Could Mumia Abu-Jamal, one of the twentieth century’s most high profile political prisoners, a powerful and renown author and a former Black Panther, have hope of being released after 34 years in prison, 30 of those years on death row? Could Mumia, unlike the anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, or the Communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed by the state, finally see the light of day after decades in prison like former Black Panthers Geronimo Pratt, the Angola Three and Eddie Conway?
A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Williams v. Pennsylvania, could provide a legal precedent to open the door for Mumia’s release. But that will not end the police vendetta against him as demonstrated by the bitter experience of unending persecution by courts, cops and prison authorities. For every legal principle there is a “Mumia exception.” There can be no reliance on the courts for justice, in large part because Mumia is falsely accused of killing a cop. As in the case of Angela Davis, it will require mass mobilizations to free Mumia, mobilizations from trade unions with large Black memberships and community organizations like Black Lives Matter.
In the meantime, Mumia’s life is in grave danger as a federal court judge refused to grant an injunction to require that the state of Pennsylvania give him proper medication for his life-threatening Hepatitis C. And yet the judge found the state prison system’s protocol for treating prisoners with Hep-C unconstitutional! Another Mumia exception, no doubt.
As prisoners commemorated the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising on September 9 by organizing a nationwide strike protesting the horrid conditions of mass incarceration, we outside the prison walls, need to be demonstrating in sympathy with their demands and calling for freedom for class war political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Ron Castille and the racist
frame-up of Mumia
The new Supreme Court ruling establishes a precedent for the court to vacate all of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s denials of Mumia’s post-conviction appeals. On August 7, 2016 a motion was filed with the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas. This legal action “provides a path in the courts to overturn Mumia’s conviction and win his freedom” according to Rachel Wolkenstein, a former attorney for Mumia (See Socialist Viewpoint Vol. 16, No. 5.) This legal action could result in a new appeal process and then a new trial. But again, in Mumia’s case (and so many others), such legal precedents are routinely overridden when the state is prepared to go to the wall against a defendant.
Still this new decision offers a new opportunity for Mumia and his supporters to forcefully challenge the blatant frame-up that lead to his conviction, and, to bring broader exposure to a racist system of injustice.
After decades of frustration and disappointment the fight for Mumia’s freedom could see a breakthrough. The new precedent–setting decision in Williams v. Pennsylvania has established that judicial bias occurs when a judge participating in a criminal appeal had “a significant personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant’s case.” Ronald D. Castille has played the central role of both prosecutor and judge in the course of Mumia’s legal nightmare. He was the Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia during Mumia’s 1982 trial, was the elected Philadelphia District Attorney during Mumia’s direct appeal, and as a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice in 1998 and 2002 rejected a motion demanding his recusal from decisions concerning Mumia’s case.
Castille and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have stood in the way of each of Mumia’s attempts to appeal his post conviction decisions, including those appeals which argued that Castille’s participation constituted a conflict of interest. From the beginning Castille showed prejudice. As DA he made a training video on how to exclude Blacks from a jury when Blacks were nearly 40 percent of Philly’s population.
Mass mobilizations must bolster Mumia’s court fight
By extension, this struggle must link the Black Lives Matter movement on the streets to the mass incarceration of Black lives behind prison walls. But Mumia’s fight for freedom can only happen if his case gains traction through mass labor and Black mobilizations like the one organized by the San Francisco longshore union on April 29, 1999 or the Oakland teachers’ union that organized a city-wide teach-in on the death penalty and the frame-up of Mumia a few months before that.
At that time the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) organized a one-day coast-wide shutdown and led a march of 25,000 people through the streets of San Francisco organized by the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, to demand freedom for Mumia and call attention to racist repression and the plight of class war prisoners. Actions like this succeeded in bringing attention to Mumia’s case but at this late date there needs to be much more now. Left to the courts alone, he will certainly die by “legal lynching” from medical mistreatment of Hepatitis C, in the same way that the apartheid regime of South Africa handled its imprisoned opponents.
From young Black Panther to “slow death row”
Mumia, who takes his name from Kenyan anti-colonial fighters, was already in the crosshairs of the police when as a teenager he was Minister of Information for the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party. After the Panthers split in 1971, Mumia went to college to study radio journalism and began a career of reporting and broadcasting. Throughout his years as an award-winning radio broadcaster, Mumia used his platform to direct attention to police brutality and other forms of state violence, most notably exposing the Philadelphia Police Department’s (PPD) targeting of the militant back-to-nature organization MOVE.
Mumia’s speaking truth-to-power reporting made him the target of escalating hounding by the police, especially former Philly “top cop,” Mayor Frank Rizzo. In December of 1981, PPD Officer Daniel Faulkner was killed while conducting a traffic stop of Mumia’s brother, William Cook. Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been driving a taxi part time, arrived at the scene to see what was happening. As Mumia approached, he was shot, critically wounded and beaten by police.
Mumia’s subsequent trial was a case study of a political frame-up in capitalist America today including police corruption and a federal investigation, judicial misconduct, denial of basic rights, witness tampering, and evidence fabrication. Most grotesquely, in his chambers, the presiding judge Albert Sabo, an honorary member of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), was quoted as saying by the court stenographer of the impending legal proceeding, “I’m going to help them fry that nigger.” Having had his right to self-representation revoked and barred from his own trial, Mumia was convicted in 1982 and sentenced to death. Mumia’s case is an ironclad frame-up by the state and FOP. In a gross understatement Amnesty International calls Mumia’s trial “unfair.”
Mumia spent 30 years in solitary confinement on death row Pennsylvania. Yet, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, has said that solitary confinement of more than 15 days is inhumane treatment.
After a lengthy, hard-fought appeals process, Mumia, in 2011, had his sentence commuted to life without the possibility of parole, or as he calls it, “slow death row.” When continued medical mistreatment led to near-fatal diabetic shock, Mumia, was finally diagnosed with the deadly hepatitis C virus. He was then denied the curative medication, without which, he will certainly die. That’s why the urgency is to keep him alive and fight for his freedom.
International labor solidarity
rallies to save Mumia
As the searing protest letter sent to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf from comrades of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa NUMSA states:
“The refusal to health-care reminds us of the conditions we were put in under Apartheid prisons where sick detainees were allowed to die in very deplorable lonely conditions in solitary as part of the punishment for their role in the struggle.”
Mumia has continued writing and publishing numerous volumes about racism, his experience on death row, and the depredations of capitalism. Called the “voice of the voiceless,” he has won audiences around the world.
The International Dockworkers Council (IDC), which represents the most militant port workers met in October and decided to write again to Governor Wolf to protest Mumia’s continued incarceration. On July 7, the IDC organized dockworkers to simultaneously shutdown ports around the world for one hour to highlight the injuries and deaths caused by this most profitable, yet dangerous industry. The IDC has already taken a stand on social issues like racist police terror in the U.S. They’ve sent a letter this year to the Pennsylvania governor citing Mumia’s unjust imprisonment and demanding proper medical treatment and his “immediate and unconditional release” from prison.
International attention and protest are key to the effort to free Mumia. In light of this new legal opening, a renewed international campaign, can not only win Mumia’s release, but will continue to highlight the racist and class oppression that is constantly perpetrated by this justice system that enforces the law and order of capital.
- Solidarity with the Nationwide Prisoners Strike!
- Stop the Death of Hep C Prisoners! Hep C Meds for All!
- Save the Life of Mumia Abu-Jamal!
- Release Mumia From Prison Now!
Jack Heyman is chair of the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee, and member of the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Eric Clanton is a member of Ghost Town Prisoners Support, Oakland, California.
—Counter Punch, September 9, 2016