Philadelphia: 1500 March for Mumia

Revolutionary Worker #1116, August 26, 2001, posted at

It was a militant crowd of 1,500 that jammed the sidewalks outside the Philadelphia courthouse on Friday, August 17--when Mumia Abu-Jamal was to have appeared in court. Judge Pamela Dembe had signed an order on July 27 to bring Mumia from death row to Philadelphia for the state court hearing. But when the word got out, the Mumia movement swung into action to mobilize for August 17. Soon higher authorities stepped in and put a stop to Mumia’s appearance, but it was too late. The last-minute blocking of Mumia’s appearance in court only infuriated people and increased everyone’s determination to come to Philadelphia to stand with our brother. The spirit of the whole day was that the Mumia movement is on the move.

Police attempted to contain Mumia supporters in a demonstration pen on the sidewalk, but the crowd eventually spilled out into the street. In a provocative act, a banner reading "Fry Mumia" was hung from scaffolding on City Hall across the street. When Pam Africa of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal threatened to lead the whole demonstration on a march to the mayor’s office inside City Hall, the banner quickly came down.

Inside the courtroom, Mumia supporters were restricted to 40 seats. But among those present were renowned actor Ossie Davis, Rev. Jesse Jackson, poet Sonia Sanchez, comedian Dick Gregory, foreign observers from Europe, Mumia’s sister Lydia, and representatives of some of the many organizations supporting Mumia’s struggle for justice. Many of these people spoke at the rally after the short court session. The Mumia supporters then marched past the office of District Attorney Lynn Abraham to the federal courthouse and the offices of Judge William Yohn, the judge in Mumia’s federal habeas corpus appeal. In a recent outrageous decision, Yohn refused to accept the sworn testimony of Arnold Beverly, a man who has stated that he--not Mumia--shot Philadelphia cop Daniel Faulkner in 1981.

Inside the Courtroom

The August 17 court appearance was a "status hearing" on Mumia’s petition in the Pennsylvania state courts for a hearing to present newly discovered evidence under the state Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). Mumia’s new attorneys were accepted by Judge Dembe to represent him for all purposes in the Pennsylvania courts. Over the objections of the District Attorney, Mumia’s attorneys read a statement from Mumia protesting the continuing denial of his right to be present at important court hearings affecting his life.

The District Attorney’s office objected to any new PCRA hearing on the grounds that the 60-day deadline had passed for accepting new evidence--in particular the Beverly testimony--that was obtained in 1999. Judge Dembe refused to rule on that issue immediately and instead gave Mumia’s legal team until September 7 to file a written argument on why Mumia’s request meets the legal time requirements. The state has until September 21 to reply. After that, Judge Dembe will decide whether to proceed with oral arguments on Mumia’s petition or dismiss it entirely.

In a revealing exchange, Attorney Eliot Grossman pressed Judge Dembe to set a date for oral arguments so that there would be time to make arrangements to bring Mumia to court. Dembe responded that she could not do that and would have to consult the city, the police, and the sheriff first. Dembe further remarked that the large crowds attracted by Mumia appearing in court could cause "collateral damage" outside the courtroom. Grossman responded that what happens outside the court should not affect Mumia’s legal rights.

Speaking to the People

Speaking to the protesters outside, Mumia’s attorneys read Mumia’s statement to the court and his message to the demonstration. Mumia pointed out that at his original trial, he had been banished from the courtroom for demanding all his rights, including the right to represent himself--and now, as he files a new PCRA appeal, he is once again banished from the courtroom. Attorney Grossman raised the telling issue of double standards: How can there be no statute of limitations (time limit) for the government to charge someone with murder--but there is a 60-day time limit on bringing in a confession that might prove Mumia’s innocence and free him?

Ramona Africa of the MOVE organization put it straight up: "Judge Dembe has said she wants, in three weeks, some briefs to determine whether or not it’s too late to prove his innocence, whether or not this information comes too late. We’re saying it is NEVER too late. WHAT IS SHE TALKING ABOUT, TOO LATE?... We ain’t interested in legalities. We’re interested in what’s right! Slavery was legal, but it wasn’t right! Apartheid was legal, but it wasn’t right! The murder of Shaka Sankofa down in Texas, despite his innocence, was legal but it wasn’t right! We don’t care about legality. We care about justice and what’s right."

One of the important aspects of this event was the participation of a range of people and the diversity of approaches that are part of what’s needed to create the specter of across-the-board opposition that can force the government to back off its execution plans for Mumia. Ossie Davis, a revered figure who delivered the oration at Malcolm X’s funeral, told the crowd, "I am here because the people are here. The founding fathers encoded our rights, and I am here to express my pursuit of those rights.... It is up to us to make sure the courts know that our will is justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson pointed out that it was really American justice that was on trial here and cited a series of other outrages such as the execution of Shaka Sankofa. But he also pointed out how the power of protest has temporarily halted a new execution in Texas, and he called on people to take Mumia’s case all around the country. He led the crowd in chanting "Stop State Killing," "Fair Trial, New Trial," and "Free Mumia!"

De Lacy Davis of the Black Cops Against Police Brutality said: "There are many of my colleagues who know the truth as it relates to Mumia. So I’m going to speak to them today. To my Black colleagues in law enforcement who know better: Do better, dammit!... You have shamed us by not challenging the racist cops who’ve been involved in this case and getting us the evidence to free Mumia. Certainly you know where the evidence is and you know where the bodies are buried.... Power to the people! Free Mumia!"

Other speakers included Native people, Palestinians, and Koreans who spoke of their struggles, as well as delegates from Europe, such as Bernard Birsingner, the mayor of Bobigny, France. Pam Africa pointed out that Judge Yohn had made clear in his ruling that he and others think the government has the right to kill an innocent man. She summed up the mood of the people when she said: "Well, I want these motherfuckers to know, not this innocent man! Not this innocent man! And there’s gotta be an end to all the people that’s on death row. The death penalty must be abolished!"

Taking to the Streets

The people took off on a march through the streets--and blocked traffic for hours in Philadelphia’s Center City. Later on Friday evening, the action continued with over a hundred people packing a large room in the American Friends Center for a program about the MOVE organization. The program featured a statement from MOVE 9 (MOVE members unjustly railroaded to jail) delivered by Ramona Africa, statements of support, poetry, and hip hop and other performances.

Everywhere the march went the people were greeted with cars honking support. Colorful banners flew and whistles blew, while constant chanting punctured the business-as-usual of the lunch-time crowds on this Friday work day. The marchers where very diverse--and about half were youth. Activists from various groups and movements were there, and members of Mumia’s family marched. Youth contingents from Refuse & Resist!, groups of young anarchists, the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, and a contingent from the Native Youth Movement were very visible.

It was a very multinational protest--with significant numbers of Black people, including from Philadelphia, and Latinos, Haitians, and Asians. Banners spoke out against U.S. imperialist domination of Puerto Rico and the bombing of Vieques. Various movements like the October 22nd Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, International Action Center, Lesbian Avengers, and the Bruderhof were in the house, as well as Mumia coalitions from several cities. A small number of white people from the suburbs came in groups like "Long Islanders for Mumia."

A number of people along the march spoke with the Revolutionary Worker. Canahoos Pefkey, from the Secwepemc Nation and a Native Youth Movement spokesperson, said: "Since the beginning that non-Native people have set foot on Turtle Island, we have received unjust acts, genocidal acts. And when our brother faces death because of lies from a colonial system...that’s injustice, too."

Herman Ferguson of the New Afrikan Liberation Front said: "We’ve reached a very crucial stage in the legal struggle to free Mumia, and I think it’s incumbent that everybody who’s here today needed to be here.... I’m very pleased to be a part of this and say, free Mumia! And hang in there, Mumia, we’re going to get you out!… They’ve singled out a person who was a leader in the Black community, has the potential for giving us even more leadership. He’s still a very young man. He’s a brilliant speaker, a brilliant writer, a brilliant thinker. They will do everything that they can to keep a brother like that off the streets because he can galvanize, he can mobilize, he can educate the Black community."

Veronica Jones, a critical witness in the case who came forward in 1996 to support Mumia, told the RW: "I came on behalf of Mumia. I believe that they’re really railroading him. It’s not right. Yes, I was a prostitute. I’m not ashamed to say I was a prostitute. But I was there [the night Mumia and Faulkner were shot]. I saw two guys run away. But Mumia did not shoot [Faulkner]. He did not do it."

A flyer distributed by Refuse & Resist! said: "Getting serious about winning means getting serious about building the kind of movement that can save his life and set him free. It has to be broad and diverse because no one section of the people has the power to make the government back down. Youth can’t do it alone. Black people can’t do it alone. Working people can’t do it alone. Celebrities, artists, and intellectuals can’t do it alone. The movement against the death penalty can’t do it alone. International pressure can’t do it alone. Nor can we have any faith at all in the legal system to provide justice.

"Yet when all these different forces come into action in a determined way, the tables become turned. The government can be put on the defensive in every sector of society, and threatened with defection and disorder. Such a threat is what the government has to see and hear, loud and clear.

"Determination takes many forms. It means being like a pit bull with your jaws on the government’s leg--not letting go, no matter how much you get kicked or whipped around. Determination means both never giving up and putting something on the line in order to win. There have to be a lot more actions of determination."

At the Federal Court House

At the federal court house, one young Mumia supporter from Philadelphia told the RW : "What’s out here today is really charged up and really has the feeling of we are going up against it right now. It’s life and death right now. It’s a little bit scary and also really inspiring and invigorating…. I think it’s really telling that Judge Yohn talked about the Herrera decision in his decision. [The 1993 Herrera decision by the U.S. Supreme Court said that actual innocence was not in itself a cause for the federal courts to review a state case.] I think we really need to expose that. America needs to realize that’s exactly how simple it is--that as in the Herrera case they’re willing to execute innocent people if they think they can get away with making everything look constitutional and fair."

Pam Africa delivered a challenge: "Judge Yohn, the reason why we’re here is because most recently you made a statement that behind the fact that Mumia’s attorneys did not file proper papers in post-conviction court, you had the right to kill my brother--or to pass it on to your brothers at the next level who can kill my brother. You cited the Effective Death Penalty and Terrorism Act as your excuse to kill my brother. You also cited the Herrera case, stating that you had, under the law, the right to kill an innocent man because y’all got away with it before.... People here from around the world have come to let you know that we will fight, we will fight, we will fight for the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal by any goddamned means necessary."

Many other people spoke, including Julia Wright, daughter of writer Richard Wright and Mumia activist in France.

Carl Dix, spokesperson of the Revolutionary Communist Party, declared: "I’m here today with the people who are showing our determination to force them to let our brother out of their clutches. We cannot let them get away with murdering a revolutionary. You got a brother like Mumia who has dedicated his life to the people. He’s fought against injustice. This system shows that it’s no damn good by saying that a man who fights against injustice can be put on death row for taking that kind of stand.

"As a revolutionary communist, I have to stand with a brother like that. I have to have his back, and I’ve got to be a part of building the kind of movement that can force them to stop his execution and let him out of jail. ’Cause we need him out here on the streets with us building a movement against all this bullshit that this system is bringing down--building a revolutionary movement, which is the kind of movement we need to get rid of all of this shit once and for all."

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