Workers Vanguard No. 848

13 May 2005

Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!

Mobilize Labor Power to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!

On April 23, some 350 workers, students, socialists, fighters for black rights and opponents of the racist death penalty turned out in Harlem in defense of death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Commemorating Jamal's 51st birthday (24th behind bars), the demonstration was initiated by the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal (ICFFMAJ), the NYC Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition, and the International Action Center (IAC). A similar protest was held in the Bay Area.

The Spartacist League and Labor Black Leagues participated in the April 23 protests. In New York City, we marched with a 50-strong Revolutionary Contingent under the Partisan Defense Committee banner: "There Is No Justice in the Capitalist Courts—Free Mumia Abu-Jamal! Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!" As the leaflet building for our contingent underlined:

"The notorious frame-up of Mumia Abu-Jamal symbolizes what the barbaric, racist death penalty is all about in capitalist America. The capitalist forces of 'law and order,' represented by both the Democratic and Republican Parties, want Mumia dead because they see in this eloquent journalist, MOVE supporter and former Black Panther Party spokesman a symbol of defiant opposition to their system of racist oppression."

The demonstration was followed by an indoor rally where some 350 people gathered. Speakers at the indoor rally included Pam Africa of ICFFMAJ; Rachel Wolkenstein, counsel for the PDC; black Democratic Party politician and former New York City mayor David Dinkins; Brenda Stokely, president of AFSCME DC 1707; New York City councilman Bill Perkins; and Larry Holmes of the Workers World Party's IAC.

Many of those at the indoor rally were looking for a way forward to fight for Jamal's freedom. What was unique about this event was the all-too-rare clash of political views and strategies on precisely this question. On one pole was the open embrace of trust in the justice of the American court system promoted by Dinkins and the IAC; on the other was the class-struggle perspective offered by Wolkenstein, the PDC and the SL. As our leaflet stated: "In our defense of Mumia we have supported pursuing all available legal avenues open to fight for his freedom and against the death penalty. But we have always promoted the understanding that the fight to free Mumia must be independent of the racist capitalist state, which has worked for years to frame him up. It is this Marxist understanding that differentiates our program from those who rely on a legalistic strategy, building illusions that the capitalist courts are fair."

Pam Africa introduced Wolkenstein, citing her efforts in obtaining evidence of Mumia's innocence and, speaking of the PDC, emphasized: "For years their position has been one that Mumia is innocent and to hell with a trial." Africa added, "That's absolutely true, but we have people who are not ready to move that way." She encouraged rally participants to obtain the PDC pamphlet Mumia Abu-Jamal Is an Innocent Man!, containing affidavits by Wolkenstein, Mumia, his brother William Cook and Arnold Beverly, in which Beverly admits that he, not Jamal, killed Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. That day, we sold 109 copies of the pamphlet and another 150 pieces of Marxist literature.

Wolkenstein's speech was greeted with applause and a standing ovation because it struck a chord with the predominantly black audience, many of whom were longtime political activists. It underlined that it is necessary to mobilize the social power of the working class on behalf of Jamal, independently of all capitalist parties. She explained the role of the capitalist state as an institution that exists to defend the interests of the ruling capitalist class against working people and the oppressed, and why it is so dangerous to peddle illusions in the state. As our flyer stated: "The courts, the cops, the prosecutors and the military make up the state apparatus which uses bourgeois law and force to protect the profit system. The state is not neutral and does not function in the interests of black people, the working class, immigrants or other oppressed minorities. Without this understanding, it is impossible to wage an effective struggle to free Mumia."

Wolkenstein also laid bare the evidence of Mumia's innocence, centered on Beverly's confessions and mounds of supporting evidence. This evidence was suppressed by Jamal's former lead counsel, Leonard Weinglass, and his "legal strategist," Daniel Williams. The pursuit of this evidence on the one hand and its suppression on the other reflected within the legal team the clash of strategies over what social forces must be mobilized to free Jamal: reliance on the good graces of the capitalist courts embodied in the call for a "new trial for Mumia" or reliance on the social power of the working class, including through protest actions based on the multiracial labor movement.

A report on the April 23 rally posted on the Workers World Party's Web site (27 April) was entitled "Harlem Says 'Free Mumia'," just as one side of the signs they carried at the protest called to free Mumia. However, their real program was displayed on the other side of the sign—as seen in the photograph accompanying their article—which called for a "new trial." Workers World and the IAC are trying to corral those who want to fight for Jamal's freedom behind a call that reinforces illusions in the state. The WWP article motivates the rally by citing the "urgent need to continue building broad, mass pressure on the repressive judicial system to grant Abu-Jamal a new trial."

We are fighting to mobilize the social power of the multiracial labor movement not only to free Mumia, but to get rid of this barbaric and murderous capitalist system of hunger, imperialist war, poverty, racist cop terror and vicious attacks on workers, women, gays and immigrants. Since our inception we have fought for integrated class struggle and for the perspective of revolutionary integrationism, combatting every manifestation of discrimination against black people and fighting to eliminate the oppression of blacks—which is the bedrock of American capitalist society—through a proletarian socialist revolution. Our program of black liberation through socialist revolution is based on the fact that the capitalist rulers have fomented anti-black racism historically not only to keep black people in their so-called "place" but to prevent revolutionary unity of the working class against the capitalists.

In her remarks at the indoor rally, Brenda Stokely expressed solidarity from the Million Worker March, New York City Labor Against the War and District Council 1707, vowing: "We will continue this fight until none of us has a breath to continue fighting." Such proclamations by trade-union leaders cannot be mere words. The social power of labor must be mobilized in action, on the streets, to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. If undertaken through the mobilization of labor, the struggle to free Mumia would represent a big step in the struggle to overturn this whole racist, capitalist system.

The April 23 rally took place a few months after a presidential election accompanied by an escalating assault on democratic rights. The Democrats have moved even further to the right as they compete with "family values" bigots who are working overtime to sell Jesus and gut abortion rights. For years, there has been a dearth of class struggle in the U.S., primary responsibility for which rests with the pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracy, which ties the working class to its capitalist class enemy through the Democratic Party. At the same time, the workers have shown no lack of will to struggle, as during the 2003-04 UFCW grocery workers strike, which was sold out by the labor tops. What is necessary is a fight for a new, class-struggle leadership in the unions, a fight to break workers from illusions in the Democrats as "friends of labor," a struggle to build a revolutionary workers party fighting for all the oppressed and for a workers government.

In his presentation, Dinkins—who left an event at Columbia University honoring the Nigerian Nobel laureate, author and former political prisoner, Wole Soyinka, to attend the Mumia rally—declared: "I believe now very deeply he [Mumia] not only hasn't had a fair trial, he's innocent in the first damn place." However, Dinkins also referred to the racist vendetta in which the capitalist courts have kept Jamal imprisoned in a 9 by 12 foot dungeon as a series of "misguided decisions."

A million black people are locked behind bars, largely as a result of the racist "war on drugs." Of the nearly 3,500 on death row, over half are black and Hispanic. Yet, Dinkins referred to the "issue of abuse of police power, the issue of a blind system of criminal justice and the death penalty issue" by proclaiming that such incidents "have been much less since the system first turned a blind eye toward Mumia Abu-Jamal." According to Dinkins, "We have to remember that the justice system of this country belongs to those who would honor its principles, not those who would abuse them. And we must take it back." The justice system Dinkins wants to "take back" is the "justice system" that declared in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case that black people "have no rights which the white man is bound to respect"; that ordered the legal lynching of anarchist workers Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927; that affirmed the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II; and that, in the 1987 McCleskey decision, both acknowledged and deemed irrelevant racial disparity in the criminal justice system.

Later in the program, Larry Holmes of the IAC continued Dinkins' theme by calling for: "More unity, sisters and brothers. More unity. Whatever our differences are, it's always more that unites us." But unity with whom, against whom, and for what? We fight for united-front action to struggle for Mumia's freedom—i.e., unity in action and freedom for all political tendencies to express their views. What Holmes has in mind is the kind of "unity" based on accommodation to "progressive" capitalist politicians, the kind of "unity" where the call for Mumia's freedom is subordinated to the demand for a "new trial" and agnosticism on Mumia's innocence. The liberals' interest in the Mumia case is to refurbish the image of the American justice system. This is not unity but treachery.

Beginning in 1989, the PDC has organized united-front rallies for Mumia, and they have included participation by black elected officials, community organizations, union officials and left organizations whose programs and worldviews were quite distant from ours. But in contrast to the reformists, we never tailored our demands to what the liberals found acceptable, nor did we censor our criticisms of the Democratic Party, our explication of the function of the capitalist state, the treacherous role of the trade-union bureaucracy, and the need for workers to have their own party, a workers party that fights for socialist revolution. As Wolkenstein underlined in her speech, while capitalist politicians like Dinkins are welcome to voice their support for Jamal, the movement must not be tailored to accommodate them.

Our united-front approach demonstrates a powerful political point: it is possible to bring effective, worldwide united action across a spectrum of political beliefs while assuring everyone's right to have his own say. Within that framework, we fight to win activists to the understanding that the fight for Mumia's freedom must be based on a class-struggle perspective.

This is the strategy we have pursued since we first took up Jamal's case in 1987. When a death warrant was signed in 1995, millions around the world mobilized in defense of Jamal. Mumia's name must be made known again the way it was in 1995, so that unions from South Africa, France, Brazil and elsewhere mobilize on the streets in the fight for his freedom. The fight to free Mumia must become a cause taken up by the labor movement around the world, especially in the U.S.

For Mumia's birthday in 1999, tens of thousands took to the streets in Philadelphia and the Bay Area in rallies to demand a new trial. Sadly the turnout this year was a fraction of what it was six years ago. In remarks following Wolkenstein's presentation at the April 23 rally, Pam Africa observed, "The only thing they could do to divert the energy of the people was to come out and say they were overturning Mumia's sentencing from death to life in prison." Pam Africa was referring to the December 2001 ruling by federal court judge William Yohn overturning the death sentence but affirming the conviction; the prosecutors appealed seeking to reinstate the death sentence, while Mumia appealed seeking to overturn the conviction. In 1976, professional boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, framed up on false murder charges in the mid 1960s because of his advocacy of the right of black armed self-defense, finally won a new trial after an international protest campaign. When he was convicted anew, the liberals fled his cause and Carter spent another decade in prison for a crime he did not commit. Today, many of the liberals to whom the reformists appealed have fled the case, while the workers, blacks and youth who were the foot soldiers for Jamal are politically demobilized. The central reason for the demobilization of Mumia's supporters rests with the fact that reformists like Workers World and Socialist Action rejected a class-struggle fight for Jamal, instead organizing activists on the basis that justice could be obtained from the capitalist courts.

As Wolkenstein noted in her speech:

"Not only should it be clear that Mumia should have never spent a day in court, but to talk about a 'fair trial' only breeds illusions in the capitalist courts. These illusions demobilized a movement which once had millions around the world. The mass movement has to be built anew on the basis that Mumia's conviction and death sentence were political, and it is in the interests of all working people, black and white, citizen and immigrant, to join together and fight for his freedom."

No illusions in the courts! Free Mumia now!