and all that bullshit. And then when you go to college you find out about how they kept Chinese people, immigrants out of the country and about how they put people into concentration camps. And then you find out about colonialism, true history--it really, really, pissed me off."

A lot of Black students came to protest, including a large group of high school students from DC and students from many different colleges. A contingent of 200 marched down from Howard University and came in chanting "Diallo! Mumia!" and "Amadou, Amadou, why'd they murder you?" A group of students from Howard Law School risked their future legal careers when they decided on the spur of the moment to step into the street and get arrested.

A student from Virginia Tech said: "Mumia really could be anybody. It could have been me, you know what I'm saying? It really doesn't matter, race or color--everybody deserves justice no matter how rich or how poor or how old or how young or how Black or how white, there should be justice." Another from Duke University in North Carolina said: "Mumia's an example of the injustice that Black Americans, particularly Black American men, have had to endure since this country was founded. He's a blatant example. His case is unique but perhaps not so unique because the same thing that he's going through, you know, thousands and thousands and thousands of African American men and women have gone through in the past and are still going through."

One of the women who organized the Howard University contingent told me: "I think a lot of times people think that Black people or poor people or people that have been oppressed make up theories about conspiracies that don't exist. But we know that there was COINTELPRO, there was a legitimate effort to eliminate the Black leadership in this country. And Mumia, to me, was somebody that tried to speak out for Black people that were poor and were oppressed. He represents that voice that the establishment is trying to silence and we must speak up for him. I don't know what to do other than continue to fight. Look at the verdict in New York for Diallo. It's as if the courts are just not working for us. As Malcolm said, you don't take your case to the criminal, you take the criminal to court. So I think it has to be definitely the movement that's going to stop his execution. I think what's at stake here is literally the lives of people of color and the poor. I mean point blank that's all it's about. It's about our lives. One third of all Black men between the ages of 20 to 29 are somehow caught up in the criminal justice system. I mean this is--for lack of a better word--almost genocide. It's literally legal lynching. What they did in slavery and what they did through lynching they're now doing through the criminal justice system. So it's just about life and death. It's just as plain as that. We want to free Mumia. We want him to have a new trial. We want this racist system to go down."

The acquittal of the four NYPD cops who murdered Amadou Diallo in cold blood was on everyone's minds. A young white student from North Carolina talked about the sign she was carrying: "It says `Justice for all--what about Mumia and what about Diallo?' because obviously our justice system is not for all. Mumia needs a retrial and Diallo needs to lay in his grave in peace and his parents obviously have not gotten justice. He has not gotten justice. None of the Bronx has gotten justice yet."

Jana, a spokesperson for the Refuse & Resist! Youth Network, had just gotten out of jail in New York for protesting against the acquittal of the four cops who murdered Amadou Diallo--just in time to catch a ride to get arrested in D.C. for Mumia. She told me: "Mumia spent his whole life standing up against injustice, like what happened to Amadou Diallo. He exposed this stuff when he was a journalist. Right now he's on death row exactly because of that fight that he was a part of and today obviously that fight is not over. So we were out there the other day for Amadou Diallo to stand with the people. There's a lot of anger over that verdict. We can't let them take Mumia Abu-Jamal. People who were arrested in the Bronx for Amadou Diallo are determined to make a statement that after what they did to us, we have even more determination to come down here."

Changing the World

There was a sense among a section of youth that the movement to stop Mumia's execution is part of a bigger movement for social change. Rapper Diamond T.X. told the RW: "We're on the revolution for Mumia and to free this brother. He's treated unjustly and also whole lot of other political prisoners and we came out to show our support and our honesty towards this movement to help this brother get out of the situation he's in and stop the death penalty period."

I talked with a group called "The Sauce," students from Bard College in upstate New York. Some of their members had taken part in the protests against the World Trade Organization last November in Seattle. Others were getting ready for another protest in Washington, DC against the IMF and the World Bank that will be held on April 16. One student told me: "They use things like the criminal justice system and the death penalty to attack poor people, to attack minorities, to attack activists. Mumia's a symbol of all those unjustly incarcerated in our system right now who have been unjustly convicted by a racist and classist judicial system and we want justice. It's very important that young people like ourselves and students get very involved because this is our future that we're taking into our own hands and we're the only people that can shape our future and we have to take that responsibility and learn how to do that. Are we going to let the state kill anybody they want to? Are they allowed to kill people because they're Black and because they're poor and because they're activists? Or are we going to stand by our brothers and sisters and free them? We have come here to definitely make a change in society... I think this is the beginning of a much larger struggle that I think is becoming better organized. And I think that things like this are very important for that struggle and for showing people who might be isolated but thinking the same things that there are groups of people who are like-minded and who think that these atrocities just should not happen and that we're ready to fight."

One of these students who had taken part in the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle last November said: "Mumia's words are censored, his voice is censored, his body has been censored and his freedom is censored and that, to me, really shows something very wrong with our system in which we are living right now.... I see the movement as a huge resistance towards capitalism on the greater level and really what capitalism has bred within our society and how it has limited our personal democracy and freedom that we have. It's handed over so much power to the state and to the police and to the rich. The end goal for me is to deconstruct that institution and Mumia is a representation very much of how capitalism affects you individually and globally and that, in the end, the future we want to go for is to deconstruct a really horrific monster that is taking away our local, and global, and personal freedoms on a really kind of grotesque level."

A student from Michigan who had hitchhiked to the east coast during his spring break said: "Mumia's writings speak to me because they speak to poor people and oppressed people everywhere. He's a really eloquent voice of criticism against this system of ours and it's specifically how eloquent his critique is that he's so threatening to the government and why they want to silence him. This is great to be a part of--this kind of mobilization from especially young people getting excited about making changes with a more kind of revolutionary view that this is one piece of a huge puzzle, that we have to look at all these issues as interconnected and really try and mobilize and support every initiative working for a change and attacking this system."

Supachai of the R&R! Youth Network said: "Young people actually need to be at the front lines of this movement because it's us we're talking about. We're talking about young people in this generation inheriting police brutality and inheriting the silencing of political dissent, inheriting this criminal injustice system, inheriting the oppression of Black people, and of all people, coming from this one system--inheriting all these attacks from this right-wing agenda. And I think it's important that we actually step up and talk about it and do things around it and mobilize around it. If they're able to go ahead and push on with this execution they'll be able to actually push forward harder with their reactionary right-wing agenda--starting with the suppression of political dissent, the attacks against women's reproductive rights, the attacks against gays and lesbians and things like that. It's all going to be harder and come down with like such a violent force that people are going to feel it more than ever. If this happens to Mumia, next it is us, you know? It no longer becomes our future, it's no longer our world if we don't win this battle."

I caught up with a high school student from Milwaukee after he got out of jail: "I think this action was important simply because it is the most critical time for Mumia as far as the courts go, and right now I would really like to see an escalation in the interest in the case and in the actions of the people who are displeased with what's going on. I think it's going to be the movement that stops the execution and frees Mumia. I don't think the courts will come through. I think it's just going to take the non-cooperation, the disobedience of the people coming out and saying that we will not stand for this. It's going to be numbers and it's going to be dedicated people and people who really care about the kind of world that they've got to live in and that we have to share with one another. Look at Seattle. That was such an earth-shattering thing. People are actually starting to begin to wake up. And we need to show everybody that that wasn't just a one-time thing, that this is a start of a movement that is going to escalate and not simply die down..."

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