by John Leslie
An online news conference called by Mobilization for Mumia, Black Lives Matter Philadelphia, Black Philly Radical Collective, the Black Alliance for Peace, International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal and an array of other civil rights and progressive organizations put a spotlight on the current stage of the struggle to free political prisoner and award-winning radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal as he enters his 39th winter of imprisonment.
Mumia was convicted on frame-up charges of shooting and killing Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. Today, there are deep concerns for his health, especially since the prison where he is incarcerated has been hit by a severe outbreak of COVID-19.
The Nov. 16 press conference was anchored by Professor Johanna Fernandez, a professor of history at Baruch College and author of “The Young Lords: A Radical History.” The event opened with an appeal for viewers to call the governor of Pennsylvania to demand the release of Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army political prisoner and prisoner of war Russell “Maroon” Shoatz. Maroon, who is already being treated for stage 4 colon cancer, recently tested positive for COVID-19.
Please call 717-787-2500 and demand the unconditional, immediate release of Russell Shoatz and all elderly prisoners.
Imprisonment and the prison apparatus, the carceral apparatus, is the third largest employer in the United States – third only to Walmart and Manpower Inc.”
Professor Fernandez set the tone at the beginning by situating the current regime of mass incarceration and the imprisonment of revolutionary Black activists in its historical context.
“In the 19th century, the United States was the largest producer of cotton in the world and, of course, that cotton was produced by enslaved Africans. In the late 19th century, the United States was producing steel. In the 1950s, the United States was producing automobiles, and today, in the late 20th century and 21st century, the United States is producing prisoners and a carceral state. Imprisonment and the prison apparatus, the carceral apparatus, is the third largest employer in the United States – third only to Walmart and Manpower Inc.”
Fernandez continued, “That is a catastrophe of epic proportions. The people who have been disproportionately imprisoned in this period are Black Americans and, increasingly, Latinos … There was a generation of Black radicals who, in the 1960s, called attention to the fact that incarceration would be the new face of white supremacy and racism in the United States … those radicals include Mumia Abu-Jamal, members of the Black Panther Party and over a dozen black Panthers who are today imprisoned.
“Today, a new generation of Black freedom fighters emerge; they too are being targeted by the state for political reasons. Anthony ‘Ant’ Smith, for Philadelphia, a beloved teacher and organizer in the Black Philadelphia Radical Collective, is one of those victims of targeting on the part of the state.”
Pam Africa: ‘Judicial, prosecutorial and police misconduct’
Speakers explained the present state of Mumia’s case, beginning with MOVE “Minister of Confrontation” Pam Africa, a long-time advocate for Mumia and a leading activist in the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Pam Africa said, “We have here a case, clearly, factually, a case of judicial, prosecutorial and police misconduct. I’d like to add terrorism to that. The district attorney, Krasner, has released 15 people dealing with judicial and prosecutorial misconduct. Mumia has been on the foreground, and Krasner knows about his case and has not released Mumia. We must demand that Krasner do for Mumia what he did for the other 15 exonerees.”
In a series of court appearances throughout 2018 and 2019, Mumia’s lawyers fought for a new appeal process under the Williams v. Pennsylvania decision. Ron Castille, the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, was district attorney of Philadelphia when Terrence Williams was tried, convicted and sentenced to death.
During Williams’ appeal, his attorneys asked that Castille recuse himself from the case, given his previous role as prosecutor, but Castille refused. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a prosecutor who later becomes a judge should recuse themselves if asked to hear an appeal in a case they had prosecuted.
Judge Albert Sabo, also a member of the Fraternal Order of Police, was overheard by a white court stenographer, saying that he was going to “help them [prosecutors] fry that n****r.”
Castille, who had been district attorney during Mumia’s prosecution, had also refused to recuse himself during Mumia’s appeals process. Mumia’s legal team sought to prove that Castille’s involvement in the appeal constituted a violation of Williams.
In December 2018, Common Pleas Court Judge Leon Tucker ruled in favor of Mumia, citing Castille’s “lack of impartiality” and “the appearance of bias” in his handling of the case. Philadelphia district attorney, Larry Krasner, had initially indicated that he planned to appeal Tucker’s decision, but withdrew the appeal on April 17, 2019. There are more than 24 constitutional violations in Mumia’s case, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has refused to hear any of these.
At a Sept. 28, 2019, meeting with activists, attorney Judith Ritter explained that this was based on the discovery of a 1990 letter from District Attorney Castille to Gov. Bob Casey, urging him to sign death warrants for death row inmates “to send a clear and dramatic message to all police killers that the death penalty in Pennsylvania actually means something.”
Supporters of the fight for Mumia’s freedom know that the case against him was based on compromised witnesses, altered or corrupted evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, and police malfeasance. In December 2018, Philadelphia district attorney’s office employees “found” six previously undiscovered boxes of exculpatory evidence.
These boxes contained information that pointed to prosecutorial misconduct. It includes prosecutor McGill’s notes on the race of potential jurors, a Batson violation. The Batson decision holds that race cannot be the basis of a peremptory challenge during jury selection. There were only two Black people on the jury in Mumia’s original trial, and one of those was later dismissed.
Fifteen officers assigned to Mumia’s case were later convicted of “rank corruption, extortion and tampering with evidence.”
Additionally, the testimony of a supposed eyewitness, Robert Chobert, is in question. Chobert, a taxi driver, claimed that his cab was parked behind Officer Daniel Faulkner’s squad car and claimed to see Mumia shoot Faulkner. Crime scene photos do not show a taxi behind the police car. Prosecutors also did not notify the defense that Chobert was on probation for an arson-for-hire job and was driving with a suspended license. In the six boxes discovered by the district attorney’s office, a letter from Chobert to McGill was found, which asked, “Where’s my money?”
In the original trial, the district attorney’s office used Mumia’s former membership in the Black Panther Party to argue for the death penalty. At the time of the trial, Judge Albert Sabo, also a member of the Fraternal Order of Police, was overheard by a white court stenographer, saying that he was going to “help them [prosecutors] fry that n****r.”
Maureen Faulkner, the widow of Officer Faulkner, filed a motion pro se alleging that District Attorney Krasner and others in his offices have conflicts of interest in Mumia’s case and asking that the case be taken from the jurisdiction of the DA and placed under the aegis of the state attorney general, who has been hiring former ADAs fired by Krasner.
Journalist and Temple University Professor of Journalism Linn Washington Jr. explained the implications of the King’s Bench petition filed by Maureen Faulkner, which stayed the decision of the Court of Common Pleas:
“The King’s Bench is a power that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has to be able to intervene in matters, even matters that are not before the court. This particular power is supposed to be done in only extraordinary instances of the public interest. What the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did was involve itself by granting a petition of the Fraternal Order of Police, which is involved in corruption in this case, as well as the widow whose mindset is that Mumia did it.”
Washington continued, “Part of the problem is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court itself, [which] just shows the corrupted nature of what Mumia has endured.” Washington went on to describe corruption cases involving members of the court, including a recent investigation of the chief justice of the court for a racist retaliation effort against a former member of the court, a Black woman. A few years ago, two members of the court were forced to resign for sending racist and homophobic messages.
Angela Davis: ‘Accelerate efforts’ to free Mumia!
Angela Davis, professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz, joined the press conference to repeat her “unwavering support” for Mumia. Davis offered an analysis of mass incarceration, systemic racism, and laid out the case for the abolition of “prisons, the death penalty and police,” saying: “It is right and just that we should accelerate our efforts on this new terrain to finally free our brother comrade.”
Space considerations don’t allow us to do justice to the many speakers. We urge readers to take the time to watch the entire video (posted online with this story at sfbayview.com) and use this as a guide to action to fight this system of racism and injustice. Davis said, “Mumia’s case exemplifies the lengths to which the state will go to silence those who speak truth to power. This is why the Fraternal Order of Police has been unrelenting in its attempt to silence him.”
Davis noted the Philadelphia City Council’s official apology that same week for the May 13, 1985, bombing of the MOVE house on Osage Avenue, which resulted in the death of 11 MOVE members – including five children – and the destruction of 61 homes. Police fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition and had fire trucks pump more than 460,000 gallons of water into the house before dropping a bomb on the roof.
Officials decided to “let the house burn” while MOVE members were driven back into the burning home by police gunfire. Community members who gathered behind police barricades shouted, “Murderers! Murderers!”
Not one cop or city official involved in the massacre served a day in jail – or even lost their job. One of the surviving MOVE members, Ramona Africa, was convicted of riot and conspiracy and served seven years in prison.
The 1985 attack on MOVE was preceded by the attack on the MOVE house on Powelton Avenue in 1978. Police laid siege to the house for months. When the police attacked on Aug. 8, 1978, Officer James Ramp was struck by police fire. In the aftermath, police bulldozed the house to destroy evidence, and nine members of MOVE were railroaded into prison.
At a press conference after the Powelton Avenue attack, racist Mayor Frank Rizzo singled out Mumia, who was working as a newspaper reporter, saying that a “new breed of journalism … (is) going to have to be held responsible and accountable” for Ramp’s death.
Colin Kaepernick: ‘Mumia’s life and legacy must matter’
At the end of the program, organizers played a video statement by activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick was blacklisted in 2016 by the NFL owners for his stance against racism and police murder and violence, demonstrated when he famously knelt during the national anthem at the beginning of a game.
Other players in the league, and then in other sports, followed suit. This earned them vilification from the political right, including profanity-laced vitriol from Trump.
In the video, Kaepernick said, “The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner issued a statement noting that prolonged solitary confinement, the precise type often used in the United States, amounts to psychological torture. Mumia Abu-Jamal has spent roughly 30 of his 38 years in solitary confinement. In his book, ‘Live from Death Row,’ Mumia wrote that ‘prison is a second by second assault on the soul; a day to day degradation of the self; an oppressive steel and brick umbrella that transforms seconds into hours and hours into days.”
Kaepernick pointed out, “Since 1981, Mumia has maintained his innocence. His story has not changed. Mumia was shot, brutalized and chained to a hospital bed. The first officer assigned to him wrote in a report that ‘the negro male made no statement.’ Yet, 64 days into the investigation, another officer testified that Mumia had confessed to the killing.”
Kaepernick continued by pointing out the rampant corruption of the Philadelphia police department, including the fact that 15 officers assigned to Mumia’s case were later convicted of “rank corruption, extortion and tampering with evidence.”
Additionally, Kaepernick said, “Today we are living in a moment where it’s acceptable to paint ‘end racism now’ in front of the Philadelphia police department’s 26th district headquarters. And yet a political prisoner, who has since the age of 14 dedicated his life to the fight against racism continues to be caged and lives his life on a slow death row.” He added, “We’re in the midst of a moment that says, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ And if that’s truly the case, then it means that Mumia’s life and legacy must matter.”
Urgent update on Mumia’s health
There is currently a COVID-19 outbreak at the Mahanoy Correctional Facility, where Mumia is being held. At least 20 guards have tested positive and the more than 2 400 incarcerated people are in serious peril. The prison is currently on lockdown, but that is no guarantee of safety in the cramped and unsanitary conditions of prison.
Mumia’s situation is particularly dire given his age, 66 years, and the liver damage caused by Hepatitis C. Supporters are asking that people call Gov. Tom Wolf and ask that Mumia and all elder prisoners be granted an immediate, unconditional compassionate release.
Please contact the Mobilization for Mumia to let them know any response to your call: Gov. Tom Wolf by phone 717-787-2500, fax 717-772-8284, email using this form, or mail Office of the Governor, 508 Main Capitol Building, Harrisburg, PA 17120.
Now is the time to redouble the effort to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. At every turn in this case, the mass movement in the U.S. and internationally has shown the strength of mass struggle. While the fight in the courts is necessary, the fight in the streets is even more urgent.
It was the mass movement that saved Mumia from death row. It was the mass movement that saved Mumia from death by Hepatitis C and it is the mass movement that will swing wide the prison doors to free Mumia and all of the other political prisoners held by the U.S.
Free Mumia and all political prisoners! Hands off Ant Smith – drop all charges!
John Leslie is a writer for Freedom Socialist and other socialist publications.