The Days of Philly Freedom Summer
Part 1: On a Mission
Revolutionary Worker #1069, September 3, 2000
This is the first part of a "diary" the RW received from a youth who participated in Philly Freedom Summer 2000:
We arrive in the dark and troop up the hill to where we will stay. Sit around--the last chance we will have for two weeks to gather in a single room without having to sit on the floor. Dozens will arrive tomorrow, and more every day after that. Welcome to Philadelphia. Our conversation drifts to the inevitable, sparked by articles in the RW about the repressive preparations the city has undergone for the Republican National Convention. We pore over a photo of a dozen cops stomping Thomas Jones, one of them leaping over a squad car to get a piece of him. And Robert Brown shot to death by Amtrak police just days ago. We reflect on how thousands pass through 30th Street Station every day. Robert Brown's lifeless body had to be carried out. We are eager to confront the Executioners' Ball--the coronation of a killer. The killing has already begun. We have Shaka Sankofa in our hearts and Robert Brown on our lips. We will NOT let them take Mumia.
On two and half hours of sleep the morning feels cool and ready. There is a beauty to the Germantown neighborhood. I watch as four men with pickaxes tear down a building on the corner standing atop the third floor, working by hand. I worry about them--no protective gear or professional equipment. But this is not a neighborhood that is valued by those with access to such things--and the people aren't valued either. This is a mostly Black proletarian neighborhood, its row-houses over a hundred years old. For six summers these streets have been traveled up and down by Freedom Summer volunteers. Kids out here sing Mumia's name as a part of their childhood rhymes and songs. We are a part of its recent history.
This summer we have the world's biggest Rage Against the Machine fans among us and they have put the first quote up on the wall, off of Rage's latest album:
It has to start somewhere.
It has to start sometime.
What better place than here?
What better time than now?
All hell can't stop us now!
By the evening orientation, our numbers swell to 60 or more--from Hawaii, Cincinnati, L.A., NYC, Atlanta, Cleveland, Texas, Boston, Canada--all over. The Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade from Chi-town carries in three boxes of food donated by residents of the Robert Taylor Homes housing projects - who are at the center of the struggle to save public housing in Chicago. We are glad to be connected to that struggle, grateful for the food, and looking forward to hearing more about the struggle from the RCYB. A veteran of the School of the Americas protests and the DC IMF protest tells me how thrilled she is to be among people who are uncritical about her sexual orientation and her desire to be an activist. "All my friends just get high all the time." She is ready for something different. Already, we feel more at home together than society has ever allowed most of us to feel.
We hear three speakers from the Refuse & Resist! Youth Network. J paints a picture of the potential in the days to come. The country's biggest killers, from George W. to Tom Ridge, who has twice signed Mumia's death warrant, are gathering in Killadelphia to hold their Executioners' Ball. Mumia sits on death row because he fought for a better future--and he is alive today because he has inspired us to fight as well. We are a new generation on the ris--stepping onto the scene in a major way in Seattle and readying ourselves for greater battles ahead. J asks, "Whose future will you fight for?" The future of the executioners--more prisons, more police, more violence against women and abortion providers, more repression, more of everything the Republicans stand for? Or the future that Mumia and our new youth movement represent--where the truth and the needs of the people come first?
S from Texas, speaks about what Mumia means to our generation: "He is a living link between the movements of the '60s and '70s and the youth of today, who has inspired us to take things even further. How Shaka Sankofa taught us to fight with everything we have to the very end. "Shaka is the fire in our eyes as we continue the fight for Mumia Abu-Jamal and for all political prisoners!"
It is a major goal of PFS to go deeply into the communities like the ones Mumia and Shaka come from--to connect with the people on the bottom of society, the "voiceless" for whom Mumia speaks. These people live the brutal reality of the politics of cruelty: the nightstick, pepper spray, racial profiling, welfare cuts. We plan to bring their voices out to the protests against the RNC. We plan to fuse this new youth movement with those who are most under the gun.
MS talks about the first PFS in '95 with fewer than 10 full-time volunteers. Over the years PFS has grown, working with whole neighborhoods to take up the fight to stop Mumia's execution and training a core who have started Youth Network chapters around the country. This year, we are expecting nearly 100 volunteers. We divide into six squads who will live and work together, each responsible for work with other organizations--planning the RNC protests, creation of artistic visual banners and other beauties to decorate the city and to carry with us at events, or to work in the communities of West Philly and Germantown.
There are 15 squad leaders, two responsible for leading each squad and all coming together to share experiences, and to strategize at squad leader meetings. The squad leaders were each nominated from their home areas ahead of time, then approved by the whole project during orientation. Finally, there are four people who are not in any squad, but are responsible for leading the project as a whole. They include a veteran of all six Freedom Summers, a core organizer from the Philly R&R! Youth Network, a young woman from TX, and a National Youth Network organizer from NYC, all of whom have been instrumental in the preparatory work of PFS.
As the volunteers head off to the squad of their choosing, the squad leaders are just readying for their first squad leader meeting. This is their first opportunity to sit down together and discuss the project. This group includes veterans of PFS, folks who are new to PFS and even new to R&R! from all parts of the country. There is a lot to figure out and the meeting lasts past 4 a.m. The plan is to all be back up again tomorrow at 8 a.m. to help coordinate breakfast and hold our first meeting of the squads by 10 a.m.
As I write this, I think back on the beautiful faces that filled the orientation--people exhausted from travel, but excited and nervous about the days to come. I anticipate the journey we are embarking on, wondering who will be forged into fast friends, into front-line fighters, who will call each other "comrades" by the end. Every PFS has transformed people's lives--given us a glimpse of the future we are fighting for and proof that we can live differently. I look forward to seeing all these faces two weeks from now--that much closer to the future we want; that much more dedicated to and capable of winning it.
JULY 25 -- SQUAD MEETINGS
After breakfast, the Germantown neighborhood squad discusses their mission: to learn from the community and to bring to them the fight against Mumia's execution, then bring their voices into the RNC protests. It is clear as we listen to veterans talk about their experiences that they have a lot of confidence in, and respect for, the people of this community. Still, most volunteers have never gone out to the people like this before and have a lot of questions. Society has no respect for the youth and even less for the oppressed people we are living among. We have been told all our lives that we have nothing in common. We are taught that we should fear each other. To overcome these divisions and make our work as strong as it can be, we team up people with some experience doing outreach like this with others who are newer.
We talk about how we want our lives in our squads to reflect the kind of future we are fighting for -- where different cultures are respected, men and women are equals, and problems are handled collectively. We plan a cooking and cleaning chart, so that men and women share these responsibilities. It will also be important to treat the people and houses that have welcomed us with respect. Our squads will be the hub of all our work. We will eat and cook and work and joke around together. The daily squad meetings are the most important. They are where we will sum up our work, learn from each other's experiences, share our questions and together make decisions and plans for the days ahead.
"The heart of the project is community work."
There is a short plastic basketball net in the small street we share with four other houses, and if there was nothing else to bring us close to each other and to the neighborhood youth, this would be enough. It's funny to watch full-grown volunteers dribble and dodge and dunk at this net that I, at 5'2", can reach without tiptoes. But our spirits are so high we could force a game out of a broken Nerfball and still be calling out to play winner. The enthusiasm of the people has lifted us up. Today was the first full day of community outreach.
We go door-to-door to people's homes and businesses, and approach people on the street and at bus-stops. We introduce ourselves as part of PFS for Mumia and ask people if they are familiar with his case. Almost everyone is. Then, we ask people, based on what they know of the case, if they believe he should be executed. Again, almost everyone thinks not. This has been a good first day, and has given people a sense of what is to come. Reports for today are that about half the people not only supported Mumia, but were familiar with Freedom Summer and were glad we have come back.
"I thought I recognized your voice." A woman and her eight-year-old son approach me. For three years she has participated in PFS. I remember sitting on her porch as she urged her neighbors to take a stack of the Mumia "Face of Justice" posters. She played a key role in bringing PFS into the homes and lives of the community. While we walk, she talks about Shaka Sankofa and curses George Bush. But it is when I mention Tom Ridge that she really gets firm. "There is only one reason they elected Tom Ridge and that is to kill Mumia." In years past she told of how she volunteered with SNCC and even ran with some of the Black Panthers. There's a lot of folks out here like her--so much understanding, so much to say. Yet these people are rarely heard. They are self-educated PhD's, schooled in the hard lessons of proletarian reality and looking for ways to fight. They are the first to speak with us and share their stories. They are the ones--more than even many of our own families and friends--who don't judge us or tell us we'll grow out of what we are doing. They take hope in us--as we do in them. Everywhere we go, people treat us, the criminalized generation, with respect. We can only give it back, along with an infectious desire to build a world where this feeling of humanity, community, and serving the people is no longer the exception.
In 1968 the Democrats attempted to hold a convention in Chicago and I know absolutely nothing about what went on inside. Call it poor schooling, but I don't even know who they nominated for president. I do know that outside the convention, with the eyes of the world watching, Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies, the Black Panther Party, and all kinds of anti-war protesters and other young rebels stole their headlines. Protesters went toe-to-toe with riotous police who brutalized and drenched the streets in blood. The youth were not intimidated. Instead they inspired the world with their actions. They made their voices heard, and we're still listening.
Steal This Movie, a new film about the life of Abbie Hoffman, includes the story of the '68 convention and captures the spirit of the man who symbolizes a generation that refused to make peace with hypocrisy, never waited to speak until spoken to, and rocked this whole rotten system to its foundations. Tonight, at this premier Philly screening of Steal This Movie, the R&R! Youth Network speakers hosting the event draw the connections between the accomplishments of those days and the potential in the rising movement today. They lay out our plans to crash the Executioners' Ball for the hundreds in the audience. Gerry Lefcourt, Abbie Hoffman's lawyer, speaks to us too --giving us a real living history lesson and telling us that, if Abbie were still alive, he would be out here at the RNC with us.
We want to be the last generation that has to protest against one of these conventions. We draw inspiration from the struggles that went before us and search for ways to go even further. To forge even more unity among the people and to fully unleash the fury of women as key to our struggle. To learn from the attacks on the '60s movement and to better stand up to the repressive actions of the state. As a part of bringing closer the day when it is us who write the history books, we're gonna steal the RNC's headlines from the Republicans. Years from now, may the first convention of the new millennium in the world's biggest imperialist citadel be remembered as the Executioners' Ball that got crashed.
JULY 28--A DAY OF GREAT BITTERNESS
The RCYB is pretty deep up in PFS this summer. They got peeps here from L.A., Cleveland, NYC, Boston, Atlanta, Chi-Town and more to come. People are happy to have them among us, but also curious about what brings them here, what they are all about, and what their intentions at PFS are. Tonight was a chance for volunteers to meet the RCYB at their program, "Speak Bitterness; Dream...If We Ruled the World."
Tonight we revealed our scars from life under this system--and we got stronger for it.
We spoke because we are:
Bitter for ourselves and our sisters who have been beaten, raped or molested. Coming home to a boyfriend who turns violent in a drunken rage. And not knowing if you would live through the night in your own home.
Bitter for the people who are under the gun of the police. A Nigerian man working with mentally disabled youth stopped on the Jersey turnpike by the pigs, held face down on the pavement, gun to the head. Pleading with the cops to just please let the youth get up off the ground. Or just the daily, being followed, harassed and threatened or brutalized by the LAPD, NYPD, any-PD, the thugs with guns and badges who disrespect our generation, especially of oppressed nationalities.
Bitter for our families. An aunt at the border, hiding underneath a truck for two days straight as it drove across the border, away from friends and family, only to face more poverty and horrors up north. Mothers who have been reduced to servants, dreams reduced to soap operas, some out on the streets as prostitutes just to survive.
Bitter that as a lesbian one might have her kids stolen by the state, not be permitted to marry or share her life with the woman she loves. Bitter that they stole Shaka Sankofa from us; that they are going after Mumia; that we're all disposable to this system.
Through the telling of our individual stories we got a sense of the universal. This is a system that can only offer us more pain, misery and suffering. We are people from different backgrounds, nationalities, and viewpoints, and we are starting to see how this system crushes people from every angle. But we also see that while this is real and it is brutal, it also brings forward more fighters, just as it has brought all of us forward to take history into our own hands.
People share things they've held to themselves for years because we gained an understanding that these problems do not belong to us. They are crimes committed by this system and we need to give them back, lay them at the doorstep of capitalism. The RCYB says that "revolution is the hope of the hopeless"--that we can solve all these problems and more through proletarian revolution. They invite everyone to talk more with them, to read the RW, to check out the other literature, especially the stuff on forging a new Programme of the Revolutionary Communist Party.
There isn't enough time to get into a lot of specific questions and I hear many people talking about how they want to find out more about the RCYB. I, for one, am glad they are among us. They bring a certain determined edge to our project and a depth of experience to the community work we are doing. At the same time, it is beautiful and important to see all the different kinds of youth come together who are here. Some believe in democracy, some in revolution. A lot are somewhere in between, testing out new ideas and angles. Tonight we had a chance to identify our common enemy and become closer to each other and stronger in our resolve to fight until it is defeated.
L.A. has a certain legacy. I will never forget the first time I met someone who grew up through the L.A. rebellion. She said so proudly, "We're the generation of the L.A. rebellion!" I learned from her what it is to hold your head high because of the people's struggles.
To put it mildly, Philly has a very different legacy. From the Rizzo years to the MOVE bombing, police scandals, and murder, the world-famous railroad and attempted legal lynching of Mumia Abu-Jamal--the people of this city have for years been force-fed a steady diet of repression. For six years PFS has come up against the stifling atmosphere of this legacy. In fact, this is a major reason we do PFS--cuz Philly is a decisive battleground in Mumia's case, and because it is the heart of the Deep North. If ever there was a city that needed some stirring up and youthful enthusiasm, this is the one.
The past three days we've been going full-speed, building for a public speak-out against police brutality, Mumia's execution, the whole RNC and politics of cruelty they represent. Today dozens of folks from the neighborhood join us for this speak-out, in a rather significant act of defiance. About five minutes after we arrive, the park's keeper threatens to call the police on us. For what? 70 kids hanging out in the grass with the neighborhood? At the edge of the park, 10 to 15 Black youth gather with members of the RCYB discussing intensely what it's gonna take to end the horrors of people's daily lives. Other youth engage in conversations with the people in the park. Some are busy playing double-dutch with some young girls. All of the folks we talk to urge us not to leave. We make a quick decision to begin the speak-out so that if the cops do roll up, we'll all be together and know why we had come, and be in the best position to deal with them. We join the crowd at the edge of the park and M of the R&R! Youth Network jumps up on the park bench and starts things off. He speaks of police brutality, the RNC and the futures that they want to see, and the fight for the future that Mumia represents.
He barely finishes before a young man from the neighborhood who's been in the heat of discussion with the RCYB jumps up and holds the RW high for all to see-- showing off the picture of the pig system buried. As he angrily tells the true Philly story, a crowd of his friends cheer him on. He talks about being harassed by police, how these cops don't treat the neighborhood with respect, but act like they own it, including the people who live here. He connects it up with the upcoming RNC-- how the people down there in their convention centers come to Philly but don't give a damn what the people want or think. And he talks about the Rizzo years --how anyone alive at the time remembers the wanton police brutality and arrogance of the man who knowingly and unabashedly unleashed the police to beat school kids and threaten journalists.
As he speaks, a sister shouts along, "Yeah, fuck the Republicans and fuck the Democrats too!" For about half an hour, PFS volunteers and folks from the neighborhood take turns speaking out. As this goes on, passers-by get drawn in and listen for a while. I see a brother I had given a flyer to two days before. He has come with a friend over a mile on foot to be a part of this. There's a new feeling among the people of this place--the anger is coming to the surface and it feels good. It makes us strong. With the energy high, we take the speak-out into the streets where we take over a lane of traffic on a busy avenue, march a short, winding tour through the neighborhood. Along the way, people of all ages hear us and come out of their houses, fists in the air. A woman with a stroller and others from the park follow us on the sidewalk; an entourage of about 15 shorties on bikes brings up the rear in the street.
We end up back on our street where we light the grill, pump the music up, eat, laugh, dance, and talk for hours. The party continues and transforms something that began last night at the Speak Bitterness program. The program brought out our anger and fueled our necessity to fight. Today's party brings out our joy, our unity. This is a true celebration of the youth and the community we are becoming a part of--all of which also fuels us to fight. We dance to Ozomatli whose music captures our spirit. They are serious, deal with real problems and inspire us -- but we cannot listen to them without dancing, without smiling and without seeing a glimpse of how things could be.
The legal observers who came to witness anything that goes down with the police have never seen anything like this before--a pack of kids claiming the streets because we feel like it, doing this in and as a part of a down-pressed proletarian community--so they stay with us for he party. And the whole while, the cops stay away.
Later in the evening, as we prepare for tomorrow, Unity 2000, the RCYB practices marching in formation and chanting revolutionary slogans. The kids in the neighborhood come out to watch. The police notice, too, circling around the block as the YB do their thing. Soon, many of the same people from the afternoon come out of their houses, shouting after the squad cars, "Fuck the police! Free Mumia!" A few rocks fly after the cop car as it turns the corner. The anger and the tension of this city is rising. Things can only stay beneath the surface for so long.
To be continued
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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