No Faith in Capitalist Courts!

Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!

The struggle to save Mumia Abu-Jamal, America’s most famous political prisoner, is moving toward a climax. Mumia, a former Black Panther, has been behind bars since 1982 when he was framed for the killing of Daniel Faulkner, a Philadelphia cop.

On 22 April 1999, Mumia’s legal team filed a writ of certiorari before the U.S. Supreme Court, which was tossed out on 4 October when the court announced that it would not hear the appeal. Nine days later, on 13 October 1999, Governor Tom Ridge signed a second death warrant for Mumia. The first one in 1995 was nullified when Mumia was granted a stay following a wave of international protests. The second warrant was also stayed when Federal Judge William H. Yohn Jr. agreed to consider Mumia’s request for an evidentiary hearing on a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. If granted, this will permit Mumia’s defense team to introduce a wealth of new evidence that has been painstakingly excavated since 1982. It will also provide an opportunity to demonstrate how Mumia’s constitutional rights were violated in his original trial. Every attempt by his attorneys to present evidence in 1995 during the Post-Conviction Relief hearings was blocked by extremely prejudicial rulings from presiding judge Albert Sabo, the “King of Death Row,” who had conducted the original frame-up.

During the prosecution’s closing summation at the original trial, the district attorney assured the jurors: “If you find the Defendant guilty of course there would be appeal after appeal and perhaps there could be a reversal of the case, or whatever, so that may not be final” (cited in L. Weinglass, Race for Justice). U.S. courts have previously established that urging a jury to find a defendant guilty, while suggesting that their decision may later be reversed, is, in itself, sufficient grounds for throwing out the conviction. Like many arguments presented by the defense, however, this has been repeatedly dismissed out of hand by the Pennsylvania judiciary.

The district attorney’s argument is all the more macabre since the appeals process has been short-circuited by Bill Clinton’s “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act,” which was pushed through in the wake of the deranged rightist bombing of the Oklahoma federal building in 1995. This act guts federal habeas corpus by discouraging federal courts from examining state convictions, thereby speeding up the machinery of death. An evidentiary hearing before Judge Yohn would not only be Mumia’s first real opportunity to officially present new evidence, it is likely to be his only chance. In terms of legal options, a great deal depends on whether or not Mumia is granted the hearing he has requested.

Ultimately, the legal proceedings in the courthouse will be shaped by political considerations—especially the numbers and level of activity of Mumia’s supporters, particularly within the labor movement. The only reason that Mumia was not executed in 1995 was because of the scope of the protests in the U.S. and internationally.

Comrades of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) have regularly participated in the campaign to save Mumia in the localities where we exist. In the San Francisco Bay Area, our comrades have worked with the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia (LAC), which has done valuable work in bringing the campaign into the labor movement, and which helped initiate the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s (ILWU) historic one-day West Coast port shutdown in April 1999 in solidarity with Mumia. The LAC has held public forums on the case, provided speakers for union meetings and organized labor contingents in demonstrations for Mumia.

A fund-raising “Party for Mumia” held by the LAC on 14 February was forced to change venues twice as a result of police intimidation. Originally scheduled for “Sweet Jimmy’s,” a black nightclub in Oakland frequented by longshore and postal workers, the event had to be moved when the owner canceled the booking after receiving threatening phone calls from the police. In a gesture of solidarity, the “Open World Conference in Defense of Trade Union Independence” offered the LAC space they had previously booked for a social at the Bay View Boat Club. But, at the last minute, the boat club also backed out. The ILWU saved the day by providing Local 10’s View Room for the party, which succeeded in raising $2,000 for Mumia’s defense.

Our German comrades in the Gruppe Spartakus (GS) participated in a major demonstration for Mumia in Berlin on 5 February, which drew 8,000 people from across Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. On 10 March the GS sponsored a successful united-front demonstration in Mönchengladbach with Blockbuster/Youth Against Racism , the Party of Democratic Socialism (the successor to the former East German ruling party) and other anti-fascist groups.

In Britain, our comrades have played a central role, along with anarchist militants, in organizing “Mumia Must Live!” (MML) — a united front launched in February 1999 on the basis of two slogans: “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal” and “Abolish the Racist Death Penalty.” Mumia Must Live! has sponsored a number of significant events in London, including an emergency response rally last October following Ridge’s signing of the second death warrant, and a 150-person rally the next month to protest the circulation of anti-Mumia disinformation in the capitalist media. On 4 March, MML sponsored a demonstration that drew 1,000 people to Trafalgar Square, in the largest Mumia defense rally in Britain so far.

In the course of building the March demonstration there were several intense discussions within Mumia Must Live!, particularly after the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) joined. The SWP contributed significant resources, and has given MML a much higher profile. At the same time, SWPers have made several attempts to include, as part of MML’s basis of unity, a demand for the U.S. courts to retry Mumia. Our comrades and some of the anarchists were opposed to including this demand, and after some to-ing and fro-ing, the SWP relented, and agreed to only raise it in their own name.

The SWP is not alone among Mumia’s supporters in attempting to make a new trial the focus of the defense campaign. In the 1960s and early 70s, there was a wave of demonstrations in the U.S. in defense of the chairman of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton. Anyone who had raised a call for giving Newton a “New Trial” at one of these “Free Huey” rallies would have been regarded as either extremely dubious or insane. Today, some of the same “revolutionary” groups who called for freeing Huey are advocating a “new trial” for Mumia. They rationalize this adaptation to liberalism as a tactic to enhance the campaign’s mainstream appeal and thus make it easier to obtain celebrity endorsements from ephemeral glitterati.

We take a different approach, and recall Leon Trotsky’s injunction to “speak the truth to the masses.” And the truth is that the U.S. judicial system is shot through with racism and class bias. While every possible legal avenue must be pursued in the campaign to save Mumia’s life, the best way to protect him is not to pander to liberal illusions in the impartiality of the courts, but to use his frame-up to expose the whole corrupt system of racist capitalist injustice, and thus help win a new generation of youth to the program of socialist revolution.

The IBT published the following statement on 28 February:

The campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther framed for the 1981 killing of a policeman, is reaching a critical stage. Over the past 18 years, as Mumia has sat on death row in Pennsylvania, his case has won worldwide attention and the campaign to save his life has steadily gained momentum. Trade unionists around the world, from Brazil, to South Africa and New Zealand have taken up his case. In the U.S., the longshore union shut down all the ports on the Pacific Coast for a day last April as a gesture of solidarity with this class-war prisoner.

Mumia was a founding member of the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. He subsequently won a reputation as the “Voice of the Voiceless” for his work as a reporter and his fearless criticisms of police brutality and racist persecution. The Philly cops knew him and hated him—his FBI file alone is over 700 pages.

He was convicted in a farcical trial presided over by Judge Albert Sabo, a life-long supporter of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), and a well-known “hanging judge.” Sabo also handled Mumia’s 1995 appeal for “post-conviction relief” where he ruled in favor of his original decision.

In January of this year, federal judge William Yohn in Philadelphia agreed to hear challenges to Sabo’s “findings of fact” in the case. Mumia’s attorneys have documented 29 separate claims of constitutional violations in a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus to overturn his conviction. (A copy of the defense memorandum can be found on the internet at

Judge Yohn is scheduled to begin considering defense arguments in April. This hearing, at the federal district court level, is Mumia’s only opportunity to introduce new evidence into the official record. Subsequent appeals in higher federal courts are bound to only review evidence heard in the district court. The defense is seeking to present new evidence, including statements from key prosecution witnesses at Mumia’s original trial, that their testimony had been coerced by the Philly police. Sabo refused to admit these admissions on the bizarre grounds that these witnesses, who had provided the “evidence” for Mumia’s original conviction, were no longer “credible.”

The outcome of these hearings is impossible to predict. In a memo issued in late January, C. Clark Kissinger, who is close to Mumia’s legal team, outlined a series of possibilities. The judge could permit new evidence to be heard and then overturn the conviction. But he could also deny an evidentiary hearing and uphold Sabo’s decision. He could also let the guilty verdict stand, but ask the Pennsylvania courts to reconsider whether the sentence should be execution or life imprisonment. He could also rule that Mumia’s conviction was unconstitutional without hearing any new evidence. In that case, the state would likely appeal, thus setting the stage for a subsequent decision on the basis of the “facts” established by Sabo’s kangaroo court.

"Free Mumia" or "Re-Try Mumia"?

Mumia’s case is at bottom about politics—not legalities. The reason that he was not executed after his death warrant was signed in 1995 is because there was a groundswell of popular political protest that exposed the racist vendetta by the Philly cops and courts. In November 1999 the national conference of the FOP, the largest police organization in the U.S., called for “boycotting” anyone who spoke out for Mumia, and singled out popular entertainers like Sting and Rage Against the Machine. The capitalist media has ignored the sinister implications of this unprecedented campaign of police intimidation. But it is a powerful confirmation of the fundamentally political character of this case.

Within the movement to defend Mumia an important disagreement has arisen over the political direction of the campaign. Some who once called for “freeing” Mumia are now calling for him to be re-tried. While it is necessary to pursue every possible legal avenue, the demand for winning freedom for Mumia must remain the political focus of the defense campaign.

Every fair-minded person who investigates this case can see that it is a classic frame-up. Every activist in his defense campaign knows that Mumia is innocent—which is why the prosecutors had to coerce witnesses and suppress evidence at his original trial. Why then should we focus on a call for the same racist state to re-try him?

In January 1927 when the International Labor Defense (ILD) campaigned in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchist immigrants framed for a murder they did not commit, James P. Cannon, National Secretary of the ILD at the time, wrote:

“One policy is the policy of class struggle. It puts the center of gravity in the protest movement of the workers of America and the world. It puts all faith in the power of the masses and no faith whatever in the justice of the courts. While favoring all possible legal proceedings, it calls for agitation, publicity, demonstrations....This is what has prevented the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti so far. Its goal is nothing less than their triumphant vindication and liberation.

“The other policy is the policy of 'respectability,' of the 'soft pedal' and of ridiculous illusions about 'justice' from the courts of the enemy....It tries to represent the martyrdom of Sacco and Vanzetti as an 'unfortunate' error which can be rectified by the 'right' people proceeding in the 'right' way.”
— "Who Can Save Sacco and Vanzetti?," reprinted in Notebook of an Agitator

If Mumia’s conviction is overturned, the prosecutors are likely to demand a new round of legal hearings. What will the “revolutionaries” who are now calling for a new trial say then?

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, subject of a recently released film, was targeted by the FBI and local police after he advocated black self-defense against racist cop terror. He was convicted of murder in 1967 on the testimony of two petty crooks whom the prosecutors paid $10,500. In 1976, after the state’s “witnesses” recanted their testimony, Carter was granted a new trial only to have it turn into a re-run of the original frame-up. In 1985, after 18 years in jail, a federal court judge granted his habeas corpus petition and released him. The prosecution initially threatened to try him yet again, but ultimately decided not to.

In 1997, when Geronimo Pratt, former Black Panther Party Deputy Minister of Defense, was finally released from jail after serving 27 years on a bogus murder charge, the prosecutors talked of forcing him to face a re-trial. In Pratt’s case, the FBI’s own wiretaps and surveillance logs proved that he had been 500 miles away when the murder was committed. His real “crime,” like that of Mumia and Hurricane Carter, was that the cops and state authorities considered him their enemy.

Liberals, civil libertarians and others who have confidence in the integrity of capitalist legality may view Mumia’s case as a product of collusion between a few corrupt cops, an over-zealous district attorney and a racist judge. Such people may indeed be more comfortable with a campaign which sets as its goal a new trial for Mumia, but they are also likely to accept the result, including a second guilty verdict.

The entire state apparatus exists to defend social inequality and perpetuate racial, sexual and class oppression. Mumia’s campaign has already helped expose the workings of a system which routinely puts innocent people on death row. Why should we drop the call for his freedom in favor of calling for a new trial which might only provide an alibi for his execution? Mumia’s case is a political one and ultimately it is through a political appeal to the workers’ movement, the black community and other layers of the oppressed that we will win his freedom.

Bristol Anarchists Run Amok

For United-Front Defense of Mumia!

Reprinted below is an exchange from a British Mumia Abu-Jamal e-mail list. The first item was posted on 4 March by an anarchist attempting to justify an assault on members of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) during a Mumia demonstration in Bristol which led to a split in the local Mumia support group. While written by an individual, the letter expresses attitudes that are widespread in anarchist circles. The second item is a response posted on 8 March from a supporter of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) who is active in the Mumia Must Live! (MML) campaign in London.

Swat the Swipes!
No Platform for the SWP in Bristol Free Mumia Group
About Today’s Mumia Demo and the SWP

The actions of the Socialist Workers Party [SWP] at today’s Free Mumia demonstration in Bristol has caused a split between the Party [SWP] and the rest of the Bristol group. Does the Party have an ulterior motive behind joining the Free Mumia campaign nationally? Does the SWP view selling copies of Socialist Worker [as] more important than working cooperatively to prevent Mumia’s execution? Unfortunately, we think the answers to these questions are yes. After the Socialist Workers Party exposed itself today to be no more than a mere opportunist, using Mumia Abu-Jamal’s life as [a] means to further its own political agenda, the procession in Bristol split in two with the second group deciding to take an alternative route to the SWP’s. As the group reflected on the day’s events, it decided that there is a greater chance to help save Mumia without the distractions of the SWP’s recruitment operations and diversionary tactics.

The following is an account of our experiences with the Party.

As you may have experienced yourself, the Bristol Free Mumia Group has had problems with the SWP’s interest in joining the campaign, in particular with its inability to operate as individuals, in such a plural and non-partisan/neutral campaign. The SWoPies recent interest in the International Day of Action for Mumia seems to be the same as the rest of its long history of attempts to hijack popular movements (Poll-Tax, Marlon Thomas campaign, and most recently N30). The presence of Party members at meetings, flyer-drops and demos appears to be just another recruitment drive—although this time it is even more sickening as they are capitalising on the emotions and anger surrounding the imminent execution of a political prisoner. Unsurprisingly the SWP commented on its hard work for Mumia over the last few weeks, despite the fact that he’s been on death row for 17 years and the Bristol group has been active for over 5 years.

Although we were sceptical of their involvement we were glad to have more bodies onboard to progress the campaign. We did try to make some preliminary and honourable agreements to start with, to avoid the problems we expected.

1. Publicity—no party politics, information must remain non-partisan to provide information about Mumia with no attempts to pursue other agendas. Although this was agreed, the posters we received (from London) did have a very SWP look about them. We countered this with our more imaginative posters and both were flyposted all over the city.

2. No party speakers at the public meeting—this applied to all parties, and it took a great deal of effort for the SWP to agree. This took a couple of meetings to confirm but they then wanted a union member from Rolls-Royce to speak (do you think that they may have been SWoPies too?), we refused this as well because we did not see the relevance of the union’s presence. Instead we agreed (the SWP too) to have speakers from the London Free Mumia campaign [and] Amnesty International because of the recent report on Mumia’s case and its uncompromising international campaign against the death penalty. Members of the former Friends of MOVE were unable to attend as was Marie Mullvey Roberts, a Bristol lecturer specialising in death-row literature (author of a book on poems from death row together with B. Zephaniah and member of Life-lines).

On the whole the meeting was successful with over 60 people attending....

However, conflict occurred when a suggestion concerning the selling of ANY PAPERS at the demo was made. Although the main concern was with the SWP, it did relate to all papers. Although most people wanted no papers to be sold, non-SWoPies suggested compromises of 50% donation from sales, or no sales until all neutral Mumia-specific information had been given out. Despite this, and after a lengthy hour-long debate which smoked out the party members who were present...the SWP refused to guarantee anything of the sort. Instead the SWP’s last comment was that they would turn up with papers, SWP placards and banners, and trade-union banners (the last of which we had no real problems with although it would be better to have no organisation’s presence).

The SWP then stated that it had moblised the poll-tax rebellion and many other similar movements, claims which were spurious and insulting to say the least. The SWP also commented on its financial contribution to the campaign, although we did receive their posters and flyers from London, etc., no monies were contributed to the group and we did our own leaflets and photocopying too. Not to mention hiring the meeting room and speaker’s travel expenses.

As expected they had done their best to mobilise on today’s demo. Paper sellers, placards, recruitment petitions and all their renowned activities were in full force. Even though they had placards with Mumia Must Live, on the back there was the SWP headers, and the banners were SWP platforms as well. We had made our own banners and placards which simply stated Mumia Must Live, Abolish the Racist Death Penalty, etc., all of these were neutral/non-partisan. Many people were sickened with the SWP’s attempts to use Mumia’s life for ulterior motives and the Party’s mere presence had put many people off from turning up. For some people the propaganda, party-platform, and petitions which had not been discussed was a step too far. At this point some non-SWoPies liberated some of the Socialist Worker papers and also the petition, [and] the papers were ripped up because of the disrespect shown to the campaign and more importantly Mumia himself. Some of the SWP responded by hitting people with their placard sticks. The scuffle ensued for a minute or two and then the SWP contingent started marching towards town shouting things like “freedom of expression” and encouraging people to join them because they were there for Mumia and not for violence. There were about 100 in their group and 40 people stayed with us....

. . .

After the demo we regrouped and discussed the events of the day, where most people agreed that the SWP exposed themselves as opportunists which had clarified the issue. One of the group said that he also thought that they had not put their heart into the campaign and all agreed that our focus was much clearer. As such we have decided to have an active split with them, which basically comes down to ignoring them. If they decide to do their own thing then it is more publicity for Mumia, if not, then so be it. We realise that the so-called united front that the SWP talk about is meaningless politician-speak, and creative, determined action in which everyone has equal say is so much more powerful. The Bristol Free Mumia Group has agreed to place quality before quantity, and empty, lifeless mass organisation is no substitute for an egalitarian and honest approach.

We will be upping the ante as far as the campaign goes and more meetings, information, flying and actions are being planned. Also, Interference FM (Bristol) will be broadcasting in support of Mumia on Sunday with info about the campaign and with some of Mumias readings as well as the usual conscious tunes.

Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!!!!
Ona Move!!!!!
Mumia Must Be Free!!

Martin (for the Bristol Group)

Reply by IBT Supporter

One of the most striking things about the split in the Bristol Mumia campaign is the lack of clarity about the political issues involved. This incident illustrates for me the importance of two things—first, the need to be clear about the basis of our unity and, second, the need to recognise that the Mumia campaign includes people and organisations with a range of political views. If we try to pretend this isn’t the case, either to ourselves or the public, then sooner or later the agreement we do have will be impossible to sustain.

The Bristol split is presented by some comrades as a disagreement over whether constituent groups in the Mumia campaign, and particularly the SWP, have the right to an independent profile at united-front events through paper sales, placards, banners and speaking in their own name, etc. At the same time, those who would exclude the SWP are happy to invite Amnesty International and Friends of MOVE (whose political positions are just as distinctive as those of the SWP) to speak in their own names.

Comrade Martin may complain about the SWP’s separate “agenda,” but it is clear to me that he and the others who want to exclude the SWP are pushing their own political agenda. (This censorship is something akin to the exclusion of groups identified as communist from the “anti-capitalist” MayDay2000 events.) I share Tony’s objections to Martin’s use of the “No Platform” slogan towards the SWP—this is a policy for dealing with the fascist foot soldiers of the class enemy, not for fellow members of the movement of the workers and oppressed. I hope that all members of MML deplore the appalling actions of those who tore up copies of Socialist Worker. Physical violence in any form has no place in the workers’ movement.

The outrageously sectarian proposal to exclude trade unions, as well as left groups, from Mumia defence rallies flies in the face of Mumia’s wishes. On 6 September 1999, “Labor Day” in North America, Mumia released the following statement entitled “A Salute to Labor’s Strength”:

“When one considers the recent actions of labor in support of this fight for justice and freedom, one can only be deeply and profoundly impressed. The Teach-Ins, the Brazilian Teachers’ 2-hour work stoppage, the unprecedented Coast-wide ILWU [dockers’ union] shutdown of the ports on 24th April last, the international workers’ actions in support of the Neptune Jade defendants in relation to dockers in Liverpool; we are witnessing something remarkable; the internationalization of support and struggle for fellow workers. I thank and applaud the Labor Action Committee for your principled support! I see this battle as only growing in strength, as it broadens and deepens its reach; and as it challenges capital’s lust for death; and as it supports the cause of life, of freedom, and of justice. I salute you! As a recent member of the National Writers Union (affiliated with the UAW, and through them, the AFL-CIO) I join you as we broaden this fight, as we labor on behalf of a better world, and a better life!”

Comrades of the International Bolshevik Tendency in San Francisco, who have been active in the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, have actively sought to involve the ILWU and other unions in Mumia’s defence.

The attempt to exclude the SWP (or others who dare present ideas not approved by comrade Martin and his friends) can only weaken the movement to win Mumia’s freedom. All views on the left have a right to be heard—let people figure out for themselves who is worth listening to and who is an idiot, an “opportunist” or a “sectarian.” We are not afraid to politically criticise the SWP (see, for example, the current issue of our Marxist Bulletin) and as a result our comrades have on occasion been subject to undemocratic measures by the SWP. But that does not change our attitude at all.

Within our united front, different groups should be able to put forward their own ideas, in their own names, about Mumia’s case, as well as the wider social issues surrounding it. We must defend the right to discussion, debate and political criticism at all MML events for every group that is prepared to work on the basis of our two demands—"Free Mumia Abu-Jamal" and “Abolish the Racist Death Penalty.” Of course anyone who speaks on behalf of the united front, rather than one of its constituent groups, must limit themselves to the agreed demands and a simple explanation of the facts of the case.

Finally, I think it is important that MML does not add a call for a retrial to its basis of unity. Judge Yohn can rule that Mumia should go free—why should we demand anything less? The demand for a retrial can create illusions in the racist justice system in America. And a retrial can result in a new frame-up, as it did for Hurricane Carter. Yet while I oppose adding such a demand to the basis of unity of MML, I believe that those (like the SWP) who want to call for a new trial should be free to do so in their own name.

for the IBT

1917 no.22: May 2000