Report from Philly Freedom Summer 2002

Volunteers in the Struggle for Mumia Abu-Jamal

Revolutionary Worker #1161, August 4, 2002, posted at

The RW received the following correspondence from a participant in the 8th Annual Philly Freedom Summer for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

For five hot days, from July 3 to 7, over 30 volunteers between the ages of 16 and 28 converged on Philadelphia. They came from New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Philadelphia itself. This was the 8th Annual Philly Freedom Summer (PFS) for Mumia Abu-Jamal, initiated by Refuse & Resist! The mission: to bring together youth inspired by Mumia's voice with oppressed people in Philadelphia--to work together to stop the government from executing this important political prisoner.

It was a busy week--going door to door, learning from the people of Philly; taking part in a 4th of July demonstration at the "cracked ass" Liberty Bell that marked the 20th anniversary of Mumia's imprisonment; marching through the streets; putting up posters of Mumia and spending late nights in meetings, discussions and debates.

This year's PFS was happening in a different world...well kinda different. On the one hand, the world is hanging in the balance--the U.S. is waging endless war on every galaxy in the universe, attempting to roll up the whole world for its interests, while putting into place a police state here at home, detaining thousands of immigrants and passing ever more invasive and repressive laws. On the other hand, the neighborhoods we went out to look the same--on many streets, more than half the buildings are abandoned, the youth can't find meaningful work, the police roll through like they own the streets and Black people are still brutally oppressed.

We discussed whether or not this year's Freedom Summer could happen and there were a lot of questions on people's minds. Could we bring a bunch of youth together to stand up for Mumia in this climate? What would be the response from the authorities? Will people in the neighborhoods be scared to talk to us?

We decided that PFS was needed more than ever. Mumia Abu-Jamal is a revolutionary journalist who's been on death row since 1981 -- framed up and unjustly convicted of the crime of killing a cop. For 20 years, Mumia has continued to write and speak out from death row and has become a symbol of resistance to people around the world who have rallied to prevent his execution. In December, the Philly police attacked a march for Mumia, arresting several people and beating dozens of others. The authorities were trying to send a clear message: in the post-9/11 climate, dissent will not be tolerated! Ten days later, a federal judge ruled to uphold Mumia's conviction. He also overturned the death sentence, but the state is appealing that decision. If Ed Rendell is elected Governor of Pennsylvania, he has promised to sign a new death warrant if the state wins the current appeal. Mumia remains on death row and his life is still very much at risk.

This year, in some heavy ways, the question, "Whose future will you fight for?" was posed to everyone who participated in Freedom Summer. The people in the neighborhoods were being asked to take a bold stand -- in this city and in the current repressive climate. We were asking people to openly and collectively demand Mumia's freedom. And many of the volunteers were (and still are) trying to figure out what they want their lives to be about.

The Volunteers

The youth who participated in PFS were a diverse group who came for many different reasons. One young woman said she'd been silencing herself for a long time and decided that instead of going to the beach for the 4th of July to celebrate "false patriotism," she wanted to do something positive. A volunteer who has participated in PFS for several years said he thought it was really important to be out given the whole climate of war and repression. A young guy from a steel town an hour outside Philly regularly passes out flyers on the campus near his house by himself. He came because he wanted to spend some time with like-minded youth. A young woman who's been a veteran of five Freedom Summers and was a core organizer this year said, "If you're gonna take up Mumia's case, it's important to come here, to Philly, because this is where he was politicized, these are the conditions that gave rise to him." A volunteer who was running with the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCYB), originally from another country, talked about how inspiring Mumia's spirit is, how he is unbreakable and that we need to take up Mumia's case as a part of creating conditions for revolution. A woman with the Refuse & Resist! Youth Network in the Bay Area, who is active with the Not In Our Name Project, said she wanted to come to Philly because she thinks Mumia represents all our futures.

July 4th Liberation Demo

On July 4th, we converged at City Hall with several hundred other protesters for the annual July 4th demonstration for Mumia. This year marked the 20th anniversary of when Mumia was sentenced to death.

We were also protesting the city of Philadelphia presenting a "liberty award" to Colin Powell. International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia decided to give their own awards--to the people's heroes, who have stood strong in their determination to fight for a better world (see RW #1159).

Mara and Raucana spoke for Freedom Summer. Mara asked the crowd, "Do you oppose the death penalty or believe it is racist?" Voices shouted out "YES!" She went on, "Are you tired of the way Black people are routinely mistreated by the police, courts, prisons, and the whole justice system? Does it frighten you when the government has the power to silence its most vocal critics?" "YES! YES!" Raucana talked about growing up in North Philly, what it was like to hear stories about members of the Black Panther Party being dragged out naked in front of the press on orders of then Mayor Rizzo-- the king of "cracker justice." She spoke about watching the bombing of the MOVE house on television when she was a kid.

After the march and rally, we trooped over to a community center to hear C. Clark Kissinger talk about why and how Refuse & Resist! has fought to stop the execution of Mumia. He went into some elements of the frame-up--the coerced witnesses, the blatantly biased judge, the striking of Black people off the jury, the denial of Mumia's right to represent himself and the overall political campaign that attempted to silence him. We also got into what R&R! thinks it's gonna take to free Mumia--a movement that's broad, diverse and determined.

The Exception and the Rule

The "Face of Justice Campaign" is a project where we ask people to put up a poster of Mumia in the windows of their homes and businesses. It was started several years ago as a way for people to take a collective stand for Mumia and to make visible the deep support for Mumia that exists in the neighborhoods. Over the years, Mumia's face peering through the windows of people's homes and businesses has become a familiar sight for the people in the areas of Germantown and West Philly. The heart of PFS is outreach, and the Face of Justice Campaign was one of the main things we wanted to do in our very concentrated few days.

In doing the outreach, the volunteers learned sharply why the fate of this one man on death row is so important. They learned from the people that Mumia is both the exception and the rule.

A volunteer from the west coast described the response of people in the Germantown neighborhood: "We talked to so many people who have been through the same thing that he was, some kind of police frame-up. It's just amazing to me how many people have to go through that and have to live with that." One woman talked about her nephew who's been locked up since 1983 for a crime he didn't commit. Another woman told us about her son who spent six years on a bullshit robbery charge. People told us about their experiences with the police, getting stopped for "Driving While Black," having their houses ransacked on alleged drug charges.

While the people see their lives echoed in what Mumia has gone through, they also see him as a hero. The older folks talked about how they listened to Mumia on the radio when he was known as "the voice of the voiceless," and how they used to look forward to his radio broadcasts because it was the only place you could hear the truth in Philly. Some of the youth knew about him from their parents. I met one kid, about 10 years old, who had watched the film Panther with his dad. He said he looked up to an organization that "was out there standing up against cops, for the people." I told him how Mumia helped start the Philly chapter of the Panthers when he was 15 and became their Minister of Information.

Brick by Brick

In Germantown, Saturday is the day where people do their weekly shopping and Chelten Avenue, the main shopping street, was bustling. The neighborhood looked a little different by Saturday morning because Mumia's face decorated the walls and poles on every street. We wanted to continue our outreach, but today, we wanted to make a little more noise doing it. All of the volunteers came together and we marched down Chelten Avenue with a banner that posed the question, "Whose Future Will You Fight For?" On one side is a drawing of Dubya, looking like the grim reaper that he is, with all his cronies gathered around him--a Texas hangman, a mean looking cop, Darth Vader and others. On the other side, a multinational contingent of rowdy youth is holding up a beautiful banner of Mumia. We unfurled it and started chanting, "Mumia's Fearless, So Are We! We Won't Stop Until He's Free!"

We passed out stacks of the Face of Justice poster and talked to people about the case. Youth from the RCYB had red flags and articles about Mumia from the RW . We made quite a scene. On one of the busiest intersections, we spread out over the four corners. It wasn't long until the boys in blue rolled up, three cars deep. Over the loudspeaker, they said that we needed to put our banner away or we'd be arrested. Then an ominous voice came over the cop's loudspeaker: "Brick by brick, wall by wall, we're gonna fry Mumia Abu-Jamal." The cops took one of our chants and twisted it. This really pissed people off and we started up the real version of the chant: "Brick by brick, wall by wall, we're gonna FREE Mumia Abu-Jamal!"

A member of the RCYB started doing agitation to let the people know that the cops were telling us we couldn't be out there standing up for Mumia and that we weren't gonna back down. Different people told us they had our backs. There was one guy who saw what was happening and stopped what he was doing to come stand with us. He told everyone around what the cops had said and encouraged people to take our posters. One of the volunteers said, "I had a feeling of safety and that was great because to know the people are behind you. It's a feeling like no other."

The Real Philly Story

Saturday night was the last night of Freedom Summer. In the early evening, some staff members from a downtown community center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered youth hosted a dinner and program for the volunteers. Several speakers gave us a sense of the real story of Philadelphia-- how it's not the "city of brotherly love," but a city of repression, racism and brutality.

Mario Africa, from the MOVE organization and AWOL magazine, painted a vivid picture of the bad old days of Philly "justice"--not that different from today, but more blatant. He talked about how 20 years ago to walk around in dreads or to even say Mumia's name in public was to expect police abuse and brutality. He talked about how MOVE was marginalized and criminalized and how the FBI bombed the MOVE house in 1985 and killed 11 men, women and children.

Terri Carter told how, when she was a court stenographer during Mumia's original trial, she overheard Judge Sabo say, "I'm gonna help fry the n***er!" At the time, she didn't say anything. Then 15 years later she read an article by Mumia that echoed a lot of what she'd been thinking about racism and corruption. She called International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia and has courageously continued to tell her story and expose how the way they mistreated Mumia in the courts was standard operating procedure in Philadelphia. People were really affected by hearing her talk about how she was transformed from someone who "didn't think about anything more than which makeup to use" to someone who has actively taken up Mumia's fight. It gave us all a lot of hope to think about the millions of people out there who could potentially make those same decisions.

Ben Waxman, a youth organizer with the Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty spoke about the injustice of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. A woman from Fight for Lifers talked about her son who was unjustly tried as an adult at age 16 and sentenced to life without parole. A member of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee gave an update on the case of Leonard Peltier, a Native American political prisoner who's been incarcerated since 1976.

The last speaker was Nellie, a three-year PFS veteran and a member of the Executive Committee of Refuse & Resist! She encouraged people to join Refuse & Resist!, a national organization that is dedicated to bringing into being a climate, community and culture of resistance. She went on to talk about how Mumia has been in prison for longer than she's been alive and how she is determined to free Mumia so he can walk into the future with the people.

Whose Future Will You Fight For?!

The last day of PFS, we came together for a summation meeting. Sitting around the table, I couldn't believe this grouping of youth came together just a few days earlier. We had learned so much from each other, and from being out in the streets together.

One of the things we talked about learning was the potential power of the people. This was something we really got into with people in the neighborhood because a lot of times, people don't see their own power. And the authorities try to make sure they never do.

A member of the RCYB from Brooklyn said, "This is my third PFS and one of the things that I enjoy the most is going out amongst the people, hearing their experience, what they go through. I think it's very important to go out among the people. In my personal opinion, these are the people that are gonna make revolution.... Going out among the people, that's where I take the most enjoyment from, because without them, ain't shit gonna happen...."

A woman who had just come back from a student internship in Cuba said this was one of the first things she'd done around Mumia's case. From talking to people, she learned that "collectively people outside in the streets influence the courts. I don't think we're gonna free Mumia with a technicality in the case. I think freeing Mumia is gonna come out of what people are saying -- in the streets, at demos, going door to door. I think if we can really organize effectively and mobilize enough people, we have that capacity. It's obvious to me that it's a political case and for that very reason, it's the people who should be reached."

Nellie talked about how PFS affected her this year: "I think there's a lot of difficult decisions I'm trying to make right now...and I've been getting so wrapped up and stressed out that I was kind of nervous about coming to Freedom Summer and taking five days to spend away from all my dilemmas. But I was actually really glad that I went to PFS because it reaffirmed what is important to me and what I want to be doing--but also what I feel like I need to be doing. There have to be youth and people stepping out...and demanding things in this climate. In the midst of everything being so fucked up, people need to be saying to the government--Bush, Cheney, Aschroft and all of them...we want to create our own future.... PFS reaffirmed what it could look like and it gave me a lot of hope and inspiration. It reaffirmed that what I need to be doing right now is working towards that new future and different world that is possible."

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