Mumia at Madison Square Garden

By Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1055, May 21, 2000

On my way to catch a train headed for the "Stand Up for Mumia" rally at Madison Square Garden on May 7, I stopped at a neighborhood newsstand and picked up a copy of the New York Times. Flipping through the pages of the "Week In Review" section--one of the most widely read sections of the Sunday Times--I found a surprise. There was a full-page ad titled "We Educators Demand A New Trial For Mumia Abu-Jamal!" What great timing! Hundreds of professors and teachers from colleges and high schools around the country had signed, including Toni Morrison, Jonathan Kozol, Manning Marable, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis and Rudolfo Anaya.

Madison Square Garden is world famous as the home of the New York Knicks basketball team, who many people are watching in the playoffs this month. World boxing championship fights are held here. Bruce Springsteen and 'N Sync are playing in June. The Theater at Madison Square Garden is a concert hall tucked behind the main arena. As I made my way to the press area I remembered when I saw Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his band here. But today the stage was alive with images of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal projected on a huge screen.

Outside the Garden a few dozen cops had set up a nasty picket line. Youth with banners in support of Mumia marched around them. The Patrolman's Benevolent Association (PBA) police union threatened to boycott the Garden if the rally was held. But as 6,000 people filled the theater to hear speakers and performers opposed to Mumia's execution, it was clear that the police attempts at intimidation had failed.

An Urgent Call for Justice

"This show is sponsored by Mumia Abu-Jamal"--announced actor Ossie Davis and suddenly Mumia's baritone voice sounded all around the room, welcoming people. Throughout the afternoon dozens of speakers shared powerful exposure of the justice system--and intense personal experience--to make the case that the execution of Mumia must be stopped. Many spoke of the need for a major turnout for Mumia's first appearance in federal court in Philadelphia.

WBAI Radio's Bernard White read a message from Rubin "Hurricane" Carter: "As we gather today in this historic spot I am reminded of my struggle and fight for freedom, a part of which took place within this very hall. May the power and force that set me free do the same for our brother Mumia and may those present and absent see to it that this power prevails."

Attorney Johnnie Cochran added his voice "to those who have spoken before to free Mumia, to give Mumia a new trial" and spoke of his experience as attorney for Geronimo Pratt. "The battle to free Geronimo Pratt showed us that you can never ever give up. That battle took 27 plus years to get him free.... Geronimo joins all of us today in saying that Mumia Abu-Jamal should be free. We have to have the same dedication that we had in that case to help free Mumia.... We've got to have the courage to stand up as he stands up and stand with him. Won't you do that? Let's continue doing it! Free Mumia!"

An appearance by former New York City Mayor David Dinkins signaled the potential for the movement to stop the execution to gather broad support among Black political figures. Dinkins called for a new trial for Mumia and said that Mumia's case concentrates: "One, the issue of abuse of police power. Two, the issue of a biased system of criminal justice. And three, the death penalty issue. It doesn't take a genius to see how each of those fuels the next. Too often young Black men enter the criminal justice system through one end, victims of their race and poverty, and exit on the other as dead men walking...."

Actor Ed Asner emphasized that it was up to the people to free Mumia: "Over 80 people under sentence of death have been found to be wrongfully convicted," Asner said. "Now ask yourself this: how many of those 80 plus were freed because a courageous judge or a courageous prosecutor or a courageous police investigator had second thoughts about a conviction and asked that the case be reopened? You've got the answer--none! People wrongfully on death row get freed only because someone outside the criminal justice system takes an interest, a journalist or someone like you making a stink."

Attorney Ramsey Clark, founder of the International Action Center and former U.S. attorney general talked about how this system "is indifferent to life." "It operates on the principles of greed and violence and fear, which it uses to control. Mumia is dangerous to that system just as is Leonard Peltier, not because they've committed any crimes. They haven't. But because of the power of their minds, of their voices, of their hands...."

The Movement Intensifies

This gathering at Madison Square Garden was one of the major events coming out of the Emergency Conference to Stop the Execution--with the aim of building the movement, influencing public opinion, and breaking into the media--as crucial hearings in Mumia's case approach.

The event at Madison Square Garden took place amid an intensification of activity around the world aimed at making Mumia's case a dividing line throughout society. A few months ago Amnesty International released a report calling for a new trial for Mumia. Mumia's new book All Things Censored has premiered at bookstores around the country. It contains a CD with Mumia's banned National Public Radio broadcasts and comments from Sister Helen Prejean, Cornel West, Assata Shakur, Martin Sheen and John Edgar Wideman. Public service announcements about Mumia's case are being prepared by Ed Asner, Alice Walker and other well-known supporters. On May 15, the nationally syndicated radio show Democracy Now will feature excerpts from "A Matter of Life and Death," a reading by actors and comedians held in Los Angeles on "Mumia 911, the National Day of Art to Stop the Execution." Hosted by Ed Asner, the reading featured performances by actors Robert Guillaume, Mike Farrell, Fionulla Flanagan, Esai Morales, Susan Anspach, Roscoe Lee Brown, Lou Myers, Vanessa Williams, Susan Clark and comedians Shelly Berman and Paula Poundstone.

Only days before the gathering, Mumia spoke via audiotape to the graduating class at Antioch College in Ohio and at the 30th anniversary of the murders of four students at Kent State. So much controversy was created that the Associated Press released the full text of Mumia's speech at Kent State to media outlets around the world. Meanwhile, conservative columnists worried that the demand to stop Mumia's execution was being raised in the protests against the World Bank and the World Trade Organization in Washington, D.C.

And it was clear from the turnout at Madison Square Garden that Mumia has struck a major chord among the radical youth of the new millennium. Ari Hornick from Evergreen College--site of Mumia's controversial graduation speech last June--enthusiastically told the audience: "We can certainly prove that although the government can put a person on death row, a government can never silence the voice of truth. Free Mumia!"

"I want my people to be free! I want Mumia to be free!"--youth were out of their seats when rapper Mos Def took the stage. Earth Driver captured the mood with "You Are No One's Slave" and hip hop artist Will Villainova took aim at the police with "Devils In A Blue Dress" which he wrote in memory of Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times by the NYPD. He dedicated it to Mumia and all political prisoners in the U.S. Comedian Marga Gomez brought lots of laughter when she mocked the police "protesters" who were picketing outside: "Their picket signs say `Question Constitutionality,' `Give Beatings A Chance.' Like our picket signs, but different, you see?"

Many of the speakers and activists at the program called for people to pack the courtroom and the streets in Philadelphia on the date of Mumia's federal hearing. Young activists from R&R! passed fliers down the rows: "Together We Can Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal!" They will be holding their annual "Freedom Summer" in Philadelphia again this year. Plans are also underway for protests at the Republican National Convention which will be held in Philadelphia at the end of July and the Democratic National Convention in L.A. in August.

Philadelphia In-Justice

The three-hour-long multi-media program brought to life the story of police brutality and terror in Philadelphia during the reign of police chief and later Mayor Frank Rizzo in the '70s -- the climate leading up to and during Mumia's frame-up. Rosemary Mealy moved the audience with stories of Mumia's early encounters with police and how he became a revolutionary writer for the Black Panther Party newspaper. Journalist Linn Washington brought to life the epidemic of police brutality in Philadelphia during the '70s.

Ramona Africa, the only adult to survive the government's bombing of 11 MOVE members (including six children), received a standing ovation when she took the mike: "As the only adult survivor of the official police bombing and murder of my MOVE family, I am here to tell you that not one single official sits on death row next to Mumia in Pennsylvania for murdering my family. So how dare these misfits try to convince us that our brother is a murderer? Their hands are drenched with the blood of innocent people, not Mumia.... These people have told us straight up that they are going to kill Mumia. They have said it to our face, virtually dared us, challenged us to stop them. Well, each and every one of us are here today to let them know that we are up for the challenge. We are not going to allow them to kill another innocent man, another freedom fighter."

Former Black Panther Party leader Kathleen Cleaver drew on her personal experience to tell the story of how the government's Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was used to attack the BPP. Attorney Michael Tarif Warren and Clark Kissinger from Refuse & Resist! exposed how Mumia was railroaded during his trial by police, prosecutor and judge, and how the frame-up continued in Mumia's subsequent appeals of his conviction. Former death row prisoner Lawrence Hayes, cofounder of the New York State Campaign to End the Death Penalty, brought a message of support. And Henry Gatson, who spent 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit told the audience: "The only reason that I am standing here before you today is because New York State didn't have the death penalty back then. We must do everything that we can possibly do to help this brother get out...."

Attorney Leonard Weinglass thanked people on Mumia's behalf and publicly acknowledged all the work they've done in his defense. Stressing the urgency of the federal District Court hearings, Attorney Dan Williams told the crowd, "Mumia's case in many ways is very much like other death penalty cases. There are issues concerning inadequate resources, an ineffective lawyer, racism in the jury selection, bias, hostility and unfairness by a judge, over zealousness by the prosecutor, fabricated evidence, manipulation of witnesses and the list goes on.... But let me say this to you: Mumia is one victim with a gift, the gift to communicate. And I think he understands that no gift is complete unless it's passed on. And he passes on that gift to communicate to us all so that our consciences can be raised, so that we can see with more clarity the injustices. And if this particular victim of the process is killed by intentional state action, then it's not simply a crossing of a new threshold in the universe of death penalty jurisprudence. We are going to reach new heights in the broader world of state power over individuals."

A Gathering from Many Struggles

Many people in the audience were political activists from a wide range of perspectives. As I came into the theater a Puerto Rican brother I know handed me a flier about continued resistance to the U.S. occupation of the island of Vieques. I saw youth who took part in the demonstrations against the World Bank and WTO in Seattle and Washington, D.C. Native Americans who I'd met during Leonard Peltier Freedom Month last November were in the audience, as were activists whose work focuses on other political prisoners. People who work with many different organizations opposed to police brutality attended, as did religious groups who fight for peace and justice.

Monica Moorehead of the International Action Center and Sally O'Brian of WBAI radio were among the hosts at the program. Speakers at the program included Pam Africa of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal; comedian Dick Gregory; former political prisoner Safiya Bukhari from the Jericho Movement; Tanya McCleary from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; Leslie Feinberg, transgender author and cofounder of Rainbow Flags for Mumia; Mark Taylor of Academics for Mumia; journalist Noelle Hanrahan, editor of All Things Considered; Cristoph Arnold of the Bruderhof; members of the International Action Center. Richard Levy read a message from Dennis Rivera, president of the 1199 union, and brought messages of support from other unions. Poet Sonia Sanchez read "Mother Loss" from Mumia's first book Live From Death Row. Attorney Ron Kuby read a piece from Mumia's new book All Things Censored. Njeri Shakur of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement spoke about the upcoming execution date of Shaka Sankofa."

The journal Haiti Progres wrote this in an ad in the event program: "Around the world, a growing popular movement is challenging your jailers and their employers, who are ever more repressive. The waters are rising around them and as a Creole proverb says, `rivyè pa gwosi san Long Island pa twouble'--the river doesn't swell without the water churning. The waters are churning and soon you will be free."

One of the most moving parts of the program at Madison Square Garden was when family members of victims of police brutality took the stage. The parents and other family members of Patrick Dorismond thanked the audience for their support. Patrick was a Haitian man who was shot by undercover cops after he refused to sell marijuana on a city street. Patrick's mother cried as she told the audience: "I still have the pain, and this pain will never go away. I will never forget my son's name. He was so nice. He was my lovely son and he was an innocent man."

Nicholas Heyward, Sr., whose 13-year-old son Nicholas Heyward, Jr. was shot by a housing cop said: "We work with October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, who along with the Anthony Baez Foundation and the National Lawyers Guild has organized the Stolen Lives Project that documents over 2,000 cases of people killed by law enforcement across the country. We do not intend to see Mumia Abu-Jamal's name added to Stolen Lives.... Think about it: Mumia is on death row for a crime he did not commit. Almost all the police officers who killed our children are still free to walk the streets with a badge and a gun. Mumia must be set free and the cops who murder and brutalize our children must be tried, convicted and jailed."

On the Wire

In a press release after the event, the organizers noted: "The event was a major step in the struggle to break through the campaign of silence, vilification and lies against Mumia in the mass media, where if his case is mentioned at all, he is usually referred to as a "convicted cop killer." In fact, the efforts of the police to harass and intimidate only backfired and the event received widespread coverage in newspapers across the country. Even the pro-police "New York Post" was forced to print a story that acknowledged there is a growing movement against the execution. News wires picked up photos of a huge quilt with messages of support for Mumia made by people in the movement. Articles appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Constitution. Word spread like wildfire over the Internet and in an online poll held by the New York Daily News 84.9% voted that Mumia should have a new trial.

After the Daily News printed an article titled "Big Rally for Cop Killer Abu-Jamal at Garden" dozens of people e-mailed their forum in support of Mumia and debunked lies and misconceptions spread by the police. One computer user e-mailed this to the Daily News: "Everything I have read against Mumia basically amounts to a call to rally around police officers because they are doing an important and dangerous job. When they do talk about evidence they talk about a single eyewitness and Mumia's gun. Remove the shaky witness (easily done) and all you have is a black man with a gun, remove the gun (which does not match the bullet that killed the officer) and you have police silencing a voice." Another wrote: "When so much passion abounds and so many opinions differ, isn't it obvious that this man deserves a new trial? How can we refer to the system which wrongly holds so many people captive a `justice system'? Recent information on numerous police departments throughout the country indicate the reality of an institutional classism and racism that most of us would prefer to forget about. We can't--too many lives depend on it."

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