By JEFF MACKLER
LOS ANGELES-Supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal mobilized here on Sunday, Aug. 13, for a march to the Staples Center, site of the Democratic Party National Convention. They demanded that Jamal’s planned execution be stopped and that a new trial be granted now.
The protesters came from a number of West Coast cities and towns and from across the country. Impressive contingents were organized in the San Francisco Bay Area by the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal and other regional organizations.
Thousands of brightly colored placards accompanied Mumia banners in the spirited and peaceful 1.3 mile march through downtown. In contrast, police and city authorities had urged local merchants to board up their stores, giving some of the streets the march passed through an eerie look of a beleaguered city.
But contrary to media reports that onlookers rushed to the safety of nearby buildings, the streets were often lined with spectators, many of whom joined the march.
Scores of speakers at the rally focused on the role of Democrats and Republicans alike in regard to their direct responsibility for the racist frame-up trial that sent Jamal, an award-winning African American journalist, to death row in 1982 on charges of killing a Philadelphia cop.
Democratic Party National Committee Chair Ed Rendell, who was the Philadelphia district attorney responsible for Mumia’s prosecution, was particularly scored by rally participants-as was Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas Ridge, a Republican, who signed two warrants for Jamal’s execution. The policies of Al Gore and George Bush Jr. were similarly challenged.
Featured speakers included actor Ed Asner and Jesse Jackson, who came to the podium chanting “Free Mumia.” This was a new position for Jackson, who was unusually introduced by his staff associate as a “changed man.”
Jackson’s remarks were confined to Mumia, to the case of Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham), and to opposition to the death penalty and the prison-industrial complex.
“We have lost Sankofa, we must not lose Mumia,” Jackson said. After 19 years on death row, Shaka Sankofa was executed in Texas in June despite clear evidence of his innocence, which was rejected on statutory time-limit technicalities.
It was significant that Jackson, well aware that his party was largely discredited in the eyes of the crowd, did not mention the Democrats, Al Gore, or the November elections. Ed Asner scored the policies of Gore and Bush with no distinction.
Other featured speakers were Pam Africa (a national leader of Mumia’s defense), and Leonard Weinglass, Mumia’s chief legal counsel. Mumia’s son Mazi Jamal presented a statement on his father’s behalf, which read in part:
“The L.A. Convention is but an echo of the recent convention bought and paid for by corporate capital. It is a convention of the well-to-do and wealthy, not of workers or the poor….
“Whether one votes for the Democrats or Republicans, ultimately one votes for their own repression.”
Pam Africa, whose remarks were quoted on national television made the same point in her speech.
This writer, speaking as a national coordinator of Mumia’s defense, pointed to the need to build an independent movement on Mumia’s behalf and to reach out to ever broader sections of the population, especially the labor movement and the communities of the oppressed.
Mumia’s supporters were provided an important opening in this regard when the state convention of the 1.8 million member California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, voted last month to fight for a new trial for Mumia and to bring the fight to the national AFL-CIO.
A major step in this latter effort was taken in late August when the national convention of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the official Latino arm of the AFL-CIO, joined the fight for a new trial.
Victory for democratic rights
The Aug. 13 rally was initiated by the Los Angeles Coalition to Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The committee’s co-coordinator, Jim Lafferty, was central to a major legal battle to prevent police and city authorities from denying the permits for the day’s events.
When the L.A. city council voted to rescind the original permits granted for the march and rally, Lafferty joined with the ACLU and other local attorneys to mount a challenge that resulted in a federal judge reversing the city’s stance.
The judge admonished city officials and police for violating fundamental First Amendment rights and ordered that all permits be granted.
This victory would not have been possible without the united efforts of many civil and human rights organizations and the determination of the march organizers to insist on their democratic rights to free speech and assembly.
Lafferty opened the Staples Center component of the Mumia protest by explaining the importance of the ongoing fight for democratic rights. “They [L.A. city authorities] said that we would never march today,” said Lafferty. “But we did.” He continued, “And they said that we would never rally here at the Staples Center Auditorium. “But here we are.” The crowd roared its approval.
The fight for the fundamental democratic right to protest, always in jeopardy in capitalist society, was in contention from day one as city officials sought to violence-bait the Mumia protest and the other events scheduled later in the week. Their aim was to lay the foundation for imposing severe restrictions on rights that had been won in struggle by countless generations in decades and centuries past.
Despite the victory, however, it was obvious to all that the size of the march would have been significantly greater were it not for the concerted corporate media efforts to characterize the Mumia protesters, and all others, as potentially violent.
Violence-baiting was employed daily by police and local officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Tom Riordan, to both discourage participation and to implement policies that could be employed in the future to limit constitutionally protected rights.
Police violence was thwarted
Mumia Coalition organizers, aware of the power of mass action to involve broad sectors of the population in peaceful protest and in a winning movement, made it clear months ago that civil disobedience in any form was not to be a part of the day’s events.
They operated on the correct assumption that the vast numbers of those who could be mobilized on Mumia’s behalf were unlikely to participate if it meant risking arrest.
They gauged that the task at hand is to construct the kind of movement that involves millions, as opposed to a limited struggle where a handful of people substitute themselves for the mass force that is absolutely necessary to win Mumia’s freedom.
The clear political focus of the Mumia march and its organizers, and the prior commitment of all endorsing organizations, made if difficult in the extreme for the police to intervene to disrupt the protest.
When a tiny group of people at the rally attempted to throw a few bottles in the direction of the Staples Center, the rally chair immediately intervened to stop such actions in order to avoid providing any pretext for police violence.
But the police did intervene. In addition to a virtual army of cops and National Guard troops standing by-all equipped with rubber bullets, noxious gas, and the latest in “crowd control” gear-the Los Angeles Police Department admittedly organized cops to infiltrate the demonstration and to participate in and lead confrontations with police.
The bottle throwing may well have been the work of a few of the police provocateurs (“scouts” was the official police term), in order to justify the use of force. Some cops in “raggedy clothes” later proudly bragged to the Los Angeles Times of their illegal “infiltration” exploits.
The media was poised to focus their cameras on any incident that might be used to discredit the protest and Mumia’s fight for freedom. Major television stations constructed towering platforms to cover the protests from every angle.
Indeed, the Mumia protest was carried on 200 media outlets, many of which were likely disappointed that their much hyped and often-predicted demonstrator-initiated violence was absent. Yet the capitalist media neglected to mention that the right to organize social protest free from government interference was violated by the cops themselves.
The day was a clear victory for Mumia’s struggle for justice and freedom and a victory for democratic rights in general.
Annoyed with the succession of large protests with anti-establishment themes from Seattle to Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, city and national authorities had prepared to use force and violence against peaceful protesters. They were thwarted in this effort by a maturing, disciplined, and growing movement.
This movement is proving ever more capable of winning the mass forces in the working class and among its allies that are needed to make the cost of Mumia’s murder too high for the ruling class to pay in regard to a loss of confidence in the so-called criminal justice system-and in the longer term in capitalism itself.
West Coast Socialist Action members participated in every aspect of the organization and preparation of the Aug. 13 protest. About 285 copies of Socialist Action newspaper were sold, as well as a broad range of Socialist Action pamphlets.