Friday, Dec. 9, marks the 30th anniversary of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s incarceration on frame-up murder charges. Amnesty International, the NAACP, city and national governments, national labor unions, and prominent human rights groups and individuals around the world have backed Mumia’s demand for justice and his insistence on his innocence—as they did for Troy Davis.
Mumia is still on death row at SCI Greene in Waynesburg, Pa., imprisoned on false charges of killing a Philadelphia police officer. State prosecutors continue their relentless drive to secure his execution. Having failed in all such efforts in state and federal courts, Mumia’s would-be murderers recently filed their last appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the same court that broke the “rules of our civilized society” and approved the Sept. 21 execution of Troy Davis. With wind in their sails, they believe that they can now proceed to permanently silence Mumia by taking his life.
One million-plus signatures on Troy’s petitions, millions of phone calls—to which judges and public offices turned a deaf ear—and protests in cities across the country and around the world were not enough to stop Troy’s institutional murderers. The life of an innocent and courageous Georgia death-row prisoner, who fought for his freedom for 22 years, has been stolen. Our collective hearts go out to Troy’s family, who unwaveringly stood by Troy and so eloquently led the fight for his freedom.
We are once again compelled to ask, “What will it take to stop this racist and classist system from executing Mumia, not to mention to set him free?” We do have an answer.
The struggle for Troy’s life was not in vain. He relied on us to fight for it to the end, and we did. Millions were engaged as never before. Millions learned the facts of the case—the proof of Troy’s innocence of the charges of killing a white police officer, the police coercion of seven of nine “eyewitnesses” (who subsequently recanted their lying testimony), and the spurious “legal” arguments that were employed.
“Innocence is no defense!” the Supreme Court declared again and again—truly a doctrine of the Dark Ages. They can kill anyone they please, so they believe. They make the laws to suit their system’s needs. And they do kill, en masse, as well—in U.S. prisons and in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now in Libya.
Troy’s tragic murder, contrary to the system’s insistence on its infallibility, has led millions to understand more deeply its corrupt and brutal nature. The dynamic struggle for Troy’s life saw awakening layers of society learning about the importance of unity in action, of working together in a cooperative and respectful manner to educate and mobilize to demand justice. These lessons will not be lost, as the struggle will soon shift to stop Mumia’s contemplated execution and win his freedom.
Troy reminded us once again that there is a mighty power that can be unleashed to challenge the status quo, a power in the streets, a power representing the broad working class, the oppressed Black and Brown communities—who suffer most from racist injustice—and the youth. When organized, united—and yes, outraged—this power will not be denied. Troy set it in motion. Our assignment is to make it stronger.
Many of the mainstream groups that initiated what soon became a far broader effort to stop the execution and win Troy’s freedom are not accustomed to mass social movements. Their arena of struggle has been largely restricted to patient pleas to the courts and to “lesser evil” politicians.
But when it became undeniable that the promised justice of the legal system was an illusion, the spark ignited by Troy’s struggle stirred the passions of people everywhere, who had previously felt powerless to change the course of events. Amnesty International distributed a T-shirt that was reproduced across the country. “I AM TROY DAVIS,” it stated boldly, conjuring up the heartbreaking and yet inspiring words in the magnificent film, “Spartacus,” based on Howard Fast’s novel about a slave rebellion that nearly toppled the Roman Empire more than 2000 years ago.
“I am Spartacus,” the defeated army of slaves responded, first one at a time, as Spartacus rose but before he could identify himself. And then the slaves spoke in unison, in the thousands, when their choice might have led to leniency if they had revealed their rebel leader, rather than death. “I am Spartacus” subsequently became an expression of solidarity and unity against the oppressor and absolute identification—to the end—with the struggle of the oppressed.
The film’s director, the long blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, later explained that the moment was meant to dramatize the solidarity of those who, during the McCarthy era, had been accused of being Communist sympathizers and brought before witch-hunting congressional committees, where they refused to “name names”—to implicate others—and, as a consequence, were jailed or blacklisted from the film industry.
“If you take the life of Troy Davis your system has forever lost its legitimacy in my eyes,” might adequately capture the mood of defiance that swept the country. “I put my body on the line. I walk the talk,” might be another interpretation.
In the course of defending Troy, an historic commitment to unity in action of broad social forces was forged on a critical issue. The mobilizations included the ranks and leaders of many long-established groups, such as the NAACP, Amnesty International, and other anti-death-penalty organizations. Newly activated youth on campuses and in the communities were joined by an impressive range of social justice organizations and socialist parties. They organized meetings to educate the newcomers and took to the streets with daily, and then nationally coordinated, protests in cities everywhere. With astonishing speed the word spread that the ultimate injustice was in the making for an innocent man, and the streets were the place to be.
But while it was Troy’s plight that sparked the leap in consciousness, the mobilizations and outrage were fueled by the common understanding of tens of millions with personal knowledge and contact with the criminal injustice system. By virtue of their direct experience with rampant police brutality or their own imprisonment or the incarceration of family members, friends, and neighbors, the seemingly isolated experiences of millions became a collective and mass experience. Troy’s murder, however tragic to his family and all who knew him or knew of him, exacted a great price from the powers that be. The price, not to be underestimated, is the shattering of illusions in the minds of broad swaths of the populations in the credibility of the system itself.
For this reason, if for no other, Troy Davis will never be forgotten. His murder will come back to haunt his state-power killers. He opened the door wider than ever for a renewed struggle to abolish the death penalty and to win the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners. His last words, his attorneys tell us, were a battle cry to move forward with the abolition struggle as well as a ringing proclamation of his innocence. He died with the knowledge and comfort that the struggle will continue. And it will!
Troy’s murder and the renewed effort to take Mumia’s life require the abolition movement to tackle new ideas concerning the criminal “justice” system. We began “The Mobe” (Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal) some 16 years ago with a few simple demands: Free Mumia! Abolish the Death Penalty! Free All Political Prisoners! Stop Police Brutality!
Today, in the U.S. there are almost 3500 death-row prisoners awaiting execution on America’s domestic killing fields. There are 3.5 million U.S. working people in prison, mostly youth under 35, the majority Black, Latino, and other oppressed nationalities. There are 7.2 million under the jurisdiction of the criminal injustice system.
Would we be out of order to demand freedom for them all? Our intention here is not to raise the specter of the consequences of releasing a relatively small number of prisoners who have been seriously damaged by a life of oppression and denial, who have committed heinous crimes, and who may be a danger to others. The humane society we struggle to bring into being would open the prison doors and free all the victims of social and economic injustice. It would simultaneously extend every effort and untold billions of dollars to re-build, to rehabilitate, to educate, in a new world, all those who have been bent, broken, and deformed by the system itself. It would create all the conditions for a quality standard of life for all.
The problem we face today is not the danger posed by the release and real rehabilitation of the few who may cause danger to society. We are not lacking in the resources to return them to a healthy state. No human being is beyond humanity’s love and concern. The relative few can and will be brought back to lead productive lives.
The real problem is the imprisonment of the many, the millions who remain behind bars—punished by an unjust social order. The leaders of this social order are never punished for sending armies and weapons of mass destruction across the globe to murder millions, plunder resources, and wage wars for imperial domination. This too will change.
We must also note here that 75 percent of all those in prison today are there for non-violent crimes—mostly drug-related and petty theft. These millions are criminalized for being the victims of an unjust society rampant with racial and gender oppression. We also set aside those who have been imprisoned because they have no serious recourse to legal counsel and those who, like Troy and Mumia, are victims of police and prosecution frame-ups. And there are those who are swept off the streets to service the prison-industrial complex’s need for cheap labor to produce commodities that are competitive on the world market.
We do not set aside the fact that the U.S. leads the world in the number and percentage of people on death row. It is also first in the world in the number and percentage of its people in prison. These statistics alone are a damning indictment of the present social order.
In truth, there is no justice is a racist and classist society, where the few rule and profit from the labor of the many—and where racist police, racist courts, and racist and class oppression permeate virtually every government institution. Under these circumstances we do not recognize any right of this state power to imprison anyone, much less to take their lives.
America’s growing prison system is the reflection of a morally degenerating social order—one that expends trillions on wars and bank bailouts while gutting social programs won by working people many decades ago. Every human being has the potential to make monumental contributions to society’s collective wellbeing. This potential is largely denied to vast sections of the poor and oppressed, and increasingly, as the economic chaos unfolds, to the broad working class more generally.
Perhaps Eugene V. Debs, five-time socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency, said it best. Addressing a Cleveland federal court at his 1918 sedition trial for opposing World War I, Debs stated: “Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
A mass struggle to win Mumia’s freedom would both honor the memory and life of Troy Davis and advance the freedom struggle across the board.
Save the date: Friday, Dec. 9, marks the 30th year of Mumia’s incarceration. The Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal will be organizing an important “Evening of solidarity and call to action: “Honor Troy! Free Mumia!” event in San Francisco, 6:30 p.m., at 518 Valencia St. East Coast Mumia organizations are preparing a major rally with the same objectives, also on Dec. 9, at the National Constitution Center, 5th and Arch Sts., in Philadelphia.
> The article above was written by Jeff Mackler and Laura Herrera, Co-coordinators of the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, in San Francisco. It is reprinted from the October 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.